Why do you need to be a ‘black atheist’?


In the past few months, I have occasionally been invited to write posts on other people’s blogs. Phil Ferguson has invited me to post occasional guest spots on Skeptic Money, I had a post up on Skeptic North, and Hemant Mehta asked me to contribute something to Friendly Atheist. You can probably notice a trend in these sites – they’re all atheist/skeptic friendly blogs that discuss religion in the same way that I do. However, last week I was invited to cross-post one of my pieces on anti-racism blog Racialicious. I have been a Racialicious reader for 2 years now, and so it was a really exciting opportunity to open my writing to a new kind of scrutiny.

And boy howdy, did that happen:

Atheists can be just as preachy and dogmatic as any other group. And the idea that an atheist is a “freethinker” by virtue of being atheist is just as disingenuous as the idea that some white ex-Christian is an oppressed religious minority.

Are there things that bug the ish out of me around the black community’s relationship to the church? Definitely! But I’m not on a mission to educate, encourage or “liberate” black folks of color from Christianity because that feels too much like organized religion to me.

Something about having to join a meeting and band together with other people in a set location to discuss a lack of religious beliefs feels a little, well… church-like to me. And convincing other people of your train of thought, atheistic or otherwise, and passionately wanting more people of color to join your side strikes me as very… evangelical.

Once again, one can see a pattern emerging. I am well-versed in defending anti-racism among discussions with atheists. Having to defend atheism, particularly my active form of it, among a group of anti-racists was a new experience for me. It was made a bit more frustrating by the fact that the post wasn’t even about why people of colour (PoCs) should be atheist, or why they (we) should be abandoning religion. It was simply an examination of some of the issues that might be keeping PoC who are atheists away from joining the mainstream movement. While a couple of the comments dealt with the issues I had raised, the majority of them were like the ones above – variations on a theme of “why bother to be part of an organized atheist movement?” or “why bother to be an atheist?”

Funnily enough, this is a conversation that I’ve had with atheists a number of times, but from the other side – “why do you need to be a black atheist? Why can’t we all just be atheists?” or the ever popular refrain that racial differences will cease to exist when we just stop paying attention to them. My usual response to a question like that is usually something flippant – “why do we have to call ourselves atheists? Why can’t we all just be bipeds?” The point being that labels are useful when there are real differences between groups or positions.

As with all things on this blog, I am not going to pretend that I can give a definite answer to either of these questions. I will, however, provide you with my own reasons for why I am black, atheist, and a black atheist.

Why call yourself black?

As I’ve alluded to before, I’ve struggled with my racial identity for most of my life. Where I’ve settled, for now at least, is that since the world treats me like a black man rather than a mixed-race person, I might as well call myself black. I can (and do) draw a great deal of strength and existential context from my African heritage. While everyone has their identity as individuals, it is more or less inevitable that we will also find a way to place ourselves in groups. I embrace this rather than trying to continue a futile struggle to assert my unique snowflake-ness.

Why call yourself an atheist?

This question usually has more to do with being a vocal atheist – what some people continue to insist on calling ‘militant’. (Just a caveat here: until someone begins to use violence to intimidate others, they are not militant, and you’re just using the word to score cheap rhetorical points.) Why get together with other atheists and talk about being atheists? This is the subject, surely, for an entire post of its own, but there can be great value – socially, politically, and in terms of security – in banding together with like-minded people. I am a vocal atheist because I recognize the harm that religion does in the world, and the privileged position it holds that allows this harm to continue apace. Religion needs people who are not afraid or too apathetic to criticize it and bring the conversation into the mainstream.

Why call yourself a black atheist?

I have actively chosen both the labels ‘black’ and ‘atheist’ for myself. It is not simply a question of passive de facto categorization – both of these labels meaningfully inform my outlook on life. In a reciprocal way, each of the labels affects the other. My lack of belief puts me at odds with most of the black community. At the same time however, the skeptical tools that I use in my discussion of religion have helped me immensely in my discussions of race. Being black makes me an outlier within the atheist community, but I can readily reach for examples when discussions of privilege come up, and the civil rights struggle is perfectly mirrored in what the atheist community is attempting to achieve now.

So far from simply being the accidental collision of my race and my beliefs, I take great pride in being a black atheist. Not only do the labels describe me meaningfully on their own, they operate in parallel to reinforce each other. I don’t see any problem in this kind of self-identification. Some do not choose to see themselves that way, and I can’t make the decision for them. However, I have little patience for those who would attempt to minimize or trivialize my own choice simply because they do not choose it for themselves.

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Comments

  1. Riptide says

    Thanks for this–it certainly helped me broaden my understanding of how such ‘crossovers’ in identification can bear fruit in both of them–a bit like academic collaboration, in a way.

    Anyway, I wanted to respond to the three comments you quoted, but I do not feel worthy (or possibly courageous enough) to bring them to the commenters themselves.

    ” Atheists can be just as preachy and dogmatic as any other group. And the idea that an atheist is a “freethinker” by virtue of being atheist is just as disingenuous as the idea that some white ex-Christian is an oppressed religious minority.”

    Note the common refrain “Atheists are just as bad as religionists! They preach and hold dogma!” But there are no specifics as to what this nebulous dogma or these offensive preachments might be, and so they aren’t worth rebutting in detail.

    Certainly being an atheist does not ensure one is a freethinker. One can be born into a prejudiced or ignorant household which happens to be gods-free; one can even be an atheist conspiracy nut (in fact I suspect very many of them on the Alex Jones end of the radar are effectively atheists). The implication runs much more strongly the other way, however, which is what Ian has stated more-or-less explicitly in several places. Honest introspection, coupled with healthy skepticism, almost demands atheism…and while this is not a perfect relationship, there is a *reason* that the majority of skeptics are atheists. (Namely, reason itself).

    Note also that the assumption in the last line is that a white (ex-)Christian person can never be a minority, religious or otherwise…or at least not an “oppressed” one. But atheists are oppressed by the religious power structure for their (lack of) religion every single day. And while it is true that atheists as a group haven’t (yet) had hoses turned or attack dogs set on them, that doesn’t mean that discriminatory hiring and firing practices, police investigations, political candidate selection committees, and other forms of oppression do not occur to the detriment of the faithless all the time. Yet it is taken as self-evident that even though atheists are still publicly reviled by politicians and newscasters, even though there are millions of megachurch attendees browbeaten into trying to ‘save’ those who’ve heretofore escaped the auspices of YahwAllahda, this oppression simply does not exist.

    ” Are there things that bug the ish out of me around the black community’s relationship to the church? Definitely! But I’m not on a mission to educate, encourage or “liberate” black folks of color from Christianity because that feels too much like organized religion to me.”

    This is a fairly innocuous comment overall, purveying the personal feelings of its author, which can’t really be answered without making too many assumptions of my own. I still don’t get how something is “too much like” its antithesis, though. In what ways is *encouraging gods-free minorities to ‘out’ themselves* anything like organized religion? At the very least it suggests that the reader didn’t comprehend anything in the post deeper than “Black atheists exist,” and from there extrapolated that Ian wished to convert more.

    ” Something about having to join a meeting and band together with other people in a set location to discuss a lack of religious beliefs feels a little, well… church-like to me. And convincing other people of your train of thought, atheistic or otherwise, and passionately wanting more people of color to join your side strikes me as very… evangelical.”

    The author of this does realize that this same rationale can be maintained to shirk nearly every kind of public gathering, right? Meeting together with other people in a set location to discuss the intricacies of video-game and comic-book characters must feel church-like to xerm (a gender-neutral dative personal pronoun partly of my own design) as well. Does xe scoff at Apple’s annual convention? Music festivals or concerts? Ren fairs?

    And I suppose it’s not our place to try and “convince other people” that structural racism still exists and is still very much A Bad Thing is too “evangelical” a goal to pursue. Passionately wanting more people of colour to join the anti-racist movement makes one a Pap-ine demagogue hungry for the blood of the infidel, amirite?

    I’m sorry, Ian, but the lack of thought put into both of these charges strikes me as quite odd coming from any thinking person, much less someone even casually interested in racial circumstances and attitudes. I’m sorry on behalf of the Internet that the first and third person both could not actually read your piece *and* felt the need to comment on it.

    Whew! Sorry about how long that was, but I’ve not commented in a while, and I’d begun to worry you’d missed me. ;)

  2. Collin says

    Sometimes atheists seem to be as intransigent as religious fundamentalists. However, bearing in mind what Crommie said about not redefining words, I don’t think belief in a negative can be called “dogma”. The world is full of nonsense, and atheists are not the only ones who sometimes lose patience and rant about their disbelief. It happened to me once when I walked into a general store and saw that they were having one of their holistic festivals. In a fit of righteousness, I started trying to convince one of the dealers that her items don’t work. After a few minutes, I gave up.

    That being said, there are some positive beliefs that seem, rightly or wrongly, to be associated with atheism, e.g.:

    * Lorenz invariance is exact.

    * Supersymmetry exists.

    * The Higgs boson exists.

    * String theory is probably correct.

    * Spacetime is absolutely continuous.

    * Information is a physical quantity.

    * It is possible for a robot to become smarter than people.

    And atheists also seem to disbelieve other things than simply God or superstition, e.g.:

    * There is no free will.

    * There is no quantum entanglement inside a brain.

    * There is no time arrow.

    * There is no quantum collapse process.

  3. Crommunist says

    I really don’t think we have the kind of relationship where I am comfortable with you calling me ‘Crommie’. “Belief in a negative” is a straw man definition of atheism – it is far more accurate to say ‘lack of belief’.

    As to the rest of your comment, the empirical findings of physics are really only related to atheism insofar as a given atheist(s) is aware of the science. I have no earthly clue what Lorenz invariance is, and if tomorrow the newspapers were filled with stories about how it had been conclusively proven to be inexact, that would have no impact whatsoever on my belief in a god/gods. The same goes for the rest of the bullet points you raise. I am a dunce when it comes to physics – I turn to much smarter friends in times when I need some quantum concept explained to me. They are completely unimportant to my faithlessness.

  4. collinmerenoff says

    Firstly, I read your FAQ. As a Jew, I don’t believe in grace. So for me, the fact that you found your home in atheism is inalienable.

    Secondly, I’ve found in the past few years that my understanding of faith is so different from that of most of the world that I could pass for an atheist, except that I’m not the type of person to play the “passing for” game.

    You are correct that the Realist school of physics, and observations that seem to support it, have nothing to do with “faith” in the usual sense of the word. The problem is that faith-based think tanks have gone so far with travesties of the speculative techniques of Realism, that speculation itself has gotten a bad reputation — unless, of course, it’s done in an ostentatiously anti-Realist manner.

    A major example of this is about twenty years ago when it was hyped that the physical constants are “fine tuned” to support human life. This argument can, of course, be rejected wholesale simply because it’s an egregious case of backfilling. Instead, some physicists proposed a theory of multiple universes to provide a secular explanation for it. String theory had reached the obstacle of having about 10^500 (i.e. a “1” with 500 “0”s after it) versions, with no way to pick which one matches real physics. So instead of seeing this as proof that string theory is useless, these physicists had embraced it to say that each of these 10^500 versions is a separate universe, so that something as improbable as the “fine tuning” had enough opportunities to occur without God. Except for reaching an atheist conclusion, this is the same blatant misuse of the concepts of probability and causation that is typical of faith-based arguments.

    So I agree with you that discoveries in physics should not be moving anyone toward faith. My contention is with those who resist physical speculation in fear of becoming faithful.

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