Women of Color Beyond Belief 2022: Disrupting religious fascism and respectability

During a virtual union meeting I attended as a shop steward in the spring, one of the facilitators launched into a prayer midway through the session, spewing “Father God” this and “Father God” that in full Sunday revival mode. After she finished, I expressed my objection as a secularist and humanist. Needless to say, my comments elicited backlash and heated debate about the role of prayer in work-related settings. During the discussion, another woman of color sent me a message in the private chat agreeing with my objections. She did not, however, vocalize her unease to the rest of the group, and the general chat box soon blew up with “Team Jesus” shoutouts, gushing about how prayer was needed now “more than ever before.”

Nope. As MAGA raged in state legislatures and school boards across the nation, the Christian fascists that are the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) followed up their destruction of Roe v. Wade by giving public employees license to use prayer as a coercive tool on the job. My union meeting blowup not only exemplified the peril of church-state separation in American civic life, but it highlighted the toxicity Black women and women of color encounter when we push back against faith-based norms in professional settings. Throughout my career in the public sector, I’ve experienced anti-atheist microaggressions from managers and co-workers of all racial backgrounds. I’ve had female supervisors question my morality behind closed doors and warn other coworkers about working with me. I’ve seen project lead opportunities mysteriously rescinded and community speaking engagements withdrawn. As an outspoken Black woman professional and an openly-identified atheist, my job mobility has undoubtedly stagnated while less qualified colleagues have rocketed up the departmental ladder.

Thus, while it may be true that religiosity is declining among the overall American population (and Gen Z women), its grip on Black women and women of color is still powerful. A recent survey by Secular Woman and American Atheists, (which encompassed over 50,000 respondents) suggests that women nonbelievers are “more likely than others to encounter stigma and discrimination in nearly every area of their lives —including social media, education, employment, the military, and within their families—because of their beliefs.” Traditional sexist, patriarchal, cis-normative, and heteronormative gender roles and expectations contribute to deep stigmas against women nonbelievers across ethnicity.

Consequently, men are more comfortable openly identifying as atheists, while women nonbelievers are more inclined to hide their views from their families and communities. Negative cultural perceptions associating atheism with immorality and even Satanism are especially insidious for Black women atheists and religiously unaffiliated Black women. According to a 2021 survey on Black nonbelievers, African American atheists were “one-half as likely to have supportive parents and three times as likely to be physically assaulted” than non-Black participants. Perceived as betraying African American faith-based traditions, Black women atheists in particular experience high levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. These factors are further compounded by the discrimination Black women experience when accessing mental and reproductive health care.

As White Christian Nationalists steamroll over our fundamental human and civil rights, communities of color are under siege from multiple forces. The overturn of Roe v. Wade, white supremacist attacks on Black communities, and the exodus of women of color from the workforce due to the pandemic, imperil Black socioeconomic wellbeing. Nationwide, homophobic and transphobic attacks on LGBTQI+ youth, gender-affirming care, and anti-racist curricula are creating a terrorist cultural backlash that will undoubtedly increase violence against BIPOC queer, gender nonconforming, and nonbinary youth. And, contrary to mainstream perceptions about LGBTQI+ identification, Black folks are more likely to identify as queer and are also more likely to be raising children while living at or below the poverty line.

It is against this dire national backdrop that the third annual Women of Color Beyond Belief (WOCBB) conference kicks off in Chicago in late September. The annual conference was launched in 2019 by Black Nonbelievers, Black Skeptics, and the Women’s Leadership Project to provide a BIPOC feminist humanist space for secular women of color across the globe to connect and collaborate. The only event of its kind in the nation (and, perhaps, in the world), the conference is an antidote to white-dominated convenings that tokenize a few “star” PoC speakers and treat social justice like an afterthought.

This year’s gathering will feature talks and panels on reproductive justice, mental health, body positivity, and Gen Z BIPOC feminism, humanism, education, and queer identity. The event is an offshoot of a 2018 Humanist Magazine profile (entitled “Five Fierce Humanists”, the issue was the first to profile Black women atheist-humanists on the cover) featuring me, Black Nonbelievers president Mandisa Thomas, Bridgett “Bria” Crutchfield, Candace Gorham, and Liz Ross.

The primary theme of that issue and WOCBB is uplifting the intersectional resistance struggles which Black women and other women of color have spearheaded within the secular movement; disrupting the white supremacist, “colorblind” dudebro New Atheism; and the half-stepping of white neoliberal humanism. As Mandisa notes, “Women of Color Beyond Belief is an important resource for the still largely underrepresented voices in our communities. As we witness attacks on rights that will undoubtedly impact women of color more harshly, we are uniquely qualified to bring community members together to listen, strategize, and support our important work.”

WOCBB 2021 speaker Cynthia McDonald. Photo by Madison Paige

Mandisa Thomas, President of Black Nonbelievers, Inc, at WOCBB 2021. Photo by Madison Paige

Commenting on how this dynamic shapes Black women’s uniquely humanist ethos, Candace stresses that, “As a secular Black female, it’s impossible for me not to work toward the betterment of my community. Black women—we take care of those around us—that’s what we do. Once I separated from religion and fully embraced the humanist ideal that people must take care of each other because we’re all we have, social justice activism (was crucial).”

Candace Gorham and Sikivu Hutchinson, at WOCBB 2021. Photo by Madison Paige.

WOCBB co-sponsors include the American Humanist Association, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Recovering from Religion, and the Secular Student Alliance. Registration information and conference sponsorship opportunities can be found here.