Shades of Black Atheism #1: Lauren Anderson Youngblood

This is a guest post by Bridget R. Gaudette. Bridget was a contributor to the book, BlackNones, a book highlighting black atheist conversion stories.

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[Note from author:] A few months ago I was fortunate enough to have lunch with Mandisa Thomas, the President of Black Nonbelievers. One thing that struck me during and after the lunch was how differently we were raised regarding religion. While my parents felt that heavy indoctrination was proper, Mandisa said that religion just wasn’t that important in her household. I was pretty shocked. I realized that I was guilty of putting all blacks into a super-religious category, when in reality, all of our experiences are unique.

When it comes to black speakers at atheist/skeptic/humanist/secular conventions, there are only a handful that get consistent invitations as a show of diversity, but there are dozens that have varied experiences and expertise to share. Although being a black atheist has specific challenges, a few people hardly represent the many shades of black atheism that exist.

Being a minority within a minority within a minority, I feel the onus is on me to be out there and open and so do the individuals who are participating in this blog series. Inspired by Steven Olsen‘s blog posts in which he highlights four or five standout atheists a week, I have chosen to do something similar, but focusing specifically on black atheists.

Each week, I will highlight one black atheist in a series called “Shades of black atheism.” I chose this title because, well, we are literally different shades, but also because we have unique stories. Some of us were raised in upper-middle-class secular households, while others were raised in cults or fundamentalist churches. Some of us were raised in the islands while others grew up in Africa. One barrier to diversity within the movement is access to participants. I am partially addressing this by providing panelists and speakers and stories from black atheists across the U.S. to call upon. If you organize atheist/skeptic/humanist/secular events, I offer you this resource.

If you know of any black atheists who might like to participate in this series, please forward this blog post to them. They can contact me at bridget.gaudette@gmail.com.

To learn about other black atheists or to join one of the many online communities for our community, please visit any of the following:

Lauren Anderson Youngblood is the Communications Manager for the Secular Coalition for America. I’ve started this series with her for very specific reasons:

  1. She is one of only a handful of black atheists in a paid position within a national atheist organization.
  2. Her story and background are not what you’d expect to hear from a black atheist.
  3. Her education, experience, family and employment would make her an ideal speaker at a convention and yet she’s never been asked to speak.

Lauren was born into a freethinking family. Her mother is culturally and ethnically Ashkenazi Jewish and her father is a Baptist-raised African-American who now considers himself agnostic. Lauren is a mother and a former journalist.

Since childhood, Lauren has considered herself an atheist — a decision she made after years of thought on the issue that originally stemmed from other kids telling her that she was going to hell. As much as she tried, she couldn’t rationalize the idea of a God. She remembers thinking that she wished her parents just gave her a religion because it would have been so much easier. Then, she wouldn’t have been left to grapple on her own with these philosophical questions of life. As an adult she can now appreciate that she wasn’t raised with a specific religion’s dogma. It has allowed her to determine her own path and fostered critical thinking skills from an early age.

That being said, she does identify with Judaism from a cultural perspective and even lived in Israel for three years (where she holds dual citizenship). She earned her undergraduate degree from Howard University, a historically black institution, and did postgraduate work at Tel Aviv University. Because of these experiences, she believes that she has a unique insight into the role religion plays socially and culturally on both sides of her own ethnic heritage.

The maternal side of Lauren’s family knows that she is an atheist, as are they. This includes the bulk of her extended family. Her maternal grandfather who died this year had a lot of pride in being ethnically Jewish, but was a life-long atheist. Their conversations on some of the absurdities of religion and its role in politics and public life were one of the things she enjoyed most about their relationship. When he died, he left her nearly every book written by Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and many others, filled with his handwritten notes. She remarked that every time she reads them, “it’ll be like he’s right there” with her sharing his thoughts.

Lauren’s father’s side is not the same. They know and have known for decades that she is a “heathen” and learned to accept it long before she was old enough to understand it could even be an issue. However, it does not affect her relationship with them. They generally don’t talk about religion, and when they do, it’s more of a philosophical debate than anything else. She said her biggest problems with family members not accepting her atheism have come not from her biological family, but from her in-laws who hold every negative stereotype of nonbelievers that exists. As she’s become more open in her nonbelief, certain aspects of the relationship have become more strained and uncomfortable.

Lauren’s husband is black and was raised Catholic. When she first told him she was an atheist, he was shocked and insisted it couldn’t really be the case. She didn’t fit the stereotypes he held of nonbelievers and he had trouble reconciling those stereotypes with the reality. As he came to understand nontheists and how they approach the world, he has grown to have a great deal of respect for the nontheist community and has become quite a cultural ambassador for many of our causes and issues. After countless hours of philosophical, political, and theological debates and discussions, his views on religion have changed dramatically. Today he still believes in a “higher power” but not necessarily in a “personal god” and considers himself a secularist. Over the years, he has also begun to shed the cloak of fear the church indoctrinated him with since childhood and now takes a more honest look at religion and its place in his life and in society in general. Sadly, many children who grow up with religion — including Lauren’s husband — are taught that the act of inquiry itself is punishable by hell and so critical thinking is discouraged. It requires an entire adjustment in thinking to overcome.

Due to the prominent position that the church holds in the black community, Lauren feels that the black atheist experience is different from non-black atheists. She expounded:

In no uncertain terms it is flat out unacceptable to be an atheist in most black social groups. A lot of it is due to social influences, but much is also due to historical influence… [Few] can disagree that for many blacks — from slavery through Jim Crow — church was one of the only places it was safe, and sometimes legal, for blacks to congregate. Because of this reality, and out of lack of other options, many political and social movements started in the church. Additionally, despite the many gains made by the black community, blacks still face many seemingly insurmountable obstacles, from institutionalized racism to educational, economic, and health issues. When you have a tough life, it’s comforting to believe that there is a larger reason for your struggles and that there is a reward waiting for you if you can just hold on until the end.

Lauren believes that due to these reasons and others, black ethnic culture and black church culture are viewed almost as one in the same. For many black atheists, rejecting religion is also seen as a rejection of their heritage, which makes it that much more difficult — and lonely — to come out.

When asked whether she believes the secular community needs race-focused groups, she said:

We can benefit from many niche subgroups, including race-based groups. People feel the most comfortable and accepted when they are surrounded by those they can relate to. The life experiences of a black atheist may be different from that of a military atheist, which may be different from that of a gay atheist, and so on. But within those niche groups they will have shared experiences that can offer a much-needed sense of community. When people feel they have a safe haven of others who accept and relate to them, they are more likely to ‘come out,’ which makes our entire community stronger. The goal would then be to bring everyone together on the larger issues we all can relate on.

At last year’s American Atheists convention, blogger Greta Christina said something that Lauren thinks of often. Paraphrased, it’s the idea that “sometimes when you come out to someone, you may find that the response is ‘me too’.” Lauren has found this to be true (I also struggle with this), even among African Americans, although they are often less comfortable using the word “atheist” because of its severe negative stereotypes in the community.

Lauren admits that coming out is easier said than done:

[Black atheists] may feel that they are completely alone, and coming out will only isolate them from family and friends. And for many, this unfortunately will be the case. But coming out is a way to identify others you can relate to and be your true self. It also helps to pave the way for others to come out and combats negative stereotypes about nontheists so that one day it hopefully will no longer be an issue. For example, my alma mater Howard University now has a secular student group, something I would have thought unthinkable during my time there 10 years ago. So there is progress being made, slowly but surely.

You can follow both Lauren and the Secular Coalition for America on Twitter.

About Bridget R. Gaudette

Bridget R. Gaudette is the Executive Director of the Humanists of Florida Association and the Marketing & Grants Manager for Foundation Beyond Belief. Bridget was a contributor to the book, BlackNones, a book highlighting black atheist conversion stories and is currently writing a book, Grieving for the Living: Effects of Disownment in Adulthood.

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  • http://www.youtube.com/user/GodVlogger?feature=mhee GodVlogger (on YouTube)

    Awesome.

    I totally agree that having many niche groups helps to move the whole secular movement forward. If there are folks who will join a race-based secular group, or a secular group with a focus on LGBT, or a focus on science education, or a focus on former Mormons, or former Jews, or former Catholics, or freethinkers in NYC, or in Alabama, or in Kansas, etc….
    … whatever draws people in to consider themselves members of the secular movement, terrific.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=639378446 Bridget Gaudette

      I agree.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

    i totally agree with this post. it is damn hard to raise one’s head and speak of atheism, in most gatherings of black folk. my sister (also an atheist) is spending a long holiday with her husband and children with his family. who are staunch baptists. she texted me a few days ago, “hanging out with the family. no discussion of politics, religion and no alcohol.” poor thing.

    what really galled me when i was in divinity school was meeting up with a bunch of “civil rights heroes” who were also leaders of various black churches or national religious organizations. i was selected to attend by a committee of faculty because i had good grades and it was “an honor.” wow, were my eyes opened. i had totally bought into the whole “black folk need the church because it’s a force for social change” line. no more. snake oil salesmen, resting on their laurels, talking about themselves, and with no real plans for helping the modern day african american community beyond continuing to fleece it by raking in donations and building themselves vacation homes with the money. i was horrified. but these people get invited the white house, on TV, etc., speaking “for” the african american community. some time later one of them was busted for putting his mistress in furs and buying her expensive cars with his church’s money. and of course, eddie long. need i say more.

    i am very outspoken and militant about my atheism, and i’m willing to deal with the social costs, because i believe there are not enough of us doing so and as a result the black community continues to be hurt, fleeced and misled by hucksters. our community does need leadership, and a cohesive set of organizations in which we can affect positive social change. it’s long past time to stop looking to the churches for that leadership. further, the black church is often a pivotal force against gay equality. you do not want me to start ranting about how many young gay blacks are harmed by the church, i won’t be able to stop. the church, like the roman church or orthodox sects of judaism, has blood on its hands. young black gays are turned out of their homes and put onto the streets, because black preachers are such lying, closet case hypocrites who want to blame homosexuals for all the problems in the black community. they need to be exposed.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=639378446 Bridget Gaudette

      PLEASE contact me about participating in this series! I want everyone to read your story just like I did!

      • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

        bridget: ask Hemant for my email address, he has it.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=639378446 Bridget Gaudette

          Got it!

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Curtis-Anthony-Maples/514142802 Curtis Anthony Maples

        I want to participate REALLY bad lol

  • bernardaB

    I have no complaint with your presenting minority people and promoting them for speaking at secular conferences. However, describing her as an “Ashkanazi Jewish” is entirely unnecessary, especially when you add “ethnically” such. That is BS. I hate it when someone says, “An atheist Jew”. I was brought up in a Christian family, but no one calls me “An atheist Christian”. I come from a small part of Europe where I could be considered an “ethnic”, but I don’t make a point of it. Either you are an atheist or not, you don’t need any qualifiers, especially racist ones.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=639378446 Bridget Gaudette

      Those were her exact words. Also I know lots of people who call themselves Jewish Atheists because of the cultural aspect.

      • http://twitter.com/vogelbeere + Yvonne Aburrow

        There are also people who call themselves Christian Atheists, because they subscribe to the values of Christianity, but don’t believe in its supernatural claims. And your reasons for being atheist might vary depending on the specific cultural and religious background you were raised in.

        Very interesting blogpost, and I agree that it’s good to have spaces for PoC, LGBT, etc within other movements.

    • 3lemenope

      Either you are an atheist or not, you don’t need any qualifiers, especially racist ones.

      That’s kinda the point, though. It may be that atheism *itself* is a mere statement negating belief in a certain class of entities, but how someone becomes an atheist and what atheism means to them as part of their identity are things that vary widely. A person whose atheism is “hard-won”, so to speak, as in, an existential struggle against the lessons of family, youth, and culture, may feel very differently about what atheism means to them than a person who grew up in an environment where there was little if any pressure to decide the god-question in order to secure a sense of belonging among family, peers, and the wider society. The beliefs have different meanings to the people holding it, and so the mere fact that the content of the belief is identical should not give license to strain away or blot out the valuable texture (the part that, you know, speaks to people, actually moves people) that comes from different experiences of the same subject.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=639378446 Bridget Gaudette

        Amen!

    • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

      that’s too harsh.

      jews have a special and unique tradition in which some identify as “ethnic” and others as “religious.” and the jewish community as a whole accepts this binary definition of itself. there are even atheist rabbis.

      it’s not “racist” to talk about someone’s self identification as a part of a cultural tradition. judaism is not a “race,” it’s an historic and cultural grouping that depending on which jew you’re talking to, is or is not also religious.

      and anyway, there’s no such thing as “race.” we’re all africans. some of us just come from family lines that evolved to have different skin and eye colors.

      • bernardaB

        I can understand that, however, I don’t like others labeling people without them having had their say. Let them decide if they want to bring up their background and influences. My historic and cultural grouping is Lutheran, though I never really believed in its teachings. Almost everyone where I grew up was Lutheran and the worst you could was Catholic.

        I can’t say specifically how that may still affect me. I spend traditional holidays with my family and friends, some are believers, but most are not. My friends from Jewish families are all atheists. I have told them I don’t consider them Jewish, but they probably they spend holidays with their families too.

        Woody Allen has a wonderful film “Crimes and Misdemeanors” where he remembers a family holiday dinner with a heated argument between the believers and non-believers around the table. My favorite film by him.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=705066677 Desiree Bell-Fowlks

    Great idea and interview. I’m a bi black atheist out in suburbia in southern california. Mostly liberal churches out here with the whole jesus loves everyone message. My immediate family knows I’m an atheist as does anyone that looks at my fb profile for more than a minute. Religion is so ingrained in the black community that I’m afraid of getting shunned from volunteering within the cultural organizations like the NAACP. But at the end of the day I would be rather out than in the closet. No more being forced to participate in religious observance with my family. They keep it pretty light on god to only prayer before dinner.

  • gg

    I am a black middle aged female atheist. The only one I know. My (black) mom was an atheist. She let us find our own way, encouraging us to think for ourselves. After reading the bible at 11, I decided it was all a fairytale. My once religious dad was probably agnostic by the time of his death, due to the influence of my mom. At least one of my mother’s brothers was an atheist and very open about it–even 50 years ago. Both of my children are adult atheist, in spite of having a theist father. One is married to a theist, but I doubt my grandchildren will be believers. The most important thing my parents did was to expose us to religion, and then encourage us to THINK for ourselves.

  • sam

    I think African-American atheists are in a better position to level a criticism against theists than those of us who don’t share their history.

    It’s evil enough that your not-so-distant ancestors were kidnapped, enslaved, and stripped of their African culture, heritage, and religion by European-Americans who were almost exclusively xian theists.

    What rises to the level of abomination is the fact that the religion with which slaveowners used to replace slaves’ native religion was the very worldview used to justify and excuse their slaveowning practices.

    Imagine space aliens taking over the planet, enslaving all humanity, and then raping their minds so thoroughly that those enslaved willfully adopt an alien worldview that justifies mankind’s subjection to their oppressors.

    Although Malcolm X replaced one myth for another, at least he had strength of character to reject his indoctrination and get angry.

  • sgtlhunter

    Excellent story. Looking forward to seeing more. I truly believe that many people especially African Americans have never really thought about religion very deeply. Many are too fearful to tree into the waters of doubt. They are held back by the mental chains of hellfire and eternal punishment to really consider whether the stories in the books are true. Any careful consideration certainly will bring about some sort of agnosticism.


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