Ebony Magazine Features Black Atheist

In what is undoubtedly a first for a major African American publication, the July issue of Ebony Magazine contains an article featuring a black atheist. The write-up by Alix Jules, director of the Fellowship of Freethought in Dallas, was selected from user submissions for the Spirit Quest section of the magazine’s wellness section, and details his development from Catholic to atheist.

I give credit to the Ebony for providing a platform for this discussion. I hadn’t read the magazine in years, and the last time I flipped through a copy, the edition contained the venerable Most Eligible Bachelorette feature, which highlights single successful African American women. When listing qualities desired in a mate virtually every bachelorette included ‘Christian’ on the list. I suppose if the elusive, eligible educated black man happened to be a Muslim, Jew, Hindu or atheist, he need not apply. From what I can remember, this type of presumptive (Christian) religiosity permeates the stories of the magazine even when not on topic.

Jules, who prefers the title freethinker to atheist, emphasizes that freethought involves taking full accountability for one’s life, which is liberating. He mentions his efforts to bring more diversity into the freethought/atheist community, and endorses a thorough read of the Bible…noting that nothing will turn one into an atheist quicker.

The letters to the editor next month should be interesting. I am already drafting mine.

D. Frederick Sparks is an attorney living in Los Angeles.

Ebony Magazine Features Black Atheist

Black Atheists and Reactionary Black Nationalism

By Norm R. Allen Jr.

Members of the Black Atheists of Atlanta are causing quite a stir on the Web with their provocative conception of Black atheism. They embrace a reactionary, African-centered worldview, from which they inevitably denounce homosexuality, Western civilization, and White people in general. In particular, they are all too willing to sacrifice the rights of LGBT people on the altar of African culture.

With so much conceptual confusion running through their minds, they are bound to experience much cognitive dissonance. For example, though they denounce Greek civilization and culture, they embrace the Greek term “atheist,” which means without a belief in God or gods. What is even more problematic is that many Afrocentrists, such as the late John Henrik Clarke, believe that atheism will never take root among people of African descent. Some Afrocentrists claim that atheism is so foreign to Africans that there is no word for atheism in any African language. The late Afrocentric scholar Asa G. Hilliard said that church/state separation is a concept that is totally foreign to Africans. How do reactionary, African-centered atheists deal with these problems?

To their credit, these reactionary Black atheists of Atlanta have learned well from the handbook of reactionary Black militancy. They poison the well by claiming that their critics are wrong because they are Whites, or Blacks that have been brainwashed by Whites. These dogmatic atheists are not above questioning the Blackness of their Black critics.

Ironically, the Blackness of reactionary nationalists is never questioned. Marcus Garvey formed an alliance with the KKK. Elijah Muhammad used Malcolm X to forge an alliance with George Lincoln Rockwell and the American Nazi Party. Louis Farrakhan formed an alliance with Tom Metzger and the White Aryan Resistance. Moreover, the Nation of Islam (NOI) leader has served as an apologist for bigoted slave owners in Sudan. If ever there is a time to question one’s Blackness, it surely ought to be when that person joins forces with the sworn enemies and murderers of Black people. Yet in these cases, reactionary Black leaders were given a free pass, while their Black critics were viewed warily.

The reactionary members of the Black Atheists of Atlanta view antipathy toward homosexuality as an African virtue. Due to exposure to good scholarship, however, they have quietly retreated away from the absurd claim that homosexuality did not exist in Africa before it was introduced by White Westerners. Still, they claim that Africans did not approve of it.

In truth, laws against homosexuality were introduced into Africa by White Christians. Today opposition to same-sex relations is fueled by White missionaries and Eurocentric Christianity. The proposed “kill the gays bill” in Uganda was deeply influenced by White missionaries. White missionaries have also influenced widespread homophobia in Malawi and other nations.

The reactionary nationalists of the Black Atheists of Atlanta insist that homosexuality is unnatural; hence they are opposed to it. However, this rationalization is weak. After all, for millennia, oral sex was considered unnatural, but today there are no major efforts to oppose it. Furthermore, men and women engage in anal sex, which for them could also be considered “unnatural.” Again, where is the outrage against heterosexuals engaged in this alleged abomination?

Regardless of what one thinks about homosexuality, consenting adults should have the right to do what they please as long as they are not hurting anyone else. Such an idea might be considered un-African by some, but it is a cornerstone of liberty.

These Reactionary Black Nationalists have much in common with religious fanatics. Religious fanatics insist that they have the one, true God. Similarly, these Reactionary Black Nationalists insist that genuine African culture and values are perfect. Conversely, all ideas that are believed to emanate from White people are to be immediately deemed suspect.

It is obvious to Reactionary Black Nationalists that Whites can learn much from Blacks. But should true knowledge and wisdom be color-coded? Can Blacks not learn a great deal about humanity from Shakespeare, about freethought and liberty from Robert Ingersoll, about philosophy from Bertrand Russell, etc.? Surely it only makes sense to embrace important truths wherever they are to be found, regardless of their source. This is what critical thinking is all about.

As quietly as it’s kept, one can be African-centered and progressive. The great freethinker Hubert Henry Harrison was consistently progressive in his pursuit for justice for people of African descent. W.E.B. Du Bois, considered by many to be the father of Pan-Africanism, was progressive. Today Black freethinkers such as Gary C, Booker of Atlanta and Kwadwo Obeng of California via Ghana are progressive African-centered thinkers.

Black freethinkers must not succumb to the seductive rhetoric of Reactionary Black Nationalists. With enough humanity, originality, and creative intelligence, Black non-theists can come up with a progressive vision for society that can positively transform the world.

For 21 years, Norm R. Allen Jr. was the only full-time African American secular humanist activist traveling the world promoting secular humanism. He is the editor of two books, The Black Humanist Experience and African American Humanism.

Black Atheists and Reactionary Black Nationalism

The Prison of Black Patriarchal Masculinity

By Derrick L. McMahon, Jr.

As a black man living in the United States, I know all too well the prison that Black Patriarchal Masculinity can be. Growing up, the cell that I was placed in was small and rigid, a place for conformity rather than creativity. My masculinity was policed at almost every turn. My wrists were too limp I was told. My walk was not boyish enough I was told. And my interests were in all the wrong places: dolls and balls as opposed to just dolls.

What brings me to the topic of black patriarchal masculinity is a chance encounter I had the opportunity to witness. A black male was walking by and I overheard a young Hispanic girl, no more than 12 years old, remark that he “walked like a girl.” As I heard the young girl utter that the black man “walked like a girl,” something in my mind went off. I began to think about what black masculinity was in the society I live in. What about the black man walking by made the young girl feel he was crossing some threshold of masculine acceptability? What had made a young girl, a Hispanic one at that, recognize something in that black man that went against whatever she had been taught in her own community and society?

The prevailing narrative of black masculinity in this society seems to be predicated on a few things. Black men are to be full of rage and always apt to commit violent crimes. We’re supposed to be hyper masculine and hyper sexual; willing to fuck anything and be the carrier of superhuman sexual abilities. Also, due to our race, it seems, we are supposed to embody an idealized version of masculinity. Both the dominant culture and many blacks themselves have internalized this false notion of black men embodying a “true” definition of masculinity.

There seems to be an endless barrage of black men depicted in the media as fitting into the narrow narratives constructed around black masculinity. Incidents of crime are reported on frequently, remarking on the latest black man to kill, maim, or rape someone. Sports and music provide the perfect backdrop for introducing the narrative that black males are hyper masculine and hyper sexual. Videos by popular artists populate mass media wherein black men brag about their sexual prowess and their heightened masculinity. The black man is conditioned to believe that he embodies the very best of patriarchal masculinity, and that this is a virtue.

That an eleven year old girl could recognize a random black man as embodying something that she had been taught to pinpoint, to see as an anomaly, was striking to me. It is a testament to the fact that our children are being conditioned from a very early age to police the gender of themselves and others. What business does an eleven year old need with policing gender? Adolescence is, and should be, a time of much experimentation and exploration, not the site of rigidity and policing. That this young girl was a member of a different racial group indicates that patriarchal black masculinity is being communicated to other communities. It’s not unusual to meet someone of another group who is surprised or disappointed that a particular black man does not embody a particular masculine ideal. When I tell people that I don’t play football or basketball, and that I don’t have a bad chick by my side, they seem let down. I’ve destroyed some illusion of black masculinity and manhood that they had harbored.

Masculinity, in my opinion, should be a site for creativity and diversity. No black man should be forced into a prison of rigidity by a society expecting his masculinity to be one dimensional and one note. As a black man who is an advocate of feminism, I know that I have a responsibility to make my masculinity a site of resistance. I make sure that my thoughts and actions promote a view of black masculinity that is rooted in a respect for femininity, and anchored in a multifaceted harbor.

It is imperative for black men to fight for our right to be free of the prison of black patriarchal masculinity. We are more than rage, anger, violence, and sexual conquest. Our masculinity, much like we are, is and has always been diverse. We must make room in our cell for a diverse black masculinity.

The future of black masculinity lies in its ability to break free of the prison cell it has been forced to reside in. Black masculinity must seek out a wide open field where diversity and creativity is celebrated and fostered. We must resist those who insist on our singularity as black men. The prison cell that is patriarchal masculinity must no longer be the site where black masculinity resides.

Derrick L. McMahon Jr. has a Bachelor of Science in History from Florida A&M University. His blog is the antiintellect

The Prison of Black Patriarchal Masculinity

Marx’s View of Religion as an “opiate of the people” and radical social justice Humanism

By Tia M. Osborne

As I was sitting in a Women’s Studies class in the spring, a discussion regarding religiosity, atheism, and communist ideology took place. One of my peers asked why it is that many Marxists also identify as atheist. My professor and many others in the class (including me) went on to explain Marx’s rather famous notion of religion being the opiate of the people. Marx made this statement and many others regarding religion in “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” (1844).

Opiates are considered what many would call a “downer”, a drug that ought to put one in a state of passive inaction. Therefore, many understand Marx’s famous statement to mean that institutionalized religion and religious dogma cause individuals to become passive, apathetic, and no longer willing to be active political agents. Marx wrote, “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people” (Marx 1844). With this, many could also observe that religion often times channels what would be political energy (energy used for political organizing). For instance, Black women who are considered the “backbone” of their church channel their organizing potential into filling the pews of their neighborhood church rather than organizing for reproductive rights/choices for the young, struggling Black women in their community. This example is an unfortunate use of organizing potential and is evidence of the problem enduring faith and religiosity pose in the African American community and ultimately true Black self-determination (and most importantly the self-determination of all marginalized individuals in the United States).

With Marx’s observation of religion as an opiate, he also writes and alludes to the fact that religion, like mainstream illegal drugs and alcohol, is often a sign of depression and hopelessness. And that, when we see immense reliance on faith in an individual, that individual is most likely struggling through what he or she can not yet understand. Individuals often use religion as a way to mitigate physical and psychological pain caused by systems of oppression like racism, sexism/patriarchy, capitalism, and heterosexism. This being true, I believe self-identified humanists and atheists (more specifically atheists and humanists, who contribute to New Atheist discourse online and read New Atheist materials) ought to realize that the presence of faith in an individual may not simply be because he or she does not know enough about Darwin’s Theory of Evolution through Natural Selection, but that there are larger forces that instruct their reliance on faith and religious custom.

The social justice lens that I urge many atheists and humanists to adopt will allow us to realize that institutionalized religion is as much a tool to prohibit the creation of genuine social revolution as any other system of oppression that many of us are working to resist.

Marx, Karl. “Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of the Right 1844.” Marxists.org. N.p., 2009. Web. 15 Jun 2011.

Tia M. Osborne is an undergraduate Political Science and Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies double major at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Marx’s View of Religion as an “opiate of the people” and radical social justice Humanism

Black Atheists and the Failure of Black Academia

By Norm R. Allen Jr.

There has never been a better time to be a black atheist, secular humanist, freethinker, or rationalist in the U.S. Black non-theists are especially coming out of the closet on-line. There are groups such as the Black Skeptics, Black Female Skeptics, Black Atheists of America, and many others. Black non-theists have made numerous You Tube videos and appeared on many podcasts. Over the past couple of years, black non-theists have gathered in cities such as Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Indianapolis, and New York. There are now quite a few books out by and about black non-theists.

Why, then, does black academia continue to ignore black non-theists and the roles that non-religious individuals and secular ideals have played in the substantive development of black intellectualism and activism?

Among white academics, there is no shortage of scholars able and willing to discuss the “New Atheism” and the books of such writers as Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Victor Stenger, and others. Conversely, black academia is silent on writings defending non-theism from black perspectives.

Black academics do not seem to be any less religious than the black mainstream. According to every major U.S. poll on religion, African Americans are by far the most religious group in the nation in every category. One cannot help but wonder if black academics have intentionally ignored black non-theists, perhaps even questioning their “blackness” due to their rejection of religion.

This raises another point overlooked by black academics. Since the 1990s, there have been scores of humanist and freethought groups all over Africa. They have hosted major conferences, spoken and written in major media, defended church/state separation, opposed superstition, promoted secular ethics, published newsletters, fought for the rights of LGBTs, etc. Similarly, there are humanist groups in such Caribbean nations as Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago, and Barbados. Why are black academics missing the boat when there is so much potential for badly needed research and scholarship in this area?

Black humanist scholar Anthony Pinn of Rice University believes that there should be an entire discipline dedicated to black humanist studies. Indeed, such a discipline would go far in demonstrating that there are important non-religious traditions in the black community. For example, Pinn has written about the secular roots of blues music, and how some blues musicians not only challenged traditional religion, but the very existence of God. (Perhaps it was not called “the devil’s music” for nothing).

Since the 1990s non-theist rappers have been making explicitly atheistic music. Perhaps the best known atheist rapper is Greydon Square, who has performed before atheist audiences. Considering that many Black academics closely study hip-hop, it is amazing that they have ignored the phenomenon of the atheist rapper.

Many black non-theists offer strong, progressive, badly needed critiques of black Christianity. Many black churches are blatantly sexist, homophobic, materialistic and theocratic. Black non-theists uncompromisingly oppose these moral failings while challenging preachers that sexually abuse their congregants. Non-theists are obviously less likely than church members to try to rationalize the unjust practices of powerful ministers.

Black academics should certainly be interested in the history of black non-theists. Indeed, great African American non-theists include civil rights giants such as W.E.B. Du Bois, A. Philip Randolph, James Forman, and James Farmer. They include writers such as Nella Larsen, Zora Neal Hurston, Lorraine Hansberry, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Langston Hughes.

Black academics will write about such great individuals, but all too often they will ignore or downplay their non-religious worldviews. On the other hand, it seems abundantly clear to them that is important to discuss and understand—or to at least acknowledge—the religious views of great religious individuals.

It is ironic that so many black academics will not study black non-theists. After all, black studies came about due to the fact that white scholars were ignoring or downplaying the history of black people. Yet many black scholars apparently see no hypocrisy in shunning a minority within their own group.

It is time for black academics to give serious attention to black non-theists. With the growth of the Internet, this group will only expand greatly in the near future. If black academics are left behind while they could be on the ground floor, they will only have themselves to blame.

For 21 years, Norm R. Allen Jr. was the only full-time African American secular humanist activist traveling the world promoting secular humanism. He is the editor of two books, The Black Humanist Experience and African American Humanism.

Black Atheists and the Failure of Black Academia