"Douglass’ comments were in response to black preachers’ insistence that he “thank” God for emancipation. His failure to be appropriately devout elicited a firestorm.
During a talk show discussion on relationships last year, radio personality and self-proclaimed dating guru Steve Harvey charged that atheists had no moral values. Anyone who didn't believe in God was an "idiot," he said, and women should steer clear of these rogue blasphemers at all costs. While atheist websites were abuzz with condemnations of Harvey, his tirade went unchallenged by mainstream African American media. Yet his view reflects conventional wisdom about African American communities and faith. Namely, that African Americans are so unquestioningly religious that having any other viewpoint is grounds for "revocation" of one's race credentials. With churches on every corner, religious idioms seamlessly woven into everyday black speech, faith-based license plates ubiquitous in black neighborhoods and black celebs thanking Jesus at every awards event, how could it be otherwise? According to a 2008 Pew Research Forum study, African Americans are indeed the most "consistently" religious ethnic group in the U.S. However, black Humanist scholars like Norm Allen, Executive Director of African Americans for Humanism, and Anthony Pinn, Professor of Humanities and Religious Studies at Rice University, point to another tradition. Both have critiqued the exclusion of Humanist influence from appraisals of African American social thought and civil rights resistance. Whilst acknowledging the key role African American Christian ideology played in black liberation, these scholars believe it is also crucial to highlight the influence of Humanist principles of rationalism, social justice, skepticism and freethought.
Pinn's book By These Hands: A Documentary History of African American Humanism, chronicles this intellectual tradition. Speaking at an 1870 Anti-Slavery Society convention, the abolitionist and human rights activist Frederick Douglass said, "I bow to no priests either of faith or of unfaith. I claim as against all sorts of people, simply perfect freedom of thought." Douglass' comments were in response to black preachers' insistence that he "thank" God for emancipation. His failure to be appropriately devout elicited a firestorm. After his speech, a group of prominent black preachers passed a resolution censuring him, holding, "That we will not acknowledge any man as a leader of our people who will not thank God for the deliverance and enfranchisement of our race, and will not vote to retain the Bible…in our public schools."
Douglass' journey from committed Christian to questioning agnostic was compelled by decades of critical observation and lived experience. As a pioneer of the African American freethought and Humanist traditions, he actively challenged the moral hypocrisy of white Christianity in both the United States and Europe. For Douglass, white slaveholders' moral piety was especially obscene given the savagery of beatings, rapes and family separations that fueled the slave regime. Angered by what he viewed as blacks' passive acceptance of the idea of Christian deliverance from earthly suffering he noted, "I dwell here in no hackneyed cant about thanking God for this deliverance." Instead, he believed that "man is to work out his own salvation." And it was only through the individual's will and self-determination that uplift was possible.
Douglass' experience is a powerful example. Then, as now, the overwhelming association of religiosity with authentic blackness makes it difficult for black Humanists who are atheist or agnostic to be vocal about their beliefs. In the introduction to The Black Humanist Experience, Norm Allen notes, "Humanists often feel…that they are a misunderstood and despised minority. Many are afraid to come out of the closet due to fear of being ostracized…by intolerant religionists." On websites and in chat rooms, many African American Humanists who identify as atheists or agnostics express anxiety about "coming out" to friends and family. David Burchall, founder of the Secular Community in Long Beach, California, said that he has struggled to attract African Americans due to this factor. Burchall's organization focuses on providing secularist individuals of all ideological persuasions and cultural backgrounds with a welcoming community meeting place. For his own part, he "rarely meets a black person who says he or she is an atheist." In this regard, invisibility fuels isolation and reinforces social conformity among secular African Americans. Thamani Delgardo, a health care professional and agnostic who grew up in the Black Church, said she is reluctant to come out because, "I'm afraid that my family members will think less of me and will be very disappointed."
As the Religious Right has become more vociferous, black atheists in particular have been challenged by a sociopolitical climate that has grown more hyper-religious, more evangelical and more deeply superstitious. According to a 2005 Pew Survey, a majority of African Americans believe in creationism. Many also believe that secular liberals have "gone too far" to keep religion out of schools and government. Consequently, black Humanists often question the blind faith of African American believers, arguing that unquestioned acceptance of religious dogma has jeopardized African American academic progress, particularly in math and science. It is because of religious dogma, Delgardo says, that young African Americans believe "God will make a way for their survival, so they may drop out of school, have children with no visible means of supporting them, or simply not plan for their financial future because they believe God will handle the hardships and the details that rationalists plan for."
Contrarian social critic and novelist Zora Neale Hurston expressed similar sentiments. In her 1942 essay "Religion," she traces the origin of her skepticism, noting that "as early as I can remember, I was questing and seeking." For Hurston, the "group think" of organized religion conflicts with her fundamental sense of intellectual independence. The daughter of a preacher, "When I was asked if I loved God, I always said yes because I knew that that was the thing I was supposed to say." Even though her family was so invested in the church, doubt nagged at her in all the inexplicable details of life that were just chalked up to "God's will." When she began to study world religions she saw that they shared the common theme of divine deliverance from earthly suffering. She then concluded that faith merely allowed the masses to deal with their "fear of life and its consequences." The craving for some omnipotent source of all life's mysteries gave meaning to the unknowable, even though an all-powerful God was ultimately a human creation. Like popular entertainment, religion dulled one's critical faculties, uniting believers in a bond of ritual and bigotry against non-believers.
Despite her blasphemous thoughts as a youth, Hurston fondly recalled church revivals, where "hell was described with dramatic fury...and everybody was warned to take steps that they would not be a brand in that eternal burning." In his 1940 piece "Salvation," Langston Hughes took square aim at the performative nature of churchgoing and the act of getting saved. Hughes details an encounter during a special children's church service he attended at age 13, in which he was practically browbeat into accepting the "light of Jesus." Whereas his friend Westley submits to the pastor's entreaties to come to Jesus, Hughes remains unmoved. Conflicted by his inability to actually feel the spirit or see Jesus, he agonizes over the congregation's overzealous encouragement: "I began to be ashamed of myself, holding everything up so long. I began to wonder what God thought about Westley, who certainly hadn't seen Jesus either...God had not struck Westley dead for…lying in the temple. So I decided that maybe to save further trouble, I'd better lie too." Hughes' decision to go with the flow to please others was the beginning of a lifelong struggle with the compulsory nature of black religiosity. Feeling betrayed, he concludes, "I didn't believe there was a Jesus anymore."
The absence of evidence for organized religion's truth claims led thinkers like Douglass, W.E.B DuBois and A. Philip Randolph (who identified as an atheist) to form a Humanist view of social justice. As one of the foremost scholars of black liberation struggle, W.E.B. DuBois often drew on religious themes and imagery in his work, most notably in his landmark The Souls of Black Folk. However, according to Anthony Pinn, DuBois' intellectual allegiance was to rationalism and skepticism. Following a trip to the Soviet Union, he wrote an essay on his sense of appreciation for Russian civil society. Proclaiming himself a freethinker, he expressed approval of the prohibition on teaching religion in Russia's public schools (of course what DuBois viewed as liberating was seen as authoritarian by others). The "fairy tales" of organized religion were destructive because they conditioned children to strive for a fictitious afterlife, rather than make the best of the world at hand. For DuBois this was a "moral disaster." He had personally experienced religious intolerance after having been criticized as a teacher at a Black Methodist school for not leading his class in prayer. Like Hurston and Douglass, DuBois' skepticism deepened with his intellectual maturation. Consequently, he said, "From my 30th year on I have increasingly regarded the church as an institution which defended...slavery, color caste, exploitation of labor and war."
This critique has particular resonance for Kwadwo Obeng, author of We Are All Africans: Exposing the Negative Influence of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic Religions on Africans. A native of Ghana and a Los Angeles County resident, Obeng is a former Jehovah's Witness who broke from the sect after rigorous independent study of the Bible. In his book, Obeng acknowledges the constructive role Christianity played in African American communities during the slave era, when it provided a cultural and philosophical context for black human rights resistance. Yet he cautions that contemporary Christianity is just a diversion for black folk. Poor blacks have been given few avenues for systemic redress of racism by either self-serving black preachers or "Christian-identified" black politicians. As "the church has become part of our DNA, black politicians feel they need to wrap Jesus all around them to be successful." Many black Humanists argue that the business of organized religion has been particularly detrimental to poor blacks, who tithe millions to churches while their communities are falling apart. They point to the rise of "prosperity gospel" oriented preachers like T.D. Jakes, Fred Price and Creflo Dollar as an example of the Black Church's betrayal of the social justice legacy of Martin Luther King.
As a result, many black Humanists oppose the political deference shown to faith-based initiatives. Established under the Bush administration, faith-based initiatives provide churches and other spiritual organizations the license to discriminate against those that don't adhere to their principles. Church/state separation advocates have long criticized the generous federal funding that faith-based organizations receive. Gabriel Lockett, vice president of the Secular Students' Alliance at the University of Maryland decried the "lax accounting practices within churches," wondering, "why (there isn't) the same scrutiny of faith-based organizations as there is of other 501c 3's?" As part of a younger generation of black Humanists, Lockett also identifies as an atheist and believes that black visibility in the secular movement must increase. Like many humanists he was raised in a Christian household and was initially hesitant about coming out due to fear of "emotional backlash" from his family. Now that he has become active in Humanist causes he believes that African Americans would benefit immensely from a more "enlightened" view of social morality. For Lockett, "if we eliminate the 'God Debate' from the conversation we can focus on the common bonds of humanity…oftentimes I hear 'not my problem' or 'I'm doing me' a mentality that is fostered in the church."
Indeed, the "us versus them" policing of morality in the Black Church is especially problematic for black Humanists. They argue that sanctimonious debates over same sex marriage, gay rights, women's equality and abortion rights effectively marginalize whole segments of the African American community that don't fit into mainstream notions of "proper" blackness. Obeng believes that the moral authority of organized religion is most suspect when a solidarity of bigotry is forged, for "why else would the Mormon Church, the Catholic Church, Southern Baptists, Islam, (Rick Warren's) Saddleback Church…band together to deny those with a different sexual orientation the civil right of marriage?" Similarly, black Humanists say, the patriarchal tenets and biases of religions like Islam, Judaism and Christianity do not allow women to be fully self-actualized beyond their roles as caregivers. As the recipient of the American Humanist Association's 1997 Humanist of the Year award author Alice Walker spoke of how women's self-actualization was a casualty in her strict religious Southern upbringing. Recounting how her mother was the backbone of her community's church, but had been taught to believe Jesus, and, by extension, God, was a blond white man, Walker assailed the Earth-denying aspects of Christianity. "The truth was," she noted, "we already lived in paradise...This is what my mother, and perhaps other women knew, and this was one reason they were not permitted to speak. They might have demanded that the men of the church notice Earth. Which always leads to revolution." Affirming her belief in the sanctity of the natural world and the here and now, Walker affirms her "faith" in "womanist" self-actualization, free from the rule of Gods or masters.
Ever since Africans were brought to the Americas, notions of blackness, and what is "human," have been caught in the crosshairs of European scientific inquiry and religious dogma. Walker's yearning for a redefinition of the relationship between self and community, as a form of liberation, is one of the distinguishing features of black Humanist thought. The legacy of Douglass and others demonstrates that the Humanist tradition has been vital to black liberation struggle. Yet African American communities still have miles to go before this part of their heritage gets its proper due.