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Jul 28 2010

What If…


By Shawn Brown

Black atheist! Do these words mean anything? Certainly not if such a person does not exist.

Everyone knows that black people love Jesus. With tears in our eyes and a bittersweet joy in our hearts, we marvel at the wonder of the divine. With hands raised high we sway to our own celestial rhythm. With a look of transcendent torment upon our faces, we sing His praises. Don’t we love Jesus? Don’t we all love Jesus?

I’ve heard it said that black people have a “Jesus fixation”, a single minded focus on God. From our earliest days we are taught that there is a mysterious and powerful man in the heavens above- enthroned some place between time and space. Omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient- He is God-the-Father. The ethereal embodiment, if you will allow, of benevolence and love. We are taught by parents, grandparents and the preacher that “God is good!”

But, as the lesson of God’s goodness is taught with one breath, we are taught that God is awful with the next. He knows our thoughts, He knows our feelings, He knows what we will do next, and He knows our secrets and the hour of our deaths. This God is not to be trifled with. What fool would question Him- even in the quiet of one’s own mind?

Respecting the God that black Christians serve means not speaking doubt or even thinking it. How could there ever be such a thing as a black Atheist?

You serve the Lord with fear and trembling. You serve Him in perfect submission. You must love Him always. You must never think ill of Him. He is without fault. He is responsible for everything good in your life- not you. You are responsible for everything bad in your life- not Him. Praise the Lord when things go right; beg His forgiveness when they go wrong.

Now, how did we end up with this particular religious system? Well, that’s simple: Slavery. One of the original justifications for slavery was to bring the “heathen” African into contact with Christianity. The earliest enslaved Africans were converted by force before even leaving the slave castles of western Africa. They were now Christian by virtue of the slave trader’s power.

As time passed, many slaveholders ceased to rely on this pre-textual justification for slavery. After all, if you do not free the enslaved once they have become Christians, then providing them salvation seems a flimsy rationale. Continuing to parrot the old justification of Christianizing the African would be too absurd even for a slaveholder. However, Christianity was still useful to them. Logically, the slaveholder continued to teach Christianity in a way beneficial to their more genuine economic motives. From Ephesians they likely taught “slaves obey your masters here on Earth…” From Matthew 5:5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the Earth.” From Matthew 18:4 “[w]hoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” The slaveholders’ true intention was not to save souls, but to create a docile workforce. Unfortunately, this strategic impartation of Christianity began to take root.

As time passed, African-Americans began to replicate these religious norms independently. With each passing year our addiction to religion grew more complete, until finally Christianity became synonymous with blackness. The imposing nexus of historical indoctrination and present day hardship conspire to keep African-Americans chained to religion. Christian faith and hardship stand in equipoise within the black community- and understandably so. When people are oppressed there is a hunger for hope that can never fully be satisfied so long as the unjust conditions persist. The desire for justice is transferred to hope for happiness in a time yet to come.

This is why we love the Lord. This is why there are no black atheists. This is why we all love Jesus.

But, what happens if you do not? What happens if you began to doubt Jesus when you stopped believing in Santa Clause? What if you realized early on that there are two creation stories in Genesis, and that they are not the same? What if you realized that no god could be simple minded enough to use either method to create the universe? What if you believe that culture and isolation explain linguistic differences, and not the Tower of Babel? What if you believe it wrong to stone children- even when they disobey? What if you believe that eating an apple, which God intentionally put within Eve’s grasp, is not a just reason to thrust the world into suffering? What if you do not believe that a person could survive three days in the belly of a whale? What if you think it silly for an all knowing god to create his own nemesis? What if you think it odd for God to send Himself, to save us- from Himself? Would not it have been easier to simply forgive our sins without the blood soaked spectacle of Calvary? What if you find it inconceivable for an all-loving god to create an unimaginable hell for His own children? What if…

What if we stopped waiting on Jesus and started planning? What if we realized that deferring justice until the next life meant deferring it forever? What if we understood that following a religion which too often perpetuates patriarchy has a chilling effect on the development of millions of our potential leaders? What if we knew that our gay brothers and sisters had just as much right to exist as the rest of us (something that would be obvious to a historically oppressed people but for religious influence)? What if we could drop the inaction of religion, for the urgency that comes with knowing that it is up to us? What if we could drop the divisiveness of faith for the loving kindness of humanism? What if…

Of course this could never happen, not if you are black. No! You see, being a good Christian is never to question aloud. Being a good Christian is never to allow a question to linger in your mind. Being a good Christian means to turn off your rational mind when it becomes bothersome to your faith. Unfortunately, black people are good Christians.

If you are the type of person who believes that love began with Jesus, that morality was created by God, that mercy and justice are religious concepts, then you find my words striking. However, if you have dared to think beyond what you were told, if you prefer enlightenment to conditioning, then you may just see it differently. You will have realized that love, courage, empathy and kindness are all human inventions-not the altruistic inventions of a cosmic overlord. You will have realized that we are not abject by birth, but just as valuable as our ancestors have made us.

If you believe these things as I do, then you know that the justice we have long been denied is within our grasp. We can believe in our own virtue, instead of dismissing any notion of our own human goodness. We can accept the challenges of the present and master them completely. If we are courageous enough to examine our beliefs, we can break the chains placed on our minds so long ago. In so doing, we can, for once, live in a world of our choosing – but only if there exists such a thing as a black atheist.

Shawn Brown is an attorney who has studied law both in the United States and England. He has been a freethinker for several years and currently resides in the southwestern United States.

31 comments

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  1. 1
    Paulette Maxine Harris

    I love that you wrote about the history of black christianity-the root of all evil (-:… Giving the reader good information and room to reevaluate the what if..
    Enjoyed your article,
    Thank you!

  2. 2
    TheBigBlueFrog

    A very thoughtful and insightful article. I'm a mix of Northern European, Scandinavian and American Indian, and if I look far enough back, I find an oppressed people being forced to convert at the point of a sword or a gun. It's especially frustrating though, to see how African-Americans were coerced into trading one overbearing master for another. For my own part, I've often wondered why my American Indian "brethren" are so quick to embrace fundamentalist Christianity.

    Thank you, Shawn, for coming out and letting people know that skeptics of all stripes, and especially atheists, come in a range of colors.

  3. 3
    De Mushdoctor

    Hey Shawn,you have said everything that I wanted to say all of my life. It was well stated,an eye-opener,intelligently delivered with such profound utmost pricision. It was timley,with a sense of urgency and vivid clarity,that it's almost impossible to ignore.A grand slam if there ever was one…Boom!there it is…Well written!

  4. 4
    mpurkes

    Great article, we need to get to the bottom of the divides between people that draw lines based on sex, sexuality, race, income etc.. and it starts with getting more understanding of who 'those' people are.

  5. 5
    Aganippe Oracle

    There doesn't need to be a a black atheist, just a non-believer, one person that doesn't accept what is written in a book 2,000 years old as holy writ. Non-believers don't even consider it worth a discussion although they are often dragged into one. It is a non-issue. Just as all the previous gods before Yaweh and Jehovah, there is no particular reason why any attention should be paid to this one. The only points worthy of discussion would be how could an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving all-everything god mess up so badly? Anyway that's not much of a discussion either. Once blacks are through with being entertained on Sunday or accept churh as a social entity they will fall away and that is happening now. They are not disillusioned, they see it for what it is.

  6. 6
    Sarah Trachtenberg

    Great article:) It's so nice to hear from a black atheist lawyer. As far as I know, I've never met one.
    One important thing you left out is that both sides of the abolitionist movement used Xianity to justify their stance on slavery. If you read Uncle Tom's cabin, the only anti-slavery Caucasian character is that way because of Xianity.
    Another thing is that when I think of black Americans' religiosity, I can't leave the Nation of Islam out of the equation. Isn't NOI growing very fast in the US?

  7. 7
    Anonymous

    Great read.

  8. 8
    Jamie DeSalu

    "When people are oppressed there is a hunger for hope that can never fully be satisfied so long as the unjust conditions persist. The desire for justice is transferred to hope for happiness in a time yet to come…what if we stopped waiting on Jesus and started planning? What if we realized that deferring justice until the next life meant deferring it forever?"

    This is the key point. That this has consistently been the strategy of the various downtrodden for millennia defies my ability to comprehend. It is a crutch that serves only to strengthen the wound.

  9. 9
    Anonymous

    This is foolishness and oneday you all will have to answer to God, despite what your belief is. I am yet praying for you. May God have mercy on your souls.

    Be Blessed

  10. 10
    NoSacredCow

    "I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs"
    Frederick Douglass

    "Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich"
    Napoleon Bonaparte

  11. 11
    Anonymous

    Great post! Thanks for openly discussing an issue that many African Americans are forced to hide in their hearts.

  12. 12
    The Grenadian Freethinker

    Great post, well said. Time for Black folks to wake up.

  13. 13
    Epistemology Quest

    This was an excellent narrative. It is imperative that we continue to show historical and cultural foundation of black Christians in America. We must continue to challenge the precepts that have so many bound to Christianity. We need to educate ourselves as well as others.

  14. 14
    Anonymous

    @Mushdoctor- That's what I was thinking when I read it! I'm gonna pass this link around.

  15. 15
    Anonymous

    That was a great article. Black people didn't like being enslaved but they freely allow their minds to be enslaved by religion. The more black atheists/humanist that come out, the more will follow.

  16. 16
    Anonymous

    Hey I'm doing a Reserach project on Black Atheist and I wanted to know if you all could help me better understand why you are atheist. And why do you feel the way you feel. I would greatly appreciate it.
    Thanks!

  17. 17
    Anonymous

    Good post, I honestly believe that there is no such thing as a black atheist. It's just like calling a black man racist. Especially if we are made in the image of god.

  18. 18
    Beyond Belief

    Well done! The more non-believers who come out, and realize we have a common interest (in spite of our many, many diverse particular agendas), the sooner we will push aside the stigma of non-belief and be represented at the tables of secular government.

    That is our primary common ground: That we ALL desire fair, just, democratic government "of the people, by the people and for" ALL of the people. Equally.

    Amen. :-)

  19. 19
    Lendear

    You just made up a whole bunch of stuff. Maybe you think manipulation is motivational in a positive direction. How many of the worlds black populations live in the southeastern U.S.and share a common history over the last 400 years?

  20. 20
    Shawn

    Hello Anonymous, thanks for the reply. I'd love to talk to you about your research. What's the best way to contact you?

    Shawn Brown

  21. 21
    Red Mann

    Great article, reminds me of the “no atheists in a foxhole” conundrum.
    “When people are oppressed there is a hunger for hope that can never fully be satisfied so long as the unjust conditions persist. The desire for justice is transferred to hope for happiness in a time yet to come.”
    This is probably the main reason religion has held such power for so long. It is the perfect political solution. Keep the downtrodden quiet by promising that their current misery will be rewarded later, after they die.

  22. 22
    Anonymous

    Thanks for being there and posting such a great article. As a black atheist I'm watching my family grow more entrenched into religion in hope their lives will improve,and I watch many of them die young waiting for their god to bless them somehow They are so afraid that god will punish them (I used to be like them) if they don't do what they're told. I'm so glad you are there; it makes me feel less alone.

  23. 23
    Lajune

    Shawn, this is an absolutely BRILLIANT piece of work! It's very deeply moving– so much so, that I got chills as I read the "what ifs" and I found myself wishing I'd read something like this years ago when I first started doubting (but was still too afraid to let go of what I believed). It is my sincere hope that closeted Atheists will read this and realize they aren't alone– or crazy. Even moreso, I hope this messages inspires Black Christians to open their eyes to the fallacy of their religion. Bravo, my dear Shawn! Bravo!

  24. 24
    Danladi Dele Agbeyo

    Shawn, thats a great write-up. However, you overlooked the biblical curse on the black race, that gave divine approval for the inhuman slave-trade that lasted for over a quater of a century as well as the obnocious apatheid regime of South Africa.
    As a people, we, blacks have been conditioned to believe we are inferior and worthless. A black man kneeling before a white Jesus, as the Lord and Saviour and asking for forgiveness everyday would definitely give birth to a permanent feeling of inferiority. Slave-mentality if you like.
    It is said that 'you can take a man out of slavery but difficult to take slavery out of a man'
    We need to be deconditioned and reconditioned through delibrate propaganda for logical and rational thinking.
    Dele(Nigeria)

  25. 25
    Anonymous

    Hitorians will tell you that, back in the earliest days of the Church, one of the groups quickest to embrace Christianity were the urban slaves of the Roman Empire.

    Christianity is a religion that promotes unthinking obedience while simultaneously bringing false comfort to people having a miserable time. This makes it a brilliant tool for oppressors everywhere.

  26. 26
    Danno Davis

    Excellent post, sir.

  27. 27
    Mer

    People like you give me a bit more hope in the future. Courage.

  28. 28
    Anonymous

    Truly magnificent, if my eyes were not already open to atheism you would have certainly converted me onto this path. At my age of 15, I have already fought with so many who see what I am as "blasphemy". I do make my stand as a great point, and you have made me think even more of what I know as well as teach me even more.

  29. 29
    Ani Sharmin

    This is an awesome post! I can relate to some of what you've written in that people also sometimes assume due to where my family is from and my last name that I'm a certain religion; it's just expected. (Although I obviously can't relate to the history of slavery that African Americans have experienced.)

    There are so many events in history and in our lives which compel people to choose religion when it seems to offer hope, even if that hope is not real. It's better, I think, to have hope in humanity and our ability to make our lives better.

    I look forward to reading more on this site!

  30. 30
    Anonymous

    wow keep up the great work you are an awesome writer!

  31. 31
    Anonymous

    Bravo Shawn!! Let's have a world-wide de-christianization movement of black people all over the world!

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