Overview

Indigenous atheists struggle with the "spiritual stereotype”—a romanticized conception of Indigenous people’s apparent closeness to a state of nature with explicit reference to mysticism and magic.

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Although nonreligion is now an established area of scholarship in North America and Western Europe, most nonreligion research focuses on white atheists. Little is known about non-white people who self-identify as atheists, leaving research in this area glaringly incomplete.

To address this issue, I chose to examine the experiences of Indigenous people in Canada. I interviewed 18 Indigenous Canadians (First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples) in three Canadian cities about their challenges with stigma and disclosure of atheism. My primary finding is that although Indigenous atheists may experience stigma because of their atheist identification, they mainly struggled with what I refer to as the “spiritual stereotype” both within and outside of their communities—a romanticized conception of Indigenous people’s apparent closeness to a state of nature with explicit reference to mysticism and magic.

Before discussing the spiritual stereotype’s impact on my participants, I will provide a brief overview of stigma as it relates to atheists’ experiences. Stigma is a socially-constructed negative stereotype, attitude, or belief used to justify othering. When that stigma is acted upon, discrimination may result. Anti-atheist stigma and discrimination can come in many forms and interacts and intersects with other forms of pre-existing stigma (racial, gendered, classed, etc.). In the United States, many people perceive atheists as immoral and untrustworthy. These perceptions have significant consequences for atheists. For example, many Americans report that they would not endorse an atheist for president. Although not being endorsed for the presidency is a lofty problem to have, other consequences of stigma affect the everyday lives of atheists, including career progression, sense of community, and atheists’ feelings of inclusion within their communities.

To mitigate the risks posed by stigma, atheists may conceal or selectively disclose their atheism. This concealment holds true for racial and ethnic minorities, who are much less likely than white atheists to be open about their nonreligious identities. Non-white atheists may experience greater stigma in their communities, especially if those communities have a longstanding relationship with religion. Black communities in the United States, for example, have often relied on religion for both its social support (e.g., abolitionist history) as well as the vital historical and cultural role that the church has played in daily life. Openly identifying as an atheist in some communities may even be seen by community members as a betrayal of one’s history and values.

Openly identifying as an atheist in some communities may even be seen by community members as a betrayal of one’s history and values.

Given that white and Black atheists experience stigma and discrimination, with the latter group struggling with unique forms of these experiences, I began interviewing Indigenous atheists with the assumption that they would experience unique forms of stigma and discrimination as well. I interviewed Indigenous people because we know little about their experiences with nonreligion or how those experiences are shaped by Canada’s colonial legacies. I found that Indigenous atheists struggle with a somewhat unique form of stigma shaped by the Canadian context, including a long history of noble savage tropes. I consider the spiritual stereotype of a subtype of the noble savage, pairing the usual pattern with New Age ecology. In addition to “mythicizing” Indigenous people as naturally shamanic, the spiritual stereotype also tends to elevate the spiritual above both religious and scientific worldviews.

My interviewees often found themselves in tension with the spiritual stereotype, largely because they paired their atheism with a naturalistic and evidence-based worldview. This worldview risked putting them at odds with the members of their communities, but also caused friction when engaging with non-Indigenous people. Allen (26) described his community’s strange solidarity regarding the magical properties of the natural world: “We’re all connected apparently. And something deep inside me gives me insight into nature. Ask me about climate change! I’ll say something wise and vague.” And regarding outside portrayals, Nola (31) described feeling caught in a “story about Indigenous people” that looks an “awful lot like the old racist stories” of the past: “When you read anything about Indigenous people, they’re either suffering or they’re rising above it all through their mystical connection to the land. You never read about an Indigenous biochemist.”

“When you read anything about Indigenous people, they’re either suffering or they’re rising above it all through their mystical connection to the land. You never read about an Indigenous biochemist.”

NOLA, 31

Misgivings about what Cody (33) referred to as the “mystical stuff” made my participants weary about disclosing their atheism because a conversation about atheism would inevitably lead to a conversation about other things:

You start with God and all the Christian stuff, but then you’re taking away someone’s connection to their past and history. You’re taking away their herbal medicine and whatnot. What’s left when you’re done? I know how these conversations go and it’s just not worth it.

Shannon, 23

The cost of such a conversation was too much for many of my interviewees. Consequently, most remained quiet about both their atheism and skepticism, feeling the need to compartmentalize for the sake of peace. Adrian (27) was explicit about seeing his own worldview as a “kind of betrayal” of his roots:

To be Indigenous is to be spiritual. You can get away with not believing in a man in the sky, but you better believe there’s a magic tying everything in the natural world together. If not, are you really even Indigenous?

Like Black atheists in the United States, interviewees like Adrian talked about feeling like they had betrayed their communities merely by being atheists, let alone expressing that atheism. Adrian took this betrayal to heart, admitting that the more he delved into the world of science, the less Indigenous he felt. Adrian’s admission suggests that for at least some atheists, the connection between language, history, and culture can be difficult to disentangle from spirituality (and perhaps religion).

“White people love to praise anything Indigenous. One girl came up to me and started talking about a dream catcher and how pretty she thought they were and how she wished white people had kept their spiritual traditions. What am I supposed to do with that? Implicit in her praising dream catchers is that if you think dream catchers are nonsense, then there’s something missing from you.”

LYLE, 28

Violating the cultural expectations of Indigenous communities carried with it numerous potential risks for my participants, including public shaming and being cut off from their families. Most participants, however, were less concerned about social exclusion than open hostility and arguments:

Metis are very particular about protecting what they think of as unique about their culture. And they assume everyone is spiritual. If you color outside the lines even a little bit you risk being the butt of jokes and the rumors for years. And people will confront you about whatever they think you did if they feel like you’re a problem (Cody, 33).

Although interviewees like Cody were mainly concerned about consequences of violating cultural expectations within their communities they also talked about social expectations beyond their communities.

Shane, 22, described being treated like a unicorn by white friends because he was openly opposed to spirituality and religion: “They’ll start going on about something like Indigenous people and the [spiritual] connection to the land and they’ll look over at me and be like ‘Some Indigenous people I mean.’ We all laugh, but there’s something cutting and bitter there. I can’t put my finger on it.”

To make matters more complicated, Lyle, 28, described anti-atheist sentiment as difficult to disentangle from attempts to compliment Indigenous people or criticize white settler society:

White people love criticizing white society. And they love to praise anything Indigenous. One girl came up to me and started talking about a dream catcher and how pretty she thought they were and how she wished white people had kept their spiritual traditions. I just looked at her and nodded my head. Like what am I supposed to do with that? Implicit in her praising dream catchers is that if you think dream catchers are nonsense, then there’s something missing from you (emphasis added).

When I asked Lyle what might be missing, he suggested “culture” and “tradition,” mirroring some of the experience of other non-white atheists who risk challenging cultural expectations within their communities

My research is the first to examine the experiences of Indigenous atheists in Canada. This article provides a small snapshot of how nuanced atheist disclosure can be given the contextual factors influencing Indigenous Canadians, such as the continued resiliency of the “noble savage” trope. Although my participants reported many experiences in common with white atheists, their experiences were affected by stereotypes of Indigenous people as spiritual, such as what Cody (33) referred to as the “mystical stuff.”

Although Indigenous people may experience anti-atheist sentiment comparable to other populations, the pressure to maintain a spiritual patina played a larger role in my participants’ decisions to disclose than simply expressing their skepticism of God or gods.

Jonathan Simmons

Jonathan Simmons specializes in religious and nonreligious worldviews, deviance, and social movements using qualitative methods. He is currently working on a project examining nonreligion and spirituality...