Heretics, Humanism, and “the Hood”


By Sikivu Hutchinson

As a radical humanist critic of America’s Christian slavocracy Frederick Douglass once wrote, “I prayed for twenty years and received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” What would Douglass, a trailblazing male feminist, have made of the brutal ironies of twenty first century black America? How would he have reconciled the “triumph” of its first black president with the travesty of crushing black poverty? The decline of mass movement liberation struggle with its prayer cult obsession? Or Black women’s second class citizenship with the sham of “post-feminism?”

In the spirit of Douglass, the black secular community’s moral obligation to social justice was the recurring theme of the L.A. Black Skeptics’ first “Going Godless in the Black Community” roundtable. Held in South Los Angeles, the heart of the West Coast’s Black Bible Belt, the meeting was one of the first L.A. gatherings of its kind in recent memory. The group was founded in March of this year to give non-theist and skeptic African Americans “congregating” online a real time community. Fifteen atheist/humanists from a broad array of backgrounds, ages and world views attended. The discussion ranged from critiques of the influence of hyper-religiosity in the African American community to practical strategies for developing humanist resources and social welfare institutions. I was recently reminded of the urgent need for humanist mental health and wellness alternatives at a black/Latina women’s conference I attended on “breaking the silence” about domestic violence and HIV/AIDS. Several presenters portrayed faith-based mental health and wellness “remedies” as the most viable approaches to healing. Prayer will “right you,” a woman who had been in a violent long term relationship declared to a literal amen corner of nodding heads. Relying upon prayer as an antidote to stress and trauma is a common coping strategy in communities of color, particularly for women of color. Race and gender-related stress are major contributors to stroke, hypertension and obesity in African Americans. Yet those who question faith-based healing remedies and belief systems are often marginalized as being “white-identified” and/or elitist. In some quarters evidence-based therapy is slammed as something black and Latino folks simply “don’t do” or can’t realistically afford.

The mental health crisis amongst African Americans is a devastating indicator of racial and social inequity, of which the prayer as therapy epidemic is an insidious symptom. During the Going Godless discussion participants focused on the importance of instilling black youth with an appreciation for critical thought and free inquiry. Reflecting on his K-12 education in L.A. schools Black Skeptics member Fred Castro said that he couldn’t recall ever being exposed to humanist curricula or anything beyond a traditional Western Judeo Christian lens. As the second largest school district in the nation, with skyrocketing dropout rates and youth who are homeless, in foster care and/or on probation, Los Angeles city schools are particularly challenged by the absence of systemic culturally relevant education. High incidences of “faith-based” bullying and harassment, degradation of young women and the culture of violent hyper-masculinity all underscore the need for anti-racist anti-sexist anti-homophobic humanist youth leadership initiatives. Atlanta-based activist Black Son spoke forcefully about having imbibed a culture of bigotry from the Bible, noting that African American youth are merely recycling the oppressive images and gender stereotypes they’ve been taught by “Christian” precepts. Parenting children amidst a sea of religious conformity and finding secular private schools with multicultural student bodies were also topics of concern. Children of color who come from atheist households—especially those who are taught to openly identify that way—are often subject to ridicule and ostracism as cultural traitors. In a world of public school Christian Bible study clubs, “mandatory” flag pledges, and teachers who violate church/state separation by using and/or endorsing prayer as a coping strategy, black children who don’t believe are marked as other.

The gathering also highlighted generational differences in atheist of color experience; from that of Clyde Young and Bella De Soto who linked religion to capitalist exploitation and spoke of the need for anti-sexist revolution, to Jermaine Inoue who suggested that socially conscious hip hop was a means of promoting media literacy. Jeffrey “Atheist Walking” Mitchell mused about whether atheists could be spiritual and materialist at the same time, eliciting a comment from artist Rachel Ross about having faith in empirical evidence versus “magical thinking.” The discussion became heated when some men wondered what it would take to make black women “less religious.” There was much debate about whether black women were entirely responsible for their overinvestment in religion or whether larger societal and cultural forces kept them overinvested. In response, I noted that there was relatively little social pressure/onus on black men to exhibit the kind of religious devotion that black women exhibit in their everyday lives and relationships. Hence, because black men enjoy patriarchal privilege, the real issue should be transforming masculinity to make men and boys more accountable for the care giving and nurturing roles that women are expected to fulfill. Merely criticizing the God-investment of black women without interrogating how patriarchy works in everyday space won’t change sexist power relations.

Reeling from recession, unemployment, wage decreases, foreclosure, homelessness and health disparities, black communities nationwide have borne the brunt of the global financial meltdown. Humanism can and should engage with the complexity of our disenfranchisement; otherwise it is a vacuous promise asking power to “concede nothing without demand.”

Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of the forthcoming book Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars (Infidel Books, 2011).

Humanity’s Child


By Shawn Brown

“Love is patient, love is kind.
It does not envy.
Love is never boastful, nor conceited, nor rude;
It is not self-seeking, nor easily angered.
It keeps no record of wrongdoing.
It does not delight in evil,
But rejoices in the truth.
It always protects, trusts, hopes, and preserves.

1 Corinthians 13:4-7

Seldom have more beautiful words been written. To my mind, these few lines are amongst the greatest poetry ever conceived. Humanity has rarely achieved the level of insight contained in these simple words. So profound are these words that if we could, for a moment, free ourselves from the dialectic between faith and reason we would applaud them.

We do not experience anything as deeply absorbing as love. Nothing wraps itself around us, nor runs through us like love. There is nothing in the known universe as powerful as the true love of one human for another. It is the most radical and transformative of all human emotions. It is singular. Love is greater than euphoria; love is greater than courage; love is greater than anger; love is greater than fear; love is greater even than hate. Love commands all emotion, and, when genuinely present, she will summon or dismiss them all at will.

It is humanistic love, and not that of a God, which has elevated us from the lower ranks of the animal kingdom. Love is the preface to humanity’s story.

The writer of first Corinthians may be insightful, but he is not original. It is not the tone or tenor of these words which are not original, but the underlying idea. No matter how poetically pleasing these words are- they are not philosophically original. Neither is the bible’s treatment of love in any other place. Given love’s divine origin, how could this be?

Proudly, it is we who have invented love. We gave birth to her deep in our evolutionary past. We fed love; we taught love to stand; we showed love how to walk; and, finally, we taught her our mother tongue- perseverance. Since then she has spoken unashamedly down the ages.

Theism, and in particular Christianity, often claim the high ground of love. Followers bandy the word about, insinuating that there is no truer love than that experienced in the religious context. In the theistic mind love is a gift from God. How pathetic. How revealing of our conditioned self-loathing. How disrespectful of our ancestors. While we should not compete over ownership of love, we can make clear our understanding of its nature. Whether, because the world has tended to view theism as the standard bearer of love, or because we thought other things more important, the freethinking community has not paid enough attention to love.

I do not mean that we have failed to love, but that we have not spent enough time speaking about love. We have not spent enough time communicating our understanding of the importance of love. This is sad given the deep commitment to love that most freethinkers exhibit through their humanistic principles.

Traditionally, science has been the bellwether of the freethinking community. We have relied upon science as our gladiator in the battle with superstition. After all, this makes sense; it is science which has told us of human origins and even the origin of the universe. It is science which lifted humanity from the ignorance of our unenlightened past. It is science which has allowed us to understand ourselves in a truer and clearer way.

Scientific advancement is the story of human advancement. Scientific progress has rescued us from our own primitive impulses. But, before there was science there was love. Science is humanity’s most reliable methodology. Love is humanity’s essence.

We have hidden behind science, foolishly believing that it could tell the entire story of us. There is a beauty in science and it has liberated many people, but the battle between progress and superstition is too big for science alone to win. Science needs an ally. As freethinking icon Zora Neale Hurston once put it: “Love makes your soul crawl out of its hiding place.” We must stop hiding behind science and let our souls crawl out.

Advancement of freethinking principles will be made through our substantive commitment to a humanistic vision. A vision which can only be crystallized through the prism of love. Science is indeed the truest language in the universe, but love is the only language which all of humanity understands. We must embrace it enthusiastically. After all love is not a religious meme, but the muse of a once low animal which has elevated itself above all others.

Love is the fuel of human ascension, and not that of a previously earthbound messiah. It was love of one’s family that inspired our ancestors to stop following wild game and attempt to grow crops from the earth, thereby, giving ourselves a more dependable food source. From that development arose modern society, an idea which, while covered in sores, has allowed us to live longer and less brutish lives. As Robert Browning wrote so long ago; “[t]ake away love and our earth is a tomb.”

The freethinking community must relate to the world first through our love. We must show that we understand that humanity is more than an amalgamation of cells, but a repository of ideas, emotions and needs. We are measurable by science, but science is not our full measure.

If we are to convince the world of our rightness, we have to become comfortable with love. On the facts alone we have rarely lost, but, on the deeper understanding of the human psyche the question has been much closer. Religion knows nothing of our origins, and admitted as much when it told us lies of talking snakes and magic apples. But, it still garners more trust than we? Why? Because, we have not dared to push beyond our comfort zone. If the freethinking community could accept that most people are less concerned with the origin of life, than with how to fill their lives with meaning, a revolution would be at hand. Questions of meaning require answers based in love.

If we profess humanism, then let us address the full scope of humanity. This means accepting that it is love- most of all- that makes a human what she is. This means understanding that our scientific efforts are only for the edification of a being which is defined by love. And, that science is, like all other disciplines, in the service of humanistic love. Science is what taught us to build cities, but love is what makes us worthy to live in them.

“In a word, there are three things that last forever:
Faith, hope, and love;
But the greatest of them all is love.”

–1 Corinthians 13:13

Even as a skeptic, I am not afraid to accept these words as true and neither should you be. Gladly, in so doing, I need not accept the wrong headed assumption that love is supernatural. It is not the gift of a benevolent God to a pitiful humanity. Love is, however, a gift from our ancestors for the exaltation of humanity. Love is humanity’s child.

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.