In which I fansquee over my favorite talk at Skepticon

I wasn’t going to do a roundup of talks and workshops of Skepticon, because that stuff Is generally well taken care of by the folks at Skepchick and FTB.


Dr. Monica Miller‘s talk, titled “I Got 99 Problems But God Ain’t One: Hip Hop and Humanism’s New Black Godz” was fucking amazing. And I almost didn’t go, because I don’t music in general, and Hip Hop specifically doesn’t figure at all in my life. So I didn’t think I was going to get much out of that particular event. But I stayed and was glad for it. It was an hour of sociology and cultural analysis beyond the 101-level of explaining to people what “socially constructed” means, and because neither the topic nor the particular perspective on it were something I was familiar with, it was one of these talks in which I felt my brain re-arranging its well-worn ways of thinking about humanism.

Her talk was a discussion of how a humanism can be expressed with religious language, without actually talking about old bearded dudes in the sky etc. Specifically she talked about the way hip hop uses “god talk”, meaning religious imagery and language, to express non-religious, humanist ideas, e.g. criticism of class and race structures, as well as criticism of organized religion*. She mentioned that the history of this practice goes back to the slave spirituals which used religious/biblical language to talk about the very here-worldly topic of fleeing north and described this as a dominant language or framework being pushed on an oppressed people. That framework didn’t get rejected but subverted instead, put to a use different from the one the Christian framework serves/served in the dominant community. In the talk, Dr. Miller also notes that she is suspicious of statistics about the religiosity of America’s black communities, which show black Americans to be extremely religious. The interpretation of religion and the religious framework as a subverted and re-purposed thing which she presented in this talk is one way to think about this supposed religiosity: that despite superficial appearances, it’s not actually always about some “god” out there, but about “gods” in humanity; that it is humanism, expressed through god talk.

What was interesting to me at a more personal level was her self-description as both a functionalist and a deconstructionist. Most of the functionalism I’ve been familiar with until now has tended to view society as a more-or-less unified whole with structures that function for the purposes of society as that unified whole***. A functionalist who focuses on non-dominant groups, and especially on the functions of dominant structures as subverted and re-purposed by the subaltern is deeply fascinating to me. Or, as the Internet used to say, “I am intrigued by [her] ideas and would like to subscribe to [her] newsletter”. Which I can. Because she’s on twitter and she writes at Culture on the Edge, and she wrote a book**** which I have and shall read shortly, and she also wrote this paper and this paper, which I’d also love to read but can’t cuz the university finally yanked my library access *coughhintcough*.

Most importantly though, I hope to see more of Dr. Monica Miller at skeptic and atheist events. Because she’s awesome and her ideas are awesome and she’s a great speaker.[/fansquee]

– – – – – – – – – –
*The complete list of songs/videos in the talk:
No Church In the Wild, New Slaves, I am A God, Picasso Baby, and Heaven. For those who can’t do video, or like me can’t process language in music very well, here are the lyrics in text: No Church in The Wild**, New Slaves, I Am A God, Picasso Baby, and Heaven

**Note the Euthyphro dilemma :-)

***with the sole exception of the essay on the Uses of Poverty(pdf), which goes through the effort of distinguishing between benefits to society as a whole, and benefits to the dominant groups within it.

****the price is so high because it qualifies as an academic book/textbook. We don’t make the rules, we just suffer from them.