Breaking Identity Barriers for a More Diverse Atheism
Claire Klingenberg, President of the European Council of Skeptic Organizations, discusses demographics and the question of identity in atheist movements.
Claire Klingenberg, President of the European Council of Skeptic Organizations, has a background in law and psychology, and is currently working on her degree in Religious Studies. She has been involved in the skeptic movement since 2013 as co-organizer of the Czech Paranormal Challenge. Since then, she has consulted on various projects, where woo & belief meet science. Claire has spoken at multiple science and skepticism conferences and events. She also organized the European Skeptics Congress 2017, and both years of the Czech March for Science.
Her current activities include chairing the European Council of Skeptical Organisations, running the “Don’t Be Fooled” project (which provides free critical thinking seminars to interested high schools), contributing to the Czech Religious Studies journal Dingir, as well as to their online news in religion website. In her free time, Claire visits various religious movements to better understand what draws people to certain beliefs.
Claire lives in Prague, Czech Republic, with her partner and dog.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: When it comes to a demographic analysis of, and a discussion of identity in the New Atheist movement, I’ve noticed that the movement seems to be dominated by white men. In your opinion, what is the reason behind the disproportionate amount of white men and men in general in the atheist and New Atheist movements?
Claire Klingenberg: I think it stems from history. Men, white men, were prevalent in the sciences, in high positions, in professorial positions, in everything. This is simply a continuation of that. There is, however, an increasing number of women engaged in these issues.
Change takes time, as does activism. Having the time necessary to engage in activism that advocates for change of the bigger picture, and does not precisely deal with the here and now, is a luxury. Both the atheist and skeptic movements do deal with the here and now, but in a much broader sense, which makes them a luxury item. Unfortunately, as we see the demographics in the US, people of color are not always in a socioeconomic position to be able to afford this kind of luxury.
So, we have to work on making our movement more accessible to various socioeconomic demographics.
Jacobsen: Other than socio-economic status, what other variables seem to play into this split in the community, where there are far more men than women?
Klingenberg: Historically, the skeptic movement was initiated by older white men. I can imagine some people would not feel welcome when they do not see some of their own within that group.
Fortunately, within the Czech Republic, one of the founders was a woman. She opened the door for us. I can understand why some might feel out of place or misunderstood.
Jacobsen: On the flip side, other communities in the States are heavily dominated by minority groups. An example that immediately comes to mind are the Episcopal or Baptist denominations, which are largely represented by African-Americans.
It seems that fluidity between different communities could be challenge, as community is closely tied with identity, which, in many cases, can mean skin tone.
Klingenberg: Skin tone is a reality which does define the circumstances in which you live and which influence you and your identity. Because of that, you may feel, “How can these people understand what I am going through?”, and especially the feeling “How can these people have the same goals as I do?” This logic or thinking could be another barrier to identity diversity within the atheist community.
Jacobsen: There is also an assumption that people should act according to the group they belong to; when they deviate, they are ridiculed. A relatively benign example might be the archetypal white guy breakdancing. A less comical example might be that of the African-American woman who must be religious, must be Baptist, must be heavily involved in that community.
Neil deGrasse Tyson relates how, although he was passionate about astrophysics and astronomy, he was often expected to be more involved in sports activities.
Even good will and good intentions can exacerbate divisions along belief lines.
Klingenberg: Last month, I was at a talk by Anna Grodzka. She is a Polish trans woman. She founded a supporting organization for trans people in Poland. She said, “We live in a world haunted by stereotypes, which often do not reflect reality but are, rather, imposed upon us.”
I think that is a beautiful way to summarize all of this. People have these stereotypes in their heads regarding identity, which many times do not come even close to reflecting reality. However, we are forced to live and fight with them on a daily basis. It is unfortunate, but we must encourage independent thought, regardless of identity, for precisely this reason.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Claire.