Christianity has played a central role in African-American life from the late 18th century to the present. Black churches raised funds for fugitive slaves, served as schoolhouses, and provided space for political meetings and activities, among other functions. Leaders of black congregations such as Richard Allen or Daniel Payne were often leaders of the broader black community. The spiritual messages of redemption and justice appealed to a people who experienced the brutality of slavery and the indignities of Jim Crow segregation laws. However, while many black churches were radical advocates for political and economic equality, others remained conservative institutions that failed to challenge the status quo. This conservatism helped give rise to an increasingly vocal and influential group of African Americans – the new black atheists.
Who are the new black atheists and what is behind their recent growth? First, let’s briefly look at the ‘old’ black atheists.
With women leading the contemporary freethought movement, the politics of respectability and its sometimes anti-feminist tendencies are being undermined. As Hutchinson notes in her book Moral Combat (2011), ‘for many black atheist women, atheism’s appeal lies in its deconstruction of the bankrupt mores, values and ideologies that prop up patriarchy, sexism, heterosexism, racism, white supremacy, imperialism and economic injustice’.
Feminism is an essential part of the new black atheists’ humanism. New black atheists think that it is not enough to deny the existence of God, teach evolution in schools or fight for the separation of church and state. They want to bring worldly solutions to practical problems. Many have embraced Black Lives Matter (BLM), a secular movement that is notably unaffiliated with black religious institutions and ideology. In doing so, they believe they will improve the lot of blacks in particular but also promote a more just, democratic and less racist American society.
As the black atheist Sincere Kirabo posits of BLM: ‘There’s a social activist movement underway continuing the unfinished business of the Civil Rights movement era. Want to make a difference? What we need is grit and involvement in the struggle, not a tribe satisfied with the empty promises of scriptural white noise. Please, for the sake and love of our own futures: abandon your fabled white messiah. Wake up. We are our own salvation.’
Black atheists matter: how women freethinkers take on religion. An excellent essay by Christopher Cameron, highly recommended. As history shows, attempting to to go along with white colonial doctrine doesn’t further people, as a group, or as individuals. It doesn’t decrease bigotry, either, because you’ll never be white enough, even if you manage the christian enough part. You only ever be an “oh, they are okay for a _____ person.”