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 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.