Black and atheist

The NYT has an article out today about the challenges of being black and atheist. I’m more agnostic than atheist, but the experiences the article describes really resonated with me. It especially captures the double isolation black nonreligious people face in the U.S. – isolation from often highly religious family who assume that you believe as they do unless you explicitly say otherwise, and isolation within the atheist/agnostic/humanist community, since high levels of black religiosity mean that  a disproportionately low percentage of black Americans identify as atheist.

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.

…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….

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.

This is something I’ve been struggling with a bit in recent years, as I’ve simultaneously left the church and also been consciously working on building relationships and community with other people of color, especially other black people (relationships that the white evangelical culture I grew up in actively discouraged and prevented me from forming). On the whole it’s an amazingly positive, affirming experience. It’s both exciting and a relief to finally be part of a community where there’s a common vocabulary and shared experiences around race and racism, where we have similar political and ideological values and commitments. Given all that it can be very jarring to hear, in a space that feels so much safer and welcoming, people invoke language and beliefs that in my personal experience have been really toxic and damaging.

I know part of that is an implicit expectation on my part that people who share certain values I hold will probably not be all that religious. That’s definitely a holdover of fundamentalist thinking – that if you believe X, you must also believe Y, or that if you believe X you can’t possibly be a “real” or serious Christian. That’s a mindset I need to work on ridding myself of.

And I definitely see that a big part of the role Christian faith plays in so many black communities is that historically, the black church has played a huge, central role in organizing and shoring up black resistance and struggle against racism. The church has been an amazing source of strength and cohesiveness in that respect. And for some, the story of the black civil rights movement is one of divine providence and intervention, perhaps because the black church played such a prominent role.

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.”

At the same time it’s difficult to deal with the assumptions that I see coming from a lot of black people that if you’re black, you believe in God. And Christian faith is so intertwined with many aspects of black American culture that invocations of God and the Bible can come up in unexpected settings, with little warning. A fairly trivial example of this is the BET awards, which can go from rather sexy performances to feeling like a gospel church service in no time flat. Religion and faith in Jesus specifically are just liable to pop up at any moment. And while it’s not outright triggering for me – I don’t get panic attacks if someone quotes a Bible verse at me or tells me if I just trust God everything will be alright – it can feel…not safe or welcoming. It can be jarring.

Another part of the problem, I think, is that there’s so little room to even have an open conversation about not believing in God (and obviously this is an issue in the U.S. in general, not just in black communities). As the article points to, for some people, atheists are far scarier and harder to relate to than people who have engaged in concrete actions that are clearly harmful to others. People who don’t believe in God can be seen as so completely other or foreign that we’re basically less than human: “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?’ Or if it’s not that extreme, it can simply be an inability to participate in certain conversations where faith is taken as a given, or where there’s little or no room to be open about one’s experiences as a nonreligious person, both of which are really marginalizing and silencing.

I don’t think there are any easy answers to this. As with many things I think it’s an issue of people being able to listen to and embrace a variety of perspectives and experiences, which can be uncomfortable and difficult in the process. It can mean facing things – facing people and ideas – that are scary, or upsetting. From my end I just wish there wouldn’t be the automatic assumption that everyone believes in God, or believes in the same sort of God. And it would also be nice if there weren’t the assumption that people who don’t believe or believe different are somehow inherently defective or meriting suspicion just because of that fact.

One Comment

  1. Is it similar with being black and feminist?
    It seems that only certain women are allowed to call themselves feminist – either those safe in intellectual towers or popular Pentecostals like Sarah Palin. I don’t feel safe to label myself feminist in many of my circles and wonder if it is even more pronounced if one is from a visible minority.