One strong stereotype about the African-American community is that they are one of the most religious ethnic groups. There is good reason for this. Slave owners, like colonial rulers, used Christianity as a means of control, deflecting the hopes of the oppressed people to a wonderful afterlife to distract them from their present state of exploitation. During the harsh period of slavery, many slaves placed their hope in some kind of miraculous salvation, either in this life or at least in the afterlife and there is no question that this enabled them to endure horrific conditions. So religion became both a means of imposing oppression and also of surviving it.
Given that history, it is not easy for black people to tell their families and friends that they are atheists. I wrote once about a young black man who said that telling his mother that he was gay was easier than telling her that he was an atheist. But black atheists are becoming increasingly open about their presence and one encounters representatives of such groups at gatherings of skeptics.
Christopher Cameron, an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, has a new book coming out that looks at the long history of black Americans and religion, and how attitudes towards atheism have evolved with time, from what the author labels ‘old black atheists’ to ‘new black atheists’, and the major role that black women are playing in this evolution.
In this article titled Black atheists matter: how women freethinkers take on religion, he describes what is happening.
The Union victory in the Civil War and passage of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution abolishing slavery convinced many skeptical blacks that perhaps a just God was indeed looking out for their interests. But the nation’s retreat from reconstruction, from protecting the rights of its black citizens, and the onset of Jim Crow, gave new life to black atheism, which grew sharply in the early 20th century.
This growth coincided with the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and ’30s. Urbanisation, technological advancements and growing opportunities for education promoted secularism among black intellectuals such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen and Richard Wright. This secularism included atheism but also a commitment to improving human life through reason rather than faith. The Renaissance did not precipitate black atheism so much as foster the rise of an increasingly self-conscious secular community. Rather than attend church on Sunday mornings, black freethinkers gathered in A Philip Randolph’s parlour in Harlem to discuss socialism, labour politics, anti-imperialism and solutions to the race problem.
This early secular community differs from the new black atheists of today in their acceptance of Christianity and their lack of evangelical zeal to promote atheism. Black freethinkers such as Hurston and Hughes did not wish to disabuse black Christians of their religious ideals. They simply felt that religion was not for them. Hubert Harrison, a black socialist freethinker in Harlem during the 1910s and ’20s was an exception. He saw it as his duty to bring freethought to African Americans, whom he believed should be most desirous of jettisoning Christianity because the religion had historically strengthened both slavery and Jim Crow.
One thing I found particularly interesting is the author’s observation that “new black atheists are more likely than ever to be women” countering the strong stereotype of the religious matriarch using her faith to hold the family together against all odds. He looks at why “Feminism is an essential part of the new black atheists’ humanism” and that black feminists see the struggle for social justice not as an add-on but as an integral part of their non-religious worldview.
The entire article is well worth reading. And I look forward to reading his book when it comes out.