"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
It’s surprising just how much media analysis, both mainstream and progressive, continues to take as given the notion that atheism can be defined and discussed solely by looking at the so-called “New Atheists” who emerged roughly between 2004 and 2007. It’s easy to understand the appeal: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens became prominent representatives of atheism because they were all erudite, entertaining and unafraid to say what they thought. A lot of people, myself included, were drawn to their works because they were forthright and articulated things we had kept locked away, or simply hadn’t found the words for.
But in 2014, Hitchens is dead, and using Dawkins or Harris to make a case for or against atheism is about as relevant as writing about how Nirvana and Public Enemy are going to change pop music forever.
More and more, the strongest atheist voices are talking about nonbelief less as an end in itself, but as part of a larger conversation about social justice. It could hardly be any other way: atheism is growing not only in numbers, but in diversity. When Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens were at their most prominent, a frequent (and credible) criticism was that the faces of atheism were all white, male and affluent. To make the same claim now is to deliberately ignore some of the most vital atheist and skeptic voices that have emerged in the last 10 years.
Greta Christina, the author of Coming Out Atheist describes the changes in organized atheism: “[T]he movement has become much more diverse — not just in the obvious ways of gender, race, and so on, but simply in terms of how many viewpoints are coming to the table. The sheer number of people who are seen in some way as leaders… has gone up significantly…. And the increasing diversity in gender, race, class, and so on are important. We have a long way to go in this regard, but we’re doing much, much better than we were. And that’s showing up in our leadership. It’s absurd to see Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris as representing all organized atheism — it always was a little absurd, but it’s seriously absurd now.”
Just as in any other group, there are scores of people in atheist and skeptic communities who don’t want to have discussions about racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and other bigotries, or say they’re irrelevant to the agenda at hand. The increase in diversity isn’t happening quietly or easily, and it’s often brought out the ugliest sides of people who base their entire identities on being rational and humane. Direct challenges to racism and sexism haven’t traditionally been the domain of the large organizations like American Atheists or the Secular Coalition for America. It’s been far more typical to fight incursions against separation of church and state or educate against pseudoscience like homeopathy.
It’s not that these aren’t important issues: separation of church and state is one of the linchpins of American democracy. As the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Town of Greece vs. Galloway shows, it’s also extremely fragile, and there is a very loud and insistent portion of America who would like to see it disappear entirely.
But such a narrow focus also means that atheist and skeptic groups have a history of looking at these issues in isolation, without considering how race, gender, or class play into them. That isolation has been one of the great limiting factors in the growth of movement atheism. Too many activists and groups trapped themselves in rhetorical Möbius strips, where their conferences and literature were dominated either by debunking the same pseudoscience over and over again, or fighting cases of church-state intrusion that were more relevant as abstract principles.
But the more people step forward and identify themselves as nonbelievers, the more it’s become obvious that this narrow focus is unsustainable. Although the top positions in many organizations are still dominated by white men, an increasing number of the most passionate voices bringing new people into the movement are people of color, women, transgendered, or queer.
Jamila Bey, the communications director of the Secular Student Alliance, summed up the concerns of many in a recent interview: “There are people who say, ‘Why are we talking about racism? We would rather argue that Chupacabra are fake.’ And fine, that is their right. On the other hand, I don’t get to divorce my critical thinking from my blackness, from my femaleness, from my position as a mother. So when I see the only affordable child care in my community being offered at churches, that’s an issue for me that makes me say ‘Wait a minute, there’s a problem here. Why am I not being afforded the opportunity for my child not to be indoctrinated just so my kid has somewhere to play and meet other children?’ I can’t divorce my whole life from my skepticism and for anybody who says, well , talking about female issues or talking about issues that impact black people, oh, that’s taking away from skepticism, I go, well that’s really easy for you to say. This is my life. I can’t divorce the issues. You can choose to not care about them or whatever, but don’t tell me I’m diminishing skepticism because I’m talking about the reality of what my life is.”
Those last few words speak directly to the very reason behind organized atheism: almost everyone who deconverts from religion and declares themselves a nonbeliever does so because of a compelling need to talk about reality. Whether it’s because we couldn’t reconcile the fossils in the earth with the story of creation we were told by our parents and clergy, or because of a need to lay claim to our sexuality without first checking for the approval or condemnation of a deity, the desire to discard what we perceive as falsehoods and speak honestly about the realities of our lives is one of the most commonly shared passions of atheists as a whole.
So, even for many of us who play life on the lowest difficulty setting, who get all the goodies that come along with white skin, cis-gender maleness and middle-class backgrounds, when old-school atheists attempt to dismiss social justice issues as “mission drift,” it seems like a betrayal of the very principle that was most attractive about standing up and identifying as an atheist in the first place. For those who don’t get those goodies, the betrayal is much more intimate.
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If Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris brought a single essential insight to modern atheism, it was the idea that atheists could and should be unapologetic about their disbelief. For Heina Dadhaboy, who blogs on Skepchick, that was critical as she moved away from the traditional Islamic beliefs of her family.
“I think the fact that [Dawkins] was so unapologetic is why a lot of us became quite taken with his writings. It wasn’t so much what he was saying or how he was saying it, it was just the fact that he never apologized or capitulated for being an atheist.” That shamelessness helped Dadhaboy to assert her own voice as an atheist. Like most of mainstream culture, her family expected that if she was going to be an atheist, she would at least have the good sense to pay lip service to religion’s superior worldview.
“They expected me to capitulate,” she says. “They expected me to follow their rules and even if I didn’t believe in their religion, to agree with them that it’s more moral and makes more sense. Reading Dawkins was like, ‘Hey, I don’t need to do that.’”
Heina Dadhaboy, Greta Christina, Jamila Bey, and scores of others found their own voices, rather than becoming mere echoes of the New Atheists who were anointed by the media all those years ago. James Croft, the research and education fellow at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, says there are already generational differences in how they’re viewed. “Frankly, people like Richard Dawkins and even Sam Harris to some extent, are not viewed positively by young atheists now,” he says. “They actually don’t think that they’re that great. You still find people at the conventions who love them of course, but it does seem like they’re already a bit passé….They kind of pushed a door open, and that represents an opportunity, but the real task is to step through that door with some positive proposal of what life after religion has to look like.”
The first steps through that door have already been taken by atheist women, queers and people of color. Progress has not come easily, by any means. In some ways, it’s been outright nightmarish. The standard use of harassment and rape threats against women who make even relatively mild critiques of gender has put some of the ugliest, sickest parts of atheist communities on public display. It has even cost the movement voices; in 2012, blogger Jen McCreight proposed a new wave of secular activism called “Atheism Plus,” which would explicitly embrace social justice as part of its mission.
“It’s time for a wave that cares about how religion affects everyone and that applies skepticism to everything, including social issues like sexism, racism, politics, poverty, and crime,” she wrote. “We can criticize religion and irrational thinking just as unabashedly and just as publicly, but we need to stop exempting ourselves from that criticism.” The campaign of harassment and abuse that followed, combined with stresses in her personal life, eventually drove her to stop blogging and speaking at atheist events. McCreight recently began writing again at a new blog, The Jenome, which does not focus on atheism.
But despite the organized hatefulness, racism, misogyny, transphobia, or just the malign neglect of old-school atheists, those who are demanding that atheism become more intersectional and diverse are not becoming silent or fading away into the background. It’s becoming more and more obvious that these critiques are essential if organized atheism is to transcend its stereotype as a refuge for privileged eccentrics.
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I can’t say when exactly I became an atheist. There was no flash of light, no road to Damascus moment where I suddenly dropped the Episcopalianism I was raised in. I stopped being a Christian sometime in early high school, but for years afterward, I tinkered with a wide range of mysticism and spiritualities, until I finally realized there was no “there” there.
What made me ultimately accept my atheism as an identity is that about the same time I began to fall away from Christianity, I began to be concerned about social justice. Atheism appealed not only as a logical conclusion, but as a more humane and just way of living. To make ethical decisions without the revelations from a deity means that the responsibility for those decisions ends with you, and no one else. Even more importantly, when you accept that there is no world beyond this one, you have to turn your eyes away from the sky and look at the people around you.
When Elliot Rodger went on his shooting spree in Isla Vista, the harm was not to the immortal souls of the people he shot and killed. His bullets tore into their bodies and devastated the lives of people in the real world. It was not a crime against god, or the spirit world, or Allah, or karma, but against fellow human beings who were alive and breathing and may have lived for decades more if he hadn’t pulled the trigger.
But those gunshots didn’t kill just because of chemistry and physics; the bullets were driven just as much by Rodger’s poisonous misogyny as by a sudden expansion of gases in the barrel of the gun. We are social creatures, and racism, misogyny, classism, and other prejudices affect our lives in ways that are just as solid as the earth orbiting the sun or our immune systems’ response to a vaccine. The activists who insist that atheism address matters of social justice are not distracting the movement from its purpose or being divisive; they are insisting it deliver on the promises that attracted so many of us to it in the first place.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)
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