Rise of Black Atheist

The African-American plight has been long and challenging; it is one rooted in the historical construct of oppression: slavery and Jim Crow. As a response to this oppression, black people nestled around the black church; it was their place of solitude. Once the 1960s arrived, many blacks congregated in a way to legally fight against institutional oppression. Blacks and whites would gather under the notion of morality, legality, and Christianity to slay the evils that worked against them. In the book The Color of Christ, American religion historians Edward Blum and Paul Harvey ask the question: How is it that in America the image of Jesus Christ has been used both to justify the atrocities of white supremacy and to inspire the righteousness of civil rights crusades? Both authors carefully pointed out that blacks and whites unified under the guise of Christianity to combat societal ills.

However, 50 years later things have shifted in terms of black religiosity. Though many within the black community continue to showcase their religious conservatism, others have slowly drifted away. And not just from the black church — but from religion in general. With the educational attainment of blacks increasing — more and more are asking the question: Do I believe in God? Or, can I afford to believe in God? Black attainment in terms of education brings about greater financial gains. The bourgeois life opened up a secular window defined by tangible substance, which has long been acceptable for white Americans. Their plight and need for God and religion are different from that of blacks. Still, for blacks to admit being agnostic or atheist is a ticket toward being self exiled.

Groups such as the Black Nonbelievers have created a sense of purpose and comfort for many who fear coming out of the closet. Their mission states:

• Provide secular fellowship.
• Nurture and support nonbelievers in coming out.
• Promote atheist pride.
• Organize nonbelievers for charitable causes.

With the above points in mind, collectively speaking, blacks tend to be very religious. As noted in this New York Times article on black atheists:

African-Americans are remarkably religious even for a country known for its faithfulness, as the United States is. According to the Pew Forum 2008 United States Religious Landscape Survey, 88 percent of African-Americans believe in God with absolute certainty, compared with 71 percent of the total population, with more than half attending religious services at least once a week.

Yet, the same article continued to point out that black atheist are growing in numbers — and with justifications, too.

The African-American atheist community is growing, and some say they wish to remain silent no more. However, it’s not an easy road for the Black atheist, who is both racially different from most of America and then religiously different from most of his or her own community. One man, Ronnelle Adams, even told the Times it was harder for him to tell his extremely religious mother about his atheism than his homosexuality:

My mother is very devout,” said Mr. Adams, 30, a Washington resident who has published an atheist children’s book, “Aching and Praying,” but who in high school considered becoming a Baptist preacher. “She started telling me her issues with homosexuality, which were, of course, Biblical,” he said. “ ‘I just don’t care what the Bible says about that,’ I told her, and she asked why. ‘I don’t believe that stuff anymore.’ It got silent. She was distraught. She told me she was more bothered by that than the revelation I was gay.”

The idea of blacks being religious is still true; however, to assume that blacks will remain religious is one that time will tell. I do sense a change taking place. A generational element is now in place. Fewer blacks attend church in the 21st century. Racial oppression still exist — but not under the cloak of Jim Crow. It is a class element. And many blacks do believe that if they can ascertain middle class status there will be less of a calling for God.


3 thoughts on “Rise of Black Atheist

  1. “And many blacks do believe that if they can ascertain middle class status there will be less of a calling for God.”

    Not surprising—in general, when people amass more and more material possessions there is a lessening in the yearning for the spiritual. Or as Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and wealth.”

  2. Hey Luke, wealth is not evil but it does influence our ideology — that is true. I do think there is a relationship between growing knowledge, education, and class. That said, it is clear from what I have read that those on the lower end of the class spectrum are less reluctant to be non-religious.

  3. I think that it’s less about material concerns and more about educational concerns. The better educated we become, both as individuals and as a whole, the less we need to rely on dogma.

    The idea of community is a desperately important one, though, and I think that we have a need for secular groups that provide fellowship, support, and education to non-believers. As our neighborhoods become less and less cohesive, we need places to gather and connect with other people. I think that the more secular groups that form and provide places for people to come together, the less people will feel compelled to continue attending churches and other “places of worship.”

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