They Need to Come Out of the Closet

Pop quiz: What is this author talking about?

In some black communities it’s akin to donning a white sheet and a Confederate flag. In others, it’s ostensibly tolerated yet whispered about, branded culturally incorrect and bad form, if not outright sacrilege.

Not that it’s much of a surprise on this site… but Sikivu Hutchinson is talking about being a black atheist.

She also quotes blogger Wrath James White:

In these communities you find more tolerance towards gangbangers, drug addicts, and prostitutes, who pray to God for forgiveness than for honest productive citizens who deny the existence of God. This, for me, is one of the most embarrassing elements of Black culture, our zealous embracement of the God of our kidnappers, murderers, slavemasters and oppressors.

While there have been a few black atheists who have made names for themselves in the atheist world (Ayaan Hirsi Ali, for one), that list is sadly short.

What’s the best way to make atheism more acceptable for African-Americans?

It starts by getting those atheists in the black community to courageously come out and tell others about their beliefs — preferably in person and not just on websites. Surely there are more closeted atheists in the black community than any of us can imagine. They need encouragement and support. They need to know it’ll be ok to leave the comfort of church. They need to know they’re not alone.

We’re not close to a tipping point, but we need to start somewhere.

(If you haven’t heard it before, Michael Estes gave a great talk on African-American Freethinkers a while back — the audio can be found here (MP3).)

  • Luther

    In these communities you find more tolerance towards gangbangers, drug addicts, and prostitutes, who pray to God for forgiveness than for honest productive citizens who deny the existence of God.

    That is sooo different than White Communities.

    In White communities you find more tolerance towards hedgefund ponzi scheemers, corrupt politicians, and polluters, who tell us God has forgiven them than for honest productive citizens who deny the existence of God.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    I encountered a blog The Black Atheist, but their posting has been infrequent.

  • TXatheist
  • nobody
  • Robyn

    It’s difficult to be a black atheist, to say the least. I agree with everything she said in the op-ed, really. A black, female atheist = traitor with a capital T to a lot of people. And if you hear it enough, you believe it. (Unfortunately, it’s the same thing with getting good grades and not speaking AAE–”taking white”. Thus, according to some people, I haven’t been a real black person since…ever. So I’m used to it.)

  • CatBallou

    Regarding White’s reference to “our zealous embracement of the God of our kidnappers, murderers, slavemasters and oppressors,” I’ve also been curious about the popularity of Islam among black Americans. I’m pretty sure the Arab/Islamic countries of North Africa were complicit in trans-Atlantic slavery and also kept slaves themselves.
    Although I may be missing a larger piece of the puzzle.

  • medussa

    There’s a similar situation with gays and lesbians in the African American communities.
    In an oppressed community, to be perceived as different is to be branded a traitor, and queers are often very closeted. So much so, that being gay is often referred to as white people’s problems…..
    Yeah, coming out as an atheist or gay would be great, but it’s not like it’s safe to be branded a race traitor.

  • http://blueollie.wordpress.com ollie

    Re: Black Atheists. Check out PFUNK on video

    Magnificently done!

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    It starts by getting those atheists in the black community to courageously come out and tell others about their beliefs — preferably in person and not just on websites.

    Yes… but it also starts with the atheist community making an effort to make itself more welcoming to African Americans and other people of color. More link love, more attention to issues that are of particular importance to these communities, more effort to put atheists of color front and center in our movement (as public speakers, on TV appearances, in panels at conferences, etc.). That sort of thing.

    Speaking from painful experience in the queer community: We can’t just ask people to come out without providing a safe, welcoming, genuinely inclusive place for them to land when they do. And simply saying that we’re inclusive, and not being grossly and overly racist, isn’t enough. We have to be more pro-active than that.

  • http://supercheetah.livejournal.com Rene Horn

    @Greta: You’re right. Unfortunately, the entire “herding cats” phrase applies.

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, coming out as an atheist or gay would be great, but it’s not like it’s safe to be branded a race traitor.

    What a selfish thing to say. Why should your own personal safety outweigh the atheist community’s greater good? I kid, I kid.

    BTW, Rene, as a free thinker nothing could be more anathema to me than the idea of being “herded” by some self-appointed “leader” or “leaders.” If I needed someone to tell me what to think and what to do with my life I’d join a religion. The very idea of an “atheist follower” isn’t going to fly for most people.

    One last thing: The best place to come out is online, using your alias. The last thing you want is your relatives and employer to find out and shun you.

  • Heather

    I’m a Black Female Atheist also – as well as living in one of the “whitest” states in the country (Maine) and having a White partner (who’s also an Atheist). I’m not really “out” to my extended family, although folks at work know and don’t really care. The piece in the LA Times was well-said; my mother “blesses my day” all the time – I just let it go in one ear and out the other. I have to agree with poster Robyn’s comments 100%.

  • Jasel

    Interesting article. I’m a black atheist and have been an atheist my entire life. Fortunately I grew up in a household where religion was never, and still isn’t, really talked about. My father is an atheist (most doctors are I think?) and my mom is non-practicing but honestly at the age of 24 I couldn’t tell you what she believes. I haven’t asked and she hasn’t offered the information. I know my sister believes in a god but doesn’t follow any particular religious school. I don’t even know what (or if) my brother believes.

    I have to agree with a lot of what I read in both the articles in this blog post. I honestly feel much more comfortable talking about religion, and in some cases my atheism, with non-blacks. With other blacks I avoid discussions of religion altogether. Partly out of fear, and partly out of sheer frustration/anger/disappointment/embarrassment.

    I’ve never really been self-aware of the whole issue and controversy surrounding atheism until maybe the past 3 years or so. But ever since I’ve become even more wary of religion than I was growing up.

    I wish I could be one of those “Proud atheists” and say it loud and proud, but the thought of even talking about being an atheist in certain situations (my nursing class for example where I’m the only male in a class where 20 of the students are African-American females) makes my throat tighten up, my heart race, and I get a bad case of nervousness.

    I would never lie about being an atheist or claim to be a faith that I’m not. Claiming to be a Christian would probably make my blood run cold. If pressed about my beliefs I’ll answer honestly. However my instinct is to just say “I’m not really religious” and try to leave it at that.

  • Epistaxis

    there have been a few black atheists who have made names for themselves in the atheist world (Ayaan Hirsi Ali, for one)

    She’s not black the same way Hutchinson and White are black. Their culture is made up of Americans of African descent; she is a Dutch woman raised in Somalia as a Muslim.

  • nomad

    Coming out of the closet is an unfortunate metaphor. The situation of the black atheist in a predominantly Christian (black) culture is intimidating. But that is where the parallel to that of gays end. It’s hard to come out of a closet for being “not” something. Atheism is more akin to being celibate than with being gay. It’s like someone declaring their celibacy. It’s kind of like coming out of the closet. But it’s kinda not.

    Interestingly enough, the first person I ever heard criticize religion on TV was black and gay. James Baldwin during the Nixon era. He said something to the effect that Christianity was unable to “come off of it”.

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