African-Americans are known for being one of the most pious communities in the country, even by the rather high religious standards of the United States (which is the most devout nation in the developed world by a hefty margin). There are many proposed historical and socio-cultural reasons for this, but it remains a given among Blacks and non-Blacks alike that religion, particularly Christianity, is an inseparable part of Black culture and identity.
Or at least it was, until a small but growing number of nonreligious African-Americans began to “come out,” organize, and raise attention about their disbelieving status – something that was largely unheard of, much less acknowledged, by the public until a recent article in the New York Times (note that I’m sure a few minor publications, as well as periodicals within the secular community, have discussed the issue, but theTimes is the first prominent one to address it).
“My mother is very devout,” said [Ronnelle] Adams, 30, a Washington resident who has published an atheist children’s book, “Aching and Praying,” but who in high school considered becoming a Baptist preacher. “She started telling me her issues with homosexuality, which were, of course, Biblical,” he said. “‘I just don’t care what the Bible says about that,’ I told her, and she asked why. ‘I don’t believe that stuff anymore.’ It got silent. She was distraught. She told me she was more bothered by that than the revelation I was gay.”
This was in 2000, and Mr. Adams did not meet another black atheist in Washington until 2009, when he found the Facebook group called Black Atheists, which immediately struck a chord. “I felt like, ‘100 black atheists? Wow!’ ” he said.
Indeed, the few nonreligious African-Americans I know have confirmed this sense of isolation. Less than 0.5% of Blacks identify themselves as atheists, and some polls even yield zero respondents for that category. Given that self-identified atheists are also a tiny minority – 2% to 10%, depending on the poll – that makes black nonbelievers a double minority. Consequently, many of them have only recently found others who relate with them, and even then it tends to be only a handful, mostly through the internet. Increased organizing and the use of social media are helping to bridge the gap slowly but surely.
In the two years since, Black Atheists has grown to 879 members from that initial 100, YouTube confessionals have attracted thousands, blogs like Black” have gained followings, and hundreds more have joined Facebook groups like Black Atheist Alliance (524 members) to share their struggles with “coming out” about their atheism.
Feeling isolated from religious friends and families and excluded from what it means to be African-American, people turn to these sites to seek out advice and understanding, with some of them even finding a date. And having benefited from the momentum online, organizations like African Americans for Humanism and Center for Inquiry-Harlem have well-attended meet-up groups, and others like Black Atheists of America and Black Nonbelievers have been founded.
Given that 88% of African-Americans are absolutely certain of their belief in God, and a good half of them attend church regularly, I can only imagine how difficult it must be to fit in. Having an online group and holding some gatherings with local atheists doesn’t substitute the deep sense of community that is intertwined with religious institutions. Most black communities are centered on faith-based organizations or churches, which tend to play social, religious, and cultural roles that pervade every aspect of individual and community life.
Islam and other religions are represented in the black community, but with the assumption that African-Americans are religious comes the expectation that they are Christian.
“That’s the kicker, when they ask which church you go to,” said Linda Chavers, 29, a Harvard graduate student. The question comes up among young black professionals like her classmates as casually as chitchat about classes and dating. “At first,” she said, “they think it’s because I haven’t found one, and they’ll say, ‘Oh I know a few great churches,’ and I don’t know a nice way to say I’m not interested,” she said.
Even among those African-Americans who report no affiliation, more than two-thirds say religion plays a somewhat important role in their lives, according to Pew. And some nonbelieving African-Americans have been known to attend church out of tradition.
While this issue may be more pronounced among Blacks, it’s hardly unique to them. Many people, religious or otherwise, are drawn to religion for the social cohesion. In many areas of the country, your best chances to meet someone, find a job, or receive some sort of social or economic support is through the local church. So opting out, even as a disbeliever is out of the question – it’s just too impractical, even when you don’t count the peer pressure and ostracizing that may follow. I suspect many people who claim to be religious, even in surveys, are secretly more undecided than they let on. It must be difficult to choose between risking isolation and maintaining a façade.
According to Pew, the vast majority of atheists and agnostics are white, including the authors Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.
Jamila Bey, a 35-year-old journalist, said, “To be black and atheist, in a lot of circles, is to not be black.” She said the story the nation tells of African-Americans’ struggle for civil rights is a Christian one, so African-Americans who reject religion are seen as turning their backs on their history. This feels unfair to Ms. Bey, whose mother is Roman Catholic and whose father is Muslim, because people of different faiths, and some with none, were in the movement. The black church dominated, she said, because it was the one independent black institution allowed under Jim Crow laws, providing free spaces to African-Americans who otherwise faced arrest for congregating in public.
Recognizing the role of churches in the movement, Ms. Bey still takes issue when their work is retold as God’s. “These people were using the church, pulling from its resources, to attack a problem and literally change history. But the story that gets told is, ‘Jesus delivered us,’ ” Ms. Bey said. “Frankly, it was humans who did all the work.”
I’ve often heard the argument about Christianity’s contribution to social justice, and how that in large part won over Blacks and other minorities to greater piety. While the great works of Christians should not be understated, I ultimately think it’s perverse to credit God for the achievements of the abolitionist and civil rights movements.
Certainly, many people who fought slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow were pious (though others, like Mark Twain and Robert Ingersoll, were not). But so were the ones who defended them. It was, after all, the Southern “Bible Belt” – then and now the most religious part of the country – that was the last holdout for enslaving blacks and denying them their civil liberties. The KKK, from its inception, was an explicitly Christian organization, as are many White Power groups to this day. Even the Apartheid regime of South Africa, perhaps the most racist institution of all, predicated its legitimacy on Christianity. If God or Christianity had anything to do with emancipating blacks in and of themselves, than these bigoted groups would never exist, and the South would have been the first region to abandon these ethical travesties, rather than the last.
As for the “whiteness” of the nonreligious community, particularly the more outspoken bits, it’s a problem that many secular groups and leaders have acknowledged and tried to address for some time. The reasons for this are pretty complex, tying in with the socioeconomic inequities between Caucasian males and everyone else (and that in turn has many complex factors behind it as well).
Globally, a number of non-white nations, such as Botswana, South Korea, Japan, and China, have large nonreligious or atheist populations. But by and large, especially within the US, it does seem to be the purview of older white males, and thereby perceived as such – women and minorities without religion may thus feel just as out of place among fellow secularists as they do among their more devout demographic group. If trends persist, that will change eventually, but in the meantime it will no doubt be challenging, though it’s already being attended to.
The Facebook discussion boards for these groups often become therapy sessions, and as administrator of the Black Atheist Alliance, Mark Hatcher finds himself a counselor. “My advice is usually let them know you understand their religion and what they believe, but you have to take a stand,” he said.
This strategy has worked for Mr. Hatcher, 30, a graduate student who started a secular student group at the historically black Howard University. For two of his Facebook friends, though, it has not worked, and they moved to Washington, not to sever ties with their families as much as to keep their sanity.
Now that Facebook groups have connected black atheists, meet-ups have started in cities like Atlanta, Houston and New York.
On a gray Saturday in October, 40 members of African Americans for Humanism, including Mr. Hatcher, Ms. Bey and Mr. Adams, met at a restaurant in Washington to celebrate the first anniversary of holding meet-ups. Speakers discussed plans to broaden services like tutoring and starting a speaking tour at historically black colleges.
“Someone’s sitting on the fence, saying, ‘I go to church, and all my friends and my family are there, how am I supposed to leave?’ ” Mr. Hatcher said on stage. “That’s where we, as African-American humanists, say, ‘Hey look, we have a community over here.’ ”
After the speeches, Mr. Hatcher looked at the attendees mingling, laughing, and hugging one another. “I feel like I’m sitting at a family reunion,” he said.
Raising public consciousness is a major concern for atheists and other secularists. Like other minorities before us, we’re keen on making society more aware of our existence and our ideological positions, so as to make demonization and marginalization less effective. It’s harder to be bigoted or ignorant of a group when it’s out in the open on the public stage and able to speak for itself. Plus, you can reach others who had felt too alone or afraid to come out. It’s all about building a community, just as our religious contemporaries do.
Though his atheism is a well-worn subject of debate with his wife and his mother (a minister), Mr. White, a 41-year-old Austin-based writer, avoids discussing it with the rest of his family. Though he won’t attend Christmas services this year, and hasn’t in years, he said, his family assumes he’s just “not that interested in religion.” To say explicitly he is an atheist, he said, “would break my grandmother’s heart.”
The pressure he feels to quiet his atheism is at the heart of a provocative statement he makes on his blog: “In most African-American communities, it is more acceptable to be a criminal who goes to church on Sunday, while selling drugs to kids all week, than to be an atheist who … contributes to society and supports his family.”
Over the phone, Mr. White said he does feel respected for his education and success, but because he cannot talk freely about his atheism, it ultimately excludes him. When he lived in Los Angeles, he watched gang members in their colors enter the church where they were welcomed to shout “Amen” (they had sinned but had been redeemed) along with everyone else.
“They were free to tell their story,” Mr. White said, while his story about leaving religion he keeps to himself — and the Internet.
None of this is surprising in a society where atheists are as distrusted as rapists, and being a nonbeliever is viewed as synonymous with immorality and dishonesty. White’s account also reminds me of the fact that less than 1% of all incarcerated people identify as atheists – the overwhelming majority are believers to some degree, mostly in Christianity. A belief system where forgiveness and salvation can be attained by nothing more than prayer and obedience does little to encourage moral behavior and self-correction (and for the record, I’m well aware that many Christians don’t adhere to this doctrine, even though there is Biblical justification for it).
At any rate, I feel for any of the nonreligious among you who must contend with this sense of separation and exclusion. As an Arab, I can’t say there are too many outspoken religious skeptics out there, though I am sure there are a lot more who keep it in private. Most Lebanese, who are greatly divided along sectarian lines, subsequently identify as Christian or Muslim largely in a cultural or parochial sense.
My own family, like most of the Lebanese Diaspora, is Christian, but they’ve always been tolerant and accommodating, for which I’m grateful. Given that I’ve got Hispanic descent in a mostly Latino area and am pretty Westernized to begin with, I don’t feel as culturally distinct as a Black person or Muslim Arab would – so being part of the wider secular community isn’t as challenging.
Still, if there’s one thing all we nonreligious folks share – regardless of background or label – it’s that we’re all terribly misunderstood and negatively treated, and seek to change that together.