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Apr 23 2011

Black Atheists in the Pulpit: Dialogue with Zion Hill Baptist Church





By Sikivu Hutchinson

Congregants of Zion Hill Baptist Church in South Los Angeles probably thought Pastor Seth Pickens was certifiable when he proposed a community dialogue with the L.A. Black Skeptics Group. Founded in March of last year, the group provides a safe real time space for atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, humanists, and skeptics of African descent. As the group’s organizer, I had been in conversation with Seth about a forum for several months after interviewing him for my new book Moral Combat. A thirty-something, literary Morehouse College graduate from the East Coast, he was open to the idea of an “interfaith” dialogue from the beginning. Pastor of Zion Hill since 2009, he seemed deeply concerned about the ongoing national critique of the Black Church’s waning influence (see, for example, Princeton religion professor Eddie Glaude’s widely circulated Huffington Post piece “The Black Church is Dead.”).

The Zion Hill church building itself is a sprawling beacon of provincial beauty. About forty participants of all ages and beliefs gathered in one of the churches’ smaller sanctuaries to hear the panel. In my opening comments I framed black secular humanist traditions within the prism of black liberation struggle and cultural politics. Far from being marginal to black social thought and activism, secular humanism and social justice were deeply intertwined in the work of leading black thinkers like A. Philip Randolph, Richard Wright, and Zora Neale Hurston. However, analysis of 21st century black religiosity should be situated within the context of deepening social, political, and economic crisis. Faced with double digit unemployment and skyrocketing rates of homelessness, the American dream is even more of a brutal sham for African Americans. In the wake of Obama’s election it is no accident that reactionary forces seek to dismantle what little remains of the American social welfare safety net. Indeed, the decades’ long Religious Right backlash against civil rights, women’s rights, and gay liberation is exemplified by the ascent of Tea Party-style white nationalism. Consequently, to paraphrase panelist Carol Pierce, the Black Church is still something of a “refuge” in a hyper-segregated nation.

So why did the panelists become atheists or agnostics? Jim Pierce, a retired engineer, expressed his dissatisfaction with the church’s sexist treatment of women. Thamani Delgardo, a health care professional who described herself as a “former holy roller,” became disillusioned after repeatedly seeing innocent babies die despite prayer. Jeffery “Atheist Walking” Mitchell found Christian explanations for the creation of the universe absurd. Discussing the real life stigma black non-believers face, We Are All Africans author Kwadwo Obeng expressed his contempt for comedian Steve Harvey, who smeared atheists as having no moral compass in a now infamous 2009 interview. Obeng also condemned racist characterizations of the 2010 Haitian earthquake as an example of God’s wrath (due to Haitians’ blasphemous worship of Voudoun). Delgardo argued forcefully against the benefits of prayer as an antidote to pain and suffering. Predictably, monotheism itself came in for a vigorous beating. Both Obeng and Mitchell unpacked the illogic of thousands of competing religious truth claims; each faith’s loyalists insisting that their particular view of divinity, morality, righteousness, and the god(s) concept be privileged by the masses. Obeng articulated a radical African critical consciousness, arguing that European colonialism and white supremacy wiped out indigenous African belief systems amongst enslaved Africans in the so-called New World. Hence, all Abrahamic religions legitimized a kind of mental slavery, fatally undermining black self-love and self knowledge for both African Americans and Africans.

In response, one audience member complained that it was easy to “poke holes” in scripture and Christian belief. But at the end of the day you had to believe in something. Secular humanists believe that faith in supernatural puppet masters are dangerous because we only have one life to live. Feminist atheists believe that social justice based on the universal moral value of women’s right to self-determination (rather than self-sacrifice, domestication, submission, and sexual degradation) is certainly not found in the Bible or the Koran. It is for this reason that the heterosexist, patriarchal hierarchies of Abrahamic religions are especially insidious for black women and LGBT people of African descent.

A lively exchange on biblical literalism versus liberal Christian theology ensued when I quoted several misogynistic passages from scripture. Pastor Seth took exception with the notion that Christianity prescribed misogyny, citing a passage in the New Testament which he interpreted to suggest equality between men and women.

Pondering the question of evil and free will, a younger parishioner contended that God didn’t micro-manage people’s lives, implicitly rejecting Epicurus’ caveat about God’s impotence if he didn’t intervene against evil. Speaking from the audience, my father, author and political commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson, concluded the discussion with a spirited defense of “Christian” precepts of charity and forgiveness, whilst acknowledging the pernicious acts of some true believers. When I was growing up, our household was perhaps the only one in the neighborhood where secular humanism was the rule (my mother Yvonne still considers herself a secular humanist). So my father’s newfound belief in God and self-proclaimed “spiritual” humanism has been interesting to watch.

In the end, odysseys in belief, like family politics and intimate relationships, are complicated. Yet what is not in question is the need for a paradigm shift around social justice in black communities. So the atheists and the Baptists pledged to meet again, in the spirit of shared struggle.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars.

9 comments

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  1. 1
    BeautifulBlackAtheist

    It was great!! can't wait for you all to reconvene!!
    -Bria

  2. 2
    Black Skeptics

    Thanks Bria!

  3. 3
    Gerard26

    Congratulations on the success of this first time event and I hope many more events like this will take place in the future and perhaps take place in other venues around the country.Though I am skeptical that black religious dogma will make a paradigm shift on the value of superstitious beleifs amongst Black people maybe this is a beginning where the traditions of black religiosity and black secular humanism will present people with real and thoughful future choices. And by the way, Epicurus questions are still unanswered.

  4. 4
    Black Skeptics

    Thanks. I am skeptical as well, but visibility, exposure and critical interventions are an important beginning, and yes Epicurus' charges will remain (eternally) unanswered by religionists desperate for validation of their fetishization of redemptive suffering

  5. 5
    Benjamin Burchall

    Kudos! I just had my own friendly exchange with a minister of a large congretation. (You can see my summary of the conversation in in the notes on my Facebook page.) We need more interactions like this in the Black community.

    Benjamin Burchall

  6. 6
    DonRamon

    First, thank you for the effort. This piece about sharing across lines of faith is commendable. Sikivu is not new to fostering relations with groups that would seem to be against each other with any talk of even meeting with an atheist group for any reason would be considered ridiculous. Pastor Seth Pickens is one of those rare men that seeks understanding. No matter how it came about, he is to be commended for accepting the olive branch when extended. Does this mean everything will change? Probably not, but it is a start. More than likely it means a life long job for people like Ms. Hutchinson and Pastor Pickens. Now comes the tough part–the follow up. Gathering up the snippets and minutia presents a daunting task because of the "look good factor" common across any group polled when what is the "best sounding answering is given" rather than the most truthful response. The positives far out weigh any negatives associated with such an amalgamation and Pastor Hicks may be one of those that recognize that the church much change or "die." Bishop John Shelby Song said that if Christianity didn't change, it was doomed. In England the church is almost dead and it is dying here. Christianity has dropped from nearly 90% to 70%. In the African American community where Christianity has thrive for years the heavily female dominated church is losing men at an even higher rate.congratulations to Sikivu and Pastor Hicks for making the effort, especially one that has potential human dividends.

  7. 7
    shutch

    Thanks to you both for the comments. Benjamin I will check out your FB page. I agree, Don, that follow-up and sustainability will be the real challenge. The congregation and pastor have expressed interest in further engagement. The next steps will be outreach to other area churches, collaborating on areas of common interest, and, ultimately, developing dedicated secular safe spaces for non-believers of color. The latter is a life-long pursuit and is part and parcel of developing secularist critical consciousness that truly speaks to and reflects the cultural context and lived experiences of people of color in all their complexity.

  8. 8
    1skepticalbrother

    Your efforts Sikivu and company are applauded and I wish that I could have been a part of this dialogue. When I find myself in impromptu discussions with African American Christians I submit to them these points when my skepticism is brought into question:

    -The African American Christian is a grafted Christian product (the AA Muslim is no different). Their AA Christian antecedents were created and cultivated by their "masters." I always have a hard copy of "The Negro Christianized, An Essay to Excite That Good Work" by Cotton Mather circa 1706. They never read the entire essay!

    -Then I ask; "Why would and omnipotent triune deity "reveal" himself directly and intimately to semitic people 2,000 years ago and not make a personal appearance to our West African ancestors while he was in town? Why did this God use European emissaries to do his work?

    -Additionally I ask them; "Is your God omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent and omnibenevolent? Does your God speak directly to you and or your pastor? Would you do me a favor and please request your God to speak out loud so that everyone present will hear "his" voice. They never fulfill my request.

    -Finally I ask them to join me in some comparative analysis readings of the meek and loving Jesus with the "Bloods and Crips" Jesus of Revelations. I submit to them that fundamentalist Christianity is nothing but gang related Christianity. The rival gang member may shoot me or stab me because of my reluctance to be down with his group; but your Christ has something far more sinister in store for me for non-compliance…he has a way of painfully carbonizing me forever! What a loving creator! Those are a few reasons why I have my doubts about their faith.

    BTW, your book "Moral Combat" arrived today. Thank you Sikivu for your commitment, your intellect and your passion.

    Respectfully,
    Rob H.

  9. 9
    Black Skeptics

    Post we received from 1Skeptical Brother:

    Your efforts Sikivu and company are applauded and I wish that I could have been a part of this dialogue. When I find myself in impromptu discussions with African American Christians I submit to them these points when my skepticism is brought into question:

    -The African American Christian is a grafted Christian product (the AA Muslim is no different). Their AA Christian antecedents were created and cultivated by their "masters." I always have a hard copy of "The Negro Christianized, An Essay to Excite That Good Work" by Cotton Mather circa 1706. They never read the entire essay!

    -Then I ask; "Why would and omnipotent triune deity "reveal" himself directly and intimately to semitic people 2,000 years ago and not make a personal appearance to our West African ancestors while he was in town? Why did this God use European emissaries to do his work?

    -Additionally I ask them; "Is your God omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent and omnibenevolent? Does your God speak directly to you and or your pastor? Would you do me a favor and please request your God to speak out loud so that everyone present will hear "his" voice. They never fulfill my request.

    -Finally I ask them to join me in some comparative analysis readings of the meek and loving Jesus with the "Bloods and Crips" Jesus of Revelations. I submit to them that fundamentalist Christianity is nothing but gang related Christianity. The rival gang member may shoot me or stab me because of my reluctance to be down with his group; but your Christ has something far more sinister in store for me for non-compliance…he has a way of painfully carbonizing me forever! What a loving creator! Those are a few reasons why I have my doubts about their faith.

    BTW, your book "Moral Combat" arrived today. Thank you Sikivu for your commitment, your intellect and your passion.

    Respectfully,
    Rob H.

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