I try to live by a number of mantras, one of which is: Give credit where credit is due. I was motivated to write this piece after reading Zoha Qamar’s Huffington Post piece, “An A-Z Guide to Being a Muslim Ally.” I found Qamar’s piece to be a practical “how-to” that any social justice activist could use. As a sociologist and secular activist, I began thinking about how her piece might translate for the nonreligious. I set out to write an article inspired by Qamar’s about atheist Allyship. This, however, is not that article.
In early May I sat down with Reverend Jim Burklo, Associate Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California, to record a video podcast about how progressive Christians can be allies to atheists. Rev. Burklo and I are both teaching faculty in the Interfaith Action program at Claremont Lincoln University. We met at a faculty dinner and were both intrigued by one another’s work. During our conversation I realized that he and I were two people with different beliefs who saw eye-to-eye on numerous moral and social issues. That night, in the home of our university president, a promising collaboration between an atheist-humanist and a progressive Christian was born.
I met Rev. Burklo at his USC office where we got down to brass tacks about how the flow of the podcast should unfold. We bounced ideas off of one another until Rev. Burklo said something that, truth be told, blew my mind. He stated, matter-of-factly, that not only could progressive Christians be allies to atheists, but that atheists could be allies to progressive Christians. This was something I’d not previously considered. Could atheists, a historically marginalized population situated outside the moral boundaries of civic inclusion, really be…allies?
Allies have traditionally been identified as members of a dominant group who use their privilege to combat inequality and oppression of disadvantaged groups. But this understanding sets up an an “us” (dominant group) and “them” (oppressed groups) dichotomy when in reality the dynamics of power and oppression are much more multidimensional. Experiences of disadvantage are varied and can manifest in everyday interpersonal and group interactions, through institutionalized practices and policies, and in our taken-for-granted norms, beliefs, and values. It used to be the case that only members of the dominant group could speak on behalf of those being oppressed, but thanks to the social media revolution, this is no longer the case. If it were, consciousness-raising movements like Occupy Wall Street and #BlackLivesMatter wouldn’t have garnered worldwide media attention.
I propose that we start thinking about an ally as someone who:
Actively supports and defends the rights and dignity of people from social groups other than their own
Is personally committed to fighting oppression and prejudice anyway they can
Works to create interpersonal, institutional, and cultural change
Changing policies, practices, and law is relatively easy. The real difficulty lies in changing attitudes. This is known as cultural change, which is the hardest and takes the longest. But it’s precisely this kind of change that makes the others possible. With such a daunting task before us, where do we begin? We start in our sphere of influence and work our way out. We educate ourselves, face ugly truths about our biases, and question our assumptions. We listen to the stories of those who are different from us. We communicate with family and friends who will listen to us and those who won’t. We have a conversation. We send a Tweet out into the Twitterverse. We gently, but firmly, correct the misinformed Facebook rant from that one relative every family seems to have. We apologize when we make mistakes. We keep going even if seems like we’re getting nowhere. Most importantly, we never disengage in the face of religious difference, and in fact, find the motivation to do this work within our own religious or nonreligious philosophies.
We must ask ourselves – What Would [Insert Your Particular Deity/Influential Leader] Do? and then go do it.