It has rightly been pointed out that while atheists span the entire spectrum of the population, the atheist movement itself, in the sense of the leadership of organizations and the most visible atheists in the media, has been dominated by white men. This is fortunately changing and Christopher Cameron in an article titled Black atheists matter: how women freethinkers take on religion reports on those developments. In doing so, he addresses the often-raised question of why the horrors of slavery did not result in the wholesale discrediting of religion in the black community since religion was often used not only to justify slavery but to encourage black people to passively accept their situation in return for their reward in heaven. He says that support for religion in the black community ebbed and flowed depending on the contemporary situation.
As long as people have proclaimed the existence of God, others have rejected the idea of a deity. Among African Americans, the earliest evidence of atheism and agnosticism comes from 19th-century slave narratives. Peter Randolph’s Sketches of Slave Life (1855) and Austin Steward’s Twenty-Two Years a Slave (1857), for example, posit that the brutality of slavery drove many blacks to become atheists. Likewise, prevalent proslavery religion turned many enslaved blacks away from Christianity and religion in general.
The Union victory in the Civil War and the abolishing of slavery and the promise of Reconstruction may have persuaded some people that despite the past horrors they had endured, there was indeed a just god looking out for them and thus shifted the pendulum back in favor of religion. But the arrival of Jim Crow led to disillusionment and a revival of black atheism 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 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.
It was only in the 1990s that black freethinkers began to build their own institutions.
What makes the latest rise in black atheism distinctive is its fusion of atheism with radical visions of social justice, and black atheist women are taking the lead.
New black atheists are not content to personally reject religion but instead have a goal of spreading freethought to the broader black community. For example, the author Sikivu Hutchinson and the founder of Black Nonbelievers, Mandisa Thomas, argue that religion hurts the black community by promoting sexism, patriarchy and homophobia. They claim that black churches have failed to address drug addiction, housing inequities, health disparities, lack of employment opportunities and other pressing social problems facing black Americans. Rather than adopting religious solutions such as abstinence-only education to a problem such as teenage pregnancies, black atheists call for more sex education and access to birth control.
Today, new black atheists are more likely than ever to be women. While there have been prominent black women freethinkers such as Hurston, Larsen and Alice Walker, until recently it had been much more likely for men to openly embrace skepticism, rather than women. New black atheists reject the politics of respectability that have held sway in the black community since the early 1900s.
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.
That broader vision outlined in the last paragraph is the kind of atheism we need.