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 firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at (202) 546-2332 to register.