Does the Black Community Need God?

Usually, when a campus atheist group wants to hold a debate that’ll bring in a huge audience, it’ll revolve around the question, “Does God Exist?” That’s a time-tested topic about which everyone has an opinion and, if you’re going to go through all the work of setting up a big debate, you might as well do it on a topic you know is going to work.

It’s a testament to how much broader our movement that the Illini Secular Student Alliance can host a debate on the very specific topic of whether or not “the black community needs god,” get some heavy hitters (Bishop Carlton Pearson and Jamila Bey) to toss around the question, and know that a huge audience is going to want to see it:

Thanks to its pivotal role in the civil rights movement, it is commonly believed that the church is among the most crucial pillars of Black American Culture. Yet some would argue that the institution has outlived its utility, providing the same basic resources as your typical community center, but with the added baggage of outdated — even detrimental — social mores and perpetual tithing. Journalist and renowned African American atheist Jamila Bey is one such critic, having struggled since childhood with the conflict between her innate skepticism and the dogmatic assertions of preachers and clergymen. Carlton Pearson is a famed former evangelical minister and alumnus of Oral Roberts University who has for years sought to reconcile God’s Word with the social reality of our modern world. Join us as these two brazenly tackle the role of faith in Black American Culture, bringing rampant social stigmas to light and drawing from their unique experiences as noteworthy members of the black community.

The debate takes place next Thursday night (November 10th) and the winner will be Jamila Bey.

(Because I can predict the future like that.)

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.

  • Scotty

    Great idea for a forum indeed.  Wish I could get my wife to attend.  She has long been a closeted skeptic who is afraid of being shunned if she let it be known, unlike yours truly, who told those who shunned me to get lost……

  • Anonymous

    I would love to see such a forum at my school given that we have a 30% black student population. I doubt there would be much interest and much accomplished.
    I couldn’t even enjoy my Philosophy class in college due to my classmates, who were black (just like me), harping on the topic of whether or god exists and my classmates trying to proselytize to everyone.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_BWYTJU2N7NQRFXYX6AE5CR626M Benjamin

    Who cares?  Why is the question important?  Does the white “community” (oh, I know) need God?  
    It seems to me the black community likes the gospel style of religion as a general theme.  It’s almost of a Jewish, “let my people go” attitude.  Much like MLK. Jr. advocated.  Black people don’t need God any more than White people using God as a reason to oppress them.  Using God against each other is dumb.  

    Fuck….realize you are free and behave as such.  People caring about skin color is dumb.  Past offenses are to be acknowledged but aren’t a reason for oppression like Sharpton and Farrakhan advocate whether realizing it or not.

    • Anonymous

      It’s a valid question because for African Americans, church is much more about community and even identity than for whites. Some of them apparently question people’s very identity as blacks if they dare to leave

    • Beckyleah

      It is also a valid question because while you may not care about race and religion, other people do. If the first thing you are defined by when you leave the house every morning is your skin color, then it does matter and it is important to discuss so that more people can become like you and not “care” about skin color. It is also wrong when people tell others that a core part of their identity (race and ethnicity) does not matter. It does. (not saying that is what you are arguing, but wanted to point that out because I hear it often)

      A large portion of our population do make assumptions about people based on the color of their skin and that is not changing any time soon. One of the assumptions many make is that black people are automatically religious. Non-religious African-American deal with this prejudice fairly often. It’s an important topic.

  • Rieux

    As I’m sure Jamila knows better than I do, the church’s supposed “pivotal role in the civil rights movement” is significantly overblown. Like every other justice movement in American history, the Civil Rights movement was both run and fueled by a group of people who were, in demographic terms, significantly more secular/less religious than the American people at large were. And the opposition to Civil Rights, just like the opposition to all of those other justice movements, was more religious (and more Christian) than the American population at large.

    Susan Jacoby’s book “Freethinkers” is a good resource for information on this stuff, as is this Daily Kos comment by one “RandomActsOfReason”:

    Asa Philip Randolph, known as the “grandfather of the civil right movement”, founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the man who conceived of the March on Washington and was its director and one of its founding chairmen, where MLK gave his famous “I have a dream” speech, was an overt atheist.

    So was Bayard Rustin, the strategist and organizer of the March on Washington and its deputy director. Rustin, an openly gay atheist, was MLK’s closest advisor and mentor.

    So was James Farmer, founder of C.O.R.E and a founding chairman of the March.

    So was Walter Reuther, leader of the United Auto Workers and a founding chairman of the March.

    And Eugene Carson Blake, a founding chairman of the March.

    As was James Foreman, founder of SNCC, the Student non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

    Many of the young activists from the North were freethinkers whose liberal idealism was informed by Enlightenment values, not the church, such as Joan Mandle, now Executive Director of Democracy Matters, an atheist.

    Atheists were beaten and died in the South in this struggle as well, but their sacrifice is seldom noted, never in our children’s textbooks.

    Viola Gregg Luizzo, the only woman to be murdered for her participation in the civil rights movement, was targeted after her death by a horrible smear campaign orchestrated by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, seeking to portray her as a bad mother and a pychotic slut. Her real crime? She was a lapsed Catholic who joined the UUC and found her motivation for her civil rights activism in humanism, and, although not an atheist, spoke out frequently against the patriarchial oppression of the Church.

    MLK stood proudly shoulder to shoulder with his freethinking brothers and sisters, and his most famous speeches are utterly free of Christian references, and mostly free of religious ones for that matter.

    Civil rights was never presented by the actual activists (including my father), as a “Protestant” movement, and the African American intellectual movement of the time included many freethinkers and atheists such as W.E. B. DuBois, Langston Hughes and Freeman Douglass – and other leaders of the Harlem Renaissance such as Hubert H. Harrison, George Schuyler, and Chandler Owen. who cofounded The Messenger with Asa Philip Randolph.

    The woman’s suffrage movement was even more heavily laden, led and inspired by atheist thinkers, activists and leaders.

    Do you know who Ernestine L. Rose, Robert Dale Owen, Frances Wright, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were? Proud freethinkers all. Do you know their respective attitudes toward religion in general and Christianity in particular?

    Elizabeth Cady Stanton, founding mother of the women’s rights movement, is largely forgotten and ignored today. But in 1895, more than six thousand people packed into the Met in New York to honor her when she turned 80.

    Robert Owen, atheist, founder of the Smithsonian, was the first person in the United States to openly advocate birth control.

    Francis Wright, atheist, was an early agitator for labor reform and equal rights for women.

    Ernestine Rose has been virtually written out of the history books for the triple sin of being of Jewish descent, an emigre, and an atheist, yet her role in the abolitionist and suffrage movements is significant.

    Surely you know who Margeret Sanger is, and know about her struggles with the the Comstock laws? How about Emma Goldman? Both atheists.

    How about William Lloyd Garrison – are you familiar with his role in the abolition movement and his critical support for the suffrage movement? Lucrecia Mott the suffragette and Garrison the abolitionist were deeply religious, but also deeply anticlerical–and the focus of their critique was on the Church establishments for perpetuating and providing the ideological justifications for slavery and women’s subjugation. Garrison was excoriated throughout his life for being “antireligious”.

    How about Tom Paine? Eugene Debs? Clarence Darrow?

    Robert Nash Baldwin, founder of the ACLU?

    All atheists.

    Here is the historical truth:

    In every civil rights struggle in the history of our nation, freethinkers (atheists and agnostics) stood shoulder-to-shoulder with liberal theists, while, in every civil rights struggle in the history of our nation, organized churches stood against them. In fact, in the US, if anything, the opposition to progressive movements, and the leadership of oppressive regressive movements, have historically been “pretty solidly built on” Protestant and Catholic Christianity.

    And we haven’t even touched on Gandhi yet. Do you even know who Gora is? Goparaju Ramachandra Rao, aka Gora, was Gandhi’s closest confidant and adviser during the last four years of his life, and a key leader in the Indian independence movement. Along with his wife, Saraswathi Gora, they have continued his humanitarian work through their Atheist Center in Delhi. Gora, too, has been scrubbed from US textbooks and is never mentioned in US popular culture in association with Gandhi. He is well known and revered in India.

    Back at that link, I added the names of Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, secular Jews who, in the summer of 1964, were murdered in Mississippi while working as volunteer activists in the Civil Rights movement.

    The history of social justice in the United States consists, in large part, of atheists and other religious skeptics sitting out far ahead of American Christianity—but because no justice movement has ever been able to succeed without the consent of the privileged Christian majority, the entire exercise is reduced, every time, to the question whether we can carve off a large enough chunk of American Christians to counterbalance the bulk of their co-religionists who remain set in their slavery-supporting or misogynist or segregationist or homophobic ways.

    And so, inevitably, we’ve been forced to place the religious voices—the more prominent figures among the minority of Christians we’ve been able to pull into the justice camp—front-and-center, in the hope (sometimes successful) that they can drag their backward brethren into recognizing human rights. Obviously the bigoted Christian majority can’t possibly be expected to take seriously what some scummy infidel is saying, so the faces of the movement always have to be religious.

    Unfortunately, this means that decades or centuries later, Christianity claims all the credit for winning the struggle in the first place, even though in every instance the advocates of justice were extraordinarily secular and the opponents of it were extraordinarily Christian. It’s ludicrous.

    I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slave holding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.

     - Frederick Douglass

    • Dan

      I really enjoyed the comment you quoted, but I wish it wouldn’t have referred to Thomas Paine as an atheist, when he was really a deist. It really annoys me that a lot of us atheists try to claim Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine were atheists. They weren’t, and I hope we don’t try to twist history to make a point like so many Christians do.

      • Rieux

        Yes, you’re right. That was a mistake on Random’s part.

        • Anonymous

          what a great list, thanks fo much! 

          let’s call the founders “freethinkers” b/c that works well for deists and atheists alike. and “deism” isn’t what most people think it is. it’s much less religious than other forms of belief, practically bordering on atheism in the sense that it purports little about how we are to relate to the driving force behind life and existence. nor does it really articulate that force in a way most today would call ‘religious.’ 

          • Dan

            I would consider many of the founders freethinkers. But many deists back then were still very religious, the term is much closer to a-theism today than it was understood then. Many deists believed in an afterlife and a judgment for how they lived on earth, and some even believed in prayer (See Holmes’ book “Faiths of the Founding Fathers”). Most of the deists definitely used language just about everyone would call religious today. (Not to say that they would be religious if alive now, it seems pretty certain to me that with the knowledge we have now about cosmology and evolution that Jefferson and Paine, and people who thought like them, would probably be atheists)

  • Xeon2000

    It sounds like a very interesting topic. I hope it gets recorded. Black American culture has some unique challenges in the realm of religion. I think by acknowledging and talking about topics like this, we help create the awareness that is lacking and begin steps to building resources for people that need help.

  • Anonymous

    Many people here probably don’t recognize who Carlton Pearson is. He was featured on a whole one-hour episode of This American Life:
    http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/304/heretics

    It’s one of the most moving programs I’ve ever heard.  From the show’s description: 
    “Carlton Pearson’s church, Higher Dimensions, was once one of the biggest in the city, drawing crowds of 5,000 people every Sunday. But several years ago, scandal engulfed the reverend. He didn’t have an affair. He didn’t embezzle lots of money. His sin was something that to a lot of people is far worse: He stopped believing in Hell.”

    I like Jamila Bey, but I have to say that Carlton Pearson, unlike many preachers, is one of the good guys. I probably would politely disagree with him on the subject of this debate, but I’d first like to shake his hand.

    • Puhlease1

      Carlton was losing his belief in hell about the time I was losing my belief in the christian faith.  I was one of those ministers who loved his preaching, his music from Higher Dimensions, etc., and went to hear him preach numerous times. And when he lost his belief in hell – I cheered.  He was brave enough to stand up and say it, even at the loss of all the numbers in his church.  I’d like to shake his hand, too.

    • Edward Clint

      Hello Curt. I’m one of the organizers of the debate and let me say I entirely agree with you. Pearson has a big heart, bigger than accords with much of any of the strict dogmas out there.

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

    One civil rights hero that’s missing from that list up there is Julian Bond. Not sure if he’s an out atheist, but it’s difficult to think he’s a faithful Christian.

    Oh, and watch the parallels in this video. The LGBT movement and the atheist movement need to stick together. You could only imagine how difficult it is to be a GAYtheist in the black community…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X493qWjGHF0&feature=player_embedded

  • Anonymous

    I know, let’s worship the same God used to justify oppressing us only decades ago!

  • Anonymous

    I have a question for Mr Pearson. What is he doing to stomp out this abuse?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZI4fhKkbvDQ

  • Anonymous

    the black community most assuredly does not need gawd. indeed, what needs to happen is a bunch of closet case, hypocritical, thieving parasites who suck off the poor and oppressed in the name of jeebus get sent to prison for their many crimes against their “flocks.” there have been so many scandals in the black church over the last 20 years it’s hard to enumerate. pastors using church money to buy their mistress a home and fur coats, Pastor Spandex and his rent bois, violent rhetoric against gays that results in suicide and homelessness for gay church members. i pretty much despise the leadership of what constitutes the black church today, and much of that comes from meeting many of them in div school. resting on their laurels if they are old enough to claim civil rights era activism, fleecing the poor with “prosperity gospel” if they are rich… no, the black community in america would be much, much better off without “god.”

  • Darryl

    I hope they’re taping this for YouTube or Fora.tv

    • Edward Clint

      The event will be video recorded and made available on YouTube.


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