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Black And Godless In America

Listen to Jamila Bey and Norm Allen describe their experience as atheists unifying.  For a taste of what they have to say, here is Jamila Bey in The Root:

Among black folks, if you’re a criminal who shows up at a service on whatever Sabbath you subscribe to, you’re just a fallen human who is worthy of love and redemption. But if you’re a moral and decent human who doesn’t believe in a supernatural force, you’ll soon find that your kind is most unwelcome.

One conference participant from the Bible Belt summed it up this way: “Christianity’s grasp on black people makes it almost impossible to admit that you’re a black atheist. We have to hide our non-belief, otherwise we are excluded. And if we give voice to any objection or doubt, we’re ostracized and isolated–or just banished! So any time religion comes up, it’s simpler to just change the subject or say nothing if you can’t bring yourself to fake an ‘amen.’ … But don’t use my name ‘cause my mother told me when she saw me reading God is Not Great that if any of her children actually believed ‘that mess,’ she’d have one less child.”

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://facebook.com AJ

    I think my mother still has a hard time trying to understand the reasons behind my atheism. She does not lack education or intellect but religion seems to have a different realm of understanding aside from basic logic and reason. She rarely speaks of it unless I make a facebook post that is too ‘anti-christian’ and might be taken as offensive. Bey and I have had a similar experience with the reaction of atheism in my culture sadly. But I am lucky to have a family that is diverse enough to accept that they are fallible beings just as I am.

  • Daniel Fincke

    I am always more understanding of African American religiosity than of most other kinds of religiosity because of the role that the black church played in creating a surrogate family structure during slavery when slave owners were deliberately breaking up and separately selling family members in a most inhuman and cruel fashion.

    And even though Christianity was just as, if not more, utterly complicit in lending ideological and moral support to slave owners as it was a source of critique of slavery, within the African American community it eventually played a vitally subversive role in cultivating a sense of dignity and equality in African American slaves.

    Remember, in many cases, slave owners tried to prevent their slaves from reading the Bible or having their own church services and it was at least partially in Christianity’s appeal to those of lowest rank as people with dignity that slaves who had little other media which could tell them they were human beings deserving of rights, picked up the idea anyway.

    And so when the slaves turned hymns about salvation from Egypt into hymns of hope for the abolition of slavery, Christianity was probably as pure a force for liberation as it ever has been. Despite Christianity’s simultaneous abuse of blacks in the hands of whites, for which it should equally (or more) be held responsible, within the black community it came to mean and function as something wholly different and wholly more praiseworthy.

    In that context, the myths had the most truthful and moral interpretation and effect. They helped exploited people realize their own rights. And in church life, replaced the family structure that had been barbarically decimated by slaveholders.

    SO, culturally what it meant and often still does to be black and Christian in America has a very different connotation and significance and sociological source than what it means to be white and Christian in America. And the reasons for clinging to Christian institutions in both cases are, generally speaking, diametrically opposed.

    White Christian religiosity on average usually winds up aligned with protection of traditional power structures which benefit whites. Black Christian religiosity on average winds up aligned with the causes of social justice that will benefit the systemically marginalized since historically the African American community is the systemically marginalized American community par excellence.

    And, as a result, it’s easier for me to sympathize with visceral allegiances to the black church the way that I completely understand why Jewish atheists are still Jewish.

    In both cases, the religion is as much an expression of ethnic or racial solidarity against ethnic or racial hostility that forces members of the targeted group to identify together and band together for protection.

    In a key way, Judaism and black Christianity have this dimension in their DNA and make them more intrinsically prone to theologies of liberation and universal justice than religions which arise as expressions and reinforcements of dominance do.

    Now, of course, there’s also a whole lot of bad that religious fervor does for people, whether they are black or white. Fundamentalist black Christian ministers have been as much a force for homophobia as white fundamentalist Christian ministers have been. And when Judaism gets interpreted in orthodox ways, it can become an overbearing and stifling form of legalism or lead to dangerous theocratic thinking just as much as Islam or Christianity or Hinduism, et al., can.

    But I am a little more sympathetic to the reasons it is hard for communities which had their entire center of political and social and spiritual organization all in one locus, the church, to break free of that institution.

    Nonetheless, I still think that people should be atheists because it is the most rational position and that affective ties to institutions and traditions of using those institutions as centers of social reform should not override one’s commitment to the truth. So I have no intention of patting on the head any of my fellow human beings, no matter their color or nationality, etc. and telling them that “your false religious beliefs are good for you even though they are false, since you are just too limited to do any better.”

    But to the extent that a given group’s religious beliefs and religious activities dovetail with truth and justice, I can feel less hostility towards it on general moral grounds. Even though I still think, all groups have ethical obligations to truth and that through their specifically religious teachings, religious organizations fail spectacularly to meet that obligation.

    SO, that’s a whole lot of background to ask, what do you think of that sort of perspective on these issues, AJ?


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