By Sikivu Hutchinson
Judging from its recent “Atheists” news show CNN believes atheists of color don’t exist and atheism is just as whitebread as Tea Party evangelicalism. Arguably the only primetime show on the subject in recent memory, the program purported to be a sweeping overview of the state of atheism in a still god-besotted universe. Many of the usual suspects (bright eyed bushy tailed white converts) and straight white spokesmen (Richard Dawkins, David Silverman, Jerry DeWitt) were trotted out to represent the heathen masses, regurgitating the same chestnuts about the murk of bad religion jettisoned for the clear skies of freedom, enlightenment and rationality. These in turn were tempered by a few paeans to tolerance on the social complexities of religious practice by the kinder gentler Humanists of Harvard. For viewers of color the not so subtle message was that “those atheists” are (like “those gays”) in many respects just like “us”—heretics for sure but paradoxically as familiar as the boy/girl next door in leafy white suburban or hip urban renaissance enclaves.
As corporate media go CNN has been more than willing to explore the race divide, cranking out the “Black in America” and “Latino in America” series as well as one on biracial Americans. True to form though, people of color are rarely called on to speak about anything other than race. Evidently “raceless” sociocultural phenomena like the growing number of secular individuals don’t lend themselves to exploring demographic complexity. According to the Pew Research Center African Americans and Latinos are among the most religious groups in the nation. However, over the past several years, organizations like the Hispanic American Freethinkers, Black Skeptics Group, Black Non-Believers, Latino Atheists, Black Atheists of America and African Americans for Humanism have been organizing atheists of color on the ground. Critical, non-believing black and Latino folk don’t conform to the narrative of lock stock n’ barrel religious solidarity, bible thumping and “Jesus saves” stereotypes that mainstream culture associates with communities of color. For much of the media, atheism’s tent is only big enough to accommodate slight differences in secular belief (for example the interviewer didn’t even allow Greg Epstein to articulate a more full-bodied explanation of humanism) represented by white people who generally have no investment in connecting secularism to social, economic and gender justice.
Historically black secularists, humanists, freethinkers and atheists connected their non-belief, agnosticism and skepticism to a broader landscape of black liberation struggle against racism, imperialism and homegrown apartheid. Black humanism was inseparable from a critique of white supremacy and the relationship between capitalism, the legacy of slavery and Judeo-Christian religion. For example, freethinker A. Philip Randolph was a socialist labor leader and civil rights activist who criticized the Black Church’s economic hold on African Americans. In her landmark 1928 book Quicksand Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen boldly linked black dependency on organized religion to poverty and female oppression. Atheist and Black history month founder Carter G. Woodson wrote about the danger of blacks’ mental servitude to Eurocentric notions of history, personhood and cultural worth. All of these thinkers’ skepticism was borne of a deep critical consciousness of how American democracy and individual liberty was based on the theft of black bodies and black labor. Hence, black secularists have always been more than just atheist, agnostics or points in between. Given black women’s high levels of religiosity, black feminist atheists often acknowledge the complex relationship women of color have with “God” in a nation where their fundamental humanity has always been policed, criminalized and exploited as other. As I observe in my most recent book Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels “So where, during this period of extreme racial and sexual terrorism (i.e., slavery), could black women go to be affirmed as persons? The courts, where their rights were not recognized? The Constitution, where their bodies were vessels? The education system, where their culture was demeaned as savage, primitive, and un-Christian? Government, where their bodies were deep profit for some of the nation’s most esteemed legislators and moral philosophers? White churches, where they were debased as Jezebels and amoral Children of Ham? Godliness became ordinary black women’s medium for expressing artistry, invention, creativity, genius and their own version of mastery.” Unlike white atheists, atheists of color don’t have the luxury to disengage from their communities because racist economic disparities, in the form of segregated neighborhoods, workplaces, schools and cultural spaces, amplify the pivotal role progressive black and Latino religious institutions often play in providing a social welfare safety net.
By featuring the white atheist elite—the most privileged among an already economically and racially privileged class—the CNN show reinforced the reductive anti-religious focus of mainstream atheism. Having the ability to claim the space of atheism unabashedly, while being viewed as a secular authority, has everything to do with race, gender, class, and sexual privilege. It is precisely because Dawkins and company are not criminalized, protected from the brunt of state violence due to their inhabitance of white male cis bodies, that they’ve gained global credence as atheist paragons of science and reason. Of course, mainstream media will never be ready for the robust atheist organizing represented by non-believers of color who’ve pushed the movement to go beyond the safe platitudes of church state separation. That would involve confronting the “revelation” that atheism, like religion, can be more than simply a question of non-belief or belief.