By Sikivu Hutchinson
When President Obama wants to burnish his credentials amongst African Americans he knows he will always be welcome in one place: a black church from central casting. From scripture spewing politicians to high octane Baptist gospel choirs to the ubiquitous prayer circle and Tyler Perry’s bible-thumping Madea caricature, religion and black culture are virtually synonymous in the American popular imagination. According to the Pew Research Center 87% of African Americans are religious, making them among the most religious communities in the U.S. In my predominantly African American South Los Angeles neighborhood the most common personalized license plates are righteously faith-based. Fish icons, hands clasped in prayer, and church congregation names grace cars buffed to a blinding sheen. A key component of black antebellum and civil rights era resistance, religion remains central to mainstream black identity. But recently black atheists have begun rallying around a new billboard campaign featuring African American Humanists and promoting a national Day of Solidarity initiated by author Donald Wright on February 26th.
Atheism remains one of the last dependable taboos amongst African Americans. It is a notion so foreign that some—like resident buffoon, dating guru, and game show host Steve Harvey, who notoriously bashed atheists during a round of talk show appearances in 2009—equate it with devil worship and amorality. Like many Americans in this so-called Christian Nation, African Americans reflexively associate morality with Christian belief. So even though bestselling white authors like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens have put atheism on the global map black non-believers remain marginalized and largely invisible to mainstream America. The African Americans for Humanism (AAH) billboard campaign is part of an effort to change that. With billboards in Chicago, New York, D.C., Atlanta, Dallas, and Los Angeles, the campaign pairs contemporary black atheists with Humanist historical figures such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Frederick Douglass. As AAH director Debbie Goddard notes, “There is a rich heritage of religious skepticism and humanism in black history. By featuring the historical faces as well as the modern in our ad campaign, we show people that questioning religion is not new and that there are many of us here.”
A religious skeptic, Douglass frequently criticized the hypocrisy of European American Christianity’s role in the African holocaust, famously proclaiming that “revivals of religion and revivals of the slave trade went hand in hand.” In 1870, after having the gall to not thank god for Emancipation, he was censured for his heresy by a group of black ministers. In her 1942 essay “Religion” Hurston rejected the group think of organized religion, confessing that, as the daughter of a preacher, “When I was asked if I loved God, I always said yes because I knew that that was the thing I was supposed to say.” Hughes’ skepticism had similar roots in childhood religious indoctrination. In one vivid scene in his autobiographical essay “Salvation” he recounts going through the motions of being saved in order to appease an overzealous pastor.
Douglass, Hurston, and Hughes were part of a compelling tradition of black Humanist thought that has been all but ignored by civil rights historians. In his new book The End of God-Talk: An African American Humanist Theology, theorist Anthony Pinn proposes that “non-theist theology” is an important articulation of black ethics and morality. If much of white New Atheist fervor springs from the endless culture war over evolution and church/state separation, contemporary black Humanist ideology emerges from a social justice lens. The impact of racism, poverty, and capitalist exploitation on a devout black underclass was a major theme in the Humanist writings of W.E.B. DuBois, James Forman, A. Philip Randolph, and James Baldwin. In her influential feminist novel Quicksand Harlem Renaissance author Nella Larsen turned a critical eye to the relationship between religiosity, sexism, and the marginalization of black women.
Many of these writers shared a robust disdain for the emergent prosperity gospel (popularized by early 20th century charlatans like Reverend Ike and Father Divine) and its hold on Black Church traditions. And if there is one issue that unites contemporary black non-believers it is a desire to see an end to Christian fundamentalist hijacking of LGBT equality, abortion rights, science education, and HIV/AIDS prevention. The ascent of Christian fascist demagogue Rick Santorum, along with the GOP presidential field’s rock-ribbed political extremism, has signaled an end to civil discourse on secular values. Thus, founded by Houston-based author and activist Donald Wright, the national Day of Solidarity for Black Non-Believers seeks to spotlight black Humanist activism in a political climate in which the Religious Right’s reactionary attacks pose a clear and present danger to secular civil rights. For many African Americans taking God out of the equation is a perilous step toward being “in-authentically” black. However, as Baldwin mused in his classic essay collection the Fire Next Time, “When I faced a congregation it took all the strength I had not to tell them to throw away their Bibles and get off their knees and go home and organize.” Freethinkers like Mandisa Latifah Thomas of Black Non-Believers of Atlanta and Kimberly Veal of Black Non-Believers of Chicago have begun to do just that. Both Thomas and Veal are featured in the new African Americans for Humanism billboard campaign. As hosts of the popular Black Freethinkers weekly blogtalk radio show they’ve tackled a range of topics which help questioning believers and “closeted” non-believers make the public leap to atheism.
Recently my group Black Skeptics Los Angeles and author Donald Wright participated in the second part of a roundtable on Humanism and black social thought with Zion Hill Baptist Church in South Los Angeles. The session was at the invitation of Seth Pickens, a young African American pastor thinker with a commitment to interfaith collaboration. Wrestling over questions of faith, the origin of the universe, ethics, social justice, and the slave era indoctrination of blacks into Christianity, congregation members repeatedly posed the question of whether any of the panelists had ever had a “personal relationship” with God. In response, Wright reflected on his experience as a former Baptist deacon who transitioned to atheism after a sex scandal in his church motivated him to explore the work of freethinkers like Thomas Paine. Coming from the insular world of the church, Wright envisions the Day of Solidarity as a collective opportunity for black non-believers to connect in real time. Because of the cultural stigma of non-belief, the vast majority of black non-believers rely on social media. So for Wright, “Since the beginning of my journey away from religion in 2006 I desperately needed and still need to meet more black non-believers. Fellowship, a sustaining characteristic of the church, is valuable in our society regardless of the group’s purpose. We need each other. Our technological advancements allow us to communicate with many people around the world, sharing information at the click of a button. We are meeting and making new friends online every day. But no technology can replace the need for human interaction, face to face.” Pickens agrees. He is interested in quarterly meetings with Black Skeptics Los Angeles and other denominations to coalition build around shared economic and social justice concerns like youth homelessness and prisoner reentry. When I told him about the planned national observance he said “I stand in solidarity with black non-believers.” And if efforts to shift the discourse on atheism and humanism in the black community gain traction that sentiment will seem like less of an oxymoron.
Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars and the forthcoming Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels.