A study cited by the American Psychiatric Association states that 85 percent of African Americans consider themselves "fairly religious" or "religious." Like many things concerning black life, this finding is rooted in history. The 60s Civil Rights Movement has closely been linked with religion: Malcolm Little didn't become Malcolm X and then el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz without Islam, and Martin Luther King Jr. often has "reverend" prefixed on his name. Churches have long been the black community's safe space in a Eurocentric nation, and even the Black American National Anthem—which, by virtue of being a "national anthem," is supposed to be a holistic proclamation of a population's hopes—has strong Christian overtones. So to most people, you're not black and religious, because to be black in America is to be religious. Black Nonbelievers, Inc. president and founder Mandisa Thomas puts it like this, "The question often isn't if I go to church—it's where."
So what happens if you're a black atheist? Are you still black? Well, yes. To disagree implies civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates would be "less black," because they are also atheists.
But the States are still centered on Judeo-Christian beliefs, so black atheists face additional isolation. Being a black atheist gives white believers looking to discriminate another thing to hate, because "Christianity is American." Being a black atheist also makes them an anomaly to the black theist majority. And while the predominantly white atheist groups might welcome a black face, many black atheists feel their voices are obscured. Black atheist must find a way to navigate these issues while living in a country that isn't exactly inclusive towards them.
We talked to five black atheists about what it's like to be black in America and reject the the idea of a higher power. It's worth noting that although they do identify as atheists, the term only represents a fraction of their worldview. Some also refer to humanism, a wider encompassing belief that roots itself in the potential of human beings. Here's what they had to say.
Based In: Washington, D.C.
I didn't have a moment—I just had to admit that there was never evidence that I could point to. I tried through school, through college, to believe the stuff that everybody else did. But I just never saw any evidence there. So, for me, it was a matter of when I started telling people as opposed to when I recognized that I was.
Even if Jesus was a real human being at some point, the idea that he was literally, actually dead—no blood flow, no respiration— and his body was decomposing and then he popped up, showed himself to some people and then rose up into the [heavens]… and I'm not making fun of anybody who believes that, but if you do believe that story, you have to admit that it's fantastical at best.
There are a lot of places where you completely relinquish your ties to blackness. I mean, the so called "Black National Anthem" is a religious anthem. So there is a disconnect culturally when you decide to come out and say, "Well, actually…"
Malcolm X and Martin Luther King did not quote exclusively Christians. Both of them borrowed heavily from Mahatma Gandhi and [Henry David] Thoreau. [The core argument was] it is man's right and man's nature to be free.
Anthony B. Pinn
Occupation: Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities and Professor of Religion
Based in: Houston, Texas
I've spent almost half my life within the black church. A lot of people want to believe that I asked God for something, didn't get it, and got angry. But that is not the case at all. Me leaving theism and the black church wasn't about me being personally disappointed—life was good for me. But it was a matter of not being able to see how theism, in general, and the black church in particular made a difference in the lives of folks. As far as I could tell, based upon my ministry, what theism in the black church did was tell folks to be OK with their suffering. And that just wasn't enough for me.
Atheism tells you, by definition, what someone doesn't believe: They don't believe in the supernatural, they don't believe in God. Humanism is broader in that it does not only give the sense of what is unimportant to the person, but it also gives you a sense of what is important to the person. Humanists aren't only concerned with denying the existence of God, but want to take the next step in light of the fact that there are no gods or supernatural forces looking out for us: What do we do?
So much of black life has been marked out by allegiance to churches. Lots of folks would assume that black folks who are humanist and atheist have sold out the culture—that they're no longer fully black. There's also a really problematic assumption in the United States that if you don't believe in God, you're not a moral and ethical person. Add on to that the fact that white people already see you in a problematic way. So being black and saying you don't believe is just fuel to the fire. Not only are black atheists a part of a racially oppressed group, but now they can't be moral and ethical because they don't believe in god. Because of these bizarre and inaccurate assumptions, it justifies discrimination in our Christian nation.
Based In: Los Angeles, California
[I identify more with being a] humanist. Humanism tells the whole constellation of values and ethics. Atheism is a lot more basic and reductive. When you say someone's an atheist, that's a very small piece of their belief system.
The historical trajectory within African American social thought has been marginalized for many many decades, even though there were many prominent secularists and skeptics and free thinkers dating back to Frederick Douglass's time and blossoming during the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Power movement in the 1960s. Also, obviously, because black folk are still very much seeped within Judeo-Christian rituals and traditions.
The ascent of the religious right has made asserting humanist and secularist views all the more urgent. The US is still regarded as Judeo-Christian nation. It's one of the most religious nations on the planet, and look at all the political fighting and conflict around abortion, around same-sex marriage, around any notion of LGBTQ equality—it all emanates from this very, very oppressive reactionary [ideal] that focuses on the bible and Christian literalism.
Occupation: Director of African Americans for Humanism
Based in: Buffalo, NY
I realized that I didn't believe in God when I was pretty young: I was in sixth grade and in Catholic school. At some point, the sixth graders were supposed to go through the sacrament of confirmation, where you re-affirm your belief in God and your commitment to Catholicism. While thinking about that and all the other religions that I saw—there was a mosque nearby and a synagogue—I tried to think about the fact that I didn't know if they were right or I was right. I wondered how I could figure out who was right, and then thinking about that, I was thinking there was this other option,Maybe there wasn't a God at all and that's why we had so many different stories?
I had never heard of the word atheist before. I didn't know that anyone else didn't think there was a God. I didn't learn "atheist" until a couple years later in my religion textbook in eighth grade. So, I thought I was the first person in the world to realize this. My father was Jewish—that was another point that made me question: Are the Jews right and the Catholics are wrong, or are the Catholics right the Jews are wrong? I told my parents and my teachers that I didn't think there was a God, and I thought that they'd be as cool about it as I was. They weren't.
I don't think people know there were black atheists and free thinkers in black history. Who they see is church leaders, religious leaders, and Martin Luther King Jr. People say there wouldn't be a Civil Rights Movement if it wasn't for religious leaders. I think part of that is true: I think having church structure, having places to organize that were black community spaces, was a crucial part of the Civil Rights Movement. But it's very obvious that church leaders were not required. We see leaders in the Civil Rights Movements who weren't church people, like A. Philip Randolph, who was an atheist, and Bayard Rustin, who was a Quaker and a homosexual. They had a presence that's been ignored.
One of my major focuses as the director African Americans for Humanism is to help start local groups in different cities. And as the number is growing, we're seeing similar things being said: They never met another black atheist before, they thought they were crazy, or that their family thinks they're acting white. If someone is the first person in their family to go to college, for example, and they're also non-religious, then their family will accuse them of turning their back on what it means to be part of that family and what it means to be black.
Also, mainstream media's movement is very white. So, black atheist and black nonbelievers… who join a mainstream, predominantly white group, will stand out, and well-meaning white people will ask, "How is it in your community? Do you have friends who can come? It must be so hard… I don't see color." Race does affect people's lives. It affects their identity and opportunity. When we can build groups at these intersections for people who are "double minorities," it helps connection for people to think they're not alone.
Occupation: Black Nonbelievers, Inc.
Based In: Atlanta, Georgia
I really started to realize I was not alone in atheism] when I watched Bill Maher's Religulous and when I found Jeremiah Camara—the producer of the documentary Contradiction—online. Having seen [Camara] in person and actually finding a group of black atheists online on Facebook, that was my breath of fresh air. At that time, I didn't specifically identify as an atheist, but when I saw that there was actually a community of people who were atheists and who were black and who were openly expressing their thoughts about God and religion, I thought, Wow. It was actually exciting.
What led me to found Black Nonbelievers was the need to connect with other black atheists and other blacks who were leaving religion, because there are so few of us represented. There was a need for us to start connecting in person and a need for us to start building a community, because [African Americans] are still so largely religiously identified. The church does tend to define our community as a whole, so it can be difficult to connect with other nonbelievers for that reason.
When it comes to a sense of what defines a black community and what black folks do, atheism is still seen as one of the things that we aren't or that we can't be, which of course is ridiculous. But unfortunately, when we mention atheism or we discuss it, it's almost like we're speaking a foreign language. Our numbers in the black community are increasing because there are a lot of black folks who express their dissent and dissatisfaction with religion. But there needs to be a bigger platform to also find that support among those who can specifically relate as it pertains to the black community and as a person of color.
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