For many African Americans, to deny the Christian doctrine is to reject one’s heritage. Some consider not only leaving the church but professing unbelief in its core principles heresy of the highest order. Our ancestors, believers argue, endured years of slavery only because of their faith in God. If it weren’t for the church, they say, the Civil Rights movement never would have happened.
But the skeptics, lifelong nonbelievers, and recent deconverts at the African Americans for Humanism meetup in Washington, D.C., on June 23 weren’t afraid to think otherwise. Fred Edwords’ article, “The Hidden Hues of Humanism,” published in the March/April 2012 Humanist magazine informed a frank, sometimes serious, often funny discussion about the reasons blacks adhere to stifling religiosity and fear rational philosophies.
A BBC reporter working on a radio show about black nonbelievers had to ensure that everyone was comfortable with the possibility of being “outed” as an atheist. That’s how serious the issue of nonbelief is for African Americans: You could lose your “black” card if you’re cavalier about rejecting Grandma’s God.
Why is it so difficult to get blacks on board with humanism? As Edwords noted, some humanist principles appear out of tune with the black experience: “Self-sufficiency and ultimate human agency,” he wrote, “may be perceived as demoralizing if not dangerously radical.” The group agreed. When you believe you’re not strong enough to fight your own battles, that you owe praise and gratitude to someone else for the work you do, it’s difficult to take responsibility for yourself–especially when you’re economically disadvantaged. The economic disparity between blacks and whites provides little reason to forgo the promise of heavenly wealth.
Ernest Parker of AAH brought up another roadblock to humanism for blacks: the assumption that one must worship something. Who or what do you worship if not God? If you profess to humanism, must you worship imperfect humans? Of course not, but some people don’t see it that way. Many blacks are taught from childhood to worship, to lift their hands in submission to God and his son. Long after slavery’s end, that serving-the-master mentality prevails. Where do you direct that energy if not to the Almighty above?
The church also gives African Americans something humanists still have not been able to: a place to go. Day care, potlucks, job training—the black church has provided these services for decades, and if lower-income blacks decide to eschew their faith for reason, they’d be giving up a powerful community resource. They’d also be leaving a formidable social network, as one newly atheist attendee felt isolated from her mostly Christian friends.
Despite the overt materialism and scandal in some megachurches—many of which exploit their lower-income members—believers continue to flock to this “safe” space, giving their last and joining hands with others in hopes of receiving God’s best. Unless humanists can provide the same sense of hope and solidarity, the church and all its dogma will remain attractive.
Certainly, humanism has a long way to go in terms of attracting black adherents. In a city booming with churches large and small, those in attendance at the meeting couldn’t fill one pew. The church has the resources and the power to discourage independent thought and encourage God-dependency in the black community.
But while the black humanist voice is relatively small, it won’t be silenced. Thanks to growing groups such as African Americans for Humanism and other local and national organizations, black nonbelievers are emerging from the depths of isolation and exposing the ills of blind faith. They’re showing the world that, yes, you can be proud of your African heritage and be a humanist. Each dent these groups make in the boulder of black religiosity is a step toward reason, equality, and dignity for all.