Why Do Black Women Remain in the Church?

Candace R. M. Gorham is a former evangelical minister who at one point in her life was “casting out demons” and making prophecies.

The spell eventually wore off.

Gorham now works as a secular counselor and researcher and her new book, The Ebony Exodus Project: Why Some Black Women Are Walking out on Religion — and Others Should Too (Pitchstone Publishing, 2013), explores a fascinating topic: the intersection of religion and race.

It reminds me of Thomas Frank‘s What’s the Matter with Kansas? in which he questions why Kansans frequently elect people who really don’t have their best interests at heart. Similarly, Gorham asks why black women pledge allegiance to a church that has been so damaging to them?

She writes early in the book:

… black women are the single most religious demographic in the United States, yet they are at the bottom of the totem pole in practically every measure of quality of life — physical health, financial health, mental health, and more.

If the Black Church wants to take credit for all of the good things that happen in the lives of black women, it must also take some of the blame for all of the bad things.

In the exclusive excerpt below, Gorham discusses religion in the black community (I added links when I thought a citation or source would be helpful):

Drive through any black neighborhood and you are guaranteed to see churches on every corner. You will see signs advertising Christian daycares, Christian beauty salons, and Christian restaurants. Scripture verses pop up in some of the most unlikely places — like on restaurant signs and school yards. Crosses are everywhere.

Statistical studies bear this out. According to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, 86 percent of black people identify with some Christian denomination. The level of religiosity in the black community is also high, especially among black women. The 2008 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports that more than eight in ten black women (84 percent) say religion is very important to them and that roughly six in ten (59 percent) say they attend religious services at least once a week.

A lot of observers attribute the pervasiveness of this level of religiosty in the black community to slavery. And truthfully a comprehensive discussion of black religiosity would not be complete without exploring this history. It is widely accepted that religion has, at various times and in some instances, been used as a tool to manipulate and control. Indeed, the Black Church began under duress, on pain of death and eternal damnation. But some black people have gone so far as to profess their gratitude for slavery because it introduced their ancestors to Jesus and paved the way for their own salvation. Without slavery, the thinking goes, they would have been born into a pagan tribe and doomed to spend all eternity in hell, even though they never would have even heard of Jesus. Of course, this line of reasoning is extremely faulty for a number of reasons (not to mention indicative of a cruel deity), not least of which because today many African countries are among the most Christian in the world.

What people do not realize — including most in the black community — is that the abolitionist movement was largely initiated and supported by freethinkers. Sojourner Truth, for example, was relatively more freethinking than many know. Frederick Douglass was an atheist who was very vocal about his disdain for religion: “I would say welcome infidelity! Welcome atheism! Welcome anything! in preference to the gospel as preached by those divines [i.e., clergy who defend slavery]! They convert the very name of religion into a barbarous cruelty.”

The same is true for the Civil Rights Movement. Many people do not know the influential role black nonbelievers played in it. Although black religious leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. are often credited with the success of this movement, history has written out freethinkers and atheists like James Forman, A. Philip Randolph, James Baldwin, and Lorraine Hansberry. Often not remembered too is that much of the opposition to the movement in white America came from church folk who found support for their hatred in the Bible. In their opinions — and according to the Bible itself — it was okay for some people to be treated like second-class citizens. The Bible plainly says that government has been ordained by God (Romans 13:1). Indeed, leaders of the time pointed to the Bible as validation for their racist laws.

Regardless, the presence and authority of religion in the lives of black Americans has been so strong that it has helped make the modern Black Church the inescapable, omnipresent, all-powerful, infallible institution that it is today. Why is this? Why do African-Americans insist on hanging on to their religion and their god even in the times when they clearly are not serving him and when he clearly is not delivering them?

So, why is there not more conversation in the black community about the role of the church? Why is there not more analysis of the good, the bad, and the ugly? Perhaps some people simply have not made any connections between obvious life problems and the church. Some do not want to think about it while others simply have not thought about it. Some people may be completely apathetic, likely owing to their own nominal belief system. We also know that some people are judgmental from a distance, unable or unwilling to openly criticize the church. “The age-old association of religiosity with morality is particularly ironclad in African American communities. Because religiosity is evidence of ‘authentic’ blackness, it is difficult for black non-theists to publicly criticize the Black Church’s special trifecta of religious dogma, greed, and hubris.” [Link]

One of the biggest reasons I think that there has not been more conversation about this is that believers are afraid of the “sin” involved in entertaining such thoughts. Cue the Ebony Exodus Project and this book. While I fully support one’s right to think and believe whatever one wants, I find it startling that a large number of black people not only do not think critically about religion, but they also do not even want to think critically about it. There seems to be no desire whatsoever to think critically about something that is so intimately intertwined in their lives, even for nominal Christians.

It has been my experience that white people are much more open to reflecting on these topics, even in general conversation. White people will express their thoughts and entertain others’ ideas. Often, these conversations are congenial and transition smoothly to other topics. This typically is not the case for black people. One would think that black people would want to have this type of conversation much more often, especially considering the fact that black women profess and actively exercise their faith in an attempt to build better lives, which, as you will read in this book, are not improving. Black people are comfortable blaming racism and classism. “Rather, the thought of the black churches distinguishes the ‘sins’ of black people from the ‘sin’ of white racism, which is considered by far the most wretched… Churches generally give their attention to the fact that all blacks are oppressed by the greater force of white racism, which is considered the greater evil and possibly the sources of all sin.” [Link] And while the issue of racism certainly has its place in the discourse, it seems only fitting that the institution that claims to have the answers to all of life’s ills should likewise be a part of the conversation about how the church itself is contributing to the problems in the black community — not least of which those experienced by black women.

The Ebony Exodus Project: Why Some Black Women Are Walking out on Religion — and Others Should Too will be published in mid-September. You can pre-order your copy now!

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.

  • eric

    Gorham asks why black women pledge allegiance to a church that has been so damaging to them?

    I suspect its mostly the other way around: poverty and social class contribute to religiosity. But I say mostly because I expect you’re partially right too. This is not a case of one factor being the cart and the other the horse. Rather, its more of a vicious circle; each factor reinforcing the other.

    • Bitter Lizard

      Exactly. It is well known that religion correlates with existential insecurity, but people tend to assume there’s a tension between “misery causes religiosity” and “religiosity causes misery”. There is no tension between those two statements. You can easily find examples to support both. And of course it makes sense that both statements would be true, because that would help explain why religion is so perniciously durable: it’s self-perpetuating.

      • mikmik

        There is also the principle that the religious are to minster to the poor and sick. So then, more churches get built/established where the need is greatest.

  • Art_Vandelay

    But some black people have gone so far as to profess their gratitude for slavery because it introduced their ancestors to Jesus and paved the way for their own salvation.

    Wow…religion, man. That is fucked up. So manipulative that it’s almost genius. It’s almost as if the human race sees being controlled as a badge of honor.

    • crazygemini12

      I would say, unfortunately, black people have often been told suffering is a good thing and enduring it proves how awesome you are/God is/something else equally horrible that doesn’t make much sense. So many are focused on some sort of merit badge for enduring suffering instead of asking why they’re suffering disproportionately to everyone else throughout the annals of human history.

    • Miss_Beara

      But some women/Jews/gays have gone so far as to profess their gratitude for abuse/the holocaust/hate crimes because it introduced them to Jesus and paved the way for their own salvation.

      How do people not realize if you replace “black people” with any one of those things how ridiculous and awful that sounds?

      Oh yeah, if it comes from religion then it must be ok.

    • KeithCollyer

      My wife is black (East) African and her family, like most of East Africa, are pretty religious (mostly christian, some muslim). Slavery was nowhere near as important in East Africa as it was in West Africa and America, so religiosity there is not from slavery. A lot of it is to do with the fact that much of the schooling was traditionally (if you count since colonization as traditional) done by missionaries. If you wanted to get educated so you could get a job other than tilling fields, you got churched as well. Some have escaped, most have not. Archbishop Tutu had a good quote on this, something along the lines of “when the white men came, we had the land and they had bibles. They told us to close our eyes and pray, when we opened them we had the bibles and they had the land”. And this from a church leader

      • Art_Vandelay

        Well, we’re all East African. That’s a great quote from Tutu.

      • Gribble

        Archbishop Tutu is one of the very very few senior churchmen that has my genuine respect. He is in many senses a complete dude.

    • TommyBenz

      I always cringe when people treat faith or “god-fearing” as a compliment. “Man, I wish I could have as much faith as that other person. That’s like saying, man I wish I had two broken legs instead of one. So lucky!” It’s ludicrous.

  • Gerry Mooney

    Thanks for this post, Hemant. This is a topic that deserves a lot more exposure. I will be following comments on this one!

  • dantresomi

    thanks for hipping me to this book! can’t wait to get it

    • crazygemini12

      Thanks for linking this on Twitter so I could read this :D

  • Darrel Ray

    I had the privilege of reading an early version of this book. Candace Gorham has written a ground breaking book, one that should cause a lot of discussion. This is a book that needed to be written, and Ms. Gorham was the right person to write it. Glad to see it coming out soon.

  • Brad dayag

    So because black women (in general) have such poor quality of life metrics AND they are the most religious group in America, their religious tendencies are responsible for the above mentioned quality of life metrics?!? This is perhaps the most poorly supported correlative fallacy I have ever read.

    Sojourner Truth was “more freethinking than many know” .. what a load. She was deeply and devoutly religious her entire life.

    “Freethinkers” were instrumental in the abolitionist movement? Horseshit. Wilberforce in the UK was a devoutly religious individual whose faith was the driving force behind his abolition work. The British Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade was a Quaker and Anglican organization. In the US the abolitionist movement was overwhelmingly religious, mainly Quaker in the beginning. The Second Great Awakening is seen by most as the driving force behind the early 19th century abolitionist movement.

    John Brown at his trial made the following statement:

    This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to “remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them.” I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done–as I have always freely admitted I have done–in behalf of His despised poor was not wrong, but right..

    Not exactly the words of a “freethinker”

    I have seen some pretty stupid arguments, but this one has got to take the cake.

    • RobMcCune

      The existence of religious people in the abolitionist movement doesn’t cancel out the prominent freethinkers. You might want to put your comment on the list of stupidest arguments.

      • Brad dayag

        Its not the existence of religious folk, it was their faith that drove them towards the goal of abolition.

        • RobMcCune

          No one said that wasn’t the case, still doesn’t negate the role of freethinkers.

          • Bitter Lizard

            He’s a troll. Just troll back. It’s clear from his responses that he’s either incapable or unwilling to participate in a conversation with humans.

            • RobMcCune

              I’ve seen Brad here before, I think I have a fairly good idea of what to expect. On top of that I never enter conversations with someone who starts off like that with high expectations.

    • Bitter Lizard

      Susan Jacoby’s book Freethinkers documents the role of nonbelievers in the abolitionist movement in some detail if you’re interested. Christianity played a big role in abolition, largely because almost everyone was Christian, but it also played a big role in justifying slavery. Putting out a fire you started yourself only deserves so much back-patting.

      As for the misogyny that has been justified by Christianity, I would direct you to the past two millennia.

      • Brad dayag

        Oh no you dont champ, the abolitionist movement was just a movement of people who happened to be Christians, it was explicitly organized and motivated by people’s faith. No way around it.

        • Bitter Lizard

          The funny thing is that facts and history don’t magically change because a braindead Christian on the Internet wants to talk out of his asshole. It’s really too bad, because that means you lose.

        • EvolutionKills

          “What God sanctioned in the Old Testament, and permitted in the New, cannot be a sin.”
          -Every slave owner who ever claimed justification for their actions from the Bible.

    • Anathema

      So because black women (in general) have such poor quality of life metrics AND they are the most religious group in America, their religious tendencies are responsible for the above mentioned quality of life metrics?!? This is perhaps the most poorly supported correlative fallacy I have ever read.

      I would agree that this claim would be an utterly ridiculous confusion of correlation and causation. However, here’s the thing: I haven’t seen anyone here make that claim. I didn’t see such a claim in the original post. And I haven’t come across any commenters here making that claim either. Look, maybe I’ve missed something. If so, please point me to where, either in the original post or the comments, this claim has been made. But at the moment, it seems to me like you are attacking a straw man.

      Sojourner Truth was “more freethinking than many know” .. what a load. She was deeply and devoutly religious her entire life.

      “Freethought” refers to the idea that knowledge should be based on reason and evidence rather than tradition and dogma. Although members of the freethought movement are generally irreligious, it is possible for someone to be both religious and a freethinker, so long as they do not claim that they know their religion to be true based on tradition and dogma.

      Of course, the original post never said that Sojourner Truth was a freethinker or part of the freethought movement. It just said that she had more freethinking tendencies than a lot of people realize.

      “Freethinkers” were instrumental in the abolitionist movement? Horseshit. Wilberforce in the UK was a devoutly religious individual whose faith was the driving force behind his abolition work. The British Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade was a Quaker and Anglican organization. In the US the abolitionist movement was overwhelmingly religious, mainly Quaker in the beginning. The Second Great Awakening is seen by most as the driving force behind the early 19th century abolitionist movement.

      “Non-freethinkers were instrumental in the abolitionist movement? Horseshit. Fanny Wright and Robert Dale Owen were both ardent abolitionists and they were editors for a free thought periodical. Frederick Douglass criticized the role religion played in maintaining slavery. Robert Green Ingersoll was one of the most prominent freethinkers around in nineteenth century America and he supported the abolition of slavery. Freethinking feminists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Ernestine Rose were also abolitionist activists. Their freethought led them to question traditional institutions like slavery and was an important force in the abolitionist movement.”

      You how stupid it sounded when I dismissed all of the non-freethinking abolitionists out there simply because I could demonstrate that freethought played a role in the abolitionist movement? It sounded just as stupid when you dismissed the role freethought played in the abolitionist movement simply because you could show that religion played an important role in the abolitionist movement.

      • Brad dayag

        However, here’s the thing: I haven’t seen anyone here make that claim. I didn’t see such a claim in the original post.

        How else could the following be read: black women are the single most religious demographic in the United States, yet they are at the bottom of the totem pole in practically every measure of quality of life — physical health, financial health, mental health, and more.If the Black Church wants to take credit for all of the good things that happen in the lives of black women, it must also take some of the blame for all of the bad things.

  • the moother

    May this book make many converts.

    That is all.

  • mikespeir

    What too many women–people, actually–don’t see is that while religion provides them the solace they crave, it also helps to perpetuate the need for that solace.

    • Tor

      It creates the illness, then sells the cure.

  • Mel Johansson

    Disappointed that there doesn’t seem to be an e-book version available for preorder.

  • gg

    I’m happy my black family has been free of religion for (at least) 3 generations now, and we are working to make sure generation #4 will also be religion free.

  • JET

    “… black women are the single most religious demographic in the United States, yet they are at the bottom of the totem pole in practically every measure of quality of life — physical health, financial health, mental health, and more.”
    Gee, I wonder if the common denominator could be education and educational opportunities? Could it be that there is a big difference in the quality of education offered in lower socio-economic communities and our attitudes toward that difference? Education is severely underfunded throughout the country. Some of us are lucky enough to be able to afford to take up the slack. Some of us are perfectly willing to ignore the disparity as long as OUR kids get educated. And we all know the correlation between lack of education and religiosity.

  • Mick

    “Candace R. M. Gorham is a former evangelical minister who at one point in her life was “casting out demons” and making prophecies.”

    I wonder how many people died because Gorham convinced them they were healed and advised them not to seek medical help?

    I wonder how many people she converted to her ratbag form of Christianity?

    I wonder if she has ever gone back to those people and explained that she had led them down the garden path?

  • Ray

    It has always puzzled me why black people who were glad to be rid of the master remain slaves to the master’s religion.

  • Tangles

    I swear…this is why so many Black Atheists and Agnostics that I know want nothing to do with mainstream movements because they experience just as much racism there as anywhere else.

    “”It has been my experience that white people are much more open to reflecting on these topics, even in general conversation. White people will express their thoughts and entertain others’ ideas. Often, these conversations are congenial and transition smoothly to other topics. This typically is not the case for black people.”
    Racial supremacy at its best. I haven’t read the book, but I’m betting the author never considered the idea that the Black church (which I’ve left myself) is one of the few places that Black women can find established and supportive communities where they don’t have to worry about ignorant questions and treatment they deal with in other sectors. People GROSSLY overestimate the number of people who are in chuch for the religion itself (look at how many are ignorant of their own faith). Black men are leaving the church too, but it’s not because of some rational awakening.

    The assumption seems to be that Black women have an attachment is to the religion itself…an assumption likely rooted in the stereotype of the ignorant-religious brown person. No one ever asks about dedication to, say, capitalism, which has been used in the same ways, with arguably more devastating consequences.

    This post is almost humorous in the face of the blatantly racist, and definitely non-Christian recent display by Miley Cyrus. No one is immune to the ills of being human.

    • Agni Ashwin

      It would seem that the author is African-American (though I could be wrong).

      • John

        You’re not wrong – google for her. She’s a black lady with dreadlocks. http://vimeo.com/28252872

        • Tangles

          Makes no difference. White supremacy isn’t limited to White people.

      • Tangles

        …as if only White people can have bought into White supremacy? I’m only slightly surprised at the simplicity of thought on here.

        • Agni Ashwin

          So you’re saying that some Black people leave mainstream atheist/humanist movements because of the racism they receive from other Black people in those movements?

    • John

      The author is black. Maybe you’re the racist one here?

      • Tangles

        Or maybe *gasp* White supremacy is more complex than the Klan and minorities can also internalize feelings of inferiority.

        The responses here are testament to why so many minority Non-theists distance themselves…more of the same in a new package. (Google atheism and racism and TALK to some Black Atheists).

  • Leah

    Adding on to what Tangles said, I think that there are more black atheists and agnostics than one would think, but they stay closeted for a variety of reasons. The Black church is the only institution that is wholly owned and operated by and for black people, especially since historically black colleges may go the way of the dodo soon. Consequently, many blacks are afraid to speak out against it. Black churches are also major providers of social services in black communities. If you are in a position to need those services, it wouldn’t behoove you to speak ill of them, even if you secretly don’t believe the dogma attached to said services. Black churches can also be an oasis in a white-dominated world, where you don’t have to have people looking at you like a thug or a welfare cheat. The Black Church was one of the few places where a black person could exercise power and authority, especially in the pre-Civil Rights era. A man who was a butler Monday through Saturday could be a deacon or pastor on Sunday.

    Frankly, I will say that the environment in the mainstream atheist organizations is not welcoming for people of color or women. The problems that are important to us are dismissed as not being “real atheist issues” and there is little attempt to include nonwhites in the major organizations, establish real-life (not Internet) communities that would function as real alternatives to religious groups, or provide a radical critique of societal ills that affect us. It’s easy to say that “Christianity justified slavery and Jim Crow,” but what are atheists doing right now to address the problems of blacks in the year 2013, other than complain about churchgoing among minorities?

    • Anathema

      That was a very thoughtful critique. The atheist community (myself included) has a lot of work to do with regards to racial issues.

  • wjbernard

    This is a public announcement for all the religious leaders of America, especially the Black ones: I have some good news that I must share with my Black brothers and sisters. We, Blacks in America, now know who we are, where we came from and why we are catching Hell in America.

    In the Holy Scriptures, our history book, is a prophecy directed at Israel shortly after being led out of slavery in Egypt. It can be found at Deut.28:15-68. I would urge all to read this prophecy carefully and ask yourself, “In all of human history, who has had these experiences? And, by the way, how long would this suffering last?”

    Well, once again the Bible provides the answer at Gen.15:13, 14 – 400 years. Now, here is where it gets really interesting. According to my research, the first recorded sale of an enslaved African in America was 1619. Now, connect the dots, meditate on this information and consider the ramifications of these prophecies on world’s religions. They are facing a dissolution of their businesses. They may want to get their house in order soon, for God is preparing to clean house soon.

    May you have peace and love for you and yours, my brothers and sisters.

  • mianaja@gmail.com

    there is this thing called hope that religion provides you that when everything else around tells you that your circumstances will not or cannot change, then faith and hope and belief give you a vision beyond those circumstances. One Black woman’s book is not going to substantively change the place that church has in Black women (or white women’s) lives. Church is where community gathers, where political leaders come to speak, where children are raised, is the Village. It is where the elderly are still respected, where men can hold places of respect and honor and despite all the drama and hypocrisy that exists in the church like most institutions, it has value. Life without God to those of us who belief is a life of nothingness, it gives you no bulwark to sustain you against the daily assaults of racism, sexism, colorism, beautyism, fatism, hair, etc. Within the church we know our sins, who is crazy who has issues and we pray for them, because no one is perfect. In high functioning churches, people who do crimes and damage others are put out and prosecuted. The church organizations like to hide these things from the larger world because we don’t like to air our dirty laundry and of course if it happens in a black church then ALL black people are painted with the same broad brush. Because the actions of one black person represent the entire race (I am being faceitious). However one ex-clergy’s book will never convince most black women to become atheist, if you become an atheist, it was already in your thought processes before you read anyone’s book and unfortunately somewhere the church or someone you cared about let you down and you transferred that to God. I have worked for the SCLC and I can tell you that the Black churches are the only institutions that could have financed and assisted the civil rights movement. They are the only independent institutions that can exist and hold independent thought. You may not like Farrakhan or Jeremiah Wright, but they would have no voice at all were they not affiliated with religious organizations. The black community still needs a place where our voices and our ways can be maintained without control from the mainstream. But to link Black women’s faith solely to the church is simplistic and insulting. When I say, “I know what Jesus has done for me.” It was not in church, most times it was outside in my daily life. Being a christian is a lifestyle, not an activity.