2011: Year of the Black Atheists

By Frederick Sparks

OK, the title may be a tad hyperbolic, but in 2011, we have seen increased media coverage of black nonbelievers.

Sikivu Hutchinson’s must-read Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and the Values War was published in February, garnering rave reviews and enhancing the demand for the author as a speaker on the topics of race, feminism, sexual orientation, and politics as brought to bear on the secular movement.

In July, long time black publication Ebony magazine featured a piece by Alix Jules, director of the Fellowship of Freethought in Dallas, TX.  Jules emphasized that freethought involves taking full accountability for one’s life.

But the last few weeks saw a rush of articles, starting with a New York Times piece on black nonbelievers in late November.  Following the Times article, The Root, an African American focused online magazine conceived by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates and Facebook chairman Donald Graham, commenced a series (to the chagrin of some of their regular readers) on black atheists.   And finally, CNN’s religion blog posted a radio interview and accompanying write-up concerning the experience of Black atheists in the American south.

The exposure, incremental though it may be, has an impact.   The Black Atheist Facebook group (discussed in the NY Times article) has seen a 25% increase in membership over the past few weeks. And as I noted in a previous post, fictional depictions of black atheists help to normalize the experience of black nonbelievers .  It follows that the presentation of real life black atheist experience is even more useful.

But none of this exposure would have taken place without the hard work of many people over the past several years. A well deserved thanks goes to the local group organizers, writers, lecturers, online group organizers and administrators, and others who provide a space for black atheists to connect, share ideas and be active.  Let’s keep it going!

2011: Year of the Black Atheists

7 thoughts on “2011: Year of the Black Atheists

  1. 2

    This is good. I’m a mixed-race black atheist. Before I became an atheist, though, I was already tired of all the stereotypes of black people with which I’ve been bombarded since birth. Certainly, that includes the stereotype that all black people are zealous Christians. This stereotype is especially galling to me, because it’s often joined by the stereotype of black people as naturally dumb, “emotional” and anti-intellectual.

    I am heartened by the growing presence of black atheists online. Since I’ve begun lurking in the predominantly white atheists’/skeptics’ blogosphere, I’ve encountered the following statements and attitudes:

    “Isn’t it awful that blacks are so homophobic? They of all people ought to know better!”

    “You’d think that African Americans would be smart enough not to stay in the church of slaveholders. I just don’t get them.”

    “Black men are especially sexist and macho. They don’t realize how ironic this is.”

    Emphasis on “they”. The commenters who talk this way reveal their lack of close acquaintance with any black individuals as well as their total disinterest in a less reductionist understanding of history and culture.* Speaking of irony, these same commenters also think the following:

    “Reports of racism against blacks are exaggerated because of political correctness.”

    “Why do black atheists need atheists’ groups to include more black atheists? That’s racist, just as the NAACP is. We’re all individuals here.”

    “We need for there to be more [white] female atheist activists and bloggers.”

    “We need people to understand that the ways in which bigotry against [white] women manifests itself are myriad and often subtle. There’s justifiable anger here.”

    “We need to stamp out bigotry against LGBT’s. No excuses. There’s justifiable anger here.”

    These commenters exist in the FTB community and often get praised for their “thoughtfulness”, capacity for nuance and “fairness”. Huh. Well, for what it’s worth, I don’t “need” for there to be other black atheists in the world to survive as one. I may also be the only black blogger who doesn’t use the term “the black community”, because I don’t think that term makes sense, whether we’re talking about the U.S. or not. But I don’t like having my perspective dismissed, and I don’t like being rebuked and condescended to for daring to be justifiably angry. No one does. I don’t think that caring about bigotry is a zero-sum game where we’ve got to pick and choose which brand of stupidity to oppose. And I suspect that the growing visibility of black atheists will ameliorate the lack of receptiveness in many atheists’/skeptics’ groups to perspectives such as mine.

    I don’t think that’s a lot to ask. So, keep up the good work!

    *I have been guilty of making the “blacks ought to know better than to be homophobic” argument. Homophobia enrages me. But I try to avoid making this argument now because, while there is a grain of truth in it, it is simultaneously true that this argument is scornfully made by some white atheists who are applying a double-standard because they harbor semi-conscious and unexamined revulsion for blacks. I grew up in a politically conservative and predominantly white military community where one couldn’t breathe a word about American slavery without being treated to a defensive harangue about how horrible indentured servitude was and how whites were slaves too: whither does all that remembrance fly when we talk about homophobia? But I digress.

    1. 2.1

      Black men are especially sexist and macho.

      Speaking as someone who grew up in a mostly black and Dominican neighborhood in Brooklyn, that sounds about spot on.

      Also you forgot to include “We need there to be more [white] transgendered skeptics and bloggers.”

      Happy Holidays!

      1. Julian, I have no idea how to respond to that. One can criticize an unjust cultural phenomenon without using it as an excuse to treat blacks as if they’re cariacatures. Additionally, I am a black woman who grew up with white men. Many of them didn’t treat me well because I didn’t rate as a “real” girl or a “real” woman in their eyes. I think that’s just as bad.

        I give up. All it does is stress me out to keep trying.

    2. 2.2

      “Why do black atheists need atheists’ groups to include more black atheists? That’s racist, just as the NAACP is. We’re all individuals here.”

      Ahh, yes, the old “the liberals are the real racists” excuse. Roughly translated as, “I like my privilege too much to examine it!”

  2. 3

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