The Black Practice of Disbelief An Introduction to the Principles, History, and Communities of Black Nonbelievers

The following excerpt is from a new book from Beacon Press, set to be published in May 2024.


I have grown to like “nontheist” as a broad-spectrum term that carries less baggage than more commonly used words such as “atheist” or “agnostic.”

To do good is my religion.

ACCORDING TO POPULAR IMAGINATION in the United States, to be a Black American is to be a Black Christian. This connection is made, typically without any call for justification. It is grounded in a common narration of Black life that views its guiding concerns and questions as revolving around issues of transformation and revelation best discussed using the theological grammar and vocabulary of the dominant religious orientation of the United States: Christianity. Of course, there is something to this association, in that the vast majority of Black Americans claim some affiliation with Christianity—particularly one of the predominantly Black denominations. Yet this link has never captured the thinking, motivations, and orientation of all Black Americans. In fact, in recent years, a population of Black Americans who claim no connection to Christianity in general, or the Black Church in particular, has grown.

The Challenge Categories

As will become clear over the course of this book, there are a variety of names by which Black nontheists call themselves—for instance, atheists, skeptic, freethinker, or humanist. And while I wouldn’t make the argument that they are synonymous, I would say that they point to overlapping concerns and claims that make the terminology used to describe this population somewhat flexible. One gets a sense of this in the following statement made by journalist Alejandra Molina: “Black nonbelievers . . . have for years been working to redefine what it means to be atheist, a word too often linked to white spaces mostly concerned with creationism and the separation of church and state. Many Black nonbelievers identify as humanist and challenge Christianity for being linked to racism, capitalism and sexism.”1 Shared social concerns provide something of a nexus that serves to “soften” the distinction of titles.

There are layers to this identity—complexities that too often are ignored. I believe this is what author and activist Sikivu Hutchinson is getting at when she writes that Black nontheists are typically truncated and reduced to one dimension of their identity that involves disbelief in God, and so “rejecting religion becomes an end in and of itself, and not merely symbolic of a more politicized belief system based on social justice, ethics, black liberation, black feminism and serving black communities within the context of height­ened anti-Black state violence, segregation and misogynoir.”2 Again, this isn’t to render these categories (e.g., humanist, atheist, skeptic) identical. It is to point out a fluid application that doesn’t demand hard and fixed distinction, but instead sees each label addressing a particular dimension of a complex sense of self. I’ll use a personal example: I understand myself to be a humanist, but there are conversations and times during which it is more productive to highlight a particular element of that identity. Therefore, I might call myself an atheist or a freethinker, depending on what is needed in a given context to best express what I understand as my commitments and aims. I would say I’m not alone in applying this strategy—in other words, there isn’t necessarily a conflict in using a variety of description to captures one’s nontheism. Keep in mind this claim when hearing Asher_Jak’s self-identification: “I am an atheist. I’m also a skeptic. My atheism and skepticism are key parts in maintaining peace of mind, feeling in control of my life, and sometimes even healing.”3 Or think of the blending of terms in this statement by Ken Granderson: “For those not familiar with the word, a Humanist is basically an atheist who takes strong moral stances on things, or for whom morality is a clear and present factor in the thoughts and actions in their daily lives.”4 In all of these instances, there is a concern with behavior and beliefs beyond theistic assumptions.

For the purposes of this slim volume, I want to overturn the assumption that only Black theism in its various forms offers life orientation. By doing this, I move to the center of Black religious life a tradition that is typically misunderstood and marginalized. I present Black humanism in a new way, one that highlights its communal dimensions, its meaning-making rituals, and its belief structures. One gets a sense of this thinking with Sikivu Hutchinson, who explains her life and philosophical orientation, having been raised in a secular home, over against the theism encountered during a year attending a Catholic school:

Although Catholic dogma and Catholic hierarchy informed this regime of power, authority, and control, I saw no significant difference between these practices and those of other Christian power structures that also enforced binaries of good/bad, self/other, male/female, gay/straight, and Christian/heathen, while giving so-called religious leaders a cover for immorality and bigotry. Very early on, I was a humanist and a feminist without necessarily having the language to break it down that way. Being humanist and feminist demands questioning received dogmas and slaying sacred cows whose very existence depends on your erasure. To subscribe to a human-centered notion of morality, ethics, and justice as a Black woman is an outlier position that carries social, political, and professional risks.5

What should be acknowledged, what this book calls attention to, is the unlikely resident—Black humanism—in the house of meaning-making. This is simply to say, again, that there is an impressive number of Black Americans who claim no particular (theistic) religious orientation—but (and here’s the kicker) they aren’t nihilistic, and they aren’t hiding away in dark corners feeding on despair. No—they are making their way through the world with community, with a philosophy of life, and in light of certain ritual practices, all of which shape their existence in relationship to others, and in the world.

Placing Black Humanism

When it comes to identifying Black humanism, it has often been done by negation: we know what it isn’t. (This, for instance, would be a case in which the Black humanist might highlight their atheism, or their attention to science and critical thought, in which case they might emphasize their freethought or skepticism.) Without doubt, its range of interests and social critiques would mean it isn’t synonymous with the humanism coming out of the Enlightenment, in part because it challenges some key Enlightenment assumptions concerning the nature and meaning of the human, the workings of race, and so on. It isn’t theistic in orientation, and, although some individuals remain within the community of Black theists, it isn’t a dimension of the Black Church tradition. To the contrary, there are signs that Black humanism exists in opposition to the Black Church. Yet there are similarities with Black churches—overlapping concerns, so to speak. For example, despite the rhetoric of some of its more atheistic advocates, Black humanism concerns itself with meaning-making. In noting this, I am not suggesting that it is concerned with transhistorical relationships; rather, this is to say that Black humanism, like various forms of Black theism (e.g., Black churches, Black Islamic orientations, certain modes of Black Buddhism, voodoo, Lucumi) seeks to answer the fundamental questions of human existence, such as, Who are we? What are we? Why are we? When are we? These speak to concerns and probing having to do with the desire to make life meaningful—to make meaning of one’s existence.

In addition, although it doesn’t associate such questioning with revelation or special knowledge, Black humanism offers ways to ritualize its wrestling with these questions: it develops language and practices that are meant to capture and repeat their significance and the accompanying answers. In this way, Black humanists, like their theistic neighbors, reframe time and space so as to commemorate certain things about human life and to do so in the context of the like-minded, or what we might call “community.” Some of this ritualizing involves effort to distinguish themselves from Black theists, as well as from white humanists, for whom the range of motivations and concerns can be different (i.e., for the former what it means to be part of a marginalized and racially defined population, and for the latter what it means to exist within a context of privilege). When done in community, this Black humanist work is also meant to offer a “soft place to land”—a new community, a new way of communicating life aims and concerns free of a god-based language of life. This suggests that Black humanism can constitute an alternate space, a different framing of life that maintains the awe and wonder associated with transhistorical claims found in theism(s), but in such a way as to ground them in the materiality of physical life. As Asher_Jak reflects, “When I lost my belief in the supernatural, I gained a deep sense of wonder for the naturalistic world. I stopped being afraid of what could happen and started appreciating what has happened.”6

These similarities and differences with Black churches and other forms of Black religion raise questions about how one might rightly categorize or label Black humanism. Does all of this make Black humanism a religion? Are Black humanists involved in the religious practice of disbelief?

Black Humanism as a Religious Movement

Some time ago—and I continue to believe this naming is legitimate—I argued that humanism in general and Black humanism in particular qualify as a religious orientation or system.7 As one might imagine, this didn’t go over so well in most circles of “nonbelievers,” but was viewed as a misnaming, a misunderstanding, or, at worst, a betrayal.

There is a visceral reaction—a reluctance or downright refusal—on the part of many humanists to humanism being called a “religion.” This is due to an assumption that religion is reducible to the theistic modes of expression they’ve rejected. What I suggest here, however, isn’t equating humanism with theism. Instead, I’m suggesting that religion is simply a tool, a technology, a device for examining human experience—with the intention of finding some type of meaning that connects the individual to something more than the individual. This understanding of religion doesn’t assume a god or gods, and it doesn’t require a heavenly gaze; it entails a structure of thought and practice aiming to locate and unpack life-meaning. This definition frees religion from theology and serves to recognize the various ways in which meaning-making (i.e., the work of religion) is fostered without god(s). As I hope becomes clear over the course of the following pages, Black humanism can be appreciated as a (secular) religious orientation: a way to examine and name human experience so as to discern from it the nature and meaning of (Black) human life. Based on this definition, humanism—even secular humanism—is a religious system in that it is used to explore human experience and foster some sort of meaning for the individual or community doing the looking. When this life-meaning is tied to ethical commitments, one might say, as some following Thomas Paine have said: “To do good is my religion.” This is not to say that one must understand Black humanism this way— rather, that thinking Black humanism within this broader sense of religion might offer a way to better understand and process some of its functions and community building efforts.

To reiterate an important point, strong negative reactions to this sort of labeling represent a misunderstanding of the nature and meaning of religion. Opponents assume it to be already and always defined by theistic beliefs. This reaction is premised on the assumption that calling Black humanism a religion is to render it indistinguishable from theism. Yet there is a distinction, a significant difference, between theism and religion: the former entails attention to God or gods that conditions the nature and meaning of human existence by tying it to transhistorical claims and often a special knowledge available only to those in line with the wishes and aims of the divine. The Black Church is theistic; the Nation of Islam is theistic; and so is Voodoo, Lucumi, and numerous other orientations found within Black communities. Black humanism, however, is not. Religion is simply a tool for exploring experience, a method for making life meaningful—it requires no attention to God or gods. In short: all forms of theism are religion, but not all religion is theistic.

Furthermore, Black humanism modifies and transforms existing (“old”) structures. I want to understand it as a relatively new or recent religious movement in several ways. It is a new or recent religious movement in that it (1) seeks to correct and reframe humanism as it emerged during the modern period and does so based on social codes amplified by developments marking modernity; and (2) it highlights the practices and thinking of a typically excluded population. The former places Black humanism on a timeline of development—with “new” entailing both location and intent to carve out a different relationship of Blacks to the social (and natural) world of which they are a part. And it does so by challenging ontological assumptions made regarding people of African descent intellectually reinforced through the anti-Blackness informing much (humanist) thought during the Enlightenment. Black humanism challenges the widespread assumption that people of African descent are less than human, with reduced capacities and limited ability for fruitful sociopolitical interactions; it counters this perspective not through a robust theological anthropology, but through a more secular (e.g., scientific and philosophical) claim to full humanity. In this way, Black humanism works to reconfigure and expand the category of the human and, in so doing, to deny the truth of anti-Black racism’s claims to the contrary. Furthermore, it seeks to make visible the thought and cultural practices that distinguish a certain segment of the Black population from communities of theism. Black humanism detangles Black thought and practice from the stranglehold of church-based praxis, and, in the process, it amplifies the cultural forms of Black expression (e.g., folk wisdom, the blues, Harlem Renaissance artistic production, Black realism) that critique—or, at least, challenge—the dominance of theism as the basis for Black self-understanding.

Why Think about Black Humanism as Religion?

To speak about Black humanism as religion and to think about Black humanist communities as religious isn’t to degrade Black humanism nor its organizations. Instead, it is to acknowledge the depth and range of its impact, its ability to foster life meaning in ways that connect individuals to something greater—in this case, expansive social networks and communities. All of this requires freeing the category of religion from the theistic assumptions that long have held it captive; it entails liberating Black humanism from narrow thinking that limits the ability to appreciate its impact on how we live and what we think about our living. To label it “religion” isn’t to trap it in theological quagmire—as if theology is the only way to name the religious, as if philosophy doesn’t provide a similarly vital structuring mechanism. It is to recognize (and name) the sense of awe and wonder Black humanism motivates as it pulls people into a deeper sense of themselves—for instance, that which they hold true, the function of connection to those with whom they share this sense of truth(s), and the ethical obligations these truths promote. Although our aims and our thinking on religion aren’t identical, I find something of what I mean in the words of writer and activist Candace Gorham, whose appreciation for a grammar of wonder I find compelling, in that it opens space for thinking expansively concerning what Black humanism is. In her book on death, dying, and grief, she writes,

I have grown to like “nontheist” as a broad-spectrum term that carries less baggage than more commonly used words such as “atheist’ or ‘agnostic.” And because discussions about death are often virtually inseparable from discussions about the spiritual, I intentionally wanted to use a term with direct spiritual implications—unlike terms such as “secular” or “freethinker,” which more generally speak to social and civic issues.8

By “spiritual,” Gorham isn’t talking about a realm of non-material beings, of transhistorical realities; she is capturing the dimensions of human life that aren’t satisfied through the structures of reason. She is referencing a part of us that is more difficult to name. It is this dimension of Black humanism, or what Gorham calls “nontheism,” that I want to capture through the language of religion.

The language of atheism doesn’t capture these proactive meaning-making tendencies of Black humanism in that it simply highlights what is not embraced. There is more to Black humanism than what Black humanists don’t believe or don’t do. Again, I use the category of “religion” as a way to highlight and center Black humanism’s concern with the fostering of communal frameworks intended to provide a space for meaning-making. The language of religion additionally allows an opportunity to amplify the ritual dimension of Black humanist community—the activities that render time and space special—marking out and celebrating or mourning events. The need for and utility of ritual is recognized, for example, when one is mindful of the presence of Black (atheistic) humanist celebrants or chaplains. For activist and organizer Mandisa Thomas, a humanist celebrant “endorsed by the Humanist Society and the Universal Life Church,” gatherings are charged events that have something to do with orchestrating our search for life-meaning and with observing those moments that strike us as profound.9 As Thomas describes the importance of humanist celebrants: “Humanist celebrants are still a very underserved need in the community of nonreligious people who are leaving their churches and are looking for these services . . . I would say that it was due to my activism that I eventually became a celebrant, and it is just another extension of my work.”10 

1. Alejandra Molina, “Black Skeptics Uplift Their Community Through Social Justice,” AP News October 15, 2020,

2. Sikivu Hutchinson, “The Unbearable Whiteness of Secular Studies,” LAProgressive, December 26, 2016,

3. Asher_Jak, “Religious Journey of a Black Lesbian Atheist,” Rest for Resistance, September 1, 2017,

4. Ken Granderson, “Entrepreneurship as a Black Humanist,” American Diversity Report, December 10, 2021,

5. Hutchinson, Humanists in the Hood, 13.

6. Asher_Jak, “Religious Journey of a Black Lesbian Atheist,” Rest for Resistance, September 1, 2017,

7. I tend not to use the label “religious humanism” to express what I have in mind, because that terminology is so typically tied to the Unitarian Universalist Association and Ethical Culture, and as predominantly white organizations using this label can obscure the very ideas I mean to highlight.

8. Gorham, On Death, Dying, and Disbelief, 26.

9. American Atheists National Convention, (accessed June 24, 2022). For information on the Universal Life Church see (accessed June 24, 2022). On the site it is described as “a non-denominational religious organization that brings together people from all walks of life. We embrace individuals across the spiritual spectrum; anyone who wants to join our body of faith is welcome to do so. Further, the ULC is proud to open its doors to all people, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, or any other defining characteristic.”

10. “Activism Matters: Mandisa Thomas, Black Nonbelievers,” AHS+, August 20, 2021,