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.

Book Review of “Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars”

By Don R Barbera
Sometimes, preaching to the choir is necessary to make it aware they may be singing in the wrong key, from the wrong hymnal and in the wrong church. Black atheist author Sikivu Hutchinson removes the ifs, ands and buts from that thought by demonstrating that the right religion is often wrong for the black community.
Her new book “Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars,” dissects the complex relationship between religion and reality as it relates to the black community. A PhD who teaches in South Los Angeles where life can be cheap, she understands the mean streets and even more so, she sees a clear dichotomy in race and religion where actual behavior often falls far from the tree of belief.
This book is filled with relevant information regarding Christianity and its magnetic relationship with the African American community, as well as explanations of the segmentation of nonwhites, including Latinos, Asians and Native Americans. Although written in a scholarly fashion, the book is accessible, relevant and straightforward. If understanding the nature of genderphilia, racisms role in morality and the coded world political pandering, this book is for you.
The author presents a view few African Americans ever think about and if they did, it would be dismissed out of hand because it comes from an atheist, a black female nonbeliever unafraid to speak openly of her humanistic views and the problems she sees in Christianity’s role in disabling the black community. The feminist author wastes no time in getting to the issues facing the black community when it comes to Christian religion and its affect on nearly every resident.
Some might wish to argue the point, but starting with the black community, the author presents an accurate portrayal of African America’s overwhelming attachment to Christianity. The author demonstrates how the patriarchal structure Christianity blocks the advancement and growth of women by using “holy” scripture to lock women into perennial second-class citizenship. Although the book acknowledges the historical beneficial aspects of the Christian church, it does not back away from tying today’s black church affiliation with the Evangelical Right and its obsession with homosexuality and abortion. Even though women are the backbone of most churches and the black church in particular, the author makes it clear that women of the church play a secondary role behind men by biblical decree, a position reinforced by the nearly all male hierarchy of most black churches. The book suggests that female independence is not possible under the sexist regime of the nearly all male clergy; implying that many of the female church supporters are unaware of the demotion.
From there the author presents a fair view of African American masculinity, how it is a product of the syncretism of male dominance and hierarchical religion inspired sexism all based on white supremacy and encouraged by the Bible. Ms. Hutchison also delves into the economics of Christian development by citing the construction of multi-million dollar religious complexes in the heart of urban squalor, citing the so-called “Prosperity Gospel” as an example of the materialism that is the modern church. The author connects the many ways the black church discourages many because of the constant conflict of reality, pastoral behavior and traditional morals, which seem negated by faith-based sexism.
Christianity and traditional morality fell by the wayside long ago according to current research, while nonbelief continues to grow. The author grabs this trend, introduces the reader to atheism and the black community, pointing out that atheists are considered outside the realm of blackness and is a white construct. However, the writer informs the reader of the long history of African American freethinkers and humanists who laid the groundwork for today’s growing ranks of nonbelievers in the black community. An old joke has it that there are 20 million black Baptist in the US and three atheists. It is no joking matter according to the writer as she points out not only the growing number of nonbelievers in the black community, but also the number of African American females contributing to this expansion. A portion of the introduction to black female atheists contains the writers own story of how she came to atheism at an early age.
A significant chapter talking about prayer is revealing of the author’s thoughts on the value of what stirs legal battles in schools and government procedures. The writer sees prayer as little more than a convenient refuge from problems that remain after the prayer ends. The author ties prayer to doing nothing, while giving an individual the feeling they have done something. Ms. Hutchinson debunks the idea by indicating that the number of unanswered prayers is often forgotten when coincidence provides a single example. The reader will find this chapter interesting as the author is relentless in showing that nothing fails like prayer.
Closing out the last three chapters, the writer explains the connection of race to traditional morals, indicating a connection with white supremacy, Christianity and the concept of morality. Once again, the writer goes to grea
t lengths to be fair, and then points out the racist elements involved in the Euro-American concept of morality and its links with slavery and the slaughter of Native Americans. Taking the reader of a historical tour of the injustice sanctioned by Christianity, the author reveals the greasy gears of racism, religion and the dissolute excuses used to justify inhumanity to other human beings.
Humanity braces Ms. Hutchinson’s resoluteness in dispelling myths about atheists and humanist, while offering humanism as a better way for the black community to move forward. The author also points out the need for atheist and humanist groups to work together in achieving people-based solutions and escaping the world of superstition for real progress.

Don Barbera is the author of Black and Not Baptist: Non Belief and Freethought in the Black Community