Inviting Black Americans to the Secular Table

This is a guest post by Derek Miller. He is a sophomore at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a member of the Illini Secular Student Alliance (ISSA).

As the dust settles from the 2011 Secular Student Alliance Conference, I feel a need to call some extra attention to what I consider to be the most misunderstood speaker of the weekend. I am referring to Anthony Pinn, a professor of Humanities and Religious Studies at Rice University. His talk, titled “How to Attract African-American Students to Your Group,” was widely maligned by those in attendance as many felt it contained no practical advice for enticing African-American students to join secular organizations. However, I would contend that anyone looking for something as simple as blasting “California Love” on Quad Day or promising soul food at your first meeting had severely unrealistic expectations for Professor Pinn.

The fact of the matter is there isn’t any specific thing a group can do to attract black members – much like there isn’t any one thing that would attract Latinos, Asians, or females. The thrust of Dr. Pinn’s presentation, as I interpreted it, is that the most effective way to attract black students would be to change prevailing attitudes by way of empathy.

One thing that did not initially occur to me is the social pressure on black atheists – particularly those who are not public about their non-theism. For them ‘coming out’ as an atheist essentially means volunteering for a double-minority status that would open them up to increased discrimination – especially from within the black community. A Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life from 2009 concludes:

Nearly eight-in-ten African-Americans (79%) say religion is very important in their lives, compared with 56% among all U.S. adults. In fact, even a large majority (72%) of African-Americans who are unaffiliated with any particular faith say religion plays at least a somewhat important role in their lives; nearly half (45%) of unaffiliated African-Americans say religion is very important in their lives, roughly three times the percentage who says this among the religiously unaffiliated population overall (16%). Indeed, on this measure, unaffiliated African-Americans more closely resemble the overall population of Catholics (56% say religion is very important) and mainline Protestants (52%).

Additionally, several measures illustrate the distinctiveness of the black community when it comes to religious practices and beliefs. More than half of African-Americans (53%) report attending religious services at least once a week, more than three-in-four (76%) say they pray on at least a daily basis and nearly nine-in-ten (88%) indicate they are absolutely certain that God exists. On each of these measures, African-Americans stand out as the most religiously committed racial or ethnic group in the nation. Even those African-Americans who are unaffiliated with any religious group pray nearly as often as the overall population of mainline Protestants (48% of unaffiliated African-Americans pray daily vs. 53% of all mainline Protestants). And unaffiliated African-Americans are about as likely to believe in God with absolute certainty (70%) as are mainline Protestants (73%) and Catholics (72%) overall.

These are daunting numbers, particularly after taking into account statistically lower high school graduation and college enrollment rates among African-Americans. It is likely that the main reason college non-theist groups are having trouble recruiting black atheists is that there simply aren’t very many – and probably even fewer willing to admit it.

That being said, we still have to face the original issue: after recognizing the immense social pressure black atheists face, what can we do to attract the ones that are on our campuses?

I argue that the method for attracting black students is no different than the method for attracting members in general. First and foremost, seek to develop a strong sense of real fellowship. As atheists of any race or gender, we are actively discriminated against and ought to be able to find comfort in the new friendships we make. Embrace a wide spectrum of viewpoints and perspectives. It naturally follows that the groups events will remain fresh and relevant, and membership will increase. It’s all about community: if you build it, they will come.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://twitter.com/butterflyfish_ Heidi McClure

    Rapper Greydon Square would be a great guy to have perform and/or speak at any function trying to promote diversity in the atheist community. He’s a powerful lyricist. Nothing but praise for this guy. http://www.facebook.com/greydonsquare

  • http://cousinavi.wordpress.com cousinavi

    Why does ATHEISM need to attract any (insert identifiable demographic here)?

    Atheism is not a pitch to be marketed to specific demographic elements by altering the message.  It is a position to which thinking people come regardless of gender, race, religious background, height, weight or any other characteristic.  It need not be SOLD, it only needs remain what it has always been:  Honest.

    If you build it, they will come. 
    Patience is not merely a virtue, it is totally on our side.

    • http://www.daylightatheism.org Adam Lee

      “Why does ATHEISM need to attract any (insert identifiable demographic here)?”

      Atheism should attract everyone. If it doesn’t work that way – if our message consistently fails to reach people of a particular race, gender or ethnic group – then it’s worth asking if we’re doing something wrong, if something about our message should be tailored to speak to concerns that tend to be specific to people who belong to those groups.

      “It is a position to which thinking people come regardless of gender, race, religious background, height, weight or any other characteristic. ”

      In an ideal world, that would certainly be true. Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked that way in practice: the secular community tends to be white, male, and upper middle class. Some of us want to do something about that, both because our message has benefits for other groups of people as well, if we can reach them, and also because it makes us more numerous and effective to have more people on our side.

      • http://cousinavi.wordpress.com cousinavi

        You don’t draw them – whoever they are -  by altering the message.  The message IS THE MESSAGE.
        You draw them by addressing the various factors that stand in the way of them hearing the message.
        It is not a failure of content or delivery.  It is a failure of reception…and there are many reasons for that.  But mucking about with the message is the wrong approach.
        There is no legitimate way to make the concept of godlessness more black, more gay, more paraplegic, more blind, more deaf or more any other thing.  So long as priests keep showing up at the doors of disabled people with a hot meal, Jesus will have a receptive audience.

        F**k.  Strikes me I might be wrong.
        I bet the bible is far more heavily translated into Braille than The God Delusion.

        Still…I stand on principle.

        • http://www.facebook.com/ajspringer1 Anthony Springer Jr.

          I respectfully disagree with your position. However, given that you look like a member of the majority, I understand where your comment about not needing to alter the message is coming from. Likely because you tend to be in a room with people who look like you. 

          For us (yes, I’m black and atheist), it’s not quite that simple. You read the stats in the blog. Sometimes, we need to see some people who look like us, who have traveled the road we’ve traveled–or are currently traveling. African-Americans need MORE of a support system than others tend to when we come out because, well, there aren’t a lot of us out there. 

          Keep in mind, faith–or the lack of–is but one aspect of a person’s identity. And for far too many of us, the risk of total alienation from the community is a feared outcome. 

          So yes, if you don’t think that the message needs to change, that people should oh so cavalierly give up their ENTIRE social structure… I’m sorry, but that goes against all reason and logic. 

          • http://cousinavi.wordpress.com cousinavi

            While granting the depth of African American social cohesion centered around religious faith (at least historically…not sure it still applies), I’m not convinced that anyone else suffers any less when breaking with their faith community.
            I can tell you that for a Jew, it ain’t no picnic.  I have ex-Mormon friends who suffered far greater pains than I. 
            I might be wrong, but when it comes to matters of what I consider to be pure philosophy (theology a subset thereof), what one LOOKS like pales next to what one THINKS like.
            I submit that there is a fair distinction to be drawn between fear of coming out as an atheist as regards loss of social cohesion (which applies to everyone) and fear of joining a group because there aren’t many in the group who resemble you. 
            I also contend that in the atheist community – from this side looking back (as opposed to from that side looking in) – what one looks like carries no weight [except, of course, where Hemant is concerned - that fucker is preternaturally handsome].  Perhaps it does from over there…but that does not seem to me sufficient justification to recast the platform.
            I further submit that altering the message in order to draw any particular demographic segment is an error.  They will either come when they are ready or they will opt for social cohesion, as so many Mormons who KNOW it’s all bullshit choose to do rather be shunned.

            Of course, I could be wrong.  No one ever wrote a book titled “WHITE Like Me”, did they?

          • Kay Abshire

            I agree with you and think your reply is spot on and wonderfully put. We like being among groups that look like us.

            When in the majority, it is easy to ignore privilege, it is easy to ignore that people of different demographics experience society differently. Those perspective can give us insights we (myself, being white) might not otherwise have.

            The issue comes not just from the color of one’s skin, or the bits between our legs, but the *culture* that forms around those identifiers. We need to understand the cultural differences that result, and that includes the religious factor of those cultures.

            To cousinavi, you are right that the message is the message. But how we portray that message (not referring to tone), and how accessible we make that message to non-white, able-bodied men affects how much support the secular movement will have. Showing that secularism is good thing regardless of demographics allows us to open up a wider pool of possible supporters. Like Jen McCreight said at the conference, why should we not utilize *all* of our possible resources? Which includes non-white, handicapable, non-male, and a whole slew of other identifiers, and bringing them to the table.

          • Kat Parks

            My husband is not too sure of my renewed faith in Humanism, and it’s brother, Atheism. As it was, he’d walked away from being one of the few Black LDS members, but trying to get him to take the step to completely saying he doesn’t believe in any god, is pretty difficult. He fears that attending Atheist or Humanist functions would be too much like going to the LDS Stake or a church, and that it would compromise of people all bashing religions of all types instead of the “can’t we just all get along” attitude he’d prefer. We also are not really ones to want to wake up before 11 am on weekends, so morning meetings are difficult. LOL

            He isn’t worried about not seeing others like him, because most people don’t even realize he’s black, unless they really look past the lack of melanin to see his facial features and tightly curled hair. (Albinism has a few small advantages)

            It could be not the lack of minorities already there, but the worries that it could be “preachy” or only spent bashing organized religions and anyone who believes in them, that keeps some people away from attending.

            I was raised to look at every person as an individual, and a need to understand them as an individual, before deciding whether I would like them or avoid them. For this to be taught to a kid in a town that was 99% WASP wasn’t easy, but once I moved out into the real world, I found that I craved diversity, and love meeting people from all walks of life. (I was also raised by an Atheist who firmly believed in letting her kids make their own decisions regarding religion, exploring friend’s churches, etc.)

        • Old and Still Learning

          Thank you for illustrating what the article is truly about. I’m only 70yrs-old but i had made an assumption that progressives were “Progressive.” And since in our society “None” is considered progressive, i connected the two. I appreciate you erudite display that “Nones/non-believers/skeptics, etc.” have the maladies of the mainstream. Is there any “Bigot-Free” sites of “Nones?” Movements have to keep backing up and re-addressing the “white” issues and like the building of the country could not be done w/just white folks.

          To reach out to specific groups “should” add to the discussion, not be a stumbling block of someone from the dominant culture feeling they are no longer the center of all focus.

          I had never even given the thought of a bigoted None! It seemed to me that some basic decency was included in the brand of a None. I was wrong. Thank you “Cousinavi!”

  • Anonymous

    I know what the atheist movement could do to guarantee more folks like ME to sign up:

    Do something about the people  who know nothing about black people, and who talk of us as if we’re in the abstract rather than as actual physical beings.  I’m talking about how I used to visit a certain popular atheist forum (*Internet Infidels* <– cough cough) on a regular basis, and I always saw these libertarian types arguing against Affirmative Action and ask WHY, OH, WHY do blacks always vote "Democrat?"  I mean, really?  And they also asserted stupid shit like we only vote for black candidates — we're racist!  I couldn't take it anymore after some conservative asked matter-of-factly whether, if Obama lost the election (this was September 2008), whether black people would riot.  When I tried to argue that what he said was racist, he became a condescending asshole, and none of the mods did anything about it, so I said to myself, "fuck this! I'm done with this stupid site."  Haven't been back since, and I'm better off.

    Also, quite a few black people, from what I can tell on the Internet blogs I've visited on sites like Racialicious, who identify as "secular" or "non-religious," want nothing to do with capital-A Atheism because they think atheism is too white-dominated and it only concerns itself with bashing religion rather than understanding why things are the way they are, and they're also bugged by atheism joining the right-wing Bash Islam bandwagon, because they see a lot of racists simply taking it as an opportunity to say derogatory shit about Arabs and other Asians.  I'm black and American-born, but my family's Nigerian, so perhaps my perspective is suspect, but it's more than obvious that black Americans rely on the Church because it was one of the few institutions in society that they could own and utilize to the utmost with minimal interference from Jim Crow or other white racist structures.  Martin Luther King, Jr. and many other activists past and present were and are of the Church, so black atheists have a long fight ahead of them to lessen Christianity's influence.

    So I guess, just guarantee that when a black person shows up to a conference, the other non-blacks will defend them against racist shit someone says  or does instead of expecting him or her to argue "logically" or some other bullshit against the racist, and convince them you have something constructive to argue against Islam, because many in the black diaspora are Muslim, too, and you'll see more folks show up.  Right now, no matter how reasonable atheism is, too much of it looks like it's truly for privileged, overachieving white kids, (much like what black women complain about mainstream feminism, by the way — I'm also a feminist), considering the other thread posted yesterday where another one of your ISSA members tried to defend the bullshit Draw Muhammad Day, and acted, surprised, SURPRISED(!!), when the Interfaith Muslims (and Christians, too, likely) declared they didn't approve.

    I don't come out because I'm shy, I live with my Seventh-Day Adventist mother who knows I'm an atheist, and is VERY unhappy about it (she's constantly trying to drag me back to church, but I won’t bite), I’m unemployed, and I lack my own car, which is a very sad thing to lack when you live in suburban Atlanta.  But all what I’ve said likely has some truth with many.

    • Derek

      Thanks for your comment! I agree with a lot of what you have to say and I appreciate your perspective.

      I too find the belligerently hateful attitudes held towards Islam to be highly troubling. The distinction I would draw between right-wing bigots and members of ISSA is one of intent. Whereas the former is motivated by ignorance and xenophobia, the latter is inspired by the promotion of rational thought.

      I refuse to give Islam a break in some misguided attempt to be politically correct. The Koran is just as fundamentally unjust as the Bible, and is currently being used as the justification for crimes against humanity all over the world. Between holy war, genital mutilation, and public stoning, I see no reason to approach Islam with kid gloves. The fact that another group of people agrees with me for the wrong reasons doesn’t make my position any less truthful or relevant.

      As for Draw Muhammad Day – this was something that I would consider an essential exercise of free speech. Why would we allow ourselves to be threatened by violence into respecting the laws of any particular religion?

      Also, you should know that this event actually brought us closer to the main Muslim group on campus. In the past year we have co-hosted a number of successful events with the Muslim Student Alliance and made many new friends. You might consider reading this blog post about a meeting where we invited a number of Muslim students to attend and talk about their beliefs with us.

      http://www.illinissa.com/2010/11/shout-out-to-msa.html

      Again, thanks for reading and I very much valued your input.

  • Anonymous

    I argue that the method for attracting black students is no different than the method for attracting members in general. First and foremost, seek to develop a strong sense of real fellowship

    Why not title this entry what it really is ?  Something like “How to Spread Evangelical/Militant Atheism Among the Blacks Community”.

    The first obstacle you would have to overcome is replacing the belief system that, they think, has gotten them by just fine thus far with a superior model.  Might I suggest something a little better than what amounts to “Embrace Nihilism” nonsense? Thats just not going to win over anyone people.  Just a thought.  

    • Derek

      Just curious: how did you manage to make the jump from “develop a strong sense of real fellowship” to “spreading ‘militant’ atheism?”

      • Charon

        Presumably because JDCurtis has no sense of logic or reality. It’s pretty easy to link things in that case.Eating squid with cheese is like making a party hat out of W-bosons. It’s all about embracing nihilism.See, fun!

  • Anonymous

    I argue that the method for attracting black students is no different than the method for attracting members in general. First and foremost, seek to develop a strong sense of real fellowship

    Why not title this entry what it really is ?  Something like “How to Spread Evangelical/Militant Atheism Among the Blacks Community”.

    The first obstacle you would have to overcome is replacing the belief system that, they think, has gotten them by just fine thus far with a superior model.  Might I suggest something a little better than what amounts to “Embrace Nihilism” nonsense? Thats just not going to win over anyone people.  Just a thought.  

  • guest

    Each population is distinct and people within each population are distinct.  Feeling comfortable as an atheist for those living in the south is going to require something different than for those living in the west.  I understand the attempt to be culturally relevant and here is some great marketing advice from Guion, Kent and Diehl: “There are four common errors of conventional marketing:
    Lumping all the members of your target audience into an undifferentiated mass of people.Addressing all the members of your target audience with a general marketing approach.Considering diversity as a matter of image building by adopting symbolic minority representation in your marketing campaigns or by merely translating your message into different languages.Interpreting diversity through the lens of charity to be offered to others.
    There are five keys to successful ethnic marketing:
    Value the cultural uniqueness of your target group.Value cooperation and bridge-building with community leaders and other organizations working within the community.Value the cultural beliefs, symbols, and practices of your target group.Value differences in languages, accents, practices, and social conduct.Value word-of-mouth and interpersonal communication to spread your message.”

  • guest

    Each population is distinct and people within each population are distinct.  Feeling comfortable as an atheist for those living in the south is going to require something different than for those living in the west.  I understand the attempt to be culturally relevant and here is some great marketing advice from Guion, Kent and Diehl: “There are four common errors of conventional marketing:
    Lumping all the members of your target audience into an undifferentiated mass of people.Addressing all the members of your target audience with a general marketing approach.Considering diversity as a matter of image building by adopting symbolic minority representation in your marketing campaigns or by merely translating your message into different languages.Interpreting diversity through the lens of charity to be offered to others.
    There are five keys to successful ethnic marketing:
    Value the cultural uniqueness of your target group.Value cooperation and bridge-building with community leaders and other organizations working within the community.Value the cultural beliefs, symbols, and practices of your target group.Value differences in languages, accents, practices, and social conduct.Value word-of-mouth and interpersonal communication to spread your message.”

  • http://twitter.com/RobinMarie1789 Robin Marie

    Atheism won’t magically increase in relevance to African-Americans until it relates to the rest of their lives. Jamilia Bey was talking about this on the diversity panel at TAM; it is not only social pressure that prevents atheism in black communities, but the fact that historically,  black churches are one of the few reliable social institutions that black communities can use to muster social support and often political protest as well. Black churches are often not just about religion, but about entire communities.

    I think this is what golby260 was getting at as well. Until atheism generates  a good track record of grasping the reality of racial and class oppression I don’t think the rates of black atheists will grow any faster than they naturally would as the numbers in general increase. That doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree on every policy question, but racism is as much a social fact today as it was 50 years ago, and if skeptics want to think of themselves as reality based, they can’t get away with making ignorant statements or holding unsubstantiated opinions or arguing that racism is not an issue that skepticism should “take on.”

    As Greta Christina and Bey were arguing, if you expand where we apply skepticism (or atheism, I would think) it suddenly becomes a lot more relevant to a lot more people. I would make the argument, for example, that while black churches have done wonderful and amazing things — especially in galvanizing and organizing the vast majority of the early Civil Rights Movement — they can also discourage political activism by allowing people to simply put their trust in God or turn to God when faced with oppression because God “will look out for us.” As Marx said, religion is the opiate of the masses — take atheism and turn it towards a analysis of religion as a tool of class & racial oppression, and it immediately becomes more relevant to communities dealing with such things (which includes more, of course, than just African-Americans).

    • Derek

      I think that atheism is intrinsically relevant to the interests of minorities. Once you disregard a permanent fantasy life in heaven, improving life here and now becomes the number one priority. In that sense, I agree with you completely. 

  • Reginald Selkirk

    The fact of the matter is there isn’t any specific thing a group can do
    to attract black members – much like there isn’t any one thing that
    would attract Latinos, Asians, or females.

    Except of course ponies. Because females love the shit out of ponies.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1340029259 Iman Khan

      The only things ponies are good for is towing coal carts in cramped industrial revolution era mine-shafts and for dog food.

  • http://twitter.com/Jalyth JT the Girl

    This question always makes me laugh. *I might be a jerk* I make black friends the same as I make friends of any ethnicity. I go up to them and say hi. Maybe once I become more of an attendee, I can bring them along. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1340029259 Iman Khan

    Yo dawg yo rite it ain’t da message its how ya sell it fo sho. Slap dese babies up in da ghetto and yo athiest bible be flyin’ off da shelves:
    http://img707.imageshack.us/img707/6526/blingdarwin.png

    • http://twitter.com/TominousTone Tom Lawson

      Dr. Bill Cosby, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you, Dr. Cosby.

  • Charles Black

    This proves what Karl Marx said about religion being a cultural phenemon driven by inequality & poverty by the capitalist system. “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed
    creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.
    It is the opium of the people.”
    If we want black people to join the non-religious movement we need to make more effort to remove inequality between people in general.

  • Charles Black

    This proves what Karl Marx said about religion being a cultural phenemon driven by inequality & poverty by the capitalist system. “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed
    creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.
    It is the opium of the people.”
    If we want black people to join the non-religious movement we need to make more effort to remove inequality between people in general.

  • http://twitter.com/Crommunist Crommunist

    Here’s a sure-fire way NOT to get black atheists to come to events, or to get black theists to consider the message of the atheist movement: continue to ignore them when they tell you exactly what is needed. Seriously, the ignorance of both this post and the comments is shocking.

    The “one size will fit all” approach is short-sighted, evidence-free, and frankly quite stupid. Different communities not only face different challenges, but have different ways of seeing the world. Until you actually start asking black theists and former theists about their stance (and actually LISTENING would be a refreshing change), you’ll only ever be able to see the issue from your own perspective. This is how privilege works. 

  • http://twitter.com/crankyhumanist Cranky Humanist

    One great place to find black atheists? Twitter! There are lots of out and proud black atheists sharing their stories and thoughts.

  • Eprupar

    “These are daunting numbers, particularly after taking into account
    statistically lower high school graduation and college enrollment rates
    among African-Americans. It is likely that the main reason college
    non-theist groups are having trouble recruiting black atheists is that
    there simply aren’t very many – and probably even fewer willing to admit
    it. ” – Does this quote not bother anyone else?  I find this to be quite racist and a superbly strong generalization.  Please give factual statistics if you are going to say that African-Americans are less likely to graduate high school and enroll in college.  Also, whose numbers are you comparing them to that you say they are “lower” than? Whites?

    In every way our speech and thoughts are shaped by our experiences and the people we surround ourselves with.  One of my favorite quotes from Mark Twain is, “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be obtained by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”  This doesn’t mean you have to travel the world to open yourself up to people of different cultures, but to get a wholesome view you have to eliminate everything you have been indoctrinated with.  Some things, even simple phrases like saying, “I’ve been gypped” is a racial slur but it is a common saying.

    To start accepting people of different races and ethnicity we have to destroy the idea that there ARE races and ethnicity. We are all just human beings and that is how everyone should be treated.

  • http://www.amightyriver.com African American jobs

    I think the author hit the nail on the head when they identified just how strong a disincentive it is for black americans to be openly atheistic. Religion, or at least religious communities, is a huge part of how they connect to their communities, families, and cultural identity. You take that away, and not only are they distanced from mainstream America by being black, but are distanced from their own communities — atheists would be all they had. If the atheists they have available to them are unpalatable for one reason or another, it makes the idea of being an “active” atheist that much more unattractive.

  • http://www.amightyriver.com African American jobs

    I think the author hit the nail on the head when they identified just how strong a disincentive it is for black americans to be openly atheistic. Religion, or at least religious communities, is a huge part of how they connect to their communities, families, and cultural identity. You take that away, and not only are they distanced from mainstream America by being black, but are distanced from their own communities — atheists would be all they had. If the atheists they have available to them are unpalatable for one reason or another, it makes the idea of being an “active” atheist that much more unattractive.


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