Life as a Black Atheist

Erin Williams of The Root interviewed Mark Hatcher about the difficulties of being an African-American living “outside of mainstream historically black religions.”

Mark Hatcher

This particular passage stood out:

I have at least two long-term relationships terminated simply because of [my beliefs]… I almost feel a responsibility, when I’m interested in someone, to just put it out there. I feel like that’s the responsible thing to do because I feel like I’d be leading somebody on otherwise, and that’s not true, but the amount of religiosity in black women — I kind of have to expect that somebody’s not gonna be interested which is more often than not the case…

I know I’ve experienced the same sort of thing in the Indian world. When religion is so entrenched in the culture, you can’t separate yourself from the former without having people think you’re not proud of the latter. It’s even harder when so many of the leaders in the black community are religious — or pastors. As Mark says, dating within the community becomes difficult, too, because you (probably) want to meet someone who shares your worldview. It’s hard enough finding another atheist; it’s even harder finding an atheist you’re compatible with.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • ortcutt

    I love the photo caption.  “Mark Hatcher practices Atheism.”

    Umm, yeah, maybe you’ll get it right next time, Washington Post.  I’m firmly convinced that the most liberating claim that atheists make it that people can have no religion.  People are customarily raised to think that everyone has a religion.  Someone is either a Muslim, Jew, Christian, Jain, etc….  I once had a long argument with a Jewish friend who insisted I was a Christian, despite my disbelief in any aspect of Christianity and lack of any Christian practice.  She couldn’t comprehend the idea that someone doesn’t have a religion.  She couldn’t comprehend the idea that we choose our religion and we can choose no religion.  The accurate caption would be “Mark Hatcher has no religion.”  But that’s a very dangerous idea to many people, more dangerous than atheism really.  Because once people realize they some people don’t have a religion, they can realize that it’s up to them.  It’s their choice whether or not they want a religion.  And when that happens, many people on the fence will decide that they’re not Christians, Muslims, Jews, Jains, etc… just because their parents are.

    • John L

       I once went to a civilian business that catered to military personnel outside an Army post and bought a set of dog tags.  I wrote “none” on the religion line on the order card.  The guy pressing the tags flipped out.  “None!?  Nothing!?  You have no religion?”  I could only chuckle.   He couldn’t process that such a thing was possible.  He even seemed offended.  I wondered if he would have been more satisfied if I had said I worshiped Zeus.

      • Tainda

        “I wondered if he would have been more satisfied if I had said I worshiped Zeus.”

        Yes

      • HughInAz

        Yeah, it really is a huge mental block that a lot of people have. I’ve been told that I “worship nothingness”.

    • jemiller226

      “Because once people realize they some people don’t have a religion, they can realize that it’s up to them.  It’s their choice whether or not they want a religion.”

      Not sure I agree. I can no more decide to believe in God than I can decide to become ethnically Asian. I can choose to go to church (or temple, or synagogue, etc.) or not, but I can’t actually choose to believe.

      • ortcutt

        You can decide what religion you choose though.  Your beliefs are not the same as your religion.  I didn’t choose to be an atheist.  There’s no evidence for there being any deities, so I don’t believe there are any, but I chose to have no religion.

        • jemiller226

          Oh, come on. It’s a distinction without a difference. Religion without belief is…what, exactly?

          If I don’t believe that Jesus is my Lord and Savior, I’m not a Christian, and that doesn’t change even if I go to a Christian church for two services every Sunday. Similarly, a person who *does* believe that and never attends church is still a Christian.

          • ortcutt

            There are plenty of observant Christians and Jews who don’t believe the doctrines.  We could spend 20 fruitless hours arguing about “what is a Christian”, a question that has no answer, but you can’t seriously claim that an observant Christian who doesn’t believe the doctrines is not religious.

            Stewart Shapiro, who’s a logician and philosopher as Ohio State, is an atheist, but also an observant Kosher-keeping Jew.  You can’t say that that is impossible on principle.

            • jemiller226

              But does Mr. Shapiro believe that keeping kosher is bringing him closer to God, or does he simply do it out of habit or because he feels like it?

              This is no different than what I said about going to church, and you’re ably making my point for me.

              • ortcutt

                 Prof. Shapiro doesn’t believe there are any gods, i.e. he’s an atheist, so obviously he doesn’t think it’s bringing him closer to God.  He does it because he chooses to do so as his religion.  I still don’t see why you think that’s impossible.  It’s odd but not impossible.

                Someone who believes in Christian doctrine, but doesn’t practice it, but who also conceives herself as a Christian arguably is a Christian.  Someone who believes in Christian doctrine, doesn’t practice and who chooses to conceive herself as not religious argubly isn’t.  Choices matter. 

                • jemiller226

                  How is this different than the times Hemant’s mind has boggled at the number of atheists who have reported believing in God on different surveys?

                • ortcutt

                  Atheism isn’t a religion.  It’s the lack of a belief.  It is directly contradictory to claim to be an atheist and simultaneously claim to believe in God.

                • jemiller226

                  Augh, this is maddening! It’s no more contradictory than saying, “I’m a Christian who doesn’t believe that Jesus was Christ.”

                • ortcutt

                   The difference is that Christianity is a religion, not a belief.  Atheism isn’t a religion.  It’s the lack of a belief.

                • http://twitter.com/SubtleSprout Nora

                  No it makes perfect sense- one doesn’t practice atheism, it’s not a contradiction because it’s not a parallel to religion as you just implied. one can be an atheist and *practice* religious doctrine because they *believe* it’s a good thing to do (it is weird but not contradictory in the sense you claim it is)

                • Willy Occam

                  I think I’ll become a numismatist who doesn’t collect coins. 

          • http://boldquestions.wordpress.com/ Ubi Dubium

            Religion without belief?  Sure. 

            If someone goes through all the motions, follows all the rituals, attends all the services, sings all the songs, says what they are supposed to say and drops the all-important money in the collection plate, then I would describe them as having a religion.  None of these actions require belief, only conformity.  There are a lot of people still in the churches (and pulpits) who no longer believe, but they still have a religion until they choose for themselves to discard it.

            And the UU’s generally say that Unitarian Universalism is a religion (although I’m not sure I buy that assertion).  There’s no specific beliefs required for that.

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6OE7LEYELE4MZTVXGZUSVTBFUI julie

        That’s not a great comparison. I know you can’t just choose to change what you believe, but presumably if new evidence came forth someday, you could change your mind. Nothing could ever change you to be ethnically Asian though.

        • jemiller226

          That’s the only difference I can see, and I’m pretty certain there won’t be evidence forthcoming.

  • mints11

    When I got married we were both religious, or well my husband was more of a catholic-by-tradition, but me? I was the sunday school teacher!
    We decided our wedding would be secular because of religious incompatibility between our families. He started attending church with me and we would discuss the sermons on our way back home (free will was his favorite, since he didn’t know the bible as I did).
    One random day I started reading uhmmm I think it was skepchic or something, and eventually I had to tell him that I was pretty sure there was no god. He felt relief as he was having the same questions I had but was afraid of how I would take the news.
    After a year of that epic day, we declared ourselves atheist and lived happily ever after (so far), I haven’t come out to my parents yet, and I don’t think I’ll ever do it and I’m ok with it.

  • Philo Vaihinger

    Tougher to be a black atheist than a Black Muslim (Nation of Islam type)?

    Tougher than being a black Muslim (Koran type)?

    Just wondering.

    • Debbie Goddard

      It’s my opinion that in many areas, yes.  My experiences in Philadelphia suggest that black religious Muslims were often very respected in the black community, but that wasn’t the case for black atheists.

      • Gwen

         Debbie, that is my impression hear on the West/Left coast too.

  • Philo Vaihinger

    Oh, wait.

    I just realized in my previous post I referred to the world’s two most popular religions of hate without mentioning that fact.

    Hmm.

    • http://twitter.com/FelyxLeiter Felyx Leiter

      Considering you’ve done it in every single other post, I think we get the idea.  And your “fact” is skewed: Nation of Islam is nowhere near being one of the world’s most popular religious movements, hateful or otherwise.

  • Fundiedestroyer

    Hemant, how many packets of Cool Ranch doritos and 12-packs of Mountain Dew do you have?

  • Gwen

    Yes, I am a middle aged black atheist woman. I hope you have more luck than I have with relationships. I do think things are getting better for us. In my age group, I don’t think I am going to find a black male atheist with similar interests to date. My children have been more successful.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6O7TY36KKR4RN2JRA7MLV6LEZY Stan Dalone

    I imagine it must be similarly difficult in the Latino community as well, with its deep attachment to Catholicism.

    • ortcutt

       Only 62% of US Hispanics self-describe as Catholic.  There are many Protestants and Nones as well.

  • BM

    This was a big problem for me when I was dating too, and I’m white. Is it any wonder that women at atheist meet ups get overwhelming attention?

  • Pluto Animus

    There’s something especially sickening about the religiosity of African-Americans, in that they are worshiping the slave-master’s god, as if they should be thankful for their ancestors’ forced, imprisoned migration.

  • Azijah

    Is there a difference between a black Atheist and a white atheist?  


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