By Naima Washington
To be sure, many assumptions are made about atheists. Some of the assumptions about atheists are made by atheists, and African American atheists are among the easiest people to stereotype: we are all in the closet; and/or have one foot in the secular world and the other in a pew; and/or due to so many years of religious brain-washing, unlike white people, black people aren’t authentic atheists. On March 28, 2013, I went to Austin, Texas for the 50th anniversary of the founding of the American Atheists. It is at secular meetings, large or small, where I try to meet every black person in attendance, and I was in for a secular surprise when I introduced myself to Laurie James, a beautiful, dreadlocked, fiery, unapologetic atheist. As a courageous truth-teller who defies all stereotypes, Laurie is both sensitive and uninhibited representing open-hearted, honest-to-goodness, Caribbean womanhood at its best!
Laurie studied and trained to be an evangelist, and no doubt evolved into a believer who apparently took no prisoners. Born in Jamaica, she arrived in NYC the divorced mother of four small children and recalls the loneliness of having no family members or friends in her newly-adopted country; she had no one but Jesus as most committed Christians would say. She recounted the endless time spent preparing her small children for the arduous journey to and from church, three times a week. Hurriedly making her way along the sidewalks, she’d push the double-stroller containing her two smallest children with one hand; and would pull along the other two children with her other hand. By the time she fought her way in and out of trains and subways stations, she’d finally arrive at church drop-dead exhausted only to have to reverse the process for the trip back home. This insane routine carried out three times a week clearly took a toll on all five of them, and although very much a believer, she continued making these treks until she just couldn’t do it any longer.
Laurie’s brand of theology also included faith healing. The majority of theists say that their gods can heal illness, yet at the first sign of a serious illness or injury, any praying that they do for healing takes place in their doctor’s office! In Laurie’s case, faith healing meant faith healing and there was to be no medical intervention. If someone was ill church members would ‘gather in a circle around the person; pray, lay hands on the person’ and plead to the gods for an intervention. If no church members were around, prayer for healing could take place over the phone. I’ve read stories about faith healing and all of them left me feeling depressed, but the unfortunate reality is that many people who practice faith healing coincidentally have little to no access to medical care. People with serious illnesses who don’t receive medical treatment will experience tragic consequences regardless of their beliefs. Laurie nearly lost one of her children who had become seriously ill, and tragically members of her family died after receiving no medical treatment. Their deaths, extremely painful and probably preventable, have no doubt left her with horrific memories and permanent emotional scars.
Laurie abandoned both faith and faith healing less than three years ago, and her recollections struck me as both devastating and ironic because her tee shirt had the quote of one of her heroes, Madlyn Murray O’Hair: An atheist believes that a hospital should be built instead of a church. But, some believers even at the moment they’re experiencing extreme pain may also experience moments of extreme clarity regarding the limitations of their gods. Apparently Laurie also experienced such clarity when she ‘woke up one morning, took a good look’ at the horrific state of the world, and asked herself what kind of ‘god’ would allow this? She questioned the ‘goodness’ of a god who permitted illness, poverty, suffering, etc.; she questioned the power of a god who could not prevent these things. She expressed deep compassion towards those who suffer and is willing to help others. She’d eliminate all suffering if she had the power to do so, therefore, she had to question the goodness, power and/or existence of a god who tolerated the ‘suffering of his children’. As she likes to point out, “There is no one watching over us!”
The convention in Austin marked Laurie’s first time to be surrounded by likeminded people, and because she currently lacks atheist connections in the community where she lives, she was absolutely ecstatic. I’m hoping she’ll move beyond the convention experience by seeking out other atheists in Florida and try to organize a group of atheists in her own community. She’s willing to give it a try, and hopefully, atheists in Florida will seek her out as well. She’s a repository of information and rich life experiences; is well-read, and clearly is an independent thinker. During the convention, Laurie was happy to finally meet face-to-face some of the atheists she’d learned about through the internet. She, like many black atheists, was proud to be able to meet other black atheists so when she saw a group of African Americans standing outside of the hotel in Austin, she walked up to them and said, “Are you my people?’ Some of them looked at her, perhaps noted her American Atheists tee shirt and just stared. She said, “Excuse me, but are you atheists?” Well, apparently they were not! They were theists, and as she attempted to enter the hotel, one man boldly stepped in front of her blocking her entrance to the hotel. Laurie, who’s also a weight-lifter, has a voice that is as soothing as any melodic contralto’s or as menacing as a machete; and I can imagine which characterization came forth when she told the man, “Look, you need to get out of my way,” and, he did!
Personable and full of energy, she made the rounds at the convention where she met key-note speakers, vendors, authors, entertainers, and countless convention attendees. Black or white; gay or straight; if you demand proof for all claims, exercise and defend the right to say that there are no gods; and should you experience her carefree attitude, or are ever caught-up in her friendly embrace, you will know that you’re one of her people!
Laurie let me know that we have something in common because she’s also a feminist and a socialist who cannot see the role of the atheist disconnected from the promotion of social justice and human rights. I think we must do more than declare that there are no gods. We must demonstrate what disciplined, compassionate, and rationale human beings can do by boldly creating new systems which focus on the eradication of injustice, poverty and war, and which utilize humane methods for reversing the devastation perpetuated by corrupt, oppressive leaders along with ignorant priests, rabbis, imams, swamis, etc.
I encourage Laurie and other atheists of color to consider writing their own stories in their own words. This is one way we may be able to combat stereotypes especially those which wrongly conclude that all black people have identical theological experiences and that we all experience atheism in the same way. Laurie struggles with many people about her de-conversion and no doubt she is fighting the good fight, but I think that her decision to become an atheist may actually take a backseat in the eyes of relatives and friends who were absolutely flabbergasted at her decision to grow dreadlocks. She was begged and warned not to wear her hair like that because she’d be mistaken for a Rastafarian! Yet, many of her challenges are the result of her being outspoken. Some black atheists may be labeled ‘race traitors’ but not necessarily because we simply no longer believe in any of the gods; but because we have the audacity to say so! Besides, every community including the black community has its own self-appointed authenticators! People receive their identity primarily from their families and often that identity comes with inflexible boundaries. Stretching and/or refusing to be defined, confined, and contained by those boundaries is part of the very complex process of self-discovery as well as self-improvement. However, I’ve yet to find any atheist with a religious background who regardless of their ethnicity, didn’t anger, annoy, disappoint, antagonize, or enrage at least one family member, friend, and/or loved one.
Because of the historical, political, and cultural involvement with the Catholic Church, an Italian or Hispanic who rejects Catholicism even for another denomination may also be seen as ‘traitors’ and accused of abandoning their religion, ethnic and family heritage. Many families go bonkers if someone says they’re gay; or want to marry someone of a different ethnicity, color, nationality, or religion. Many people try to challenge the nonconformists in their communities in an effort to gain control over those who refuse to be controlled, but more importantly, to maintain a false picture of community cohesion. There are an extraordinary number of people even in the African American community who seldom, never, or no longer attend religious services; who may or may not believe in any of the gods; and whose indifference towards religion is indistinguishable from that of atheists! So while, it is easy to make authoritative-sounding statements which claim that the entire black community will issue a wholesale rejection of every African American who rejects the gods, that claim is patently false. So far, the overwhelming majority of rich and complex narratives exploring the journeys of black atheists have yet to be articulated. Besides, the penalty for leaving the Jehovah’s Witness Protection Program for any reason dwarfs the rejection of atheists on the part of regular black folks!
Laurie returned to the hotel on [Easter!] Sunday morning, and ran into a film crew! A documentary was being made; she was asked to explain how she became an atheist, and so she said, “I told my unscripted story!” Having met her, I hope I have a chance to see it. When we last spoke via telephone, she planned to go dancing that evening. Earlier she had described her dancing style as ‘sultry’ among other things. Now, let’s see: she’s a beautiful person, a militant atheist, a feminist/socialist; wants to start an atheist group in her community in Florida, and is a sultry dancer. Global warming notwithstanding, expect things to really heat up as Laurie and her people turn Florida into the Sunshine State of Reason!