For Black People, the Church Is More Than Just Religion

One more perspective on the issue of getting more African-Americans involved in organized atheism, this one coming from Al Denelsbeck at Walkabout:

Rap, R&B, Gospel, and Soul music are predominantly black. It’s safe to say that this is not from whites being excluded, but instead from a cultural (or subcultural if you prefer) influence. We all may identify better with a particular style of music, choice of car, choice of pet, vacation destination — whatever. We’re not excluded from the others, we just happen to prefer our choices. Bars, restaurants, and even local theaters may have a collection of “regulars,” which doesn’t mean that either the venue or the patrons exclude anyone else, but simply that the regulars are most comfortable in that environment.

The poll [US Religious Landscape Survey] actually demonstrates this, too; it’s rather disturbing that many people never got down to this portion. When broken up, the numbers of black churchgoers is incredibly biased towards “historic black protestant churches,” even over “mainline protestant” and “evangelical protestant.” But this is no surprise — protestantism, especially southern baptism, was the first to become open to blacks following emancipation, and churches are, if nothing else, a community affair, relying heavily on tradition. Catholicism was very slow to open up to blacks, and upholds its strong roots to Europe — I’m also not making anybody’s eyebrows shoot up in shock when I point out that the Italian population, not just in this country, favors catholicism to a significant margin. We have to consider the idea that churchgoing is as much a black cultural thing as R&B music. Hell, we already know that the social interactions and status that churchgoing provides is one of the anchors of resistance to secular appeals.

There’s a principle here that applies to other groups as well (including women). When the church provides people with a community, a sense of belonging, and support no matter what problems you’re dealing with in your life, our logic alone isn’t going to get them to leave the faith. We’re doing ourselves a disservice if we assume people belong to a church only because of their stance on god.

Unless we can start offering secular alternatives for so many of the important things churches provide, we’re never going to be able to reach these populations.

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.

  • Anonymous

    Having seen the mission churches in Africa use the sense of belonging and status to attract people, and bolster the egos of local dignitaries, I can quite understand where you’re coming from. The Catholic church may have made the mistake of shunning blacks in America, but they are making up for lost ground in Africa, the drive to convert is frightening.

    • Anonymous

      The crises in Africa and the RCC’s responce is quite frightening, especially the AIDS crisis and the RCC’s insistence on perpetuating their own destructive myths against condoms.

  • Anonymous

    My husband was lucky. He grew up in a very liberal Episcopal church. When his father died, the church was there. A few years later, their house burned down and the church was there.

    Although we are both Atheists, he has often said that he misses that community connection. We need to figure out a way to provide that in a secular way.

  • Michael Sizer

    I agree that religion provides many things including community, but it is I no way exclusive nor even sided toward black people. Religion is a facilitator of social cohesion, and it does that for Jews, Sikhs & pretty much everywhere religion thrives (most places in the world).

  • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

    I see two possibilities (that are not mutually exclusive) 

    1.  Change from within.  Change the “Black church” from the inside by having them de-emphasize the religious element.  Slowly turn them into a mainly secular social group with a religious past and history.  We need a few courageous Black ministers analogous to John Shelby Spong  to start this transition. 

    2.  Competition.  Compete with the “Black church” by providing alternative groups that provide the social aspects that people like and rely upon.  Perhaps a Black version of the UU.

    • AJ Bennett

      Wouldn’t the UU be the black version of the UU? :P

  • spink

    bingo.  to me that’s the trickiest thing about leaving religion; it’s my culture, too (and I’m a Scandinavian Lutheran) 

  • TychaBrahe

    What exactly are your intentions when you say we want to “reach these people?”

    Is the goal to get Blacks who are freethinkers and skeptics to realize that atheism exists, that they are not alone, and that there is a social community that accepts them and will provide a lot of the interpersonal activities that religion provides?  

    Is your goal to make atheism a political force, so that politicians stop coddling those who want to impose their religion upon us?  Is it so that religious leaders don’t put prayer and creationism in the classroom, don’t block gay marriage rights, don’t outlaw abortion and birth control, and don’t try to co-opt the Constitution, stop trying to make homosexuality a capital crime in Africa, stop preventing anti-bullying laws?

    I support both of these goals.

    But if your goal is to convert Blacks away from their religions simply because you believe it’s better to be an atheist, I don’t support that.  I don’t care what people believe as long as they keep it personal.  Millions of people manage to believe in God while supporting religion-free science education, religion-free governance, and tolerance of those who are different.  I even support Fred Phelps’s right to believe that homosexuality is causing all the trouble in the world, so long as he stays in Westboro and believes it in the privacy of his own church.

    • http://profiles.google.com/tasuret Joseph Bozeman

      It looks to me that those first two goals are consistent with Hemant’s usual stance. I don’t think Hemant (or many other New Atheists) are actively “converting” people. Most of our campaigns lately have been to reach out to young (or old, ostensibly) atheists who don’t know that they can hold a position other than a religious one.

    • Anonymous

      My impression has been that the goal is to make atheism more welcoming and appealing, both to people who are already irreligious and to people who are on the fence and trying to expand their horizons by looking at different worldviews.

      That said, I’m always baffled by people’s resistance to the idea of “converting” others. Sure, people have the right to believe anything, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to change their minds. Saying “I don’t want people to convert others through coercion” is reasonable. Saying “I don’t want people to persuade others that atheism is correct, by any means whatsoever” seems silly. Why would this sort of “conversion” be any more intolerant than trying to convince people of other facts about the world (say, that global warming is really happening)?

    • Anonymous

      I also find this position a bit strange, even though it’s very common. It seems to be conflating the fact that someone should have a right to believe whatever they want with the idea that they should believe in whatever. Religion, especially Abrahamic religion, is harmful and regressive. It’s divisive and waste of human endeavour. I don’t want our society to value it in any way. I don’t want parents indoctrinating their children into it. But since it would be wrong to use coercion, we must use persuasion to change things.

  • Anonymous

    Like I mentioned in the original post, I think that giving people in black communities nonreligious options for social support and making the current atheist community more welcoming to black nonbelievers are both worthwhile goals, but they should be recognized as mostly separate problems.

    Certainly we should make the community more welcoming. I would suggest starting by having race-related posts that aren’t about getting more minority members. I could rant for some time about how absolutely unscientific the general conception of “race” is, and how ignorance of this can and does lead to “scientific racism” (the very term makes me ill).

    However even if we make the community just as welcoming and comfortable for PoC as it already is for LGBT folks (and I hope we do), you will still have to address the fact that you are leaving PoC with doubts in an atmosphere that makes leaving religion a very grim prospect indeed, since it leads in many cases to the loss of more than just your supernatural beliefs. Local level skeptic groups need to be formed within the black community and if, as will often be the case at first, they are small and initially unstable, they should be given as much support as possible by larger organizations. Humans are not beings of pure logic, and the services (many authentically very good) churches provide especially in poor black communities and the social anchor they constitute keep people in the religion they promote. The closer in you are, the less likely you are to question the beliefs, and the more you depend on the religious community for all aspects of your life, the closer in you’re going to be. That cycle needs to be broken so that transitioning into  skeptical worldview is not an unfairly steep climb for certain people.

  • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

    I understand this to some extent. At another level, I’m always shocked and appalled at how many blacks in the US are involved in the Southern Baptist church (although to be clear many are parts of other baptist groups like the National Baptist Convention). This is a denomination that literally was founded because they believed they had a divine right/obligation to keep slaves. While a lot of protestant denominations schismed right before or at the beginning of the Civil War, the Southern Baptists are the only one which stuck around after the war, so devoted to their beliefs that they didn’t reconcile with their Northern believers. There’s an argument that this was due in part to other doctrinal differences which contributed to the split, but the basic primary issue pretty clearly was slaverly. I don’t understand how anyone who is black could could be a member. Sometimes I wonder if it is simply not knowing much about the history of their religion. 

    It may be that a lot of these individuals simply don’t know much about the history of their church. The same Pew study which atheists love to talk about showing how atheists and agnostics have the highest overall religious knowledge levels also showed that black evangelicals have one of the lowest http://pewforum.org/other-beliefs-and-practices/u-s-religious-knowledge-survey.aspx . In fact, while they perform about as well as a lot of other groups when restricted to questions about the Bible, their knowledge base is one of the lowest of any group when one looks at questions relating religion to public life (that is, primarily stuff related to the First Amendment). It may be that this lack of knowledge translates into more willingness to be involved with the Southern Baptists. There’s also a correlation v. causation issue. Obviously not all evangelical blacks are Southern Baptists, but a sizable fraction are. I’m not completely sure what the underlying causal direction is here, but there’s a definite tradition in the evangelical black community of valuing charisma and the claimed spirit of God touching people over education and intelligence when it comes to selecting religious leaders, and that may have some impact. So, there’s a possibility that the lack of knowledge is a consequence of the religious traditions. (One could make an argument that this issue is due to secondary causes like disparate income levels but I don’t think this is likely to be the underlying cause given that this is primarily about religious knowledge levels.)

    This entire narrative may also be missing a more serious issue: Many blacks joined the Southern Baptist convention right after the Civil War. At that time, blacks had to have been aware of the original formative cause. So it may well be that although the initial founding was over slavery, they saw it as a primarily geographic issue. And  black baptists in the south had more theological similarity with white baptists in some respects. If that’s the root cause, then this analysis is sort of besides the point. 

    • Erp

       I don’t think many Blacks joined the churches that belonged to the Southern Baptist convention right after the war or even until post the 1960s despite what the article implies.  They joined (or more likely formed) churches that were southern and baptist but not Southern Baptist Convention.   The traditionally Black churches are AME (African Methodist Episcopal) and AME Zion sprung from Methodist churches due to segregation in the early 1800s  and various Baptist churches that generally joined the National Baptist Convention.    Note that individual Baptist churches stand or fall on their own and it is not uncommon for an individual church to leave one convention and join another or even be independent; this is in contrast to the Catholic church and some other denominations where the churches belong to the denomination (the people can leave but an individual church cannot).

    • http://wading-in.net/walkabout Just Al

      I think most people aren’t very aware of the history of their particular sects, to be honest. It’s certainly not something that the churches themselves do any sermons about. And since it’s hard enough getting evolution taught in the schools because of the religious hand-wringing, I imagine teaching the unsavory history of the local churches would be pretty hard too ;-)

      That said, the black southern baptist churches might be considered distinct from this history solely on the basis of being black. As the churches began to spring up during emancipation, there almost certainly wasn’t much knowledge of  the variations available throughout the world – “religion” probably revolved around what was practiced locally, so the black churches were simply a variant of that, and most likely remained through inertia and tradition (a ridiculously powerful word.) I’m not up on my history enough to know how often there were separate religious services, for instance among the larger plantations, before emancipation, through the permission or even insistence of the slaveowners, but this is potentially a factor as well.

  • Revyloution

    I see it as more of a need to get people to rethink what culture is.  The idea that there is a place where people of darker complexion feel more welcome than others is the entire crux of the problem.

    My culture is no more ‘mine’ than my language.  You can be in possession of multiple cultures, just as you can have many languages.   The more cultures you familiarize yourself with, the easier it is to communicate with people.  Because that is what culture is,  just a depth of communication.  

    We need to teach people that culture is just a tool, not an identity.  The more cultures you assimilate into, the more opportunities and happiness you will find.

  • http://antigold.myopenid.com/ Jude

    Again, why do we need them to leave?  Why do we need to reach out?  I just don’t get it.  The only reason I went to church (when I went) was to sing.   Every time you guys talk about “the atheist movement” and how it can attract more women or blacks or whomever, I just don’t care.  I can see why you like community, but I get plenty of community interactions from the Internet.  Leave proselytism to the Christians, the Communists, and the Tea Party.

    • http://profiles.google.com/jfinite Justin Bonaparte

      The internet may be enough for you, but there are others who are encouraged and appreciate seeing real, live humans once in a while. :)

    • Kris

      Sometimes closeted atheists need help.

    • http://twitter.com/Crommunist Crommunist

      Compressed Jude: “I don’t have a problem with this, therefore everyone else shouldn’t waste my valuable time caring!”

  • Anonymous

    If you stick with an organisation that has nice social benefits and are willing to put up with its mysogynist, anti-gay rhetoric then I am not sure you are the type of person I want to be associating with in the first place.

    There are many functions that churches serve that I would want to see secular versions of (charity drives, feeding the homeless etc.) but the social aspect is one that people should really be trying to arrange in their own community to remove themselves from the church’s reach.  If national atheist or secular groups want to help then great, but I don’t think they should be out there creating those groups in local communities as the danger of becoming, or being viewed as, a national political movement is too great.

    • Anonymous

      It’s not as simple as “I want these social benefits so screw the gays”. When your entire life revolves around a church community, you don’t see or here different views or lifestyles, which makes you much less likely to question some of the more unsavory beliefs of your religion(and lets remember that most churches don’t make sexism or homophobia centerpieces). Many former fundamentalists actually say that it wasn’t until they left their faith community (sometimes simply by moving to college or changing homes, without neccesarily losing faith) that they even started to question some of the beliefs they had held.

      Some people will end up drifting away from their religious community and/or questioning and leaving their faith on their own, but unless you increase the visibility and viability of other ways of living for people inside those churches, those options will remain abstract notions at best and simply beyond consideration at worst. Not out of some cynical weighing of social benefits, but because that atmosphere prevents questions from cropping up and flourishing in the first place.

      • Anonymous

        It’s not as simple as “I want these social benefits so screw the gays”.

        It is and it isn’t – it’s like those golf clubs that discriminate, people like what they’re getting so don’t give a second thought to those who are being actively discriminating against.

        So what we need is social pressure, and if people don’t want to leave the  social group because they like the benefits then it’s their choice, but we should give them the information rather than try to offer better/more social benefits.  We shouldn’t be bribing people to be rational, it is it’s own reward.

    • http://wading-in.net/walkabout Just Al

      I think it all depends on how you look at it, and most especially, how you define your goals. The Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders are in no danger of becoming political movements, or of even being viewed as such – they simply don’t parade their secularity (which is not particularly germane to their goals.)

      In the US at least, atheists and secularists are viewed negatively by a wide margin. A socially active cause is a method of changing this perception in a way that is extremely hard to argue against. I think the effort should be made to avoid trying to gain converts or instill viewpoints (like handing out atheist literature during a food drive,) but it is a method of demonstrating that churches do not have a monopoly on altruism, which is something that too few people understand.

      Additionally, it might start some competition from churches themselves to “one up” the atheists, which isn’t really a losing situation either, especially since this is one of the few good things they’re supposed to be involved with in the first place ;-)

      Making it a social event, singing and speakers and such, a substitute church? No, that’s the wrong direction I think, and of limited impact, reaching only a handful of people dissatisfied with their own church’s underlying theology, but not the social aspect. Those same people would be reached, and multitudes more, with a beneficial activity.

  • http://lovejoyfeminism.blogspot.com Libby Anne

    ” Unless we can start offering secular alternatives for so many of the
    important things churches provide, we’re never going to be able to reach
    these populations.”

    Please, can we? I want that so bad, so bad that we tried out a UU church just for the community, but when the pastor said she believed in tree fairies my husband couldn’t take it. I want that sense of community, just without all the superstition and religion!

    • Kate

      Try a different UU church.  Some are very secular/atheist-leaning. 

  • AndyTK

    Not having Atheist communities is hurting our ability to
    grow the number of Atheists in this country. 
    We should have a national Atheist group or groups trying to build these
    communities.  Such an organization can
    provide training for local Atheist congregation leaders, help and experience on
    how to setup and grow an Atheist congregation and even money to help start
    these communities.  Having these
    communities help in a number of ways:

    1)     
    For Atheists it provides a place to go and be
    able to express your views in a safe environment, a way to network with other
    Atheists for social and business reasons, provide a community that helps fellow
    members through tough times, a way to keep up on issues that concern Atheists
    both local and national, and a structured way to inoculate the children of
    Atheists against theism.

    2)     
    For Agnostics and those in doubt of their theism
    it provides an environment in which they are comfortable to be exposed to the arguments
    against the belief in the supernatural and an alternative to returning to
    Church to get the community they are missing.

    To me an Atheist congregation would be very much like a mainline
    protestant church in that there would be a leader that gives a sermon each week
    and provide consoling to the members during the week.  Sermons can be moral in nature, but could
    also be on other topics like science, personal finance, conflict resolution or
    whatever the congregation is interested in learning more about.  There should be singing as well as some kind
    of Atheist creed.  The congregation would
    organize fun activities like picnics and trips as well as fund raising and
    community outreach activities.

    The goal is to provide all of the benefits of Church, minus
    the supernatural and the ridged power structure.

  • Anonymous

    I find it interesting that people have this kind of perspective about their community churches.  Growing up in England the church was a place that organised a harvest festival collection at schools for charity.  Hardly anybody I knew actually went to church so it hardly counted as part of the community.  It was always something on the fringes that was a bit odd but available if you were that way inclined.  Despite spending several years on a very racially diverse city (Reading) religion just wasn’t an interesting discussion point.  People spoke more about sport (rugby, athletics or one of several marital arts were favourites) or different social groups (wargaming, computing, CB radio, etc but there were community groups for different ethnic groups too) but not about religion.  

    Religion was something personal for those who had it rather than part of the community.  I think that the difference between the US and the UK and other European nations with low religiosity is that of competition.  An established church like the Church of England hasn’t got much in the way of competition.  People grow indifferent to it when it doesn’t get attacked and doesn’t need defending rather than passionate about it.

    I think that one way to attract more freethinkers from under-represented groups isn’t to challenge their position but to cooperate with them in enhancing and building on local community projects that people are passionate about.  If a community has a problem with crime then join with churches to set up neighbourhood watch areas.  If it has a problem with poverty then join with churches to attract business or charitable funding or to stage an event to win support and funds.  If a community has a local celebrity then get them to endorse a cross faith endeavour of some kind that shows support for the community.  Work in local schools as volunteers or for out of school activities like camp, city farms, craft activities or science demonstrations.  Atheists, by being prominent in the community, are presented as a viable option alongside a church based faith.  It is more difficult to turn down help than it is to turn away competition.

  • http://wading-in.net/walkabout Just Al

    First off, a public “Thanks, dude!” to Hemant for the linkage. I meant to get here earlier but it’s been a busy day.

    Second, some people might find the discussion going on over at Richard Dawkins Foundation interesting – it involves the “We Are Atheists” campaign that Hemant posted about earlier, but more commenters there are questioning the goals (and the logo): http://richarddawkins.net/videos/642741-we-are-atheism-campaign

    I am personally in agreement with those who see don’t see atheism as a movement, and aren’t interested in converting others. I do approve of things like the billboard messages, which in essence say, “Hey, I’m your neighbor and an atheist and you didn’t even know it,” since this is a message to both “closet” atheists and religious alike.

    But I’m not too fond of building a community. First off, this seems far too much like replacing one religion with another, and that’s a much smaller goal than I think we should have – if there’s any atheist “movement” I could get behind, it’s simply the acceptance of atheism as a reasonable viewpoint, rather than the baby-eating demon-worshiping image far too many people still seem to have. This should not be within its own community, but throughout all cultures.

    “Community” also has a subtle aspect tagging along, an “outside” to go along with the “inside” – there are people, even though not excluded (or self-excluded) who are not part of the community. That is, in effect, a wall/separation/distinction that I don’t feel is necessary. I feel much the same way about the black community, which seems to perpetuate those distinctions that we tried so damn hard to get rid of. “Colored bathrooms” were terrible, but now we have black churches? How valid is this distinction? And I think we need to be very careful guessing about why this is, since I suspect many black people don’t know themselves, and sociologists could argue about it for years.

    Personally, I push critical thinking, and that’s not exactly community-oriented – the emphasis is on thinking for oneself, so it’s kind of antithetical. I don’t care what religion someone is – but I care if they try to affect someone else with it. That’s not really atheism, or anti-theism; it emphasizes individuality more than anything. “This is your choice, and that’s as far as it goes – everyone else has their own choice and you leave it alone.” Can you build a community with that? ;-) Regardless, I’d like to see this as a cultural (if not human) norm, transcending community.

  • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

    This “community” thing baffles me. It seems to be obvious to people who grew up in churches, but for those of us who didn’t, it’s rather confusing. I’m at a loss to understand what the church is providing that people can’t get from other places. What about friends and family members? What about other voluntary organizations? As Hoverfrog pointed out, there are countries with very low rates of church attendance. Those people are apparently not feeling a lack of community (and neither are lifelong atheists like myself), so what’s with the rest of American society? I can understand it if you’re raised in an insular religious subculture, or if you live in the Bible Belt, but otherwise I don’t quite get this need to replicate church communities.


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