Is race America's new religion?

Updated: Mar 22, 2019

I am co-founder and board member of the Nashville Humanist Association. Last night we hosted a roundtable discussion on the topic, "Is race America's new religion?" The discussion was led by one of our members and friend of mine, Kyle Robinson, who is a young black man. It was a very useful and productive conversation and there was unanimous consent to organize another roundtable discussion on the topic.

The question of race has crossed my mind several times at it relates to the secular community - humanists, atheists, Brights, nones and SBNR's (spiritual but not religious). My initial involvement in the secular community in the Nashville area felt like it was mostly a lot of middle-aged suburban white men. A previous event we (Nashville Humanist Organization) organized was a lecture by Fred Edwords. Edwords was national director of the United Coalition of Reason. He was chair of the American Humanist Association's Humanist Manifesto III Drafting Committee. Fred delivered a lecture on the topic of evolution and creationism. Fred (white male) is married to a black woman, Mary. During their visit I shared with them my limited perception that it seemed that the secular community was largely white. I learned a lot in that conversation.

As I probed deeper, here are a some things I learned:

In the United States, blacks are less likely to be religiously unaffiliated, let alone identifying as atheist or "none." In some quarters it is true that atheism has been seen as a whites-only club. On the whole in the United States, African American history, including the civil rights movement were closely tied to Christianity. African-American communities tend to believe that the church is the center of morality and often turn to the church to solve various social problems that the government is not being perceived to solve or care about. As writer, Cord Jefferson put it, "For a long time, black houses of worship doubled as war rooms to plan protest actions and galvanize people made weary by centuries of racist violence and legislation." Many black people have turned to religion to find the answers to their own suffering.

However, there has also been a scathing critique of Christianity in the black community. For example, during the Harlem Renaissance, several prominent black authors in America wrote or discussed their criticisms of the Christian church in various forms. Anthony Pinn called Christianity a tool for keeping the status quo and historically, for supporting slavery.

African-Americans who come out as a atheist may face a significant social cost. Journalist Jamila Bey wrote, "It's difficult - if not impossible - to divorce religion from black culture." This social cost is not unique to blacks who leave Christianity, but also occurs among black Muslims who leave the religion. Some atheists who have left Islam have been disowned by family or received death threats. Black atheists in the United Kingdom face similar problems, where coming out as an atheist is associated with the fear of being ostracised and demonised. Black women risk their own social status and reputation when they are active atheists. They are more likely to become estranged from their religious families, due to openly expressing their atheism. Within an already religious group, African American women make up "the most religious demographic" in the United States and when black women leave their religion, they also leave an entire social system. Black atheists who identify as LGBT report that they have face a large amount of hate coming from the black community itself.

There is a rich history of black freethinkers and atheists. Hubert Henry Harrison, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, George S. Schuyler, John Henrik Clarke, James Baldwin, James Forman , Lorraine Hansberry... to name a few.

In 1989 Norm Allen, Jr founded African Americans for Humanism, an explicitly secular organisation for blacks. Black Atheists of America and, more recently, Black Nonbelievers Inc, as well as local groups such as Black Skeptics Los Angeles, soon followed. New black atheists are not content to personally reject religion but instead have a goal of spreading freethought to the broader black community. I wish the secular community as a whole would follow suit. In January, the Nashville Humanist Association is offering "Secular Study Hall," which are group workshops designed to broaden and deepen our knowledge on important and relevant subjects and fields of study, and develop new tools for preventing and alleviating human suffering, and promoting human flourishing.

Author Sikivu Hutchinson, and founder of Black Nonbelievers, Mandisa Thomas, argue that religion hurts the black community by promoting sexism, patriarchy and homophobia. Sikivu and others say that black churches have failed to address drug addiction, housing inequities, health disparities, lack of employment opportunities and other pressing social problems facing black Americans. Rather than adopting religious solutions such as abstinence-only education to a problem such as teenage pregnancies, black atheists call for more sex education and access to birth control.

There are some who feel that the overall atheist movement can be seen as "tacitly racist" in that "the movement is not generally interested in the issues that affect people of color" and racism becomes "invisible" and therefore difficult to talk about. Sikivu Hutchinson has written that there is a "staggering lack of interest" about issues facing black people from the atheist community. And so I have thought long and hard about these issues. It would not be a fair generalization that American secularism/humanism/atheism is a bunch of white upper middle class males sitting around pontificating about the finer points of philosophy, but I have to admit that at times it has felt this way. I am grateful for my black secular, humanist and atheist friends who infuse the secular movement with a passion and dedication to address the root causes of human suffering, and the underlying and systemic causes of them.

Here are additional resources you might be interested in checking out:

Black Non-Believers

Black Humanists

A book to read: African American Atheists and Political Liberation: A Study of the Sociocultural Dynamics of Faith (History of African-American Religions)

An author to read:

Sikivu Hutchinson

©  2019 Jim Palmer Author. All Rights Reserved
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