Sunday, November 27, 2011

Black atheism...why is this an issue?

"The Unbelievers"


Emily Brennan

November 25th, 2011

The New York Times

RONNELLE ADAMS came out to his mother twice, first about his homosexuality, then about his atheism.

“My mother is very devout,” said Mr. 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.

In the two years since, Black Atheists has grown to 879 members from that initial 100, YouTube confessionals have attracted thousands, blogs like “Godless and 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.

African-Americans are remarkably religious even for a country known for its faithfulness, as the United States is. According to the Pew Forum 2008 United States Religious Landscape Survey, 88 percent of African-Americans believe in God with absolute certainty, compared with 71 percent of the total population, with more than half attending religious services at least once a week.

While some black clergy members lament the loss of parishioners to mega-churches like Rick Warren’s and prosperity-gospel purveyors like Joel Osteen, it is often taken for granted that African-Americans go to religious services. 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.

“I have some colleagues and friends who identify as culturally Christian in a way similar to ethnic Jews,” said Josef Sorett, a religion professor at Columbia University. “They may go to church because that’s the church their family attends, but they don’t necessarily subscribe to the beliefs of Christianity.”

Given the cultural pull toward religion, less than one-half of a percent of African-Americans identify themselves as atheists, compared with 1.6 percent of the total population, according to Pew. Black atheists, then, find they are a minority within a minority.

In 2008, John Branch made his first YouTube video, “Black Atheism.” With the camera tight on his face, Mr. Branch, now 27, asks, “What is an atheist? An atheist is simply someone who lacks a belief in God.” Half kidding, he goes on, “We’re not drinking blood. We’re not worshiping Satan.” The video has received more than 40,000 hits.

“I think it attracted so much attention because, in the black community, not believing in God is seen as a thing for white people,” said Mr. Branch, a marketing strategist in Raleigh, N.C. “I hate that term, ‘acting white,’ but it’s used.”

According to Pew, the vast majority of atheists and agnostics are white, including the authors Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.

Seeking a public intellectual of their own, some black atheists have claimed the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, interpreting his arguments against teaching intelligent design in the classroom to be an endorsement of atheism. But Dr. deGrasse Tyson is loath to be associated with any part of the movement. When contacted last week by e-mail, he noted a Twitter exchange he had in August, in which he told a follower, “Am I an Atheist, you ask? Labels are mentally lazy ways by which people assert they know you without knowing you.”

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.”

Garrett Daniels wrote on the Facebook group page of Black Atheists, “I CAME out that I’m an atheist to my family.” He added, “I’m not disowned and they apparently don’t love me any less.” A member responded: “Good for you. Seeking out religion just to fit in will drive you crazy.”

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, hugging one another. “I feel like I’m sitting at a family reunion,” he said.

Seated beside Mr. Hatcher was his girlfriend, Ellice Whittington, a 26-year-old chemical engineer he met through a black atheist Facebook group. He lived in Washington and she in Denver, so their relationship progressed slowly, she said, over long e-mails. But Mr. Hatcher said he fell immediately. “We bonded over music. She loved Prince.”

As for being nonreligious in the black community, Ms. Whittington said, “It definitely makes your field of candidates a whole lot smaller.”

She added, “It scared some men to hear me say I don’t believe in God the way you do. I’ve heard people say, ‘How can you love somebody if you don’t believe in God?’ ”

ON his blog “Words of Wrath,” Wrath James White is an outspoken critic of Christianity and of African-Americans’ “zealous embracement of the God of our kidnapper, murders, slave masters and oppressors.”

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.

"Not Knocking on Heaven’s Door*: Black Atheists, Urban America"


Sikivu Hutchinson

June 12th, 2010

Dick and Sharon's L. A. Progressive

Late Saturday afternoon, like clockwork, the street corner preachers on Crenshaw and King Boulevard in South Los Angeles take to the “stage.” Decked out in flowing robes and dreadlocks, they fulminate into their mikes about the universe, God’s will and “unnatural” homosexuals to a motley audience waiting for the next express bus. Members of the Black Israelites, they are part of a long tradition of performative religiosity in urban African American communities.

This particular corner of black America is a hotbed of social commerce. Kids who’ve just gotten out of school mingle jubilantly as pedestrians flow past fast food places, mom and pop retailers, street vendors and Jehovah’s Witness’ hawking Watchtower magazines. The Israelites have become a fixture of this street corner’s otherwise shifting tableaux. Exclusively male and virulently sexist and homophobic, they are tolerated in some African American communities in part because of the lingering visceral appeal of Black nationalism.

While the Israelites’ millennialist “racial uplift” ethos ostensibly fits right into the bustle of this prominent South L.A. street, other belief systems are not as easily assimilated. Since 2006, the L.A.-based street philosopher Jeffrey “P Funk” Mitchell has been documenting his conversations with everyday folk on questions of atheism and faith. Using the handle “Atheist Walking,” Mitchell also conducts free-ranging inquiries into Christianity’s contradictions with a rolling video camera and a satirically raised eyebrow.

Adopting the role of the bemused urban flaneur, ala the commentator- pedestrian immortalized by French poet Charles Baudelaire, he delves into “atheist spirituality,” biblical literalism and the paradoxes of faith. Mitchell is a member of the L.A.-based Black Skeptics, a group that was formed earlier this year to provide an outlet and platform for secular humanist African Americans. The Skeptics are part of a small but growing segment of African Americans who are searching for humanist alternatives to organized religion.

In May, the Washington DC Center for Inquiry’s first annual African Americans for Humanism conference drew over fifty participants. Chat groups and websites like the Black Atheists of America have sprung up to accommodate the longing for community amongst non-theist African Americans who feel marginalized in a sea of black hyper-religiosity. Organizations such as the Institute for Humanist Studies cultivate African American secularist scholarship and advocacy.

With over 85% of African Americans professing religious belief, black religiosity is a formidable influence. Racial segregation, the historical role of the Black Church, and African American social conformity reinforce Christianity’s powerful hold on black communities. Indeed, I was recently told that I’d been deemed an unsuitable culmination speaker for a bourgie philanthropic organization’s young women mentees because of my decidedly unladylike public atheism (Perhaps the Israelite’s Old Testament shout-out to silent prostrate women would be more acceptable). Proper role models for impressionable black youth are, at the very least, skillful church lady pretenders with ornate hats in tow. Secular organizations that seek to build humanist community with a predominantly African American base and social justice world view are challenged by the association of charitable giving, philanthropy, poverty work and education with faith-based communities. For many, successfully emulating the strong social and cultural networks that have sustained church congregations is an elusive goal.

And then, there is the deep and abiding desire for belief in the supernatural, the ineffable faith-passion that propels some through the trauma of racial indignities and personal crisis. Yet, humanism asks why we should cede enlightenment and the potential for restoration to the supernatural. Humanism challenges the implication that the sublimity of the natural world, and our connection to those that we love, admire and respect, is somehow impoverished without a divine creator. In one of his bus stop monologues, Mitchell comments, “I want people to look at each other with the same reverence that they look at God and realize that ‘we’ did this, we made this happen.”

The “we” represents will, agency, and motive force; qualities that many believers would attribute to God as omniscient architect and overseer. Non-believers are compelled to ask whether individual actions (for good or ill) are determined by God, or whether human beings simply act on their own volition in a universe overseen by God. Since time immemorial, non-believers have questioned whether God exercises control over those who commit evil acts or whether hell is the only “medium” for justice. By refusing to invest supernatural forces with divine authority over human affairs, humanism emphasizes human responsibility for the outcome of our pursuits. Morality is defined by just deeds, fairness, equality and respect for difference; not by how blusteringly one claims to adhere to “Godly” principles.

However, in communities that are plagued with double-digit unemployment and a sense of cultural devaluation, notions of self-sufficiency and ultimate human agency may be perceived as demoralizing if not dangerously radical. As a child preacher steeped in the fiery oratory of the Black Church, writer James Baldwin recounted his growing cynicism about spreading “the gospel.” Lamenting the grip of religion on poor blacks, Baldwin said, “When I faced a congregation, it began to take all the strength I had not to…tell them to throw away their Bibles and get off their knees and go home and organize.” In Baldwin’s view, organized religion’s requirement that believers suspend disbelief and submit to “God’s will” is a liability for working class African Americans. Religious dogma anesthetizes as it bonds, a dangerous combination in an era in which the proliferation of storefront churches in urban black communities is a symptom of economic underdevelopment.

Echoing Baldwin, Chicago-based Education professor and atheist Kamau Rashid argues that “Freethought is an extension and expression of the struggle that African Americans have waged for self-determination. In fact it represents a heightened phase of such a struggle wherein one of the final stages of ‘conceptual incarceration,’ the belief in a God or gods, is discarded for a belief in the human potential, for a belief in ourselves.”

And why, in a heritage steeped in the revolutionary thought of such dirty outlaw skeptics as Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Nella Larsen, A. Philip Randolph, James Forman and Alice Walker, would this be so viscerally frightening?

*With apologies to Bob Dylan

[Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of and the author of the forthcoming Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and Secular America.]

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