Standing before a room full of fellow African-Americans, Jamila Bey took a deep breath and announced she’s come out of the closet.
Her soul-bearing declaration is nearly taboo, she says.
“It’s the A-word,” said Bey, 33, feigning a whisper. “You commit social suicide as a black person when you say you’re an atheist.”
Nearly eight in 10 African-Americans said religion is very important in their lives, compared with 56 percent of the general U.S. adult population.
“You renounce your blackness,” said Bey. “You almost denigrate your heritage and history of the people if you claim atheism.”
And in addition to the alienation suffered by black atheists, it is worth noting the ways that the black church, despite being in many ways a vibrant historical force for positive social change, is limited by its dogmatic religiosity from being an unambiguously progressive force:
Jonathan, a 29-year-old Washington resident who wouldn’t reveal his last name out of fear of backlash among friends and family, said his lack of religion has been nearly paralyzing.
“If I want a second date or a job in the community, I won’t say I’m an atheist,” he said. “It’s like we’re fighting for our rights all over again.”
Many black American humanists agree that religious principles get in the way of effectively addressing the social ills facing the black community, including a higher proportion of HIV and AIDS cases compared with other races and ethnicities.
Diane Griffin, a former lobbyist for the National Minority AIDS Council, said one of her challenges while working to pass legislation was getting black leaders to encourage condom use.
“They feel that’s gonna say that they are somehow promoting homosexuality,” she said.