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A. Philip Randolph: One of Many Famous Black Atheists

African Americans for Humanism: Who’s Afraid of the Big, Black Atheist?

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To become a religion it is only necessary for a superstition to enslave a philosophy

Apparently, people are up in arms about the humanist/atheist/non-theist group African Americans for Humanism reaching out to the Black community through billboards during Black History Month. I don’t know if the outrage is mostly because people know that atheists eat babies and drink blood, or because they know that Black people are supposed to be religious.

As in any marginalized and “othered” community, there’s an entire alphabet soup: the catalogue of words and phrases that may seem synonymous to people not belonging to the group but in fact are only closely related. For people that may be outside of religious sects, these terms include ‘atheist’/’nontheist’, ‘free-thinker’, ‘humanist’, ‘agnostic’, ‘skeptic’, et al. In essence, these groups do not place emphasis on religious or religious deities. That might be the only commonality that people who do not subscribe to religion maintain, regardless of the implication that atheists and the areligious are as much a religious group and labeling as all others. The logic just does not follow.

Walking away from religion was not a difficult decision in my personal life. The difficult aspect in being a Black, woman, nonbeliever is being out to one’s family and friends. I don’t know that it was a very specific moment or event; I know that I was very young and it was very logical to me. I come from a religious family, raised in the South; part of my family is Baptist and part of my family is Catholic. I was raised in a Baptist family, immediately, but have attended mass. My immediate family wasn’t uber religious because my father worked a demanding job and my mother spent a lot of time caring for my siblings and I when she was not in school. We were, however, some form of believers. I wasn’t driven away from religion by a difficult epic quest or my hatred of whatever you deem god to be – that this is an assumption of atheists is unreasonable.

When I was 12 years old or so, I remember learning about world religions in my social studies courses in truly the most American way possible; by this I mean that the teacher, without officially acknowledging that we’re all supposedly Christian in American, there are other religious groups in other countries. I wondered, internally of course, how my religion could condemn other people that it didn’t even know, that were probably amazing people as well, because they did not subscribe to the belief system. I somehow felt ashamed to ask this question aloud in school in front of my friends who had a firm grasp of religion, and even more ashamed to take it home with me and ask my parents because I somehow thought that they would take great offense to my questioning their religious doctrine. I gave it more thought at that age and also found that other religions believed themselves to be absolutely correct and denouncing of the others. In my mind, as a child, the logic followed that if what I had been taught was correct, the others could not be correct; if the others are correct, then mine is not. How do I know that what I have been taught is correct is, in fact, correct?

During my initial questions of religion, I was transitioning from private school to public school. The public school was filled with neighborhood children, who I was friends with but had few classes with because I was in academically gifted courses. I loved social studies courses, but was afraid to ask questions of my teachers because I was being ridiculed at school for acting white and sitting with my friends of different ethnicities and religious affiliations already.

Not long after my initial desire to question and research religion, my mother made the decision to move to a different church where much of my father’s family attended. My siblings and I attended summer camp at the church and I was repulsed by the other children’s maltreatment of a boychild who was effeminate and presumably gay. I asked one of the older kids, a girlchild, why they continued to harass my friend, Ricky. Her response was that it was because he would be going to hell anyway for being a fag. I can still remember the feeling of my heart crumbling, and it was the most horrible thing I had ever heard. I wondered, though, why the elder gay men continued coming to church services free-willingly if it didn’t even make a difference. I wondered the point in being a good person if the end result was fruitless. I wondered if I would go to hell for my sexual orientation, or my association with people who were not heterosexual.

I told my mom I didn’t want to go back to summer camp.

I withdrew from religion early, silently, and my parents did not force me to do anything. My larger family says grace when we have gatherings and celebrate holidays, and my heart raced every time they mentioned church. I was wondering if they were going to challenge why I had not participated in church or with religious activities, and I knew that my very judgmental religious family would have issues with my lack of belief in religion; not only was I coming to terms with unbelief in religion, but I was coming to terms with my disregard for whatever people want to define god to be.

In high school, I met a really good friend who also strayed away from her own religion and decided to subscribe to something different. I took comfort in the fact that I was not the only one transitioning in some way from the religion I was brought into. She dropped out, and we eventually grew apart as I was a year ahead and preparing myself for college and AP testing. My high school sweetheart came from a religious family and constantly took issue with my identifying as someone who didn’t care to believe or label myself one way or another. I crawled back into my closet and kept my thoughts on religion to myself, but I was okay with it.

Toward the end of high school and in the beginning of college, I studied different forms of Buddhism and eastern religions. I found that even in college, people were uncomfortable with the idea of not believing. A tragic event happened in my first year of college, and I found that people respected a turn from religion, if they could understand how one could turn their back on god, or whatever. So selfishly, I hid in my tragedy. I wrote for my school newspaper and another writer wanted to interview me for my perspectives on Buddhism, and what drove me there. I found that I enjoyed Buddhism for sometime, but the organizations that I practiced with faced the same gimmicks and issues that I found in the church. I walked away, not just from the religion but from my school and city.

One last moving experience that I remember that made me comfortable in coming out as a free-thinker at the PWI from which I graduated was an incident that occurred in my African American History class: I very much admired my professor. He might have been, at that point, the most intelligent man I had ever met. We were transitioning to a section on Black free-thought and he was discussing W.E.B. Du Bois; he pointed to a student and said, “are you saved?” The student answered, “of course I am!” He said, “how do you know?” He did this to several other students and no one had an answer to the latter question.

I eventually found friends who didn’t believe as much as I. I eventually got very comfortable with the concept of critiquing religion aloud because my friends, who were not of color, supported my expression. I eventually found twitter, and found even more support that included Black atheists and nonbelievers. I found thinkers that respected my viewpoints, and this has been exceedingly helpful in strengthening my coming out (as an atheist) process.

I say this because I’ve often wondered why it is so difficult for some of us to deviate from the idea that is standard to what people assume the Black experience to be. No doubt, religion (and not simply Christianity) has had a major influence in the progression of Black America. Though history did not begin for Black people at slavery in the US, you cannot discount that religious meeting places played a major role in planning revolts and freedom movements because religion was one of very few freedoms eventually afforded to slaves. However, the deny the influence of Black free-thought in America, especially at the height of Black intellectualism post-slavery, is childish and frivolous.

Many of my great influences are religious and very many more are Black and free-thinking. Why is the Black church so threatened by Black free-thought?

…and does it really matter?

 
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Written by:

Published on: February 26, 2012

Filled Under: Culture, Race

Views: 1150

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  • http://twitter.com/Coffey0072 Coffey0072

    Great article, and very similar to me coming of age and to terms with my own Atheism. My mother also never forced me to attend church or any other place of worship (despite relatives insisting that she prompt me to tag along with them). Even as a teenager and young adult (in my early twenties) in college… I labeled myself as Agnostic or non-religious but “spiritual” just to placate some people’s discomfort with Atheism. I essentially thought me being a free-thinker was rare… particularly when you consider how the Black community views church… and so mostly kept it to myself. I’m appreciative that now, more Black free-thinkers are finally speaking up for their own sanity and happiness and eschewing what their immediate family, friends, society, and relatives *want* them to believe.

     
    • Anonymous

      Very well put.

       
  • Bigblackaf28

    I really think this article is spot on. I hate the pain I see in the eyes of those that have faith in their religous conviction when I reveal my atheism. They dont understand how I can live with out that control there faith provides.

     
  • headless horseman

    Great article!  I’m going through a bad patch while a close friend has been (at least temporarily) saved from alcoholism and whoring (literally) by the influence of encroaching reality and with the guiding hand of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. 

    This friend has assured me in the past that “we will all be white” in the after-life, so I have learned to disregard his religious opinions without arguing futilely with him.  But, now he says he has been “baptized” and “saved” and, quite clearly, has not drank or smoked for three months.

    A couple of days ago, he told me that flower seeds from twenty-thousand years ago could not be grown today, because the earth was only created six thousand years ago. I just shuddered the way I did when I was nine and my friend discussed the new (for us) phenomenon of “public” hair.

    I feel very depressed and I conclude that if church is the only salvation for me, then I’m on my way to hell.  I might as well cut my head off today as wait for my inevitable admission to the the “Hot Ward” upon my eventual exit from this life.

    Now, doesn’t that make you want to run scurrying back to church?

    I’ve been baptized three times, but I know I need it a fourth time under different procedures.  I need a church where the pastor holds the individual under water until either he is saved or has suffocated, whichever comes first.  From a place above my body and below the ceiling, I will hear the Pastor cry out, “This one couldn’t be saved, but he [i]was/[i] put out of his misery!” 

     
    • Anonymous

      I really appreciated this comment. I think that we’ve all felt that depression that comes with the idea that everything we’ve been taught is, in practice, completely improper. We’ve seen the negatives and even the things that just seem plain illogical, and for me, wondering what else might be “right” was painful. My family remains true to their convictions and that’s fine, but I studied Buddhism, a bit of Islam when I was writing off religion from a practical perspective, Judaism, and even took several religion courses in college as I considered studying philosophy. It only made me more upset to face the idea that there may not be anything that is “right” other than living right, and that’s okay. Conversing with other Black nontheists on twitter and the like really helped with feeling comfortable in my skin but please don’t allow my post to seem as though I never felt any sort of frustration or upset at my struggles with outgrowing religion. It’s painful and uncomfortable, but I think it’s very much worth it.

       
  • Anonymous

    “Religion Is A BY-PRODUCT Of Fear. For Much Of Human History,It May Have Been
          A Necessary Evil,But Why Was It More Evil Than Necessary ? Isn`t Killing People In
             The Name Of God A Pretty Good Definition Of Insanity?”
             ——ARTHUR C. CLARKE—–