Turns Out I’m Not the Only Black Atheist in America

I am on an e-mail list for an organization called the Center for Inquiry. I also get e-mails from various affiliates of this organization. One such affiliate is the Council for Secular Humanism, from which I receive a monthly e-newsletter. Through that newsletter I discovered a group called African Americans for Humanism (AAH) that is having a conference in Washington, D.C. on May 16, 2010. The topic of this conference will be “New Directions for African American Humanism.” (I wonder what the old direction was.) They plan to discuss African-American women and humanism, how to attract more African Americans to the movement, and the role of the clergy, among other topics. Humanism, for those of you who don’t know, is “a philosophy that usually rejects supernaturalism and stresses an individual’s dignity and worth and capacity for self-realization through reason” (this is from Webster’s). I was pleasantly surprised that there is such a movement. I began to wonder how big it is, so I did a quick and dirty online search. There is a blog called The Black Atheist. There is a black atheist group on Facebook as well. Apparently the number of nonbelievers is larger among Europeans of African descent, but Western Europe tends to have more secularists/atheists/agnostics/freethinkers than the United States generally. Also, the black church in America is closely linked to the civil rights movement, therefore it has stronger roots in the community.Humanism among black people in the United States seems to be rare, but black humanists are not non-existent. I don’t know why I assumed I was the only one, but in my experience–having earned my law degree at an historically black college and having family with very southern Christian origins–I felt like a pariah for being a non-believer. Just one among the many things that puts me at odds with the black community.

I am struggling to find an adequate definition for my state of non-belief. For now I refer to myself as an agnostic heretic. Webster’s Dictionary defines “agnostic” as “a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and probably unknowable” or “one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god.” This accurately describes me. I
think the question of whether there is something bigger than ourselves is unknowable, so I feel that stating definitively that there is no God is just as arrogant as stating that there is one. Besides, it would seem to me that the burden of proof should on the believer to prove that there is a god. The
same dictionary defines a “heretic” as “a dissenter from established religious dogma; especially : a baptized member of the Roman Catholic Church who disavows a revealed truth.” I am a baptized member of the Roman Catholic Church, so this definitely describes me. This is why I combine the two words – it results in a more specific description.

Although I was once officially a “member” of a church, I have never been religious. Even when I went to church, I didn’t attend because I thought it was important to keep the Sabbath Day holy or take communion in remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice. I always went for some more practical purpose. When I was a kid, I went just to get my mother off my back. I quickly learned that if I just shut my mouth and acquiesced to her wishes on the church issue, it was one less thing she would lecture me about later (this is key to getting along with a religious parent when you are an eleven year old skeptic). When I was in college I went to church because I was a cantor (singer) for the Mass. I was studying classical singing at the time and volunteering to sing at Mass allowed me to practice before an audience on a weekly basis. As I recalled these events from my past, I finally began to understand why I was never religious: I don’t care that much about truth.

A key aspect of religion is that it claims to be “truth”. It states that anything that contradicts the dogma is a lie, a heresy. This is why I don’t “get” religion; why talking to religious people makes me feel like I am listening to some obscure foreign language that I need someone to translate for me. Truth is not my concern in life. I like facts. Facts I can use. Facts matter. Truth is irrelevant…and highly subjective. The difference? I refer you to the dictionary once again. A fact is “something that has actual existence”; “a piece of information presented as having objective reality.” Facts can be proven. Truth can be related to a particular fact, and in some cases may be proven, but this is not required. Truth can also be “a judgment, proposition, or idea that is true or accepted as true.” When religion speaks of truth, this is the kind of truth they are talking about.

I don’t care whether any of my beliefs about the world are true. It’s irrelevant. What I care about is whether my beliefs work for me. If they do, I keep them. But if they begin to cause a problem for me or others, I scrap them. It’s as simple as that.

By the way, for those interested in the AAH conference, it costs $45 to attend ($15 for students) and you can e-mail Melody Hensley at mhensley@centerforinquiry.net or call her at (202) 546-2332 to register.

Views: 33

Comment by Gaytor on March 10, 2010 at 12:33pm
Those are pretty cool finds. I'm not normally for segregation of groups, but it does seem that we don't have an equitable representation of black people here. We are approaching 5000 members with 8 in the African American Group. I'm often struck by it and say to myself, "Look! a Black Atheist!" The self-segregation in this case might be a good thing in terms of support and recognition that you are indeed not alone in this aspect. Although, I would hope that it's a temporary thing until representation equalizes. But that's a subjective timeline. I hope that these groups show that non-belief is viable and accepting of everyone, opening the door to those seeking free-thought.
Comment by Gaytor on March 10, 2010 at 12:46pm
How about this... I'm quite certain that 5% of our membership is not made up of black people. I would expect that statistically we should see a accurate representation of our population in general and i don't think that we do. So whatever gives someone a place to feel like they can make that first step towards how they feel, I'm for that.

If you would like to choose a word like representative instead of segregate, that works too.
Comment by Gaytor on March 10, 2010 at 12:48pm
first step towards how they feel... religiously,
Comment by RD on March 10, 2010 at 12:55pm
My Black Freethought group on Atheist Nexus now has 252 members:


It was until recently the largest English-language black atheist/humanist group on the web. It was recently surpassed in numbers by one of the small handful of black atheist groups on Facebook. There has been an explosion of black atheists surfacing in the past year alone. I first found a few bloggers (few of whom were cognizant of one another's existence), and then expanded into social networking sites. The Internet activity is expanding much faster than traditional membership organizations, but the latter--CFI for instance--are finally catching on. For resources on this topic, see my web guide:

Comment by Reggie on March 10, 2010 at 6:49pm
I am struggling to find an adequate definition for my state of non-belief. For now I refer to myself as an agnostic heretic.

Atheist works fine for me. Do you believe in a god or gods? If the answer is "no" or "I don't know", then you are an atheist. Claiming the atheist label is not the same as making a positive claim about the nonexistence of gods.

And welcome to T|A!
Comment by CJoe on March 11, 2010 at 3:49pm
Do you have to be African American to attend?? I'm in the DC area and am really excited about the prospect of meeting up with some like-minds. I just moved here in January and tried to do a search for local atheists, but maybe I should be searching for humanists instead.
Comment by Shutch on April 6, 2010 at 10:01pm


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