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.

What If…


By Shawn Brown

Black atheist! Do these words mean anything? Certainly not if such a person does not exist.

Everyone knows that black people love Jesus. With tears in our eyes and a bittersweet joy in our hearts, we marvel at the wonder of the divine. With hands raised high we sway to our own celestial rhythm. With a look of transcendent torment upon our faces, we sing His praises. Don’t we love Jesus? Don’t we all love Jesus?

I’ve heard it said that black people have a “Jesus fixation”, a single minded focus on God. From our earliest days we are taught that there is a mysterious and powerful man in the heavens above- enthroned some place between time and space. Omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient- He is God-the-Father. The ethereal embodiment, if you will allow, of benevolence and love. We are taught by parents, grandparents and the preacher that “God is good!”

But, as the lesson of God’s goodness is taught with one breath, we are taught that God is awful with the next. He knows our thoughts, He knows our feelings, He knows what we will do next, and He knows our secrets and the hour of our deaths. This God is not to be trifled with. What fool would question Him- even in the quiet of one’s own mind?

Respecting the God that black Christians serve means not speaking doubt or even thinking it. How could there ever be such a thing as a black Atheist?

You serve the Lord with fear and trembling. You serve Him in perfect submission. You must love Him always. You must never think ill of Him. He is without fault. He is responsible for everything good in your life- not you. You are responsible for everything bad in your life- not Him. Praise the Lord when things go right; beg His forgiveness when they go wrong.

Now, how did we end up with this particular religious system? Well, that’s simple: Slavery. One of the original justifications for slavery was to bring the “heathen” African into contact with Christianity. The earliest enslaved Africans were converted by force before even leaving the slave castles of western Africa. They were now Christian by virtue of the slave trader’s power.

As time passed, many slaveholders ceased to rely on this pre-textual justification for slavery. After all, if you do not free the enslaved once they have become Christians, then providing them salvation seems a flimsy rationale. Continuing to parrot the old justification of Christianizing the African would be too absurd even for a slaveholder. However, Christianity was still useful to them. Logically, the slaveholder continued to teach Christianity in a way beneficial to their more genuine economic motives. From Ephesians they likely taught “slaves obey your masters here on Earth…” From Matthew 5:5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the Earth.” From Matthew 18:4 “[w]hoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” The slaveholders’ true intention was not to save souls, but to create a docile workforce. Unfortunately, this strategic impartation of Christianity began to take root.

As time passed, African-Americans began to replicate these religious norms independently. With each passing year our addiction to religion grew more complete, until finally Christianity became synonymous with blackness. The imposing nexus of historical indoctrination and present day hardship conspire to keep African-Americans chained to religion. Christian faith and hardship stand in equipoise within the black community- and understandably so. When people are oppressed there is a hunger for hope that can never fully be satisfied so long as the unjust conditions persist. The desire for justice is transferred to hope for happiness in a time yet to come.

This is why we love the Lord. This is why there are no black atheists. This is why we all love Jesus.

But, what happens if you do not? What happens if you began to doubt Jesus when you stopped believing in Santa Clause? What if you realized early on that there are two creation stories in Genesis, and that they are not the same? What if you realized that no god could be simple minded enough to use either method to create the universe? What if you believe that culture and isolation explain linguistic differences, and not the Tower of Babel? What if you believe it wrong to stone children- even when they disobey? What if you believe that eating an apple, which God intentionally put within Eve’s grasp, is not a just reason to thrust the world into suffering? What if you do not believe that a person could survive three days in the belly of a whale? What if you think it silly for an all knowing god to create his own nemesis? What if you think it odd for God to send Himself, to save us- from Himself? Would not it have been easier to simply forgive our sins without the blood soaked spectacle of Calvary? What if you find it inconceivable for an all-loving god to create an unimaginable hell for His own children? What if…

What if we stopped waiting on Jesus and started planning? What if we realized that deferring justice until the next life meant deferring it forever? What if we understood that following a religion which too often perpetuates patriarchy has a chilling effect on the development of millions of our potential leaders? What if we knew that our gay brothers and sisters had just as much right to exist as the rest of us (something that would be obvious to a historically oppressed people but for religious influence)? What if we could drop the inaction of religion, for the urgency that comes with knowing that it is up to us? What if we could drop the divisiveness of faith for the loving kindness of humanism? What if…

Of course this could never happen, not if you are black. No! You see, being a good Christian is never to question aloud. Being a good Christian is never to allow a question to linger in your mind. Being a good Christian means to turn off your rational mind when it becomes bothersome to your faith. Unfortunately, black people are good Christians.

If you are the type of person who believes that love began with Jesus, that morality was created by God, that mercy and justice are religious concepts, then you find my words striking. However, if you have dared to think beyond what you were told, if you prefer enlightenment to conditioning, then you may just see it differently. You will have realized that love, courage, empathy and kindness are all human inventions-not the altruistic inventions of a cosmic overlord. You will have realized that we are not abject by birth, but just as valuable as our ancestors have made us.

If you believe these things as I do, then you know that the justice we have long been denied is within our grasp. We can believe in our own virtue, instead of dismissing any notion of our own human goodness. We can accept the challenges of the present and master them completely. If we are courageous enough to examine our beliefs, we can break the chains placed on our minds so long ago. In so doing, we can, for once, live in a world of our choosing – but only if there exists such a thing as a black atheist.

Shawn Brown is an attorney who has studied law both in the United States and England. He has been a freethinker for several years and currently resides in the southwestern United States.

The Infidel Frederick Douglass


By Sikivu Hutchinson

The 19th century human rights giant was no passive consumer of religion or religiosity. Douglass frequently criticized the complicity of organized religion in the barbaric institution of slavery. He often locked horns with black church leadership who faulted him for not “thanking” God for the progress the country and the abolitionist movement made in dismantling slavery after the Civil War. In 1870, Douglass said “I dwell here in no hackneyed cant about thanking God for this deliverance,” and “I bow to no priests either of faith or of unfaith. I claim as against all sorts of people, simply perfect freedom of thought.” Douglass’ rebuke of the knee jerk dogma of religious observance was made in response to the passage of the 15th amendment during an Anti-Slavery society convention address in which several speakers waxed on about God’s divine intervention and influence upon Emancipation. Then, as now, a group of Negro preachers came out of the woodwork to wield their “God-given” moral authority like a bludgeon. Outraged by Douglass’ opposition to teaching the Bible in schools, they quickly passed an anti-Douglass Resolution that said:

That we will not acknowledge any man as a leader of our people who will not thank God for the deliverance and enfranchisement of our race, and will not vote to retain the Bible…in our public schools.*

Buried in the over-heated rhetoric about the critical role of organized religion in the African American experience is seminal criticism of Christianity by Douglass and other forerunning African American activist thinkers. So Douglass’ example is important for two reasons. One it highlights the intellectual resistance to the received norms that prevailed during the post-bellum period. Secondly, it allows African American skeptics, freethinkers and others to claim a parallel humanist tradition amidst the theologically tilted legacy of black liberation.

*From Herbert Aptheker, “An Unpublished Frederick Douglass Letter,” ed. Anthony Pinn, By These Hands: A Documentary History of African American Humanism.