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.