It’s often been observed that atheism, or at least outspoken atheism, seems rarer among America’s black community than among American society in general. Although I don’t know why that’s true, I suspect that it may stem from the tendency of a minority group, especially one that’s often discriminated against by wider society, to seek to preserve its heritage and uphold its distinctiveness by emphasizing a shared cultural identity.
Regardless, it would be unfortunate if the black community in America spurned the message of atheism. They, as much as any other group, have been a part of the proud history of American freethought and secularism, as we’ll see in today’s post on the contributions of a famous black freethinker.
W.E.B. Du Bois was one of the most influential civil-rights activists of the twentieth century. He was the first black man to get a Ph.D. from Harvard, one of the founders of the NAACP, and a prolific writer, educator, historian and sociologist. His body of work included scholarly publications on history and sociology, novels, poetry, political columns, and collections of his essays such as his critically praised The Souls of Black Folk. For 25 years, he served as editor of the NAACP journal The Crisis, which published withering essays against racism and inequality and gave a voice to some major artists of the Harlem Renaissance.
Raised in a liberal Christian congregation in Boston, Du Bois attended an orthodox missionary college and then studied in Europe. By his own account, it was there that his initial doubts blossomed and he became a full-fledged freethinker. In Freethinkers, Susan Jacoby quotes a passage from his autobiography:
Religion helped and hindered my artistic sense. I know the old English and German hymns by heart. I loved their music but ignored their silly words with studied inattention. I worshipped cathedral and ceremony, which I saw in Europe, but I knew what I was looking at when in New York a Cardinal became a strike-breaker and the Church of Christ fought the Communism of Christianity.
After his return from Europe, Du Bois took up teaching at a black Methodist college, Wilberforce University. While there, he refused to lead students in prayer, drawing the wrath of school administrators. His views on religion were hardened by this treatment, and grew increasingly radical:
I refused to teach Sunday school. When Archdeacon Henry Phillips, my last rector, died, I flatly refused again to join any church or sign any church creed. From my 30th year on I have increasingly regarded the church as an institution which defended such evils as slavery, color caste, exploitation of labor and war.
Du Bois’ attacks on the church continued throughout his career. He wrote that World War I “spells Christianity’s failure” in promoting peace among men, and in 1912 called for reforms “to make the Negro church a place where colored men and women of education and energy can work for the best things regardless of their belief or disbelief in unimportant dogmas and ancient and outworn creeds.”
Later in life, Du Bois would become engaged in bitter public dispute with some of his fellow civil-rights activists. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington argued over whether social equality for blacks could come before they achieved economic equality (Washington’s position was that economic equality had to come first, while Du Bois, though he greatly valued education, argued that blacks were entitled to seek and demand the equal protection of the law in every area of life), while he and Marcus Garvey argued over whether blacks should seek to assimilate into American society as equals, or to promote the cause of black separatism (Garvey advocated the latter).
As he aged, Du Bois’ sympathies drifted toward Communism, and he was investigated (though inconclusively) by the FBI and Joseph McCarthy’s HUAC commission, where Albert Einstein testified as a character witness to defend him. He died in Ghana in August 1963, at the age of 95, one day before Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech.
Other posts in this series: