2011: Year of the Black Atheists

By Frederick Sparks

OK, the title may be a tad hyperbolic, but in 2011, we have seen increased media coverage of black nonbelievers.

Sikivu Hutchinson’s must-read Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and the Values War was published in February, garnering rave reviews and enhancing the demand for the author as a speaker on the topics of race, feminism, sexual orientation, and politics as brought to bear on the secular movement.

In July, long time black publication Ebony magazine featured a piece by Alix Jules, director of the Fellowship of Freethought in Dallas, TX.  Jules emphasized that freethought involves taking full accountability for one’s life.

But the last few weeks saw a rush of articles, starting with a New York Times piece on black nonbelievers in late November.  Following the Times article, The Root, an African American focused online magazine conceived by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates and Facebook chairman Donald Graham, commenced a series (to the chagrin of some of their regular readers) on black atheists.   And finally, CNN’s religion blog posted a radio interview and accompanying write-up concerning the experience of Black atheists in the American south.

The exposure, incremental though it may be, has an impact.   The Black Atheist Facebook group (discussed in the NY Times article) has seen a 25% increase in membership over the past few weeks. And as I noted in a previous post, fictional depictions of black atheists help to normalize the experience of black nonbelievers .  It follows that the presentation of real life black atheist experience is even more useful.

But none of this exposure would have taken place without the hard work of many people over the past several years. A well deserved thanks goes to the local group organizers, writers, lecturers, online group organizers and administrators, and others who provide a space for black atheists to connect, share ideas and be active.  Let’s keep it going!

The Curious Case of Gays in the Black Church

By Frederick Sparks

An oft repeated story in the black church and gospel music community involves 50s and 60s era gospel singing legend Mahalia Jackson making a cross country automobile trek with four male companions who were members of her singing troupe. The car suffers a flat and Jackson gets out of the car to change the tire. A passing highway patrolman stops to render aid, and asks Jackson why she didn’t have one of the men change the tire. Jackson replies “Baby, them ain’t men, them is sissies.”
Possible lack of historical verisimilitude notwithstanding, the story conveys one essential and undisputed truth: there is a long standing, well known presence of queer men in the black church. Even while African American Christians remain the group most opposed to marriage equality and most likely to believe in “literal” interpretation of scripture.
This dichotomy was recently clearly highlighted in the Eddie Long scandal, in which the anti-gay millionaire pastor of an Atlanta mega church was accused of sexual improprieties with teenage boys (Long settled with the young men after initially vowing to fight the charges). One of Long’s gay congregants, interviewed last year at the time the story broke, spoke of a large gay presence in Long’s congregation and a sort of don’t ask don’t tell policy which led the interviewee and his male partner to give different descriptions of their relationship to members of the church.
Nowhere is the gay male presence more prevalent than in the gospel church choir, or more generally what is known as the “music ministry”. Music sensation Billy Preston once quipped that the church choir was the first gay-straight alliance. The homosexuality of gospel great James Cleveland (known as the King of Gospel) was an open secret in the gospel community. After his death, widely believed to be from complication of AIDS but never officially declared so, Cleveland’s foster son alleged that the two had been involved in a sexual relationship which resulted in the young man also contracting HIV. The shroud of denial around Cleveland’s death was not an isolated incident; there was a deadly silence in the gospel community while choir stands in black churches across the country were being hit with AIDS related deaths.
So why do black gays stay in churches where homosexuality is condemned and they are kept from living their lives healthily and fully? Even when there are other choices of “affirming” churches that welcome the openly and actively homosexual? Northwestern professor and gospel music vocalist E. Patrick Johnson stated in a 2006 interview that ‘Those who are familiar with life in the Black church know that we are raised in this paradox; the church is a place we have known since the womb and, so, it is our first cultural experience in the Black community. And it is so much a fundamental part of our lives that even though we are in a place that is often very inhospitable to those who are LGBT, we remain, finding ways to exist within it.’ Johnson also believes that the choir in the Black church has always been a place where gay men could show off their virtuosity while exploring their sexuality, and that the more welcoming, liberal churches lack the “spirit” of the black church worship experience (translation: the music isn’t as good.).
In addition to that, I believe it is the perfect example of Christianity creating the problem (homosexuality is sinful) and providing the solution (God loves you, and can heal and forgive you). I also think the matriarchal presence looms large for many black gays, and mama and aunties and grandmother are all “in the church”. In addition, some actually earn money from the church because of their musical or other talents.
Given all those factors though, still seems to me like a baby worth throwing out with the bath water. The prototypical black church experience is antithetical to an LGBT person living a psychologically healthy life. And proceeding from the assumption that “this lifestyle is sinful” or that “one can be changed” presents a serious impediments for healthy same sex romantic relationships, which may partly explain why there have been so many predatory situations as described above. It has also been suggested that such attitudes lead to poorer choices in terms of sexual activity and disease transmission prevention.
If there is to be a secular/atheist movement among African Americans it must address head-on the issue of homophobia in the black community and in the black church in particular. And it must serve a community of black gays and lesbians that has too long compromised self respect for marginal benefits from the church experience.

Where are the Black Skeptics?

By Norm R. Allen Jr.

Certainly, Black skeptics are to be found among members of such groups as the Black Skeptics. However, when many people think of skeptics, they think of individuals such as Michael Shermer, organizations such as the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (formerly known as the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, or CSICOP), and publications such as the Skeptical Inquirer.

Such individuals, organizations, and publications are primarily concerned with examining paranormal claims such as beliefs in ghosts, ESP, astrology, Earthly visitations from extraterrestrial aliens, cryptozoology (supposed creatures such as Big Foot or the Loch Ness Monster), telekinesis, UFOs, etc. To a lesser extent, these skeptics are concerned with critiquing fringe science, bad science and pseudoscience.

Very few people of African descent have been attracted to groups of skeptics, and few have subscribed to skeptical publications. There are many reasons to be considered when pondering this situation.

Most White skeptics tend to be hopelessly Eurocentric. They speak and write glowingly of the Enlightenment and its ideals, yet offer no strong critiques of its limitations or shortsightedness. Moreover, many White skeptics tend to embrace conservative libertarian ideas about politics and economics; and many support evolutionary psychology, which is a discipline that some people view as having racist and sexist implications.

When most White skeptics speak or write about issues involving people of African descent, they do not focus on anything positive. They tend to disparage African culture as they critique juju, witchcraft and other superstitious beliefs.

White skeptics are quickly dismissive of any idea that sounds like a paranoid conspiracy theory. However, some Black skeptics actually embrace such theories. Others understand that, given the history of White supremacy, it would be foolish to be closed minded when talk of conspiracies arise.

Most White skeptics believe that genuine conspiracies cannot take place in ostensibly democratic nations such as the U.S. However, conspiracies have already taken place. The best known example is the Tuskegee experiment, in which African American men were left untreated for syphilis for decades. When confronted with this fact, most White skeptics tend to downplay it and/or dismiss it as a mere aberration.

However, this was no mere aberration. There have been many such conspiracies throughout Western history. For example, tens of thousands of U.S. citizens have been sterilized without their knowledge and against their will. Writing for the Associated Press, reporter Renee Elder states:

“More than 7,600 individuals were sterilized in the state [of North Carolina] under the eugenics program that ended in 1977 and largely targeted individuals who were young, poor, uneducated, mentally ill or Black. Some victims were as young as ten.”

She continues:

“Nationwide, there were more than 60,000 known victims of sterilization programs, with perhaps another 40,000 sterilized through ‘unofficial’ channels like hospitals or local health departments working on their own initiative.” (“NC sterilization victims urge fair compensation,” The Final Call, 7-26-11, page 4.)

The bottom line is that most White skeptics consider the government to be more benign and less powerful than do Blacks. African Americans are more likely to be aware of the history of government agencies—including the army—in spying on African Americans, and, in some cases, destroying African American organizations and undermining African governments. This disconnect will continue to assure that the numbers of Blacks interested in joining mainstream skeptics groups will be low.

Black standup comedians from Richard Pryor to Eddie Griffin have joked that UFOs never land in Black neighborhoods. It is true that Black people throughout the world do not generally give much thought to UFOs or profess to have been abducted by extraterrestrial aliens. (Even Louis Farrakhan’s Mother Plane tale is deemed absurd by most Black people that are aware of it).

However, the main reason Black skeptics are not obsessed with UFOs and other paranormal claims, is because such beliefs are relatively benign. After all, Black people have never been oppressed in the name of Big Foot or the Loch Ness Monster. We have never been lynched by Martians or enslaved by astrologers. Black skeptics are primarily interested in fostering skeptical inquiry as a methodology in order to combat oppressive ideas and institutions, such as reactionary religions. That is one reason why, other than astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson, there are no other truly well-known Black skeptics.

Furthermore, White skeptics have never made any sustained efforts to promote skepticism among African Americans, or to attract African Americans to their ranks. Still, African Americans should learn to be skeptical as a habit. This includes skepticism of paranormal claims. We should not buy into paranoid conspiratorial thinking. On the other hand, it would be foolish to ignore genuine conspiracies contrived against us.