The African-American Unbelievers

The New York TimesEmily Brennan writes about a subject we can’t talk about enough in our community: the plight of African-American atheists (under the headline “The Unbelievers”). The story will appear in tomorrow’s print edition:

… [Ronnelle] Adams did not meet another black atheist in Washington until 2009, when he found the Facebook group called Black Atheists, which immediately struck a chord. “I felt like, ‘100 black atheists? Wow!’ ” he said.

In the two years since, Black Atheists has grown to 879 members from that initial 100, YouTube confessionals have attracted thousands, blogs like “Godless and Black” have gained followings, and hundreds more have joined Facebook groups like Black Atheist Alliance (524 members) to share their struggles with “coming out” about their atheism.

Though it’s fantastic to see this particular movement getting coverage, the article doesn’t really break any new ground. It restates what most of us already know:

  • An overwhelmingly majority of black people are religious.
  • Black atheists are a minority within a minority.
  • Communities for black atheists are growing.
  • It’s tough to be a black atheist.

The article doesn’t mention the way some black artists have used their musical talents to express atheism, the growing call from within for more diversity in our movement, or how the Harlem Renaissance was led by many black atheists.

Still, we don’t talk about this subject nearly enough and it’s great to see a prominent newspaper featuring the story.

And, damn, are the soundbytes compelling:

The pressure [blogger Wrath James White] feels to quiet his atheism is at the heart of a provocative statement he makes on his blog: “In most African-American communities, it is more acceptable to be a criminal who goes to church on Sunday, while selling drugs to kids all week, than to be an atheist who … contributes to society and supports his family.”

Over the phone, Mr. White said he does feel respected for his education and success, but because he cannot talk freely about his atheism, it ultimately excludes him. When he lived in Los Angeles, he watched gang members in their colors enter the church where they were welcomed to shout “Amen” (they had sinned but had been redeemed) along with everyone else.

“They were free to tell their story,” Mr. White said, while his story about leaving religion he keeps to himself — and the Internet.

As with so many of us, the Internet is one of the only safe havens for black atheists to talk about how they really feel. But the Internet havens will allow physical communities to form and grow, too, and that in-person connection may provide the impetus so many people need to come out to their friends and family.

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.

  • Glenn Meredith

    Smart people come in all shapes sizes and races.

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

    It’s not exactly clear what made President William McKinley release America’s first militant atheist, C.C. Moore, from prison, but he WAS petitioned by former Kentucky slaves to pardon Moore for being convicted of atheism rather than breaking any Kentucky laws. R.C.O. Benjamin, the man behind the petition, may not even have been a non-theist, but he and his audience knew too well what injustice looked like and would not stand for it. African-Americans of today, be they religious or non, appear to deserve the credit for Moore’s release, and black atheists can be proud about it on both accounts.

    http://www.goodreads.com/author_blog_posts/1738798-quick-excerpt-9

  • ctcss

    Ummm, Mr. White is wondering why gang members who are attending church get to tell their story in church to the church community? Is it, perhaps, because they are trying to connect or reconnect or seek forgiveness and support from the church community?

    Is Mr White bemoaning the fact that he (as a non-believer who has sincerely and thoughtfully arrived at his position of non-belief) no longer has a vested interest in the church community because of his reasons of non-belief? (Remember, he was commenting on gang members joining in fellowship within a church.) Is he somehow interested in rejoining that believing community as a non-believer? Isn’t that a bit like a Jew who has converted to Christianity wanting to rejoin his old synagogue as a Christian?

    Not being black, I can’t really know what he is experiencing. But if he is truly respected in the black community for his education and success, I can’t imagine that a insightful and non-combative ( i.e. friendly and respectful) opinion piece regarding how he thoughtfully arrived at his non-believing stance would be rejected if published in a black publication.

    People, in general, want to be accepted by others and dislike antagonism towards themselves or their personal beliefs. If Mr White keeps that in mind and expresses friendship and respect towards those in the black community who still cherish their religious beliefs, I can’t imagine him being attacked for his loving and honest approach. People can “agree to disagree” and remain on friendly terms.

    If a person chooses to act as a lightning rod, they should not complain when lightning strikes. But a lightning rod is not the only available model for behavior. People can also choose to be patient, loving, and respectful neighbors of one another and try to bring about peace. It really shouldn’t be that hard to understand.

    • Anonymous

      If Mr White keeps that in mind and expresses friendship and respect towards those in the black community who still cherish their religious beliefs, I can’t imagine him being attacked for his loving and honest approach. People can “agree to disagree” and remain on friendly terms.

      Having read the stories of several black atheists by now, the only word I can come up with for your imagining of the reception of atheism within the black community is “cute”.

      Many religious people, especially people for whom religion is very important (and that describes a lot of the black community) consider the very existence of atheists to be an “attack”. They react to someone openly saying they do not share god-belief as an affront and a lack of respect. If you are so bold as to argue your position or seek out like-minded nontheists, you will be accused of trying to “destroy Christianity”. In the black community “Christianity” and “the community” are often considered one and the same thing.

      African American atheists are estranged from their families for their nonbelief. Even those who aren’t often have to face exceptional tension at home. Black atheists are told they simply cannot be good unless they love God. Beyond that, because the church is the center of the black community, exclusion from the church (though voluntary) often means exclusion from the entire community. There’s not as much to fall back on for them.

      Of course, these experiences are not universal, and I’m sure there have to be a few black atheists who have had no trouble. But the notion that it’s unimaginable that black nonbelievers could suffer at the hands of their intolerant theist brethren, considering the readily available testimonies of black atheists themselves, is absurd.

      • ctcss

        My reply to Devious Soybeans apply should also apply to your post as well.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=553145445 Gordon Duffy

          it really doesnt

    • Devious Soybeans

      If Mr White keeps that in mind and expresses friendship and respect towards those in the black community who still cherish their religious beliefs, I can’t imagine him being attacked for his loving and honest approach. 

      You’re not very imaginative, then. Luckily you don’t have to rely on your stunted imagination — you could consult, say, the internet, for example. The links in this article might be a good start.

      • ctcss

        See my response below. Somehow it became a general post, not a reply to yours.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=553145445 Gordon Duffy

      he’s saying that they prefer a christian who harms their community to an atheist who supports it.

      that is messed up!

      • ctcss

        No, he is pointing out that the church was willing to accept and embrace those that had decided to repent their former ways.  He wishes he could also feel the support those gang members are apparently receiving. And if you’ll note, Mr White’s verbal “support” of the religious community is not exactly supportive. He verbally attacks them on one hand while being a decent citizen on the other. I am quite certain that the community appreciates his law-abiding behavior, but I don’t think they appreciate his rather biting and dismissive view of their cherished beliefs. He seems to be spitting on them while hoping to be embraced by them.

        Basically, he is cutting off his nose to spite his face. That has never been a good strategy.

        • Philbert

          Repent their former ways? He was not talking about former anything. He said gang members in their colors.

          • ctcss

            I don’t know about the particular church or churches that Mr White is  referring to, but a large conceptual idea regarding church is that it is not a country club for saints, but a hospital for sinners.  Conceptually, churches are supposed to be there to give newcomers and old hands, alike, the opportunity to turn their lives around. That process can take a long time. But welcoming those who want to start or to continue the process shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who understands what church is actually supposed to do.

            • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=553145445 Gordon Duffy

              you are still missing the point. He’s saying that you get more hassle for not believing in god than for selling drugs to kids.

              which makes no sense.

  • http://twitter.com/PensiveAfeto Not You

    YAY for visibility! I think once the atheist movement grows, so will the diversity of the moment. Let’s give it some time. I say this as a black atheist.
    I also think for someone black or other racial minority atheists, they’re content being silent about their atheism. I’ve met plenty of people who would probably fall under the “atheist” or “humanist” umbrella but they just don’t put that label on themselves.

  • ctcss

    If you read the NYT article, you would have noted that Mr Smith is actually a bit of a firebrand. 

    “ON his blog “Words of Wrath,” Wrath James White is an outspoken critic
    of Christianity and of African-Americans’ “zealous embracement of the
    God of our kidnapper, murders, slave masters and oppressors.” ”

    You’ll note that I said “People, in general, want to be accepted by others and dislike antagonism towards themselves or their personal beliefs. If Mr White keeps that in mind and expresses friendship and respect
    towards those in the black community who still cherish their religious
    beliefs, I can’t imagine him being attacked for his loving and honest
    approach. ”

    A truly loving and honest stance can make a world of difference when trying to relate to people. But one really has to love the other person, not just give lip service to the concept. And yes, sometimes that means taking a bit of heat initially. But people can often be reached when one of the parties maintains their cool and has a higher goal in mind. MLK didn’t make the difference he did by just writing off the other side as useless or evil. He wanted everyone (not just the black community) to benefit from a higher ideal and was willing to sacrifice everything in order to achieve it.

    Have black atheists had problems in their larger black community? I daresay they have. But the only way to make a change for the better is for someone to do their utmost to bring healing to the situation. It can often take time, mainly because the aggrieved party needs to start thinking again instead of just reacting to something that they don’t like. Maintaining consistent, loving thought and action towards them is going to make a positive difference, even if it intially only reaches the ones around the main aggrieved person.

    Humans have tamed wild animals (and helped wounded wild animals) through patience and love. The very least we can do is to exercise the same amount of effort when trying to reach our human neighbors.

    Are you really trying to say that expressing kindness, patience, and love towards one another is a waste of time?

    • Anonymous

      You’re terribly naive.

      It doesn’t matter whether one is an activist or not. They can be as nice as they want and they are still rejected. The  civility and the reconciliation needs to come from the black community. They are the ones being unreasonable

      • ctcss

        So you’re saying that basically, MLK should have waited for the white community to come around.  After all, they were the ones being unreasonable, right? There was no need for any action at all from the oppressed black community in the 50s and 60s, right? And if the oppressed blacks had tried to accomplish anything through non violence and living up to higher ideals, it would have been a waste of time because nothing could ever be accomplished that way.

        Yes, I see your point. No one should ever try to live their ideals. No need to fight city hall then. After all, it’s their fault. They’ll come around eventually, right?

        • Anonymous

          You’re still not making any sense. That’s a completely different issue that isn’t comparable in any way

          • ctcss

            Please tell me why there is a conceptual difference between the second-class blacks trying to find respect, courtesy, friendship, equal rights, etc. from a large number of whites who seem to hate them, and non-believing blacks  trying to find respect, courtesy, friendship, equal rights, etc. from a large number of believing blacks who seem to hate them.

            Why is the work that MLK did to try to heal the vast rift between the races OK, but suggesting that marginalized black non-believers work to try to heal the family rift between them and the larger believeing black community not OK?

            Is healing somehow offensive? And if it is not, isn’t it logical that the people with the most to gain (the non-believing blacks) do their utmost to try to bridge the gap and help heal the rift?

            I am doing my best to explain my point (healing is necessary and valuable and should be pursued by those who want the healing to occur). Please explain yours.

  • GodVlogger (on YoutTube)

    I am a BIG believer that the atheist movement needs as many niche sub-groups as possible: black atheists, former catholics now atheists, former clergy now atheists, LGBT atheists, republican atheists, bible-belt atheists, college atheists, senior-citizen atheists, former-muslims now atheists, former-mormons now atheists, etc.

    Each niche group will appeal to a different subset of nonbelievers (who are always welcome to ALSO join groups that are statewide, national, etc.). Some will join a niche group when they might not have initially wanted or felt comfortable joining the bigger/wider atheist community.  

  • logical one

    false premise. Religion is not what helps. Obedience to the Word of God is. Many “believers” don’t act accordingly. We should expect those who love follow Jesus to be better parents and citizens than those who don’t

    • astintinreality

      Ugh…. your post is the worst.


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