The New Atheists and the Matrix of Oppression

This op/ed from the Washington Post similar to a conversation one of my friends and I had about homosexuality and atheism back in January. I have a number of philosophical criticisms of the simple viewpoint that atheists are oppressed people in the United States. My point was not to disagree of the overall stereotypes prevalent about the nonreligious in our culture. Rather my disagreement was focused on how such an argument constructs itself over against the oppression of other groups.

Zuckerman and Paul discuss the politics of division that the theocratic Right partakes in and I agree that it is a politics of division and even a politics of slander. However, I am not convinced that Zuckerman and Paul offer a better alternative. Thus, I think it is important for me to reiterate my criticisms of the particulars of this argument. Rather than give some in depth critique of this, there are only a few points I want to discuss, two in depth.

1) These views fail to discuss intersections (what about black atheists, or black homosexuals, or black homosexual atheists). My point here is that we need to be careful of how we classify groups because there are ultimately complexities and nuances to any group we might instantly recognize.

2) I think it is a fallacy to argue that legal inclusion equals social inclusion. Yes, there is a correlation with these two inclusions. However, legal inclusion does not prevent heterosexism from occurrence. While the law can produce inclusions (to some extent), it does not actually prevent exclusions from occurring within our society. While the Civil Rights Movement has made some strides for inclusions of black people in society, institutional racism and cultural racism are still pervasive in the United States.

I am within a relatively privileged position in the sense that I have a loving and supportive family as well as loving and supported communities. There are many queer people who have it worse than I do. The fact that I can “come out of the closet” is a privilege in and of itself. Nevertheless, I experienced a heterosexist atmosphere as well as assault in High School. That atmosphere and those assaults were painful experiences for me that never quite cease to exist. Queer people are bombarded with heteronormative images and messages every day of our lives. So while DADT is in the process of being repealed and there are states legislating same-sex marriage, heteronormative attitudes are still pervasive within our society. I don’t think people like Paul and Zuckerman have a good handling on queer history and the experiences of queer people.

3) It is problematic to dichotomize “religious” versus “secular.” Both of these terms were formulated and employed by Christians and both terms invariably privilege particular forms of Christianity. Dichotomies fail to demonstrate the actual complexities that many religious groups face in the United States of America. Jewish inclusion in the United States is still an immensely complex process in the sense that we are at once included and excluded. Anyone who states that religious people are privileged have to wrestle with the fact that Islamophobia seems to be in vogue with many sectors of our culture. If we are going to imagine a secular space, what will it look like? Who will it actually include and exclude? Is not secularism problematic to religious groups like Muslims and Jews who practice religion publicly and daily as opposed to say, Evangelical Christians whose religion is about professing specific points of doctrine?

5) My ultimate point is that I do not think we should divide ourselves according to a division of oppression. First, many people, myself included, is that there is a matrix of oppression and that various forms of oppression overlap. Perhaps there is a root cause in all of these flavors of oppression. Some would argue that it is bourgeois Capitalism. Perhaps it is. I am not sure what is the ultimate source of social oppressions in the United States. I do have some inking that they are connected. It is inevitably a tactic of the Right to manufacture oppressed groups to act against on another. It makes sense, does it not? As long as we fight with one another, we cannot fight against those ideologies which truly oppress us. Second, I think we need to think more critically about the division of oppression. Liberationist thought tells us that the oppressor is just as oppressed as the people which which they are inflicting oppression. I believe that queering the public sphere does actually create a better society and by oppressing queer peoples, those who are socialized to believe heterosexism as a fact are not participating fully in what it means to be human. Queer acts and culture give us a better understanding of what it means to be human. To limit our statements about what it means to be human, ultimately limits who we are as humans.


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