Why Racism is an Atheist Issue

Atheists have understood how the bible was used to influence our nation from its very beginning. But a recent documentary, Holy Hierarchy. This documentary makes clear how the overt and deliberate use of the bible and religion was used to train people to accept slavery and exploitation as their place in the world. This Especially pertains to people descended from Africans, for women, and working people generally.

We all know there are direct quotes in the bible that support slavery. And that is important, however, the use of images to teach people who were largely illiterate is what stained glass in churches is for. Stained glass and paintings are how people were taught what leading figures and especially the Jesus god looked like.  

The popular iconography in the US portrays Jesus as a typical white male of European descent with regular features and a kindly attitude. This is to be expected since art reflects the culture in which it exists. Young children, being especially vulnerable, are influenced by the images they see and by the stories they are told by their parents and elders. And while images of a black Jesus have appeared relatively recently, children of European descent are almost exclusively exposed to white European images. What does this say to children in our many cultured worlds? It is astonishing that we have so few white supremacists.

It could easily be expected that in today’s world this imagery might have abated. But in almost any doctor’s office, you can find a book, The Bible Story published by a group strongly associated with Seventh Day Adventists. This is a marketing tool. It is the first book in a ten-book series, with a postcard inside for the reader to order the whole series. It has been sanitized of all the gore and violence present in the actual bible. The series was originally published from 1953 – 1957 and exhibits many of the prejudices that existed at that time. It also promotes a laughably unscientific young-earth creationism. Seems ironic for a doctor’s office.

In our modern world, film is the way we communicate about many ideas. Of the top five grossing religious films of all time, Jesus was portrayed in 3 of them, but only one lead actor in these was Jewish. While in the top grossing Christian film of all time, The Passion of the Christ (2004), Jesus is portrayed with brown eyes. Producers digitally colored the actor’s blue eyes to a more ethnic brown. In the next top grossing film, Heaven is for Real, which would have appealed more to children, Jesus is depicted as having more European blue/green eyes. (This information is not from having seen any of these movies, but from information found on the internet.) While the method has changed from stained glass to movies, the tradition continues.  Eye color seems to be a small detail, but it is only one aspect of a campaign of cultural dominance meant to maintain an unequal status quo.

This is why racism is an atheist issue. Religion is used as the basis for the sometimes horrendous treatment people of non-European descent, of women, of nonreligious peoples, face.

Atheist groups, which are still predominately white, should, as social change and critical thought institutions, examine their own implicit biases and include such critical assessments in their approach to membership and participation in community activities . It is up to each of us to examine our proclivities and prejudices and the unrealized privileges which produce them. Many of us were exposed at an early age to assumptions put forth in ancient biblical texts about good and evil. Such ideals were conceived by authors having no more well-grounded concept of these issues than their understanding of thunderstorms and earthquakes; and whether we realize it or not, we still may be working from those early teachings.  Grasping ourselves by the roots of our culture is an exciting part of truly discovering the possibilities that arise when we know who we truly are.  

ADDENDUM:  Human life is lived in a series of narratives.  A principal division is around the question of the existence or non-existence of a god.  But in either case, the question of how to interact with our fellow human beings is a critical social necessity.  But the religious narrative arises from ancient stories originating in a much smaller and narrower historical world with few alternatives in the immediate life of the average person in those times.  Whereas the atheist perspective springs from more immediate and evolved developments.   Thus, the presence of racism and other issues held over from an earlier period of human history demands the attention of organized Atheism as it should every other institution of society.  And because such groups are often organized around a set of ethical and moral criticisms of religious philosophy, they have important insights into these types of social problems.