BY EMILY EAGLIN
If there's a part of my identity that's ever left me 'othered' in the absolute greatest variety of company it has been my lack of religious belief. I've been everything from brushed off in casual conversations to held hostage at a Rite Aid by a zealot who was just supposed to be giving me a flu shot. Even you, right now reading this may be praying that I will one day find a way closer to God's light, but don't worry!
I've grown to accept my secularism without craving anything more than an "agree to disagree" & I even have great pride in my journey (ask any of my friends how wild my secular family cookouts are). There's this sick misconception that every time an non-theist (also known as atheist) speaks out on their lack of religious identity it is to convince theists of something, and hopefully one day we will get to the point where I don't need to make this disclaimer to be heard but...
The Black church aesthetic is so strong and on point that I have no idea what a Black nonbeliever aesthetic would look like (a septum ring? a Childish Gambino t-shirt?). The Black experience is already one that is to some degree rootless, but we know our values, our homeland, and our various aesthetics—the Black secular experience is one that is so unrepresented we can't even put our finger on where its roots would lie. But most of us have a clear/strong schema (even if negative and trolly) of a white atheist. This lack of visualization is a struggle and makes it even harder to create a strong community of Black unbelievers.
Upon looking at the make-up of nonbelievers in the U.S. one will notice a huge discrepancy, 82% of atheists are White and mostly men, while only 5% of Black people identify as secular (Belgrave, 2014). In a society dominated by White supremacy and patriarchy, I was left to ask what affects do the power dynamics of non-belief have on real life success or social standing? Do Black people not have access to the same information or freedom of thought that their White counterparts have or does it have more to do with a stagnant culture?
Though there is a lack of research on Black secularism—possibly due to how taboo the discussion of it is—I am familiar with several active communities online that deal with examining those issues (Black Atheists, Black Nonbelievers, and African Americans for Humanism). From my experience I’ve seen that younger Black men and women tend to look at secularism more subjectively and with an observational lens. Despite these views, Black religiosity is not on route to change or decrease anytime soon, after seeing a strong resurgence in the 1980s its numbers suggest that it’s here to stay.
As mentioned, while only 5% of the Black community identifies as non-religious, compared to 12% of Whites, (Belgrave, 2014), Black women are proven to be the most religious demographic out of any other race/gender combination (Gorham, 2013). Whereas White men run the vast majority of American society (in terms of government and economics especially), there is almost a sort of inverse power dynamic at play with Black women and religiosity. Not to argue, by any means, that correlation equals causation—there are too many factors at play here. But Black women tend to seldom be at the top of the totem pole (getting paid less than White women and with even less of them rising to positions like CEOs). After my initial research I am still left asking if the relationship is cultural or religious, or both.
For this reason I decided to interview three Black women who consider themselves “religious”, in order to ascertain a perspective of secularism from a non-secular point of view (a non-bias affirming approach as is called for by our dearly beloved scientific method). The participants’ were aged 18, 58, and 75, with the older two living in Arizona and the youngest living in North Carolina, majority conservative states. All three of the women have ties to my family, however only two of them are related directly to me.
These questions serve to focus on Black religiosity in the form of Christianity and these women are all Christians. I split up my study into the categories of environment, personal outlook, and history. My results turned out to positively support my hypothesis more than I had expected them to, with each individual’s experience varying from generation to generation for most questions.
If you were an (Atheist), that foundation (would be) lost.” Her argument was that slavery and Black genocide could not be justified and/or reconciled unless it was a part of God’s plan. This tends to be a universal line of thinking worldwide for those who experience the greatest of injustices. But does it suggest that those of us without religion lack a quintessentially & required Black "foundation"?
Thinking of past injustices, our dark history, and the bleak future ahead under a godless light is terrifying for many and may make the struggle seem futile, I often think of this as one of the biggest reasons for Black religiosity—an explanation. In a YouTube video made by Black Public Media entitled “Black Folk Don’t: Do Atheism” Melissa Harris Perry, NBC correspondent and host at the time, expresses a similar sentiment, “…That idea of atheism, there is no divine that can give meaning to the experiences of inequality and oppression does seem to be (representative) of something that is not Blackness.” While I was religious I always found myself asking could my Blackness exist outside of religion?
Going along with this idea of blackness versus simply “Not blackness”, the middle-aged participant also seemed to think that atheism was simply not a “Black thing”, saying, “Atheism and humanism are European (Greek) concepts. We are more than our brains.” At the risk of editorializing this piece, I want to push back against this notion, like many things in this world evidence shows that even secularism has roots in Africa.
The youngest participant, however, saw religiosity not as a foundation or a “non-European concept”, but something that has gone historically hand in hand with the black experience, stating, “I think religion is often tied to black culture. They go hand in hand with much of our music, traditions, and even food.” The difference in these answers that stood out the most was the youngest’s use of historical backing versus opinions to express the relationship between the Black church and the black experience. There was, however, no historical lens present of why religiosity was ingrained into us or historically used against us.
When asked about the stifled progression of famous Black free thought leaders such as Frederick Douglass, Langston Hughes, etc, The oldest and youngest women expressed the concern of the community only wanting to listen to certain perspectives that maintain the status quo, seeing this stifling as a negative thing. The oldest wrote, “We have become too complacent and willing to accept the status quo. There is more of what can I do for me instead of what can I do for us.” While the youngest wrote “Putting such an import reliance on the church has in a way inhibited those who speak out against it.”
None of the participants seemed to think that those who were secular/non-church attending in the Black community were missing out on anything irreplaceable, this came as a surprise to me due to the church being one of the (agreed upon) most important aspect in the Black experience (Belgrave, 2014). None of the participants had the experience of discussing secularism or free-thought with their family growing up, this lack of perspective or discussion on views unlike their own from a young age could explain why less Blacks question the existence of God, many were not presented with the option to.
When asked about the strength in their personal beliefs the older two women expressed a strong positivity in “knowing” their God, whereas the youngest one rated her belief as an 8/10, saying “We won't know until we die I suppose!” citing the need for evidence as her uncertainty. This generational difference from a subjective internal belief in God to an objective evidence based belief in God mirrors the trend of younger Americans becoming more agnostic and religiously skeptical.
When asked about church attending people that are closeted nonbelievers—an estimated 10%-15% and even higher for some Black churches—all participants viewed these members non-judgmentally, the oldest stating that many come to church for the sense of community more than the religion and the youngest saying “I believe people go to church for a variety of reasons. For some people it's about the bible and the word of the Lord, for others it could just be an emotional release and reflection time.”
What does it say that belief in God might be experiencing a decrease for Black churches, but membership is constant and in some cases even increasing? To me it says that the actual robust culture of church attending and the subsequent community built around it is becoming more important to some of us than what it is there for, worship. The church is giving members an experience so rich they feel that they cannot substitute it anywhere else or that they succumb to social pressures of still showing up despite their belief.
It seemed that the participants had a positive understanding of those factors, overall they maintained this non-judgmental view of non-belief, with the youngest one seeing secularism as the least negative and the oldest two still being accepting of a sense of spiritualism. The middle participant said, “To me the premise of becoming spiritual is like ice becoming water.” This transition from organized religion to spirituality is something on the rise all over the US, but especially by those in the Black community looking for connections to their roots.
My question began to become less of ‘why aren’t Blacks as pulled to secularism?’ and more of ‘what is the Black church doing that the Black secular community isn’t’? How do we create these spaces for those nonbelievers who are still part of our family & our Black experience? In an article for pathos.com, Peter Mosley uses data to analyze these racial discrepancies and states,
“Atheist movements (and White churches, for that matter) tend to talk about how much they NEED black people... White atheists seem obsessed about showing black people that White atheists need/honor/appreciate black people.” From what I have experienced from knowing secular communities this rings true, they are very open and welcoming to all different sorts of people."
Mosley continues on to say
“Seldom do [white atheists] seem to ask the question of whether black people have reason to need/honor/appreciate White atheists... They are not holding a candle to the black church.”
Can I get an AMEN!? It's also because we know we don't need to honor/appreciate white atheists. This also rings true and the history of the Black community with the church (especially in associating it with civil rights progress) is not something that can just be emulated or substituted by modern-day free thought (although free thought did play a role in lesser-known Black nationalist movements).
As I would have expected all three women did not express the need to enforce their religious views onto others, but had grown up in environments in which other people had pushed views onto them (with the youngest one having the most expressed freedom and acceptance from those around her).
The culture of church attendance and community is becoming more important to our community than the staunch and unyielding religiosity of yesteryear that says, “I need Jesus, You need Jesus, the world needs Jesus”. It may seem counterintuitive but this is, in fact, a very Christian approach, to quote from Romans 14:1, “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions.” The gospel these women were preaching was one of live and let live, a notion that did not seem to sway their beliefs or Christian values, but in a way it served to reinforce them.
For me, I take it upon myself to be the change I want to see in the world, which means speaking out more about what being a nonbeliever has done for me & my worldview. I derive so much of my activism and line of thinking from the thought that maybe right now is 'all there is', so I want to make everyone's 'all there is' a worthwhile one, without making a promise I am unsure of. Being a nonbeliever has to do with not having the answers, admitting that you don't, and living in curiosity in order to seek those answers out. Much like the women I interviewed, this reflection on my own secularism has reinforced my personal values & I am grateful for that. In the meantime I'll work on speaking out more and developing the most beautiful of aesthetics to back my worldview, an aesthetic that is not only hella Black & hella secular, but quintessentially me. I hope that looking at these times ahead we can all work across the various identity-based barriers that separate us on a daily basis to make a just world 'all there is'.
Cited Belgraves Reading:
Belgrave, Faye Z., and Kevin W. Allison. "Chapter 10 - Religion and Spirituality." African American Psychology: From Africa to America. 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2014. N. pag. Print.
Gorham, Candace R. M. The Ebony Exodus Project: Why Some Black Women Are Walking out on Religion--and Others Should Too. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print. 2013.