Attention conservation notice: 3200 words attempting to correct what may be a fatally flawed analogy between New Atheism and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s approach to the civil rights movement.
In replying to Jason’s post the other day, I skipped over some important issues that were peripheral to my main point. But I want to double back on a comment he made that I’ve seen New/Affirmative/Extreme/gnu atheists toss out rather too often. The claim is that they are, in some sense, analogous to Martin Luther King, Jr. Jason, being sophisticated and smart, and knowing that using analogies on the internet is like doing a really futile thing, took the time to deploy some troll repellent:
You know perfectly well that I am not likening the situation of atheists today to that of Blacks in the sixties. Nor am I suggesting any significant similarity between King’s critics, many of whom were motivated by racism and not sound strategy, and NA critics today.
I hope that my criticism of this line of argument will be taken in that same spirit. The differences Jason mentions really do matter, and certainly complicate or even invalidate the analogy, but that’s a different blog post. Taking the analogy on its own terms, I’d like to argue that there’s a stronger analogy between accommodationism and King’s approach, and between New Atheists and King’s critics within the civil rights movement. Note the italics! Accommodationists and New Atheists are part of some sort of broad movement, I’d like to think, so I think that this analogy is more appropriate than a look at King’s critics from outside the civil rights movement. And like Jason, I hope you’ll take this analogy as it is, and not draw implications beyond what I’m writing.
Note, too, that others have made this argument (e.g., PZ Myers in the CSH debate that started this off), and I hope no one takes this as a critique aimed specifically at Jason; it’s a response to a widespread and (IMHO) erroneous historical argument. I think Jason did a good job of laying out the nature of the analogy, so I’ll use his comments as representative of the general argument. As such, my comments may diverge from the finer details of Jason’s argument, to get at other forms I’ve seen the argument take. I hope the discussion doesn’t get bogged down in arguing about Jason’s particular intentions.
First, I will take this statement of Jason’s as representative of something like the agenda of New Atheism:
[Josh] wants to win people over to evolution by showing them that, at worst, they need to make only small alterations to their religious values … trying to win people over to a way of thinking about specific political issues by working within their previously held ideas. On the subject of evolution I am pessimistic about the strategy because I believe it is based on a false premise.…
if you want to mainstream atheism you have to make it visible. You have to make it ubiquitous, so that gradually it loses all of its mystique and scariness and becomes entirely ho hum and commonplace. It is not so much about making an argument that will cause conservative religious folks to slap their foreheads and abandon their faith, as though that were possible. It is about working around them, by making atheism part of the zeitgeist.
Rather than working within the existing system, Jason wants us to change the system in some more radical way, making atheism mainstream, and de-emphasizing (or perhaps even rendering moot) theism.
Jason describes the analogy with Dr. King, which he motivated by quoting the Letter from a Birmingham Jail:
there are clear parallels between what King heard from his critics in the sixties and what New Atheists hear today. King did not achieve his success by thinking about framing or by working within the value systems of those who were hostile to civil rights. He did it by working around them, until pretty soon the national zeitgeist changed.
This is a powerful argument, and if it were historically accurate, would be a compelling case for New Atheist tactics.
Alas, the history is Whiggish and wrong.
we must pay our profound respects to the white Americans who cherish their democratic traditions over the ugly customs and privileges of generations and come forth boldly to join hands with us. … Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding. We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. And that will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man.
Is that framing? Heck yeah. Anyone who says King didn’t use framing has simply not read King’s speeches, or doesn’t know what framing is. They are skillfully framed, beautiful examples of the art. He never conceals his views or his aims, but he finds ways to express his views through values shared even by those in his audience who oppose him.
Throughout his speeches, King locates his efforts within the context of the freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution and especially the Bill of Rights, fully aware that those documents were written by, passed by, and intended to protect, slave-owning racists. Yet he worked within that system, taking those words and values Americans treasure deeply, and holding them up as a mirror. He told the crowd in Birmingham: “Our whole campaign in Alabama has been centered around the right to vote.” Nothing says “working within the system” like a call for change at the ballot box. Promising change through voting rights assumes that the system itself is sound, and only the implementation is flawed. This looks like the incrementalism Jason decries.
King did his work in partnership with a host of people who did not fully share his political agenda, nor his skin color. (Here, by the way, is where Jason’s analogy gets complicated: is atheism meant to be like race in the civil rights movement, or is atheism analogous to the political platform of civil rights? I take it that the intended analogy is between atheism and race. If not, what is the political platform of New Atheism? King’s goal was not to make civil rights mainstream, his goal was to enact laws and end specific discriminatory behavior. Read the speech for a litany of detailed and specific examples he wants people to work to change. I don’t see him talking about making blackness “mainstream,” indeed I see him stepping outside the context of race, to talk about poverty, war, and social justice more broadly, keeping the coalition broad. And to extend (perhaps over-extend) the analogy, I have a hard time imagining Jason or Dawkins or Harris dreaming of a day when, just as King dreamed “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers,” atheists and theists would join hands as sisters and brothers. )
Did King simply “work around” those hostile to him? Hardly. His goal for himself and his followers, stated rather clearly and repeatedly, was to win friendship even of his enemies, to turn the other cheek to those who attacked him and to win them over through nonviolent, loving, and insistent action, always aiming towards a series of incremental but significant victories regarding clearly specified policies. King and his allies filed lawsuits to end discriminatory practices, and relied on the courts and elected officials to enforce those laws. That is working with the system. And it is the sort of legwork which New Atheists are wont to trivialize as mere holding actions when taken by accommodationists.
Consider, too, his shout-out in the speech to President Johnson, who helped kill his share of civil rights laws during his decades in Congress. Robert Caro’s biography of Johnson makes no bones about Johnson’s racism, and his apparent sympathy with segregation (or at least with segregationists in the Senate). But King wasn’t trying to “work around” the President or his value system. King lobbied Johnson, as he’d lobbied Kennedy before, pushing for civil rights legislation, and for federal enforcement of existing laws.
Jason’s account makes it sound as if King was an uncompromising and iconoclastic leader. But that misreads King and the history of civil rights. Remember that it was Malcolm X, not Dr. King, who insisted on change “by any means necessary.” Indeed, Malcolm X criticized King using logic analogous to that Jason deploys against accommodationism. (I repeat that this is an analogy. New Atheists aren’t Malcolm X, there aren’t atheist nationalists that would parallel Malcolm X’s black nationalism, neither I nor any other accommodationist would claim to be Martin Luther King reborn, etc. It’s an analogy, please don’t overinterpret it.)
Consider Malcolm X’s attack on the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the event at which King delivered the famous “I have a dream” speech. The event drew a multi-racial crowd, and was co-organized by leaders white and black, and built around an agenda broad enough to cover the concerns of labor unions (once notorious for their racism) and civil rights leaders, whether they were Southern Blacks or white communists, Christians or Jews or Muslims. One might see the diversity of this crowd as a strength, and the willingness of historically racist unions to join the effort as a success for King’s strategy of outreach and constructive engagement.
Malcolm X took a dimmer view. He rallied his audience by appealing to racial solidarity:
What you and I need to do is learn to forget our differences. …You catch hell ’cause you’re a black man. You catch hell, all of us catch hell, for the same reason.
So we are all black people, so—called Negroes, second—class citizens, ex—slaves.…
We have a common enemy. We have this in common: We have a common oppressor, a common exploiter, and a common discriminator. But once we all realize that we have this common enemy, then we unite on the basis of what we have in common. And what we have foremost in common is that enemy — the white man. He’s an enemy to all of us. I know some of you all think that some of them aren’t enemies. Time will tell.
Something about his insistence that all white people are the enemy, even if they vote for civil rights laws or help register black voters, seems analogous (with all the caveats above) to New Atheist arguments that religion is the enemy, even if it is a religion which accepts evolution and other sciences, and which opposes fundamentalist efforts. Where King dreamed of black and white together, and moving past race to a place where people were judged by the content of their character, Malcolm X accepted the notion that the black and white races could not coexist, differing from segregationists in which of the two incompatible groups he preferred to see as superior. Similarly, New Atheists accept creationist claims that science and religion are incompatible, holding that creationists’ error is in thinking that science should be subordinate to religion in that conflict rather than vice versa. To extend Jason’s analogy, I think there’s a parallel between King’s call for “a day not of the white man, not of the black man… of man as man,” and accommodationist calls to look past religious labels and ideology, and to judge people by their willingness to accept science.
Where King worked within the system, Malcolm X called for a revolution, and dismissed King’s incremental approach, tied to small, specific policy goals, with victories won in court or through political shifts:
you don’t have a peaceful revolution. You don’t have a turn—the—other—cheek revolution. There’s no such thing as a nonviolent revolution. [The] only kind of revolution that’s nonviolent is the Negro revolution. The only revolution based on loving your enemy is the Negro revolution. The only revolution in which the goal is a desegregated lunch counter, a desegregated theater, a desegregated park, and a desegregated public toilet; you can sit down next to white folks on the toilet. That’s no revolution.
Martin Luther King, who is viewed by history as a brilliant and successful leader of the civil rights movement, a tactician who shepherded his movement from success to success, gets a different gloss in Malcolm X’s contemporaneous telling:
Just as the slavemaster of that day used Tom, the house Negro, to keep the field Negroes in check, the same old slavemaster today has Negroes who are nothing but modern Uncle Toms, 20th century Uncle Toms, to keep you and me in check, keep us under control, keep us passive and peaceful and nonviolent. That’s Tom making you nonviolent.…
Any time a shepherd, a pastor, teach you and me not to run from the white man and, at the same time, teach us not to fight the white man, he’s a traitor to you and me.…
The slavemaster took Tom and dressed him well, and fed him well, and even gave him a little education — a little education; gave him a long coat and a top hat and made all the other slaves look up to him. Then he used Tom to control them. The same strategy that was used in those days is used today, by the same white man. He takes a Negro, a so—called Negro, and make him prominent, build him up, publicize him, make him a celebrity. And then he becomes a spokesman for Negroes — and a Negro leader.
Malcolm X is calling Martin Luther King, Jr. an accommodationist and worse, and there’s no two ways about it. Indeed, that section is just the set-up. Here’s the red meat:
The same white element that put Kennedy in power —— labor, the Catholics, the Jews, and liberal Protestants; [the] same clique that put Kennedy in power, joined the march on Washington.
It’s just like when you’ve got some coffee that’s too black, which means it’s too strong. What you do? You integrate it with cream; you make it weak. If you pour too much cream in, you won’t even know you ever had coffee. It used to be hot, it becomes cool. It used to be strong, it becomes weak. It used to wake you up, now it’ll put you to sleep. This is what they did with the march on Washington. They joined it. They didn’t integrate it; they infiltrated it. They joined it, became a part of it, took it over. And as they took it over, it lost its militancy. They ceased to be angry. They ceased to be hot. They ceased to be uncompromising. Why, it even ceased to be a march. It became a picnic, a circus. Nothing but a circus, with clowns and all. …
…They controlled it so tight — they told those Negroes what time to hit town, how to come, where to stop, what signs to carry, what song to sing, what speech they could make, and what speech they couldn’t make; and then told them to get out town by sundown. And everyone of those Toms was out of town by sundown. Now I know you don’t like my saying this. But I can back it up. It was a circus, a performance that beat anything Hollywood could ever do, the performance of the year. [White union leader Walther] Reuther and those other three devils should get a Academy Award for the best actors ’cause they acted like they really loved Negroes and fooled a whole lot of Negroes. And the six Negro leaders should get an award too, for the best supporting cast.
Why repeat this? No New Atheist wants a revolution, and Richard Dawkins is no more Malcolm X than he is Martin Luther King, Jr. But if we’re to discuss the lessons of the civil rights movement, I think we should remember that King’s approach bore many similarities to “accommodationism.” If we’re to talk about the civil rights movement, let’s ask which camp treasured its militancy, anger, it’s heat, its uncompromising nature. Let’s accurately describe which camp eschewed outreach to people who shared their policy goals even if they did not share the same race (which seems to be analogous to religion/atheism in this analogy) or other overarching ideology (atheism in one case, black nationalism in the other – very different things!).
And if Jason or others want to talk about King’s critics, honesty dictates that they acknowledge that King was criticized for being too accommodating, too willing to compromise and to work across ideological and racial lines, for being too accepting of the existing system. At the time, King’s approach was seen by a vocal and non-trivial fraction of the broader movement as being too weak, too focused on legal tweaks and not enough on broad societal change. Those critiques sound a lot like what I hear leveled at accommodationists. The criticisms of New Atheists sound more like what Malcolm X faced than what King faced. Here the analogy begins stretching unrecognizably – both men were assassinated for Pete’s sake, and passions are thankfully less heated around this matter – so I’ll go no farther.
At the end of the day, I’ll just note that Dr. King’s strategy of engagement with potential enemies and working through the system was successful. In 1948, Lyndon Johnson’s maiden speech in the US Senate was an hour-and-a-half disquisition on the wonders of the filibuster, the threat to states’ rights if poll taxes were outlawed or if lynching were made a federal offense, and the horrors which would ensue should a Fair Employment Practices Commission end workplace segregation. By 1965, thanks in part to King’s ability to find shared values and frame his message in ways that could compel even long-time protectors of segregation, President Johnson was using his legislative clout to force through the most sweeping civil rights law since Reconstruction. Johnson had abandoned his states’ rights language, and was talking about human rights.
“There is no Negro problem,” he told Congress. “There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem.” And he looked beyond that bill, and stepped squarely into King’s footsteps, even borrowing the chorus of a famous civil rights protest song:
But even if we pass this bill the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it’s not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.
And we shall overcome.