The Emergence of Black Atheists in American Culture

I am hoping to get some feedback on a research project I am in the process of conducting. Below is a rough abstract to a paper I will deliver on a panel this summer.

The church — both the Black Protestant and white church cannot fully reconcile their racial differences, due to the barrier capitalism poses toward social and class progress. After 1970, capitalism transformed the Black church from an agent seeking radical change, to one procuring cultural materialism, as noted by a consumer-driven culture that seeks status and measures of wealth. As a result, the Black church continues to fall short of being a revolutionary change agent for Black folk, in the dawn of the 21st century, as self-interest and wealth have usurped the Gospels. Such measures of self have not only divided the Black and white working class from their achievable class interest, but have furthered intra-racial division due to commodification and economic inequality.

W.E.B. Du Bois contended that the white church was incapable of mending the color line, but the Negro church, though flawed, provided hope for Blacks, as it held onto the roots of Africa, which were transported to North America. Du Bois also noted that the Negro church presented challenging divisions among its fellowship. Though he did not delve too deeply into the nomenclature of class division within the Negro church, he took a systematic approach in understanding the notion of faith – and Negro religiosity. Du Bois did, however, write about apathy and self-care, as they pertained to the church. And while Du Bois saw the Negro church as a cultural center and fixture for Black congregants seeking rescue from a racist society, he examined the paradoxical nature of religion and individual values. Carter G. Woodson expressed grave concerns when he noted that the Negro church “suffered from a generational divide, a class divide, and regional one but ultimately from a division over ideas”. By the 1950s, the Negro church evolved into the classical Black church, as E. Franklin Frazier published a scathing critique of the Negro church, he noted it no longer existed; as the Negro church died…it was reborn.

This paper offers a lens to critique the historical and emerging shift away from the Black church and religion. My research furthers that notion, as many within the Black community continue to showcase their religious conservatism and belief in God, while others have slowly drifted away, often due to greater economic opportunities at the expense of the Black community. Due to integration, this post-1970 Black bourgeoisie progressed from the Black church—as well as from religion. With black educational attainment and hence the rise of the Black middle class, more and more Black people are reflecting their values by asking, Do I believe in God? Can I afford to believe in God? This shift, in part, reflects the stark class differences among Blacks by the 21st century. This class divide and shift in faith morphed by Blacks to reflect an emerging non-churched bourgeois attitude. Through countless interviews, observations, demographic studies, and discussions with Black atheist network leaders, my research looks at the rise of Black atheists, and the importance of class and materialism, over the church in the age of Black Lives Matter. For some racial identity will be sacrificed, while for others the loss of religion will advance a new consciousness.

God and Black People

The Negro soul is a complex soul. Black folks will tell you that the black soul hides the burdened of millions of Negroes who suffered at the hands of white supremacy. The march from the oppression of slavery to the injustice of Jim Crow has left the soul marked with millions of burdens that only God can remove. Black oppression was God’s design. In part, a comparative design he handed the Jews. Black folks have long held to the Jewish-Exodus narrative as they relive the accounts of their bondage, which involved centuries of slavery, a migration from mass injustices, lynchings, unemployment, and mass incarcerations.

lynching

As noted by the drawing published in Crisis Magazine by editor W.E.B. Du Bois, the white South represented a moral contradiction to the Gospel of Christ, who reminded the white South, “Do unto others as you would have done unto you”. This 1916 depiction showcases the fear that encapsulated blacks to the point of drawing on biblical narratives about freedom.

However, not all blacks hold close the Christian narrative. Better yet, many have seperated themselves from the narrative of being God’s righteous people. Being a black atheist in America is a challenging position to reside. A black atheist within the black community has amounted to levels of criminality. Black folks have long used religion as a way to find answers for their historical suffering within the confines of white America. And though there are black folks who live a life of moral contradictions vis-a-vis scriptural rules, there is no place for nonbelievers. Remember, God rescued the American Negro from bondage. Centuries of lynching and years of Jim Crow created a universal sense of “togetherness” as it relates to the black church.

ray-lewis

Above: Ray Lewis, the once arrested but never convicted of murder is seen here on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Lewis, who is quick to thank God for his many blessings, was captured in an image of baptismal renewal. Lewis will tell you that God gave him a second chance, seeing that many felt he was involved and guilty of at least destroying evidence.

Black entertainers represent one of the greatest misrepresentation of normative black-religious culture. After one scores a touchdown, he pauses to give thanks to Jesus, pointing to the heavens or saying a prayer, while marking his uniform with a cross like action. Speeches, interviews, and award acceptances are easily engulfed in a thanks be to God reference. So when NFL running back Arian Foster stated he does not believe in God, it caught many by surprise. Foster’s denial of God will receive greater criticism from the black community. God has blessed him with riches and fame, yet he rejects a God who rescued his race from oppression. Thus, Foster and others have rejected their righteous place in the kingdom of heaven.

Was Ronald Reagan a product of American Racism via the Christian Right?

I say yes. As I study and write some this AM, I keep going back to the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education court ruling that “ended” Jim Crow in schools, but gave further rise to white supremacy and the Christian right. This was the same Christian right that coalesced with the Republican Party under the guise of Christian morality. After speaking to a friend and colleague for a bit about the historiography of the Christian right yesterday, and after a great deal of reading this AM, I am more convinced that the Christian right, which today is housed within the Republican Party, emerged to justify white supremacy and to combat their growing fears of the interracial solidarity of black and white Communist, particularly after the Scottsboro Trial in 1931. In part, the USA government needed this court case to combat the Soviet Union’s argument that American democracy and capitalism were oppressive. The Christian right unified behind the election of Ronald Reagan in an attempt to elevate the racist conservative norm of states rights, and to dismantle a Soviet system that showcased the systematic realities of black and brown people. Thus, making Reagan the golden child of American racism and classism, as desired by the Christian right.

The Passing of a Remarkable Black Intellectual

 I have three books in need of a scholarly review for submission, thus I will not be able to honor the passing of Cedric Robinson with another read of his classic work. I was once told in my academic studies that if you are going to study W.E.B. Du Bois and grasp the challenges presented by white supremacy, Imperialism, and capitalism, you must read “Black Marxism.” I dedicate a full day of reading and writing to Professor Robinson.
The African-American Intellectual History Society published an excellent piece in memory of Mr. Robinson by Robin D.G. Kelley.