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 [Read more…]