Note: Although I am a black atheist, and although I think I have pretty solid evidence for my claims here, I should state here that these are my personal views; no one is qualified to be the voice of every black American.
Atheism in the United States, according to many atheists, has a culture problem. It consists, mainly, of white males.
This is not a trumped up charge. The stats are clear.
Look under the Atheist/Agnostic label, and you’ll notice a very small number in comparison to the Christian groups. It’s enormous — 82% of atheists in the United States, as of 2012, are white; only 3% are black. That is a huge disparity. Why the gap? What is going on?
I’ve seen the handwringing over this problem as a Christian talking to predominantly white churches and as an atheist attending conventions and attending meetings with local atheist movement groups. I’ve been to meetings on diversity, I’ve been in dozens of conversations about why black people prefer to go to church or, if they are atheist, stay in the closet, and I’ve heard from several white people and several black people who are unsure about what’s going on.
I’m going to tell you. It won’t take long:
The reason there aren’t more black atheists is because the black church does something atheism isn’t doing. Atheist movements (and white churches, for that matter) tend to talk about how much they NEED black people. They seem to emphasize that their doors are open to black people. They seek to show how black people are wanted and needed and appreciated as atheists. But where they are not holding a candle to the black church.
The reason is that white atheists seem obsessed about showing black people that white atheists need/honor/appreciate black people.
Seldom do they seem to ask the question of whether black people have reason to need/honor/appreciate white atheists.
And our competition, fellow atheists, is the black church. And the black church is in the black person’s corner. Like, their ideology may be wrong, as far as whether Jesus rose from the dead, and so on. But black churches, for the most part, have taken Christianity — a tool for their oppression — and turned it into a tool for their liberation. And it is undeniable that it provides several benefits to black people here in the United States that, frankly, the predominantly white male atheist demographic can’t hold a candle to.
Black people aren’t interested, for the most part (though there may be exceptions) in handing out gold stars or attending your events because you appreciate us or honor us or say you need us. There is a hell of a lot more pride in most of us than that. You have to show why we need you. What benefit are you giving us that the black church down the street — which is often fighting for social/financial/political needs day in, day out — isn’t giving us? Less? None? Well, then why the heck would I become an atheist when there’s little benefit in doing so to me?
It’s like the salesperson who is obsessed with selling you his product. No matter how much he says, “I’d really appreciate you buying my product. I’d love it if you brought my product. I need you to buy my product,” you’re not going to choose that product above someone who is saying, “You need this product because of legitimate reasons xyz.”
That’s just the way life works.
And some would-be atheists will pass up atheism and go straight to the black church because the black church is more active in the community and simply are offering more. Don’t believe me? Check out a black man who said this:
I was not raised in a particularly religious household, as undoubtedly many in the audience were. My father…was…an atheist. My mother…grew up with a healthy skepticism of organized religion herself. As a consequence, so did I.
It wasn’t until after college, when I went to Chicago to work as a community organizer for a group of Christian churches, that I confronted my own spiritual dilemma.
I was working with churches, and the Christians who I worked with recognized themselves in me. They saw that I knew their Book and that I shared their values and sang their songs. But they sensed that a part of me that remained removed, detached, that I was an observer in their midst.
And in time, I came to realize that something was missing as well — that without a vessel for my beliefs, without a commitment to a particular community of faith, at some level I would always remain apart, and alone.
And if it weren’t for the particular attributes of the historically black church, I may have accepted this fate.
I want to stop right there. So this black man was, basically, an atheist. And he was going to remain an atheist for the rest of his life. But where did this lead him? Apart, and alone — which is how many black atheists working to make things better for other black individuals may feel. If you’re a black atheist, you may often find yourself isolated if you’re around predominantly black friends. I’ve talked with black people who have noticed that, due to cultural and experiential differences, it can feel lonely (I’ve experienced this somewhat, as well). It’s not like you get extraordinary benefits from being a black atheist. More than a white atheist, you can feel like you’re on the outside, looking in. Very few of us are willing to accept this fate. But this man was, and would have continued to be accepting of this fate, if it hadn’t been for one thing — the black church was absolutely irresistible. This young black man left the atheism not because he was logically convinced that the Christian beliefs were true, but because of the black church. It took a promising young atheist, because it offered more. Going on…
But as the months passed in Chicago, I found myself drawn – not just to work with the church, but to be in the church.
For one thing, I believed and still believe in the power of the African-American religious tradition to spur social change, a power made real by some of the leaders here today. Because of its past, the black church understands in an intimate way the Biblical call to feed the hungry and cloth the naked and challenge powers and principalities. And in its historical struggles for freedom and the rights of man, I was able to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world. As a source of hope.
And perhaps it was out of this intimate knowledge of hardship — the grounding of faith in struggle — that the church offered me a second insight, one that I think is important to emphasize today.
Do atheists offer that in the United States today? Because that’s what the predominantly white male atheist groups are up against. I think almost any honest observer — white, black, or any other race — would have to say that the atheist demographic hardly holds a candle to this. Which, arguably, is why Barack Obama, the black man of the preceding quotes, currently identifies as a Christian and not as a nonbeliever.
When most atheists are about saying “atheism is ONLY about a lack of belief in God or Gods,” the result is that you’re going to attract people who are not attached to movements like the black church that are about a lot more than that. You’re going to attract people who don’t need those movements, that advocacy; people who don’t need people fighting for them and in their corner as much concerning issues of race and gender. You’re going to attract the least vulnerable people in society.
Which is why atheism is mostly white and male.
There you have it. That’s the big mystery. And you might ask, “How do we solve the problem?”
As a black atheist who has been in conversations with hundreds of white atheists online about this, I’m struggling. I mean, it’s like pulling teeth to convince most white people I know that black Americans are struggling in the United States, let alone that people should do something about it. This chart seems to hold true for most conversations:
That is a HUGE disparity. And, frankly, a lot of black people are tired of having to prove the very basics to white people. It’s like trying to convince a salesperson that you don’t need his product. Many prefer not to waste their time, and simply spend time with people who have a bit more sense. I mean, these are just the facts. Don’t shoot the messenger.
And note — I’m not saying that ALL black people think this. There is still that 12 percent of black people in that chart who will say, “discrimination is no big deal.” And you’ll attract some black people on that basis, with that platform. And maybe it’s not a big deal for these black people (it’s complicated, too, because many of us black people, due to pride, don’t want to face the fact that we are often being discriminated against). But for most of us, there is discrimination. In my experience, if I ask a white crowd, “Is discrimination a problem?” I’m going to get a debate. Ask the same question to a black crowd, and they’ll look at me, collectively, like I’m a bit insane. Of course racism is a problem! Where have you been — sleeping under a rock?
So, if you’re bothered by the fact that there aren’t more black atheists, and feel like you need them, and begin to wonder why there aren’t more atheists, ask yourself, “What benefits are atheists offering black people above what the black church is giving them?” And if you’re coming up blank, you have your answer. You don’t have to necessarily care about increasing diversity among atheists. But let’s end any nonsense about there being confusion about the problem, because the reason for the problem is staring us right smack-dab in the face.
If you are a black atheist looking for somewhere to connect, however, there are some organizations of like-minded people dotted throughout the United States that are trying to be in your corner. And, although it may be difficult to find a solution here, one is to donate to the efforts of these organizations. If you’re interested in making atheism more socially acceptable and beneficial for a more diverse group of individuals, consider helping these groups out. Check out the links, and thanks for reading.