By Naima Washington
I’ve spent several days thinking about Emily Brennan’s recent article on African American ‘unbelievers.’ As I understand it, the research for her article which ran on Sunday, November 27, 2011, began in 2010. I contacted Ms. Brennan but decided that I couldn’t really contribute to her work since she indicated that she was interested in interviewing African American non-theists who primarily network via Facebook and other social media outlets. I am amongst the eight or so human beings on earth who really doesn’t ‘book, ‘blog, ‘tweet, or ‘text. I do communicate via e-mail with people I’ve also taken the trouble to meet face-to-face. Nevertheless, I was happy to learn that someone would write an article which explores secularism and focus on African American religious dissidents.
Dissension—holding, and more importantly, voicing an opinion that differs greatly from the status quo—is probably as old as humankind itself, and is certainly not a new phenomenon to African Americans. James Baldwin, Harry Belafonte, Frederick Douglass, Angela Davis, W.E.B. DuBois, Morgan Freeman, Hubert H. Harrison; Flo Kennedy, Butterfly McQueen, Paul Roberson, Nella Larson; A. Phillip Randolph, Manning Marable, Bayard Rustin, J.A. Rogers, and Richard Wright represent only a few African Americans who have interrogated religious beliefs, some doing so during those times when any critique of religion would be met with serious repercussions. Our contemporaries who now question theism can more openly state their opinions, more readily access materials exploring religious beliefs through a critical lens.
Dr. Anthony Pinn, author and scholar at Rice University has been adamant in his assertion that dissent, atheism, and religious criticism are not new trends in African American communities. One of his books, By These Hands: A Documentary History of African American Humanism, chronicles dissent, particularly religious dissent, as a factual part of social and intellectual African American experience.
In 2009, Houston-based engineer Donald R. Wright wrote, The Only Prayer I’ll Ever Pray: Let My People Go. His life experiences as a former Baptist Deacon reveal what everyone who questions their own religious views wants to know: how and why a believer becomes an atheist. He has grounded his atheism in activism as the Vice President of the Humanists of Houston (a chapter of the American Humanist Association); founded the Radical Forum of Houston, and initiated the African American Non-theist Day of Solidarity firstname.lastname@example.org celebrated on the last Sunday in February.
In her latest book, Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars, scholar and activist, Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson offers unique and thorough examinations of race, gender, glass, and religion as they impact on the communities of African Americans and other people of color while critiquing the roles and responsibilities of white secularists. As a social critic, she’s written articles for many publications, is the founder of Black Skeptics Los Angeles and mentors young women of color.
Recently, Ms. AJ Johnson was appointed as the new Director of Development for American Atheists as that organization continues to promote secular values and attempts to concretely address diversity within its ranks. Raised in the ‘Bible Belt,’ AJ has studied and taught abroad and brings a unique perspective to her appointment along with her interest in issues concerning religion’s impact on gays, women, and slaves. She’s helping to organize the March 24, 2012 Reason Rally which will take place on the National Mall in Washington, DC. .
I’ve chosen to write a little bit about the last three African American atheists because I understand that each of them held extensive interviews with Ms. Brennan and due to the lack of space, her article failed to contain even a single quote from any of these African American activists and atheists. Editors always have the last word, but I would have preferred a lot more text and fewer graphics especially the one which appeared at the beginning of the article.
In October 2011, the African Americans for Humanism’s discussion group in Washington, DC celebrated its first anniversary, and Ms. Brennan’s article featured interviews with a few of the guest speakers. Although I am not a member of the AAH, I did attend that event and therefore was surprised when Ms. Brennan’s article didn’t include an interview with Ernest Parker. Mr. Parker assumed responsibility for organizing the discussion group for the past year and if his interview was also omitted due to a lack of space, I seriously question the editorial policy! The visibility as well as the activism of black atheists is critical for the growth of the secular community and it is always important to have an acknowledgment of key players. Because there may be many African Americans creating secular organizations in different parts of the US, I would have enjoyed reading about how these groups got started and the work they are involved with. The real challenge to religious institutions will not happen on online. It will happen as we work to relieve the suffering and the injustice occurring in our communities, and for atheism to have any meaning beyond the disbelief in the supernatural, African American atheists must be seen on the front lines waging war against every institution—religious and secular—that has enacted anti-human policies including life-threatening budget cuts to education, HIV-AIDS prevention programs; funding for job training, infant/maternal health care, child care services; funding for affordable housing, etc.
Since their inception, religious institutions have managed to recklessly and simultaneously glorify and condemn poverty; label oppressive social conditions as sinfulness, and reduce human beings to a degraded state of bowed heads and bent knees. Atheism must be connected with humanity, justice, and the willingness of each person to live a principled life. Without exception, every religious institution is corrupt, has perpetuated and engaged in anti-human behavior, and has relinquished any right to claim the moral high ground. On the other hand, many individuals, including religious believers, may have earned the right to claim the moral high ground not because of their religious beliefs, but in spite of them! Many people have made tremendous sacrifices in service to humanity and not necessarily in conjunction with their respective church/mosque/synagogue. My favorite humanitarian was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I like the fact he was conscious of the need to challenge injustice and wasn’t particularly concerned if people liked or agreed with him. His greatest gift to humanity was what he referred to as a “committed life.”
The New York Times article presented a rare opportunity for many black atheists to speak openly not only about their opposition to religious belief but to articulate what being an atheist means to them, their family members and friends, etc. Speaking of their disclosure to family and friends was clearly an important step as well. The discussion concerning atheism must, however, move beyond ‘coming out,’ for once that has happened, then what? You no longer believe in the gods; what exactly do you believe? If the reason for rejecting theism has anything to do with the negative impact of religion upon humanity, do atheists have a mandate to try to reverse that negative impact or do we content ourselves with simply being non-believers?
I’ve been an atheist for over 25 years and can’t pinpoint any point where I simply ‘came out.’ Once I rejected the gods, I ‘went out’ into the streets, into the community to stand, work with and learn from those who were committed to bringing about social justice. Working with feminists and socialists, my atheism evolved right along with my commitment to social justice. I contend that many ‘New Atheists’ need not agonize over making public declarations; however I think that they are required to make a public commitment to challenge the status quo, to do their part to right the many wrongs that have been committed in the names of the gods, and to evolve into people who are principled and live lives of integrity.
Nearly every important change that has occurred in any given society can be traced to those who initially questioned and eventually challenged the status quo. Beginning with their resistance to the dehumanizing experience of slavery, African Americans belong to an extensive tradition of dissent which has continued to this day. The New York Times article illuminates the universal problems that occur when someone develops a new and/or unpopular attitude or idea; especially one that threatens to replace traditional attitudes and ideas. The fact is that in many communities and not just African American communities, changing ones religion even within the same denomination is the equivalent of becoming an atheist; to fail to believe and/or worship as your family instructs can be seen as reverting to atheism. Fear, hesitation, resistance, insecurity, and doubt often accompany every major life change because changes come with costs and consequences not just benefits and perks. With respect to the exploration of doubts concerning religious ideas, some people may actively struggle and search for answers and may not be ready to declare themselves free from the influence of religious superstition. Perhaps they may need to do more reading and research; engage in secular activities; initiate more discussions with non-theists as well as continue to examine the contents of their beliefs. Others who have determined that they are in fact atheists will continue to remain shackled and closeted unless they develop the conscience, courage, and a plan for living their life with honesty and integrity. Some who know that they are atheists may decide to continue to live a lie along with any other non-believers in their congregations. Someone who is prepared to do what’s right only if they have a lot of company, only if they have all the support they need; only if they get all of the praise they want and none of the criticism, is not prepared to do the right thing.
The family that turns against any member who expresses doubts about their religious beliefs (sexuality, etc., etc.,) not only issues a warning to all other family members who may have questions or doubts, but also creates an environment where doubts will be nurtured in secret; where deception will replace honesty. A family which rules through fear, threats of abandonment, etc. cannot tell the true believer from the hypocrite. And with respect to religious institutions, perhaps that’s the point: to have people claim to believe whether they mean it or not. A family guided by compassion and common sense will always leave room for discussions; will never insist that a family member go against his or her conscience, but will continue to encourage a thoughtful approach. Furthermore, I’d like to think that families are not so dysfunctional as to only be able to engage in heated discussions concerning religious doubts, sexual orientation, etc., but otherwise have nothing else to say.
Religions spend a lot of time preparing people for death; they also do so very badly. I think that all of our social institutions ought to exist in order to help every human being live the best life possible, and so far it has only been the secular institutions which have helped me to do so. I want to continue to work along with other secularists to help relieve suffering, create safe spaces for those who are without them, and to be a friend and an ally to all people of conscience as we continue to carry the banner promoting social justice and universal human rights. After I die, no one will waste their time praying for me, wondering how many prayers I said or how many candles I lit. I hope that I will earn the right to be remembered more for generosity and less for selfishness; more for being happy and helping to create happiness and less for doing the opposite; more for pulling my weight and less for failing to do so. As I continue to live and breathe on this magnificent planet, I want to live a beautiful life, take nothing for granted, and to do so without indulging in religious superstition.
Naima Washington is the secretary of the Washington Area Secular Humanists and a member of the Board of Directors.