It’s hard out here for black atheists. I’m from the deep South, New Orleans to be specific, and I can’t remember a time where church wasn’t apart of my childhood. My grandfather was a preacher out of Donaldsonville Louisiana, or simply “the country” as we called it, and my mother was on the usher board of our church in the city. I remember her getting dressed up in these ornate matching outfits with the rest of the ushers for their anniversary celebrations every year. I loved church actually. I loved the music. I grew to love sermons. I loved going to breakfast after church. Ha! I loved it all. I even become a junior usher board member at one time. With all of that said, I’m 31 now and can proudly declare I’m an anti-theist.
Let me first clarify that this does NOT mean I hold any contempt for most religious people. My mother and most of family and friends are religious, and I have the deepest respect for them all. I remember around the age of 13 or 14 asking my mother questions about the dinosaurs, evolution, the earth being only 6,000 years old, who were Cain and Able married to etc, and I remember the feeling of unease when she had no answers. She referred me to our pastor at the time, “Ask him” she said. Not even contemplating the seriousness of the questions and her inability to answer them. That she, and so many others, would base their entire lives around writings that are so clearly imperfect, so clearly fantastical, and from an era in our history where science did not yet exist to answer any of our questions about life or the world around us is frankly disturbing to me, but I respect people’s choice to believe whatever they choose.
Black people, my people, have a particular connection to Christianity in America that we have to examine and explore. There’s the common misconception that slavery is the beginning of the African connection to Christianity. This is false. As discussed in an Ebony piece by Nana Ekua-Hammond
Christianity reportedly arrived in North Africa in the latter part of 1st century AD/early part of the 2nd, while “the adoption of Christianity in Ethiopia dates to the fourth-century,” according to findings by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Bible also documents the conversion of an Ethiopian eunuch as the early church was forming. Likewise, Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta mentions Christians in Nubia (an area that covers present-day northern Sudan and southern Egypt) in his 14th century travelogue. But when Europeans penetrated Sub-Saharan Africa in the 16th Century, ultimately mining the region for Africans to enslave, the historical narrative shifts which is perhaps why many associate the religion most with Europeans to this day.
Black folks could have ended up Christians no matter where they were located on this globe. Slavery or no slavery. Now I don’t want to falsely paint the picture that Africa was a largely Christian continent before the slave trade and colonization, but the point is that religions spread and they spread through various methods, and while Christianity’s connections to slavery makes for a good place to start when asserting African Americans should question their faith, it’s not the only reason or even the most important.
I don’t reject just Christianity. I reject all religions. The first thing people then often ask me when I say this is, “So what… You don’t believe in God?” They ask it in that do you hear yourself tone. Like if I take a second to think about what I’ve just said I’ll regret it and apologize. Better yet I’ll drop to my knees and confess my sins to god and ask Him back in my life. God is a him, right? You never hear most folks talk about God being female. I’d call that patriarchy, but I don’t want Him to hear me say that. Wait…can’t he hear my thoughts? Doesn’t he know my heart too? I guess there’s no getting anything by God. He’s obviously not a huge fan of privacy . He should probably work for the NSA.
I want to further discuss that often asked question. Do I believe in god? No, I don’t. Furthermore, I don’t have any clear idea of who this figure even is. I’ve asked theists time and time again, what is God to you? Is it an old, bearded, white guy floating somewhere beyond the universe? Is god some spirit watching over us, but uninvolved in the things that happen? Is god some omnipotent force with a master plan dictating everything from who wins each football game to what diseases we find cures to? The god I like the least is the vengeful god. The version that says listen to all the contradictions of the Bible and follow all my ridiculous suggestions OR ELSE. The mention of hell is purely a new testament thing. It’s Jesus that presents the my way or the hell-way choices, and since we can’t even confirm the existence of Jesus on earth I’m skeptical. As Christopher Hitchens has mused, what would we have now if someone had rushed the Romans and helped Jesus to escape crucifixion? Would our sins then be forever unwashed and unforgiven? Did god have a back up plan in case the death of his son had been somehow avoided? Bigger questions arise. Why present the option of sin? Why the connection of the first sin to knowledge? Why would you create a species, with the capacity for knowledge, give them free will, and then punish them forever after for using that free will to seek more knowledge? Was it just so you could later send your son to die for these sins you created to begin with? Jesus’capital punishment is what earned us this forgiveness? You would think murder would be a worse crime than Eve giving in to temptation and biting into some fruit, but He’s the boss who am I?
There are so many logical reasons one could list as to why theism is ridiculous. Perhaps I’ll do more pieces just on that, but this piece is really about Black atheists. When you’re black to think like this is almost unheard of, or at least rarely talked about. The black atheists I personally know of, outside of social media, could be counted on one hand. I know plenty of black folks who don’t go to church, and who say things like “I don’t believe in organized religion,” or “I believe in spirituality,” but very few who will go so far as to say, “I’m an atheist.”
Black culture, as many wonderful things as it gives us, is resistant to non conformity. With over 80% of African Americans reporting religious affiliations, compared to other ethnic groups, we are among the most likely to report a formal religious affiliation. Our connection to religion is complex. We are an exploited community, we live and breath white supremacy every day. We’ve been slaves, survived Jim Crow, and now we are struggling through mass incarceration and continued racism. We have a lot to pray about. Or do we? What kind of god would allow you to suffer through all those things when more than 80% of us are praying to him daily? Were the slave masters not praying to the same god that he’d keep us in chains? Do we not drop bombs to protect our Christian nation, and are the people we drop them on not praying for our destruction simultaneously to the same god? What sense does any of this make? Black folks have been too docile for too long. We sit and pray for solutions to our problems when the logical solutions are just waiting for our consideration and our action.
I understand the desire to pray. Everyone needs someone to talk to, to confess our deepest darkest fears to, and to relieve us of our worry. I even understand the desire to believe in a deity. I’ve often pondered how maybe god is just the fabric that holds the universe together. This entity, a metaphorical conductor, leading this vast orchestra and guiding the rhythms and vibrations that create our physical existence. I don’t have any proof of that though. That’s just my human desire for answers talking. My universe exists, I exist, and I want to know why. More truthfully, I want there to be a reason why. The reality is there isn’t any reason to believe there’s a reason we exist. At least no more reason than the dinosaurs had for their existence or the ants in my yard. We see ourselves as being important. Much more important than we truly are. Perspective is everything. The famous quote from Stardust goes,
Are we human because we gaze at the stars, or do we gaze at them because we are human? Pointless, really. Do the stars gaze back?
I am a proud black atheist. There are no reasons to be ashamed. Morality is as human as anything. The golden rule exists, because reason tells us we must have rules and we must respect the rights of others, or our own rights mean nothing at all. Good exists outside of religion, and “evil” exists within religion. What rationale dictates is love for each other, and more importantly love without the promise of reward in the afterlife. We are present in the here and now. Without any thing remotely concrete to prove that the afterlife even exists, should we not build the best life possible here on earth? Black people especially, should we not let go of faith and live on fact? Could our experience in this world be any worse if we did?