Watch and Wince: A Black Atheist Filmmaker Asks His Family Uncomfortable Questions About Faith

Andre Oliver is a young filmmaker from Canton, Ohio who just finished his first autobiographical documentary, Stray From the Flock: The Story of a Black Atheist. It’s not a slick film, but it’s heartfelt and genuine. I think it’s going to stay with me for a long time, which is refreshing amidst so much polished but forgettable movie tripe.

Going by the old auteur’s adage to “write what you know,” Andre makes good use of his easy access to his own extended family. His uncles and cousins and nieces, and his mom, are all pretty comfortable in front of the camera, and they don’t hold back when Andre asks them probing questions about belief and non-belief. See for yourself (this is the whole 51-minute film, not just an excerpt):

Andre’s uncle Jarvis gets the most screen time. Perhaps that’s because he’s the one who occasionally veers close to insight, or at least close to asking a worthwhile question of his own. For instance (2:35):

“Every time that we think that something doesn’t exist — or we think that it’s not there, there’s no evidence — it’s simply because we haven’t found the evidence. Are you searching?”

Good question. Is he? If Jarvis acknowledges that there’s no evidence for God, on what does he base his beliefs?

He continues:

“If you’re an atheist, you’re probably not searching, so you probably don’t believe it exists anyway.”

But what does he wish his nephew to look for? You can no more blame a man for not searching for God than you can fault him for not spending his life trying to confirm the existence of Bertrand Russell‘s celestial teapot. Besides, searching for God implies a desire — and a bias — to find him. Searching for truth is something else altogether (though the two are not mutually exclusive).

The whoppers keep coming. Jarvis:

“That’s the same thing about air I guess. You can’t see it but you breathe it. It keeps you alive.”

Oy. We know oxygen exists because we’ve long ago charted the photosynthesis that produces it. We know how oxygen aids the respiration and metabolism of humans and other life forms, and we can measure its presence or absence. We can also see oxygen, under certain circumstances. Obviously, no comparable scientific proofs exist to support the belief in God.

This is both the strength and the weakness of Stray From the Flock: Every argument brought up by the interviewees can be easily contested and, in most cases, blown out of the water. Andre, though, doesn’t really debate anyone (the one time he pushes back is when Jarvis says that nothing in the Bible condones slavery, when in fact there are dozens of Bible verses that would certainly seem to do exactly that). It’s instructive to just listen to these people talk candidly about religion and atheism without them getting slammed with on-the-spot rebuttals. At the same time, their misconceptions and fallacies cry out to be countered. I suppose that ultimately, the movie is more of a sociological portrait than an exercise in cerebral gymnastics, and I can live with that.

It’s one of the film’s strong points that Andre addresses, true to the title, what it means to be a black atheist. One example: his mother says, at 18:48,

“I could never understand why a person, especially in black America, would be atheist. Because from the slavery days to all the things we’ve gone through as black Americathat a black American would not believe is just unbelievable.”

That’s roughly a hundred times the size of the guilt complex that white Christian parents try to hang on their godless brood.

Andre adds (20:06) that some of his friends have accused him of “acting white,”

“Because apparently, for some fucking reason I don’t know, black people see atheism as a white thing — something that black people just don’t do.

He looks tense and dejected in that scene, but we see a gentler, happier side of him when he playfully interviews his nieces Le’asia and Samyra. Especially Le’asia, the littler one, is a real sweetheart. Though she can’t be more than six years old, she already displays an independent spirit. Going against the leading questions asked by her off-camera mom, Le’asia declares roundly that Andre shouldn’t have to go to church “if he doesn’t want to” (45:13).

But for me, the high point of the movie comes soon after Andre enters delicate territory and asks the girls if they believe in Santa Claus. Le’asia has this bright, fantastic answer (45:40):

I saw receipts on the table.

I saw receipts on the table. How cool is that? That totally deserves to be the next big Internet meme for skeptics — the perfect reply to anyone who tries to sell you a line of pretty bunkum.

Someone please put Le’asia’s observation on a T-shirt. I’ll wear it proudly.

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If you’d like to own Andre Oliver’s movie, you can buy a DVD copy here. Want to make a donation to help finance his next project? Right this way.

About Terry Firma

Terry Firma, though born and Journalism-school-educated in Europe, has lived in the U.S. for the past 20-odd years. Stateside, his feature articles have been published in the New York Times, Reason, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Wired. Terry is the founder and Main Mischief Maker of Moral Compass, a site that pokes fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards.

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

    i’m very lucky as an african-american. my family has always been only lightly touched by religion. we’ve got folks from all different faiths, and none, in my family and no one ever tries to push their beliefs on any of the rest of us. my grandmother, always a blunt and to the point sort of woman, informed me at a young age why church is important: “It’s were you meet men with jobs.” heh. she was a member of so many different churches it’s hard to count. ;-)

    i’ll watch this later, but i wanted to address the point that just like in the white religious community, not seeing atheists is a big defense mechanism for believers in the black community too. there is, in fact, a long and rich african american tradition of non-christian black people. it ranges from those who never stopped practicing traditional african religions, to black Muslims and Jews, to atheists and intellectuals who openly question the role of the “black church” in our civil rights struggles.

    like a lot of white christians, most black christians just ignore all that. it’s the same ‘logic’ as “This country was founded by Christians,” which says “Our people have always been Christians.” it’s just not true.

    • Jeff See

      Thanks for the insight.

    • Artor

      When I was younger, I was bewildered that black people were so devoutly Xian, after the centuries of misery that Xianity had visited upon them. Now I understand a little more of the history behind the why, but it’s still a bit bewildering.

  • Jeff See

    They always quote the Bible, they always revert to the Bible to offer it as proof. I wish I could explain it to those who never believed that hard. You always go back to the Bible. That thing needs totally discredited, and in a way that’s undeniable.

    I’m not sure how to accomplish that. It’s already pretty hard to believe in, yet people do. Very, very much.

    • http://batman-news.com 3lemenope

      I believe that the most important tool for the task of persuading Christians that Christianity is generally unsupportable is Christianity itself. From a contradiction, everything follows, and so finding the contradiction that underwrites any particular absurd result is just a matter of identifying which assumptions, axioms, or premises are in conflict. The additional benefit here is you restrict yourself to the tools and sources that the interlocutor is biased towards accepting rather than those they instinctively distrust.

      Most Christians are utterly unaware, for example, of what the Bible actually says (as in, there is actual empirical evidence that Christians tend not to have a clue in this area), because they either have very little exposure or their exposure, even if extensive, is only ever for proof-texting purposes. They only believe that they believe what the Bible says. The key is simply in finding what facet of the Bible leads to the contradiction, and then presenting it to them in a way that makes the contradiction (and all unpleasant entailments that follow from acknowledging it) too difficult to avoid semantically. The more faith they place in the Bible, the more devastating this technique can be.

      I tend to believe this generally. The most persuasive arguments against liberalism are rooted in liberalism. The most persuasive arguments against conservatism are rooted in conservatism. If nothing else, it is the best practical training in the world for persuasion to learn how to effectively argue against someone while conceding all of their axioms and premises. The task is simply to show that the arguments don’t lead where the person wielding them thinks they do; they tend to lead other, darker places.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    Funny, you never see Joe Klein mention receipts on the table.

    • CanuckAmuck

      Seriously – that’s never getting old.

  • Jasper

    The reason I’m not “searching for God” is because they haven’t managed to pass the “grant proposal” stage – where the people making the claim have demonstrated there’s anything to their claims… which is a prerequisite for me to invest any of my precious time/energy on.

    If you can’t show that there’s any indication that homeopathy actually works, and isn’t just a placebo, then I’m not going to drop a single cent on it.

    Why should I? For every claim that’s true, there’s a hundred thousand bizarre lunatic insane claims that are competing alongside it.

    I can’t investigate them all, so there’s gotta be something there that indicates there’s some truth to it, first.

    • hf

      Quite right. If we have finite time, we can only examine a selection of the best possibilities from the space of everything that logic allows. (This holds true even with infinite time if you believe mathematicians.)

      When we discovered evolution, it didn’t just provide evidence against deities. It also showed that our way of distributing ‘prior’ probability between theories by intuition was flawed — that we’d given too much credence to minds like our own, and none at all to other theories that deserved a look. Another example of a hypothesis our ancestors should have considered might be Slaughterhouse Five or <Harry Potter -style time travel, though that one seems hard to get one’s head around. See Bob the Angry Flower.

      • hf

        Disqus is opinionated, I see. Perhaps it’ll close every speech with “End Harry Potter!”

  • cyb pauli

    Most of the black people in the US were imported as product for the purpose of enslavement. Christian salvation was (is) used a tool by colonialists to justify the outrage that is going to a new continent, gathering large quantities of people like wood or gold and shipping them to a totally different continent as work horses and whores. At the end of slavery to now, verses from the Bible have and are used to defend racial inequality and policies discriminatory towards the black race. That fact makes Christianity, and the very concept of religion, even more insulting to me. And to be fair my people are South Louisianans and I was raised Catholic far from the “black” hoop ‘n holler Protestant church usually associated with what follows.

    That being said themes from Judeo-Christian mythology like the Exodus became important to {{some}} black cultures and the “church” a source of community and hope. I believe, perhaps wrongly, what this young man’s mother means when she says disbelief in a black person is unbelievable. She cant imagine, with the hell our community has been through, a whole culture/demographic of imported goods used and despised, an individual cutting themselves off from that source of hope, blessings and unity.

    • hf

      Not to put too fine a point on it, but a lot of Christians seem (to this atheist) to say “God” when they mean, ‘some sub-set of society that will protect me from anything really bad.’ Their model of the world technically makes different predictions from mine, but it doesn’t contain anything I’d call a deity. Instead, it quietly asserts that their family or church has magical powers and will protect them.

      If we were talking about an all-loving super-human intelligence, then slavery would be strong evidence in the other direction. But of course your family or neighborhood church couldn’t save those slaves — it’s not all-powerful, nor does it love everyone equally.

  • Mick

    The attitude of that family is summed up rather neatly at the 45 minute mark when a girl is asked if she knows why her uncle doesn’t go to church and she replies, “No – and I’d like to keep it that way.”

  • jdm8

    The Christian Bible was used for at least a couple centuries to justify the practice of slavery and continued subjugation of black people, so I don’t understand why they’re defending it so strongly, to the point of using their escape from slavery as a reason Christianity is so good and valid.

    • kickinitincrik

      The impetus for condoning slavery was not the Bible but rather the cultural norms from as far back as humanity went. Many if not most of the abolitionists were Christian ministers. It took Christian nations to recognize the inherent evil of slavery while a truly atheist nation like North Korea continues the tradition of slavery. It’s laughable that atheists think that they have a one up on Christians in the slavery department. Go on, fire off your ridiculous little “biblically-backed” mandates for slavery which you regurgitate from your mother bird atheists who have not a clue when it comes to Biblical history, hermeneutics or theology.

      • http://batman-news.com 3lemenope

        The real problem here is that Bible, in the end, turned out to be no more effective at arguing against slavery than arguing for it. If it really is a “Good” Book in more than a facile, aesthetic sense, then one can have a legitimate expectation that it is a tool that ought to be more effective at reinforcing good than evil. That it does not is an empirical clue that should lead a person to suspect the claims being made about the entity described as being the inspiration for its text and message.

        • kickinitincrik

          Uh, you’re wrong. It’s pretty obvious that the change agent of the slavery issue was Christian theology. If humans have value as creatures of the deity then they shouldn’t be mistreated. It’s pretty simple really. Thousands and thousands of years of human existence and slavery gets abolished in nations with a Christian worldview. The only reason why you can pretend that slavery is evil is because you live in culture that has furnished you with those beliefs.

          • CanuckAmuck

            It’s pretty obvious that the change agent of the slavery issue was Christian theology.

            Yes, “pretty obvious” the same way the truth of creationism is “pretty obvious”.

            Thousands and thousands of years of human existence

            …During which Christion nations practiced slavery…

            and slavery gets abolished in nations with a Christian worldview.

            …Only after the humanist values expressed by philosophers during the Age of Enlightenment started to make an impact on both the leaders and general populace of the time.

            And even then, I seem to recall that one of these Christian nations had to go to war with itself to get rid of slavery. But hey, I’m sure it was a really atheistic region of that country that wanted to keep it.

      • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

        The problem is, when we fire off our bible passages, you simply say “it was six years of indentured servitude” and completely ignore all the cases where it wasn’t. You’ve got a rotten cherry in your eye, and refuse to remove it to take a look at the reality of how horrible God’s rules actually are.

      • NathanExplosion

        The God you worship is a childish dick.

        This explains your existence.

        You’ve converted me. Praise childish dick Jesus!!

        • kickinitincrik

          Childish eh? Last time people threw the word dick around in a conversation with me was in high school I think. Are you a junior this year?

      • Artor

        LOL. I’d bet hard cash that most of the atheists on this site know far more about Biblical history, hermeneutics & theology than you do. Try harder troll.

        • kickinitincrik

          Console yourself with that. LOL. That would be some easy $$.

      • jdm8

        To say the Bible doesn’t condone slavery is a silly cop-out. Among other passages, Exodus 21 & Leviticus 25 lay down laws regarding slave trade and treatment. To say it’s just cultural norms, why does the Torah just regulate it? That’s a very weak approach to the immoral horrors of slavery. I would say a moral deity would have banished the practice outright. I mean, if it’s OK to beat your slave and it’s not punishable if they get up in two days, that’s still a terrible horror.

        It’s interesting you bring up North Korea, when most secular nations have banned it, so you pick a single outlier that hasn’t, and even then, I suspect that your example is spun at that.

      • jdm8

        Your Korea example is like me using Westboro Baptist Church as a template for all Christians.

      • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

        You do realize there are laws on how hard to beat slaves, how to buy and sell them, how long you can enslave them (it varies), and rules dealing with selling one’s daughter into sex slavery, right? Not to mention the NT in which Paul tells slaves to work hard for their masters and tells a runaway to go back into slavery, while Jesus uses an example of beating your slaves to teach personal responsibility, which shows Jesus had no problems with slavery itself.

        But sure. Go ahead and tell yourself the Bible is totally anti-slavery if you just ignore all the pro-slavery bits.

  • kickinitincrik

    Teapots and Santa-Claus. It’s amazing that atheists still cling to the “there’s no evidence” argument. This is what happens when you presumptuously think that you have the rational edge. You unthinkingly trot out worn out and stupid arguments.

    • islandbrewer

      M’kay. Give me your reason that “there’s no evidence for God” is a stupid argument. And does your rationale hold true for “there’s no evidence for faeries,” too?

      I’m not being glib, I just want to see if you can trot out something more than the “why is there something rather than nothing” response.

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

      worn out and stupid arguments

      That about how I feel about every single apologetic argument I’ve seen the second time I’ve seen it. I can’t recall when the last time was I saw a new one.

    • Artor

      Okay then, show us where we’re wrong. Where is the evidence? Yes, there’s worn-out and stupid arguments being made, but it’s not the atheists making them here.

      • Neko

        Not gonna happen. kickinitincrik likes to swoop in here, pour scorn, and duck out.

        I have yet to see a shred of an apologetic from kick. kick, why did Jesus have to be tortured to death on a cross for our sins? I know you know! Won’t you tell? Jesus told you to make disciples of us. Get on the stick.

        • kickinitincrik

          He said not to cast pearls before swine.

          • Neko

            So predictable.

    • Mario Strada

      Where I to completely lose my mind and craft a post such as yours, at the very minimum I would add the reason why it is a ‘worn out and stupid argument’. In this case an objective justification for the existence of god or at least some evidence.

      …You unthinkingly trot out worn out and stupid arguments.

      How can atheists ignore this proof for god and that proof for god? And how about this proven fact that clearly shows how god is real and thinking it is not is presumptuous.

      I can’t help but notice the lack of any arguments in favor of the existence of god. Any god. Let alone the Judeo-Christian one specifically.

      It must be very rewarding to be such a know it all asshole. Such a know it all that you don;t have to bother to even explain your position. Insulting the other position is quite enough.

    • Sven2547

      I note that you’re complaining about the argument… but not even trying to refute it.

  • Jack

    What was the music at the end? Which rapper was that? Anyone know?

  • Justin Miyundees

    Brilliant!! Inspired technique to let folks try to make sense of their own nonsense!! Bravo!!

    And I want to see that mosh pit scene!!!

  • Louis Crockett

    Unfortunately, I don’t know that this film really lives up to what it was trying to. I too am an African American Atheist, and my experience seemed to largely mirror Andre’s. However, we know 100 reason for why people believe in God. This really just made black people seem silly. And while I find theistic belief silly, I would not embarrass my family by creating this film. My family, I am sure, would never want me to make a movie regarding my Atheism, because they believe. And in reality, disbelief is much stronger than belief – it is much easier to disbelief something unproven than it is to believe something unproven. In a debate, belief doesn’t really hold up; it is antithetical to logical reasoning. I think a better effort would be to show more African American Atheists and Anti-Theists, People of Color that are actively living happy lives without god. That is the movie I would like my family to see. But for what it was, it was definitely entertaining.

  • M1ND_0V3R_M4TT3R

    My story is almost identical to his. I just don’t talk to my family much about it.

  • http://oddboyout.blogspot.com/ oddboyout

    Oh geez when Jarvis(?) says at ~29:00… “If [Slavemasters] wanted the worst for the black man, the last thing they’d do is introduce them to Christianity.”

    Very cringe-worthy.


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