Out of the Closet and Into the Abyss The Black Church and the Politics of Black Non-Belief

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It’s easy to say “Christianity justified slavery and Jim Crow” and blame the church for the current racial situation, but what are atheists doing right now to address these issues, other than complain about how stupid Black Americans are for going to church?

The critiques of theism offered by the so-called New Atheism have put religious leaders and believers on the defensive, as their dogmas and assumptions are held to increased levels of scientific, historical, and philosophical scrutiny. Over the last decade, figures like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have refused Stephen Jay Gould’s “non-overlapping magisteria” to assert that the “God thesis” is not only factually wrong, but dangerous, and that institutions promoting supernatural beliefs should be mocked and critiqued. However, the New Atheism has had little, if any, impact on the religiosity of Black Americans, who are consistently reported as the most religious demographic in the United States. The 2009 Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project reports that 87 percent of Black Americans are affiliated with a religious denomination, 79 percent say that religion plays a “very important part” in their lives, and 88 percent state that they are “absolutely confident” that God exists.

These statistics are borne out by my own personal experiences and observations. A gospel soundtrack is often a given in barbershops, beauty salons, and other black-owned businesses, and the workday may even begin with communal prayer. The Tyler Perry empire of movies, television shows, and stage plays, noted for their idealized depictions of Southern black church culture, are consistently popular among black consumers, despite the terrible reviews they receive from mainstream critics. There is no discourse in historically black colleges and universities about atheism or even any substantial debate about the role of religion in black life. It is simply taken for granted that to be black is to be a believer in God.

White atheists tend to be puzzled by the attachment that many African Americans have toward the church, given that Christianity was introduced to them via slavery and the fact that Christian dogma was used to justify white supremacy. While it’s true that the churches of white America were content to use Christianity to defend the racial status quo, the theology of the black church (defined here as religious congregations, regardless of denomination, where the majority of the parishioners are black) always critiqued the hypocrisy of American racial attitudes. Black slaves may have been forced to accept their masters’ religion, but transformed it into a unique institution that allowed them to find dignity and personhood in a society that saw them as the perpetual “other.” White atheists who are confused by the religious landscape in black America fail to understand how racism, both past and present, keeps the black church operational.

For many parishioners, the black church is an oasis of validation in a white-dominated society that often writes African Americans off as criminals and welfare cheats. Prior to the Civil Rights Movement, media depictions of Black Americans—whether in print, film, or television—were uniformly negative, consisting of well-worn stock characters dating from the days of minstrel shows, such as the lazy sambo, the brutal black buck, the ill-cared for pickaninny, the tragic mulatto, and the mammy. The scientific establishment was no less hostile, with eminent Western scientists and philosophers such as Carl Linnaeus, Immanuel Kant, and Georg Hegel asserting the natural inferiority of black people, social engineers and state governments colluding to sterilize African Americans and other “undesirables,” and even captured Africans being used as zoo exhibits or sideshow freaks (e.g., Ota Benga, Saartjie Baartman). The majority of Black Americans in the South were disenfranchised for most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, while their Northern brethren often felt like there wasn’t anyone or anything worth voting for.

Churches functioned as safe spaces against the naked hostility of the outside world, where blacks could gather to engage in personal and community betterment programs, political activism, and see examples of African Americans in leadership positions. Indeed, the church was one of the few places where a black person could exercise power and authority of any sort in the pre-Civil Rights era; men who were butlers Monday through Saturday could be pastors on Sunday, and women who were forced to suffer the indignities of domestic work could serve as deaconesses or teach Sunday school.

Although the plight of black people in the twenty-first century is not as dire as it was in the past, many of the same dehumanizing stereotypes and institutional barriers to success remain intact. The mainstream media continues to portray Black Americans in terms of the same broad stereotypes of previous generations, slightly tweaked to fit modern sensibilities. For example, it’s not hard to draw a straight line from the sex-crazed black rapists who populate the 1915 film Birth of a Nation to the cavalier “pimps” in today’s rap videos. Some black parents may attend church, not because they believe in the doctrine, but because they think that black religious institutions will inoculate their children with positive values and a healthy self-image.

Too many black people view their existence as a choice between “the ghetto” and “the cross,” without considering that there could be a “third path” of secular humanism.

In addition to providing psychological benefits to their parishioners, many black churches are major providers of crucial social welfare services, such as child care, job training, mentoring, tutoring, health screenings, senior citizen programs, and anti-gang programs. It would not behoove nonbelievers to speak ill of the churches if they are in a position to use these services, even if they don’t believe the dogma attached to them.

The notion of the church as a service provider goes back to the Middle Ages, when monasteries, cathedrals, and parish churches ran inns, hospitals, orphanages, primary schools, and universities. Churches still had a monopoly on many social services in parts of Europe and Canada well into the twentieth century, until the advent of universal government health care and secular public education pushed religious institutions out of the picture. Not coincidentally, when the link between church and welfare was severed, interest in religion began to wane in the industrialized world. Such an outcome is unlikely to happen in the United States, where many people, regardless of race or ethnicity, believe that religious organizations, not the government, are the natural providers of social services.

I personally believe there are quite a few black atheists and agnostics in the United States, despite the aggressive religiosity that exists in many quarters of the black community. Assuming that the Pew Research Center’s survey is accurate, and 88 percent of blacks are certain that God exists, that leaves 12 percent or roughly 4 million people of uncertain religious allegiance. Regardless of the actual number of black atheists or agnostics in the United States, few are comfortable being open to their friends and family about their non-belief. Certainly, if one’s family members are part of the “88 percent,” announcing one’s atheism can rupture family ties. Community pressure to conform to essentialist notions about black identity also discourages open atheism. Pop culture figures like the aforementioned Tyler Perry, along with Steve Harvey and Cedric the Entertainer reinforce the idea that “black = religious,” and that “atheism is for white people,” thus closing their audience’s mind to the possibility that there are other alternatives to the church culture.

The continued marginalization of Black Americans in mainstream society provides the black church with a disproportionately large role in the black community. If black people were fully integrated into the fabric of American society, the church would simply be one institution out of many that has to compete for resources and followers in the marketplace of ideas. But because churches tend to be the only functional organizations in many black communities, especially those that are the most impoverished and segregated, they are considered above reproach. The false perception of the black church as the engine of the Civil Rights Movement is enough to silence critics, who are ignorant of the role that secular organizations and secular humanists played in the movement. (Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King could both be considered closet Unitarians, rather than the traditional black Baptists that the black church portrays them as being. “We gave a lot of thought to becoming Unitarian at one time,” Scott King once told UU Minister Rosemary Bray McNatt, “but Martin and I realized we could never build a mass movement of black people if we were Unitarian.”) Those who are discontented with religion remain silent, for fear that critiquing the church would weaken the community as a whole.

The state of mainstream atheist, skeptical, and humanist organizations doesn’t help the cause of Black Americans who wish to be more open with their non-belief. The problems that are important to the black community (e.g., racial profiling, the school to prison pipeline, voter suppression, inequalities in the educational system) are dismissed by many white atheists as not being “real atheist issues,” and there are no attempts to establish real-life communities that would function as real alternatives to religious groups or provide a radical critique of the social ills that affect communities of color. For churchgoing black people who are struggling with their faith or no longer believe, it may be preferable to retain membership in a religious organization that “does good” in the community, rather than join an atheist movement that is perceived as being hostile to their interests and concerns.

An example of this tendency can be seen in the atheist community’s reaction to the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, which for the most part was a resounding silence. The only atheist organization to comment on the verdict was a statement by the American Humanist Association, and judging by the comments the communique received on the AHA’s website, even that was considered too radical for some. Perhaps American Atheists, the Center for Inquiry, or the Council for Secular Humanism felt that it would be unwise to comment on a controversial issue with no obvious religious or church-state angle, but no organization, whether secular or religious, can afford to sit on the fence when it comes to racial issues. Even if these groups did not feel comfortable directly addressing the Zimmerman trial verdict, they should have used the event as a springboard to consider how atheism, skepticism, and secular humanism could be harnessed to solve real-world problems in the black community. While the atheist establishment dithered and navel-gazed, the activist-oriented black churches organized marches, contacted elected officials, and hosted nonviolence workshops, once again solidifying the notion that the church is the only organization that can adequately address the needs and aspirations of the black community.

For too long, white atheists have been content to blame America’s racial woes on less enlightened religious “others,” thus absolving themselves from the need to examine how they encourage or benefit from institutionalized racism. More than fifty years ago in Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. castigated the white churchmen of Alabama by saying, “Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent‑and often even vocal—sanction of things as they are.” Replace “church” with “atheist movement,” and you have an apt description of the current state of affairs. The so-called atheist movement is not really a social movement so much as it is a social club for the privileged that seeks no real changes in the status quo other than getting people to stop attending churches, synagogues, and mosques. It’s easy to say “Christianity justified slavery and Jim Crow” and blame the church for the current racial situation, but what are atheists doing right now to address these issues, other than complain about how stupid Black Americans are for going to church?

The only logical way to break the grip of the church in the black community is to create secular communities that provide the social uplift found in religious bodies, but without the dogma or superstition of religious bodies. Perhaps the Humanist Service Corps could sponsor “local missions” that help establish secular community centers in economically impoverished areas in the United States. Storefront churches take advantage of the cheap rents in poor black and Latino areas, and there is no reason why an atheist or humanist group couldn’t do the same (it should be noted that storefront churches impede economic development in ghetto neighborhoods by using their tax-exempt status to keep rents artificially low, something that humanists should definitely not emulate). Unlike a religious institution, where social programs are secondary to indoctrinating members with dogma, the primary mission of a humanist center should be educating and empowering the community. Providing tutoring and mentors for children and teenagers or starting a humanist-type scouting troop would be a good start. A well-established humanist center that has access to more funds, volunteers, and organizational partners could eventually provide GED classes for adults, ethics classes in non-theistic morality, a small lending library, and daycare services. Educational materials about notable black humanists and freethinkers should be available to teach visitors that atheism is not “just for white people” but for all people.

Encouraging Black Americans to reconsider the role of belief and religion will take more than hoping they’ll pick up a copy of The God Delusion at the library and reach the desired conclusion. It will mean listening and engaging with black communities, understanding the culture, and building institutions that will foster critical thinking, economic development, and dignity. Most importantly, it will mean finding ways to make atheism more than just a philosophical position, but a thought system that can change lives and communities for the better.