What the Comics Industry Can Teach the Atheist Movement

The other day I was pretty harsh on DC for their choice not to cast Stephanie Brown as the new Robin, and their apparent hostility toward the character in general. That hasn’t changed, but I do want to give DC credit for something they’re rolling out.

DC will be adding the first mainstream trans* character to their books. She is a supporting character, Batgirl’s (Barbara Gordon) roommate. No powers, no funky reason for not being cisgender, just a character with whom we can empathize. Writer Gail Simone, who could make an engaging and character-driven narrative out of a paperclip factory expense sheet summary, said she wanted to create “a reality based character.”

…a character, not a public service announcement … being trans is just part of her story. If someone loved her before, and doesn’t love her after, well — that’s a shame, but we can’t let that kind of thinking keep comics in the 1950s forever.

I also think it’s great that she spoke to people in the trans* community before creating the character, to make sure that she presented Alysia Yeoh as a realistic portrayal, not a stereotype.

Let’s jump over to Marvel, specifically Avengers Academy, which I’m trying to catch up on all of the post-Fear Itself issues of. Basic premise: when Norman Osborne was in power after the Marvel Civil War, he kidnapped a group of kids with powers, abused them, and brainwashed them to fight for him. They are eventually rescued by Hank Pym (and the rest of the Avengers) who decides to start a school to help them overcome what Osborne did to them, give them a stable environment, and train them to use their powers. After the events of Fear Itself, Pym opened the school to anybody who wanted to join and recruited two other kids.

Now, if we look at the lineup, the class leader, Reptil, is a Hispanic kid from the suburbs. White Tiger is the sister of the original White Tiger, the first Hispanic super hero in the Marvel universe (both in terms of first published and first to appear in the context of the story). We also have an Asian girl (not a diminutive, they’re all teenagers), Hazmat. Outside of race, there are two queer kids: Lightspeed, who just joined the team and is openly bi, and Striker who came out as gay to her (and later to a press conference, because you can do that if you’re being trained by an Avenger).

And, of course, Pym is an open atheist.

Many of the Avengers Academy plots focus on developing these characters, and in a lot of cases the way that they relate to the world as a minority of some sort or another often gets some spotlight. White Tiger feels that she has to live up to her brother’s legacy, not just in being a hero, but specifically in being a Hispanic hero, while Reptil doesn’t see the point of focusing on his race at all. Lightspeed gets frustrated since she’s still having trouble accepting her sexuality and not wanting it to become her defining characteristic, but Striker just sort of came out and seems to be having no problems with it at all.

“What does this have to do with atheism?”, I hear you cry.

The other day, Richard Carrier at FtB wrote about how Phil Mason (Thunderf00t) basically used creationist tactics to make a video in which he decried a speech Carrier gave and made it seem, through editing, that Carrier was saying something he wasn’t.

Carrier does a fine job of pointing out all of the dishonesty in Mason’s video, but there was one part of it that stuck out for both Carrier and I. Emphasis his.

Now Thunderf00t lays into minorities (timestamp 15:16). He sneers (literally: listen to his voice) at my call for atheist organizations to be more responsive to and cooperative with minority atheists and minority atheist groups.

Now, it’s bad enough that T-f00t says this kind of stuff. I’ve come to believe that he is, as Carrier suggests, indeed a sociopath and absolutely incapable of empathizing with other human beings. But surely his trollish little minions can’t all be sociopaths. Here’s a few of the comments (emphasis theirs):

You are also a complete fool when doing marketing analysis, as TF conclusively demonstrated in his video with the ratio between believers and atheists. Only a person with infinite resources would waste resources targeting “black atheists” when they could target “atheists without restricting it by race” or even addressing “theists” or the entire population. You are the one employing racist logic here Carrier, not TF…And to compare it to the state of the Republican party is laughable. They have problems because the minorities are the majority, but in our case there is a well defined theist majority as TF showed you and it is the very fact that they are a majority that is the entire problem. – Illusio


You should focus efforts on a specific minority and it’s not a racial group but rather a religious group (Muslims). Given that Islam’s influence in the world is far worse than Christianity’s and virtually no free society has ever been founded on Islamic principles, I’d appreciate any campaign aimed at convincing Muslims to renounce their faith and also helping them avoid problems within their community (all 4 schools of Sunni Islam mandate the death penalty for apostasy).

It makes no sense to attack Christianity primarily when Islam is on the rise and is causing many problems in the world, not because of “extremists” twisting its “peaceful teachings” but because of fundamentals of Islamic theology which are inherently hostile to non-Muslims, women and personal freedom. – Dan


I know there was at least a few more that seem to have been erased because Carrier doesn’t deal with that sort of shit on his blog (nor is he required to). The basic premise, though, is that since minorities are so small (race, sexual orientation, gender, etc.), then there is no point doing any sort of outreach to them at all or bothering to address their specific concerns.

Not only is this lazy, it’s kind of pathetic. Mason and his minions seem to think that listening to minority atheists, talking about problems that are unique to them, and inviting them to speak at conferences is somehow this great burden, this overwhelming task that will bring in sub-standard speakers and thinkers just because they happen to be Latin@, or black, or queer, or women. This falls under the presumption that white men have been primarily the face of atheism for so long because they’re just better at thinking about these things, and that somebody can’t be a minority and brilliant.

The way I got into the atheist movement as an activist was not through Dawkins or Harris or Hitchens. I haven’t even read Dennett. While I respect the Four Horsemen, I don’t much like Dawkins or Harris, who I find far too disconnected from the lived experiences of actual atheists, and while their work is fantastic and insightful, I just have no impulse to really go back to it for anything other than the occasional reference. Hitchens I adored for a number of reasons, but I think that, again, he let his philosophy get in the way of empathy far too often.

No, I joined because I saw a post by Jen McCreight when BlagHag was still an indie blog about LGBT inclusion and why her atheism gives her an objective foundation for queer advocacy (both in terms of humanist principles and the rejection of religious dogma that is far too often the source of homophobia). From there she moved to FtB where I discovered JT (originally because he had a cute picture up, I admit, but he turned out to be actually brilliant), who pointed me to Greta. I started reading Ed because “Dispatches from the Culture Wars” is an awesome name for a blog and I’m a politics geek. Eventually I also saw how awesome Ashley was, and Kate from there, and eventually even Miri, who is made of pure sunshine (in that she’s bright, enlightening, and will burn the fuck out of you if you’re not smart).

Their examples got me involved in blogging and RL activism. And I wouldn’t be here if Jen didn’t take some time to talk about something other than why Pascal’s Wager is ridiculous.

Talking about issues that interest minorities in one respect is a good way to get another conversation going. DC and Marvel both realize this, and they took the incredibly easy step of diversifying their casts, because when you see yourself (or a part of yourself) in a character, you’re more likely to connect with them and want to come back. Similarly, if you see yourself in a movement, you want to contribute to that movement.

No, it’s not enough to “treat everybody the same: like human beings.” Yes, you should treat everybody like human beings, but not the same human being. We all have different cultures, life experiences, day to day issues, and personal hangups. In many cases, the minority that a person identifies with experiences a lot of the same types of thing, and trying to address that shows people in those minorities that you actually care about this. When you say that you “treat everybody the same,” what you’re saying is that you treat everybody like a middle class white man, ignoring the unique circumstances those people have lived. You should treat everybody well, but just because leaving your church didn’t cut you off from all social connection doesn’t mean that the black guy from Memphis had it so easy, and it is almost no effort to deal with that.

Characters like Alysia Yeoh and the students at Avengers Academy are not attempts to fill quotas or diversify because it’s “trendy,” they are attempts to recognize that there are a lot of different types of people in the world, and it takes the barest minimum of effort to incorporate that. Minorities can be super heroes and the friends of super heroes. They are a part of life, and inviting them into our stories or our movements gives us perspective, makes us better.

Being kind, showing consideration for others, paying attention to people who are generally ignored: these are all Good Things, things we should be embracing. We cannot simultaneously listen to the marginalized while denying their marginalization. We cannot pretend that discrimination is a personal choice and not a systemic problem, so my just saying something like “I don’t see color” means that racism (for example) doesn’t exist or I can never again do anything racist. Most importantly, we can’t just make the same arguments against faith and religion over and over again and hope to reach people on the strength of our philosophy when they’re more concerned with the problems they face in their day to day lives, as if accepting logical arguments is a test and anyone who doesn’t do so isn’t smart enough for the Atheist Club.

Comic labels, from Marvel and DC to Archie, have consistently been at the vanguard of social change, and I think that’s amazing. We can also be at that vanguard, clearing the path for new people and new ideas to infuse our movement rather than shambling lamely behind, wondering why our once exploding campaign has stopped gaining ground, unable to convince even a rising demographic of non-religious theists to take the one last step.

3 thoughts on “What the Comics Industry Can Teach the Atheist Movement

  1. I think that SO MUCH of this ends up being caused by this weird “zero-sum” mentality. That losing a monopoly on the conversation means losing some undeclared “game”, instead of being enriched and strengthened by the fresh perspectives you’ve just added to your team. Folks like tF00t and his acolytes (I was gonna ask if you’d read that RC post!) are such classic examples of the very privileged suddenly finding that everything isn’t all about THEM anymore, and they’re throwing a tantrum. It’s the same “OH MY GOD I FEEL SO OPPRESSED” response that the religious express when they’re told that no, they can’t ALWAYS have their way. It’s unsurprisng that tF00t is trotting out creationist debating tactics, since he seems to have so much else in common with them.

    And wow, I’m kind of shocked how closely your journey in the skeptical/atheist movement mirrors mine. It was Jen and Greta Christina and Crommunist that started me reading FTB (I think originally through a re-tweet I saw of something they said, maybe from you?) and that kind of started the weird snowball rolling to where I am now – and what does that say about the argument from the tF00t camp that Crommunist had such a huge impact on ME getting involved in all of this.

    • You’re right, it seems the only difference between Phil Mason and a creationist is the creation bit. Otherwise, they’re pretty much right in line.

      But yes, it does seem like a whole lot of “you’re not paying attention to me, so clearly you’re ruining everything!” I suspect for people like that, it does seem like the movement is being ruined, if they see it as a vehicle to remind themselves of how clever they are all the time.

      That is a remarkably similar path! I think Carrier brought up how Dave Silverman had said that the minority outreach also tends to bring in people from majorities, who see the atheist movement as addressing wider social problems and like that.

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