- This is one black person’s opinion. I certainly don’t think all black people share this opinion; many will very likely disagree with me.
- This applies to the United States. Other countries may have different dynamics, although it is interesting to see what they may be – feel free to comment.
- Yes, this is about black atheists, not minorities in general. I concentrated on black atheists because it was my experience; I think individual minorities have to speak up from their particular positions if they are really going to be heard at all.
- The terms "white people" and "black people" are used to discuss trends in culture. "Whiteness" and "blackness" are discussed here as concepts that culture ascribes to skin tones, not the skin tones themselves.
What Malcolm X stated is true: The most segregated hour on Sunday morning is, indeed, high noon Sunday. White individuals tend to leave predominantly white churches, and black individuals tend to leave predominantly black churches. It seems fairly self-evident that these churches are drastically different in culture and general goals, for the most part, and it makes sense that some cultural ideology from these differences would remain even after the religious ideology in the churches is rejected.
1. Because Sometimes you Seem Desperately Needy, and it's Kinda Creepy
One thing that the predominantly white atheist movement is going to have to ask itself is why it thinks it needs black people. Because we have a long history of being needed in this country, both in practical and ideological ways, and most of it isn’t rosy. I’m not just talking about the obvious past of segregation and slavery, where you needed us so you could have someone to be superior to. I’m talking about now, the current moment, when much of white culture seems to need a certain stereotype of blackness (primitive, dangerous, violent, poor, spiritual) to prop up certain stereotypes of whiteness (advanced, wholesome, relatively sophisticated, rational). As someone who has been called, countless times, "white" when I have acted outside of the bounds of black stereotypes, this rings true.
I realize claiming that whites try to include black people so that they can find someone to be superior to may be controversial, but, honestly, the theory does have a lot of explanatory power. First, it is consistent with a history of whiteness that has depended on a stereotype of blackness to license a race-based hierarchy that needed to be sustained by the presence of black people for its survival. Second, many of the conversations I have been a part of among white individuals seem to be hand-wringing over the "spirituality" of black people (a pervasive stereotype that many black individuals claim is true, as well). However, black individuals who have studied our history tend to state that the picture is more complex -- that there is a rich history of black atheism and that the missing ingredient in today's atheism is a lack of interest in social justice; for good reason, a high emphasis on social justice is common among ideologies held by black people, and this emphasis includes the tradition of black atheism. Third, it seems to make sense that division in the church would correspond to division in rejection of the church. What Malcolm X stated fifty years ago is still true: The most segregated hour on Sunday morning is, indeed, high noon Sunday. White deconverts tend to leave predominantly white churches, and black individuals tend to leave predominantly black churches. It seems fairly self-evident that these churches are drastically different in culture and general goals, for the most part, and it makes sense that some cultural ideology from these differences would remain even after the religious ideology in the churches is rejected.
Controversial. Why the Perception?
Having been in countless conversations in the white church (when I was a Christian) and in the atheist online and in-person community concerning the “problem” of the lack of black people, I've noticed that when white individuals in both arenas start talking about the black people missing in their midst, they usually ascribe the lack of black people to blackness being more primitive, or to whiteness being too sophisticated, or to blackness being more naturally "spiritual" or in other ways more crude or primitive than whiteness.
So…here, I’m going to say something controversial that may sound downright crazy, but it seems to be true. When I was going to a predominantly white church, it seemed like white churches mourned that they couldn't act the way black churches did – with the enthusiasm and “amens” and so on. Sure, there was a Pentacostal culture in places, but that was dressed up in Southern garb. The “black culture” was something we talked about a lot, but individuals in the white church regretted that they couldn't embrace it because – well, we were a "white" church. So we, as a predominantly white church, tried to bring more black people (there weren’t very many besides me) into the church to fulfill that role, to give us an outlet for a side of our humanity that whiteness seemed to keep us from.
Unsurprisingly, the black churches we courted were extremely hesitant, because they felt they were being called on to play a role and were suspicious that we were trying so hard to incorporate them into our church. After a few months of putting pieces together, I gathered that they thought they were needed so that the white church could define itself as different from and thus superior to blacks, while still connecting to features of “black culture” that they liked.
And when you think about this…the white church's actions did seem a bit suspicious. Why was the white church so obsessed with getting black people who didn’t want to come, to come? There were PLENTY of other churches it could have courted…
So when the atheist community in the United States is similarly obsessed…the same question is asked by blacks. And if you LISTEN to blacks, we’ll tell you that the stereotypes you are referencing, the things you seem to need us to be, are completely and totally wrong in many instances, and drastically misunderstood in others. If you want us to come, don’t look at us to fulfill any particular role or stereotype. Don’t expect us to bring what you think is “black culture” with us. And please don't talk about us like we’re aliens who are fundamentally different than you, as if you need us for a stronger sense of culture. Treat us as human beings who deserve respect (not pity or patronization), instead of as blacks with stereotypes you expect us to fulfill to enrich your sense of “culture" or to meet your quota for including minorities.
2. Because Sometimes you Seem Intent on Convincing us we Need you, and it's a bit Insulting
One of the ways that so many blacks became Christians in the first place, you remember, is that whites in western culture justified slavery by stating that they converted the heathen blacks, saving them from hell. They used Christian ideology to enforce the concept that blacks needed them, while providing blacks with slavery, segregation, poverty, and injustice on a massive scale, both among blacks who were transported on slave ships and blacks who were oppressed through the effects of colonization and the controlling influences of Christian churches
We as blacks have a much longer memory of history than most whites, because it’s easy to forget when it wasn’t your ancestors who experienced the effects of prejudice, and when you don’t experience it every day. So…we know that when we were told we needed a white ideology, that ideology often made us subservient. It has for years. Most of what we got in this country, we got through the hard work and influence of blacks like Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, Martin Luther King, Jr., and so on. We pushed and pushed and eventually broke ground in many places. It wasn’t handed to us on a silver platter by whites – we had to take it.
Now, to be sure, we atheists accuse Christianity, as a whole, of a lack of reasoning, a propensity to violence, of being too primitive, and as relying on emotions. This might be well and good but...when you share that message with black culture, you should be aware that you're also, intentionally or not, potentially giving it flashbacks of powerful, dangerous stereotypes it has experienced for hundreds of years.
So when a predominantly white group of individuals offers blacks atheism – it reminds some of us, a bit, of being offered white Christianity. And for good reason. You don’t have to look far in the atheist community to find widespread instances of racism and judgment of black individuals for their lack of reasoning, violence, and primitive, overly emotional ways. This is the same critique Christianity had of blacks – literally. The ideology has changed, but the function is the same. Now, to be sure, we atheists accuse Christianity, as a whole, of a lack of reasoning, a propensity to violence, of being too primitive, and of relying too much on emotions. This might be well and good but...when you share that message with black culture, you should be aware that you're also, intentionally or not, potentially giving it flashbacks of powerful, dangerous stereotypes it has experienced for hundreds of years. So…the message that we blacks need atheism because we, as Christians, are primitive, overly emotional, lack reasoning, and so on…it strikes a nerve.
Also, it seems, the stereotype of black culture as rationally inferior does not go away once the Christian becomes an atheist. In many places that have an atheist community, there is an atheist’s group and a group specifically for black atheists, partly because, possibly, blacks experience fatigue from fighting these stereotypes – the same fatigue that originally led to black Christianity, as well.
3. You try to Relate to us by Acknowledging Others' Racism Through your Questions and Anecdotes -- Which Reminds us of Racism, Which Makes us Uncomfortable
There are problems of racism towards blacks in America. We know this. Many of us, though, don’t want to talk about it extensively (especially with people who don’t have experience being black), but we do want the problems acknowledged. We don’t see it as our job to educate you, but you seem to keep drafting us into service.
Maybe this will help: Chris Rock once said that America is like the uncle who paid your way through college, but molested you. That’s a pretty risky analogy, because sexual abuse is serious, but at the same time “molestation” is a fairly mild metaphor considering the extent of the violence and injustice blacks have suffered in the United States – violence and injustice that often included molestation and rape. So, anyway, when white America looks at the scars and wounds, sometimes it seems like it’s a bit too interested. Like the molesting uncle…the adult who remembers the molestation wants the uncle to remember what happened and acknowledge that it was wrong, but becomes uncomfortable when the uncle leans forward and says, “So, tell me…how did it feel to suck my cock?” I know that sounds obscene, but so do questions such as, “How do you feel about the fact that so many blacks are in prison?” It’s also how many of us feel when you tell us anecdotes about the racism you witness. We KNOW racism goes on. We’re well aware. Most of us don’t want to educate you extensively about it, or hear you remind us. You can read a book or DO something about it, but we’re really not all that interested in your questions and anecdotes.
This is not strictly a problem in atheism, to be sure. But if the atheist community is going to try to include blacks in its activities, it should be aware of this dynamic and how it will affect things. Read a book before engaging in discussion on black issues, so you can talk about it intelligently. And when you have read said books – respect our experiences. The fact that you have read a book does not mean you have LIVED the experience, so humility is still in order.
4. We can tell from the Results when You’re More Interested in Showing that you Care than Actually Caring
White people in America have always claimed that they cared about blacks in America. Always. When we were slaves, it was for our own good. Same with segregation. Same with lack of voting rights. Same with almost every case of racism in American history. So your insistence that you care about racism in America doesn’t mean much. It’s not that we think you’re racist. It’s just that we know that results happen when we call out systematic racism and demand better treatment for ourselves.
And besides that – many of us really care, because this is our life. We don’t take a tour of what it’s like to be black in America for kicks; we ARE black in America and, often, would like things to change. Better education, more opportunity, less blacks in jail, a more fair justice system, equal pay, etc. – these are some goals. Many of us (though certainly not all of us) are passionate about these because we are informed about them and they directly affect the way we are treated. We aren’t really interested in your obsession to show us that you’re not racist; we’re more interested in actually stopping racism and its effects. Because racism is not conscious. Again, no one says they are racist. Racist decisions are make subconsciously, with biases we don’t think about in the moments we are most susceptible to them (see videos for examples). If you really cared about the problem you would treat us with respect and dignity instead of talking about how unracist you are and expecting to get a pat on the back.
Get rid of racism by honestly, without feeling the need to announce it, treating blacks with dignity and respect. Listen to our experiences as if they have legitimacy, because they usually do. And, don't wait around until there's a black person to discuss race -- discuss it with whites, because this is a conversation for everyone and, if you're really concerned about the issue, you'll end up doing it. NOT to put yourself on a higher plane than whites (which is often done -- don't just use it to show other whites you're less racist than they are) but because you honestly care about the issue. And as you do that – the environment will change, and as the environment contains less racism, more blacks may show up. But, more importantly, you'll be moving beyond racism.
5. Because Sometimes, Honestly, your Predominantly White Atheist Community seems Worse than the Black Church
Barack Obama grew up with a fairly secular, skeptical mindset – until he went to church. He doesn’t really seem to believe in the Bible literally, but what did attract him to the church was the way it became a place of community, a way for blacks to work together and fight for justice and enrich their lives. Basically, the black church is the way blacks took the Christian ideology that was foisted on them and made it a vehicle for cultural change that actually gave them rights – what was supposed to humble them actually gave them pride. It’s a tremendous accomplishment, in that regard.
Why James Baldwin Left Christianity
So when your atheist group comes along to try to deconvert people in this church – if you come without awareness of what blacks have gone through and continue to go through in this country, you’re not going to get all that far. Because the black church is how many blacks in America have managed to insulate and protect themselves from white America – we’ve taken something that white America has to respect – Christianity – and made it our own vehicle for change and for building our own communities.
For proof – look at major black atheists in history like James Baldwin, A. Philip Randolph, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Alain Locke, and so on. These black atheists were intently involved in black issues, because they were disillusioned with Christianity – not merely because it was wrong, but because it disenfranchised blacks. If atheism continues this cycle in any way with racist tendencies, then it similarly is rejected. In addition, these atheists worked WITH, rather than AGAINST the church. They understood why the black church seemed to be necessary, and although they had problems with it they understood why many blacks, living in the culture they were in, desperately needed it. Not because they were naturally more “primitive” or “spiritual,” but because spending long years in chains and segregation can force one to engage intensely in mirages of hope and justice in order to maintain their sanity. Their anger was not at the black church, so much as the conditions that forced the black church to come into existence.
You must realize that when you try to convince many black individuals to leave the black church their families go to, you’re asking them to give up a whole system that is designed to rebut white oppression and racism in the United States for another one that often openly licenses racism. These blacks often experience negative consequences from their fellow family members, who they feel they are letting down – and in many ways, that may be true. If you then strive to recruit these blacks to declare war on the black church without having a strong sense of justice for blacks yourself, and, even worse, judge them by their enthusiasm in waging this war, you are not just attacking Christianity – you are, in many ways, encouraging them to tear down the defenses blacks have built against white culture over hundreds of years, and many blacks may not be keen to do that. The only way many of us will fight against the black church is if we think that blacks will be better served by atheism than by black Christianity. There is a brand, as I just mentioned, of black atheists who showed it did (although they didn’t aggressively fight against the black church, for the most part). But the predominantly white atheist community, for reasons aforementioned, generally doesn’t.
6. You're Obsessed with a Quick Solution
If you’re wondering how to solve these problems in the near future – it’s not that easy. It may take white individuals getting down and actually looking into these issues, doing the hard work of unlearning their biases, and being open to the discomfort blacks are feeling, while giving them dignity and respect instead of pity and seeing them as problems. It will require a willingness to look beyond and even outright reject quick and easy solutions. And the problem is to be placed not squarely on blacks, nor squarely on whites, but on concepts constructed by a history that molded what it meant to be black and to be white in America. It’s going to require admitting and working to get rid of subconscious racism, which is extremely difficult (and yes, many of us black people have it against ourselves, just as many human beings have brought into the lie that they are sinners). It may require reading books or, at least, articles. And actually caring, instead of pretending to care. Empathy instead of sympathy is very much in order here. As well as avoiding patronization and a kind of cannibalistic “need” for the existence of our stereotypes in your community.
It’s not going to be easy. But if you’re going to avoid the mistakes in atheism that were made in white Christianity with blacks, the hard work is going to be necessary.
itsallrelative from Outside Dallas on March 20, 2015:
I appreciate the length of the piece. I do not agree with everything you said, but certain agree with parts. I do not see the atheist movement as being very cohesive or organized. And although the research shows (Pew, Gallup and others) that not many black individuals identify themselves as atheists, I am not sure that it has much to do with race as much as culture and expectations. I know that I can not speak openly even in my family about being atheist, and many others are in the same boat. In families and cultures where the church plays a significant role in daily life, it can be difficult and alienating to stand up and say I do not believe this anymore. Most of my family knows where I am at, but it is not discussed.
slowe11 on October 06, 2014:
I particularly like # 5. Also the side links to photos and videos are great.
T on June 20, 2014:
It's a shame that America and it's crazy has had such an effect on you, BarrierBreaker. Canada doesn't have this kind of problem.
Your article was a bit long, and you tended to repeat yourself. The points you chose were more about inherent racism than the reasons why black atheists don't frequent atheist communities (a statement I'm not sure I believe, which would be good to source in an opening paragraph). Otherwise, thanks for sharing your thoughts and taking the time to write it all down.
I don't think Obama went to church for any reason other than getting elected. He's all about winning, and he knows that atheists don't stand a chance in American politics.
Also, I'm uncomfortable with the parallels you're drawing between atheist and religious communities. They are wildly different in function and in purpose.
I see the irony in having a long comment. Hope you have a great weekend! :D
barrierbreaker (author) on June 17, 2014:
Red Scott, yes, that is troubling. Although black people seem more interested in such movements than white people, in many cases. But I think it's because many black people have brought into the stereotypes white people have of them.
Elizabeth, don't be hard on yourself. This is just an open conversation. We're not after guilt so much as after mutual understanding.
Yes, Elena, that shocked me, too.
Rexxander, that's fine. You don't have to. But some of us want to, of course.
Rexxander on June 16, 2014:
I don't want to deconvert anyone. Maybe there is a new proselytizing atheism out there, but I don't care.
I care that people want to regulate my life with things from their bible. Mostly, if you don't arrive to atheism on your own - you probably won't arrive there.
elena on June 15, 2014:
Omg that "Unstable Black Atheist" clip was INTENSE
elizabeth on June 15, 2014:
Thanks for taking the time to write this. I will reflect on it and try to recalibrate myself.
Red Scott on June 13, 2014:
I'm more concerned with the question of why there aren't more blacks involved in the dissenting, progressive (99%/occupy ) movement. It seems that without the Panthers, blacks aren't engaged in political change, in spite of all their adulation of Obama.