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.

  • 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://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.”


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