Radical Humanists in the Hood: Moving Social Justice 2014

CFI parking lot Kim Jenn Darren J
Black Skeptics Chicago, BSLA, Chocolate City Skeptics & Black Atheists of Philadelphia represent
Black Church LGBTQ
“Confronting Homophobia & Transphobia” in the Black Church w/Jenn Taylor, Raina Rhoades, Rev M. Moises & Teka Lark Fleming

By Sikivu Hutchinson

It was fitting that our recent Moving Social Justice conference in Los Angeles coincided with the Week of Resistance in Ferguson and a Week of Action against school push-out of black and brown youth.  In the midst of massive mobilizations around state violence and police terrorism much ink has been spilled over whether or not social justice “conforms” to atheist orthodoxy.  The majority of the naysayers have been white dudebros (and a few status quo POCs) shrieking from their perches of privilege about the corruption of atheism by people of color and white allies who give a fuck about the deepening socioeconomic, racial and gender divide in the imperialist U.S.  With the GOP potentially poised to take over the Senate and further cement its far right neoliberal anti-human rights agenda for generations to come (with the help of corporate Dems) the political stakes for communities of color couldn’t be higher.  Given this climate, the tantrums of first world atheist “purists” are not surprising.  When black people talk about the connection between racist prison pipelining and Jim Crow in STEM education of course white atheists want to deflect with how all black folk need is a trip to Darwin Day.  For the first time atheist and humanist activists of color are getting organized around an agenda that isn’t all about religion bashing and caricaturing black and Latino believers.  This new brand of activist refuses to let the dudebros and POC apologists do their colorblind shuck and jive in the name of some fake atheist solidarity.

That said, Moving Social Justice was a beautiful thing.  It was a multiethnic, multi-regional, intergenerational gathering of atheists and religious allies of color who live, work in and/or identify with “the hood” and POC legacies of resistance struggle.  For the first time ever racial justice—without apology or accommodation to white people’s let’s-ghettoize-this-into-a-diversity-panel reflex—was the focal point of an atheist-humanist conference.

BSLA's Daniel Myatt w/Claremont & Pitzer Colleges students
BSLA’s Daniel Myatt w/Claremont & Pitzer Colleges students

Sponsored by the People of Color Beyond Faith network, Black Skeptics Group, African Americans for Humanism, CFI and the Secular Student Alliance, the conference spotlighted the intersection of secular humanism, social justice activism and interfaith coalition building.  The event was emceed by hip hop artist and Chocolate City Skeptics member MC Brooks. It kicked off with a panel on “Confronting Homophobia and Transphobia in the Black Church” moderated by Teka-Lark Fleming of the Morningside Park Chronicle, the discussion featured Raina Rhoades of Chocolate City Skeptics, Jenn Taylor of Black Atheists of Philadelphia and Reverend Meredith Moises.  The panelist critiqued the culture of religious abuse, black male heterosexism, corruption and the “quelling of unrest” in Ferguson by some black churches.  During the “LGBTQ Atheists of Color and Social Justice” panel, Reverend Meredith Moise, a practicing Buddhist and spiritual humanist, captured the sentiment of the event when she said “I don’t live in the (white) gay ghettoes I live in the hood and I roll with ya’ll.”  Skillfully moderated by Black Freethinkers founder Kimberly Veal, the panel debunked mainstream myths and stereotypes about interracial queer solidarity in an age of rigid segregation and police state violence.  Veal informed the audience that recent CDC grants for HIV/AIDS prevention shafted black organizations.  Panelists Debbie Goddard and A.J. Johnson drew comparisons between white atheists’ fixation on their “underdog” status and that of white gay men.  All four women slammed the hypocrisy of mainstream gay and lesbian emphasis on marriage equality while queer and trans people of color deal with epidemic rates of HIV/AIDS contraction, homelessness, joblessness and anti-trans violence (trans people of color have the highest rates of violent assault among trans communities).

LGBTQ Atheists of Color w/M. Moises, AJ Johnson, Debbie Goddard & Kim Veal
LGBTQ Atheists of Color w/M. Moises, AJ Johnson, Debbie Goddard & Kim Veal

Queer white youth aren’t disproportionately bounced out of school or sent to prison for minor infractions.  Yet these disparities are reflected in the high rates of criminalization of queer, trans and straight youth of color.  At the schools I work at the majority of those who are being suspended, arrested and shipped off campus are African American.  A few months ago Black Skeptics joined the Dignity in Schools campaign, a national coalition to redress the push-out regime in public schools.  During the conference, a panel entitled “Busting the School-to-Prison Pipeline” featured activists from three leading L.A.-based juvenile justice and prisoner advocacy organizations.  Moderated by Thandisizwe Chimurenga, author of No Doubt: The Murder(s) of Oscar Grant, the panel highlighted the destructive impact of mass incarceration on black and Latino communities nationwide.  Tanisha Denard from the Youth Justice Coalition became an activist after being briefly incarcerated for truancy tickets as a student in the Los Angeles Unified School District.  The Dignity and Power Coalition’s Mark Anthony discussed how his organization has spearheaded the effort to create a civilian review board with the power to curb rampant inmate abuse in the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department.

Moving out of the insular world of social media and the Internet, the “#beyondsolidarityisforwhitewomen: Feminism(s) of Color” panel highlighted the work of L.A.-based feminist organizers from working class communities of color.  All of the women on the panel spoke of the need for intersectional alliances and organizing strategies that recognize the complexities of class, geography, sexuality and gender in one of the most segregated regions in the U.S.  Organizer Yolanda Alaniz of the socialist organization Radical Women spoke of the importance of interracial labor activism in a neoliberal economy where public employee unions—many of which are dominated by women of color members—are being gutted and demonized.  There was heated discussion about the implications of respectability politics for black women.  Moderator Angela Plaid of The Feminist Wire and Nourbese Flint of Black Women for Wellness commented that black women have always been constructed as sexually promiscuous “hos” and that the monomaniacal focus on sex-positivity by some white feminists is irrelevant for feminists of color fighting against

Feminisms of Color w/Yolanda Alaniz, Marlene Montanez, Heina D., Nourbese F, & Andrea Plaid
Feminisms of Color w/Yolanda Alaniz, Marlene Montanez, Heina Dadabhoy, Nourbese Flint, & Andrea Plaid

criminalization and economic disenfranchisement in militarized communities.  Considering schisms between black and Latino communities over immigration, jobs and language, the panelists also stressed the need to complicate mainstream views of undocumented communities due to the frequent exclusion of African and Asian immigrants from liberal-progressive campaigns for immigrant rights.  Freethought Blogs writer Heina Dadabhoy reflected on being socialized into the dominant culture’s divisive model minority myth which is based on the stereotype that Asian Americans bootstrapped their way to success in contrast to “less high-achieving” African Americans and Latinos.  Panelists also discussed the media’s portrayal of the Ray Rice case vis-à-vis how sexist misogynist condemnations of Janae Rice intersected with racial stereotypes about black male violence.

In a panel entitled “What’s Race Got to Do With It?” six atheists of color discussed the pros and cons of “inclusivity” versus “accommodation” as well as racism and intersectionality in the atheist movement.  Much of the panel unpacked the constant pressure people of color feel to educate “well-meaning” white people about their investment in racism, white privilege and white supremacy.  Panelists Georgina Capetillo of Secular Common Ground and Frank Anderson of Black Skeptics Chicago acknowledged the insidiousness of white privilege in the movement but argued that white allies need to be actively engaged.  Raina Rhoades, Anthony Pinn of Rice University and Donald Wright of the Houston Black Non-Believers contended that it was incumbent upon white people to educate themselves and stop expecting people of color to play the role of native informant.  Moderator Daniel Myatt of Black Skeptics Los Angeles asked panelists to evaluate the impact of secular organizations of color on social justice versus that of black churches.  Wright argued that, given the relative newness and scarcity of secular POC social justice organizations, it remains to be seen what impact they will have.

Racism & Intersectionality w/Frank Anderson, Georgina Capetillo, Sergio Ortega, Donald Wright & Tony Pinn
Racism & Intersectionality w/Frank Anderson, Georgina Capetillo, Sergio Ortega, Donald Wright,Tony Pinn & Daniel Myatt

This is an important caveat as the backlash against anti-racist intersectional atheism continues and white atheist organizations reveal themselves to be less interested in POC communities than “minority” dollars and “minority” faces at conferences.  Next year’s conference will be held in Houston, Texas.

MC Brooks closes with original work
MC Brooks closes with original work
Radical Humanists in the Hood: Moving Social Justice 2014

Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels NOW AVAILABLE

Godless_cover (2)

Over the past several years, the Right has spun the fantasy of colorblind, post-racial, post-feminist American exceptionalism. This Orwellian narrative anchors the most blistering conservative assault on secularism, civil rights, and public education in the post-Vietnam War era. It is no accident that this assault has occurred in an era in which whites have over twenty times the wealth of African Americans. For many communities of color, victimized by a rabidly Religious Right, neo-liberal agenda, the American dream has never been more of a nightmare than it is now. Godless Americana is a radical humanist analysis of this climate. It provides a vision of secular social justice that challenges Eurocentric traditions of race, gender, and class-neutral secularism. For a small but growing number of non-believers of color, humanism and secularism are inextricably linked to the broader struggle against white supremacy, patriarchy, heterosexism, capitalism, economic injustice, and global imperialism. Godless Americana critiques these titanic rifts and the role white Christian nationalism plays in the demonization of urban communities of color.

Godless Americana is a MUST READ!” Kimberly Veal, Black Non-Believers of Chicago (GOODREADS REVIEW)


 “Hutchinson notes that being an atheist is not enough to affect any real change. One can be an atheist in isolation simply by not believing in God. Becoming a humanist, by contrast, entails working for social justice. For blacks to make atheism relevant to the larger African American community they cannot simply emphasize science and critical thinking but must instead help feed people, train them for jobs, and offer assistance to prisoners trying to reenter society, among other issues.” Chris Cameron, University of North Carolina


Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels NOW AVAILABLE

Leaving Jesus: Women of Color Beyond Faith

Mandisa Thomas

By Sikivu Hutchinson

The 24-hour prayer sessions are the true test of a warrior for Jesus.  They require Herculean stamina, the patience of Job, the rigor of elite marathon runners hitting the wall in a fiery sweat pit at high altitude, primed for God’s finish line. In many small storefront Pentecostal churches these “pray-a-thons” are women’s spaces; hubs of music, food, caregiving, and intense witnessing.  My student Stacy Castro* is a bass player in her Pentecostal church’s band.  She is also the pastor’s daughter and a regular participant in the pray-a-thons, a mainstay in some evangelical congregations. Much of her weekends are focused on church activities. And though she is an intelligent gifted speaker, up until her participation in the Women’s Leadership Project she thought little about pursuing college and wanted to go to cosmetology school.  Stacy’s aspirations are not atypical of students at Washington Prep High School in South Los Angeles.  In a community that is dominated by churches of every stripe only a small minority go on to four year colleges and universities.

Over the past decade, Pentecostal congregations have burgeoned in urban communities nationwide, as Pentecostalism has exploded amongst American Latinos disgruntled by rigid Catholic hierarchies, alienating racial politics, and sexual abuse scandals.  The gendered appeal of Pentecostalism is highlighted in a 2008 American Religious Identification Survey which concludes that, “Latino religious polarization may be influenced by a gender effect, as in the general U.S. population, with men moving toward no religion and women toward more conservative religious traditions and practices. Two traditions at opposite poles of the religious spectrum exhibit the largest gender imbalance: the None population is heavily male (61%) while the Pentecostal is heavily female (58%). Italics added.”[i]

In my book, Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars, I argued that the literature on secularism and gender does not capture the experiences of women of color negotiating racism, sexism, and poverty in historically religious communities.  The relative dearth of secular humanist and freethought traditions amongst women of color cannot be separated from the broader context of white supremacy, gender politics, and racial segregation.  Harlem Renaissance-era writers Nella Larsen and Zora Neale Hurston are generally acknowledged as pioneering twentieth century black women freethinkers.  Yet what few women’s freethought histories there are celebrate the political influence of prominent nineteenth century white women non-believers, Continue reading “Leaving Jesus: Women of Color Beyond Faith”

Leaving Jesus: Women of Color Beyond Faith

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

Black Atheist Characters in popular television and film

By D. Frederick Sparks

While white atheist characters have been far from a mainstay in popular television and film, the list of fictitious white atheists in television and film include Eleanor Anne Arroway in the movie Contact, Michael Stivic on the celebrated sitcom All in the Family, Gregory House on the medical drama House, Mr. Big on Sex and The City, Brenda Chenowith on Six Feet Under, Tyler Durden in the film Fight Club, and a least a dozen others. Portrayals of black atheists have been even fewer and further between.

Carl Dixon, played by venerable actor Moses Gunn, appeared in Season 4 of the popular 70s urban sitcom Good Times, which focused on the Evans family and their struggles in the projects of Chicago. Carl employed Michael Evans, the youngest son of Florida Evans (Esther Rolle), at his repair shop. Florida is shocked when Michael reveals to her that, like Dixon, he does not believe in God. When Florida tells Michael that there is a loving, merciful God, Michael replies “If He’s so merciful why we are still living in the ghetto?” After confronting Dixon and convincing him that an impressionable Michael is probably parroting Dixon’s nonbelief, Dixon tells Michael that he need not be an atheist in order for the two to be friends. In true sitcom fashion, the intelligent Michael’s skepticism automatically evaporates.

Dixon, a war veteran and responsible business owner, eventually falls in love with and marries Florida Evans. Rolle left the show after the end of Season 4 over dissatisfaction with the buffoonish portrayal of Jimmie Walker’s character J.J., and the characters of Florida and Carl were referred to as having moved to Arizona. When Rolle returned for the show’s final 6th season, part of her demands were that the Dixon character be written off because Rolle felt it was inconsistent that a woman with such strong Christian convictions as Florida would ever marry an atheist man. Dixon was never referred to again.

Ice Cube’s character DoughBoy in John Singleton’s hit 1991 film Boyz in The Hood presents a very different face of black nonbelief. Doughboy’s troubles with the law start as a child and result in his repeated incarceration. He also struggles to gain his mother’s love and affection, who favors his brother Ricky (in part because of her feelings about her sons’ different fathers). While hanging out on Crenshaw with friends, Doughboy asserts his nonbelief based on the Argument from Evil: “There ain’t no God. If there was a God, why He be letting motherfuckers get smoked every night?- Babies and little kids, tell me that.” Contrasted with the character of Carl Dixon, it may be easy to dismiss DoughBoy’s atheism as dysfunctional ghetto nihilism. Yet Singleton in his Academy Award nominated screenplay felt that it was important for Doughboy’s views on God to be expressed.

Reality television has also featured a few black atheists. Atheist activist, blogger and podcaster Reginald Finley, aka The Infidel Guy, appeared on a 2005 episode of ABC’s Wife Swap, in which his (also) atheist wife Amber traded places with the wife of a pastor. The 23rd season of MTV’s The Real World (DC) featured Ty Ruff, a self described atheist who called religion a crutch and felt that most God believers were narrow minded.

Though there are more portrayals of black nonbelievers and skeptics in literature and other art forms, popular film and television (for better or worse) perhaps has a greater potential to shape public consciousness. The increased acceptance of gays and lesbians is no doubt in large part due to personal interactions in everyday life. But portrayals in popular culture which help “normalize” gays and lesbians for viewers who may not have had any exposure also contribute. More frequent portrayals of black atheists, particularly in balanced ways, can serve as part of an iterative process, in which these representations both influence and reflect changes in attitudes towards black non-believers. Black nonbelievers should work to get their representations out there and support others who do. And more black female atheists characters would be nice too. Have I missed any?

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

Black Atheist Characters in popular television and film

Black Atheists in the Pulpit: Dialogue with Zion Hill Baptist Church

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Congregants of Zion Hill Baptist Church in South Los Angeles probably thought Pastor Seth Pickens was certifiable when he proposed a community dialogue with the L.A. Black Skeptics Group. Founded in March of last year, the group provides a safe real time space for atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, humanists, and skeptics of African descent. As the group’s organizer, I had been in conversation with Seth about a forum for several months after interviewing him for my new book Moral Combat. A thirty-something, literary Morehouse College graduate from the East Coast, he was open to the idea of an “interfaith” dialogue from the beginning. Pastor of Zion Hill since 2009, he seemed deeply concerned about the ongoing national critique of the Black Church’s waning influence (see, for example, Princeton religion professor Eddie Glaude’s widely circulated Huffington Post piece “The Black Church is Dead.”).

The Zion Hill church building itself is a sprawling beacon of provincial beauty. About forty participants of all ages and beliefs gathered in one of the churches’ smaller sanctuaries to hear the panel. In my opening comments I framed black secular humanist traditions within the prism of black liberation struggle and cultural politics. Far from being marginal to black social thought and activism, secular humanism and social justice were deeply intertwined in the work of leading black thinkers like A. Philip Randolph, Richard Wright, and Zora Neale Hurston. However, analysis of 21st century black religiosity should be situated within the context of deepening social, political, and economic crisis. Faced with double digit unemployment and skyrocketing rates of homelessness, the American dream is even more of a brutal sham for African Americans. In the wake of Obama’s election it is no accident that reactionary forces seek to dismantle what little remains of the American social welfare safety net. Indeed, the decades’ long Religious Right backlash against civil rights, women’s rights, and gay liberation is exemplified by the ascent of Tea Party-style white nationalism. Consequently, to paraphrase panelist Carol Pierce, the Black Church is still something of a “refuge” in a hyper-segregated nation.

So why did the panelists become atheists or agnostics? Jim Pierce, a retired engineer, expressed his dissatisfaction with the church’s sexist treatment of women. Thamani Delgardo, a health care professional who described herself as a “former holy roller,” became disillusioned after repeatedly seeing innocent babies die despite prayer. Jeffery “Atheist Walking” Mitchell found Christian explanations for the creation of the universe absurd. Discussing the real life stigma black non-believers face, We Are All Africans author Kwadwo Obeng expressed his contempt for comedian Steve Harvey, who smeared atheists as having no moral compass in a now infamous 2009 interview. Obeng also condemned racist characterizations of the 2010 Haitian earthquake as an example of God’s wrath (due to Haitians’ blasphemous worship of Voudoun). Delgardo argued forcefully against the benefits of prayer as an antidote to pain and suffering. Predictably, monotheism itself came in for a vigorous beating. Both Obeng and Mitchell unpacked the illogic of thousands of competing religious truth claims; each faith’s loyalists insisting that their particular view of divinity, morality, righteousness, and the god(s) concept be privileged by the masses. Obeng articulated a radical African critical consciousness, arguing that European colonialism and white supremacy wiped out indigenous African belief systems amongst enslaved Africans in the so-called New World. Hence, all Abrahamic religions legitimized a kind of mental slavery, fatally undermining black self-love and self knowledge for both African Americans and Africans.

In response, one audience member complained that it was easy to “poke holes” in scripture and Christian belief. But at the end of the day you had to believe in something. Secular humanists believe that faith in supernatural puppet masters are dangerous because we only have one life to live. Feminist atheists believe that social justice based on the universal moral value of women’s right to self-determination (rather than self-sacrifice, domestication, submission, and sexual degradation) is certainly not found in the Bible or the Koran. It is for this reason that the heterosexist, patriarchal hierarchies of Abrahamic religions are especially insidious for black women and LGBT people of African descent.

A lively exchange on biblical literalism versus liberal Christian theology ensued when I quoted several misogynistic passages from scripture. Pastor Seth took exception with the notion that Christianity prescribed misogyny, citing a passage in the New Testament which he interpreted to suggest equality between men and women.

Pondering the question of evil and free will, a younger parishioner contended that God didn’t micro-manage people’s lives, implicitly rejecting Epicurus’ caveat about God’s impotence if he didn’t intervene against evil. Speaking from the audience, my father, author and political commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson, concluded the discussion with a spirited defense of “Christian” precepts of charity and forgiveness, whilst acknowledging the pernicious acts of some true believers. When I was growing up, our household was perhaps the only one in the neighborhood where secular humanism was the rule (my mother Yvonne still considers herself a secular humanist). So my father’s newfound belief in God and self-proclaimed “spiritual” humanism has been interesting to watch.

In the end, odysseys in belief, like family politics and intimate relationships, are complicated. Yet what is not in question is the need for a paradigm shift around social justice in black communities. So the atheists and the Baptists pledged to meet again, in the spirit of shared struggle.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars.

Black Atheists in the Pulpit: Dialogue with Zion Hill Baptist Church

Black Skeptics’ Interview with Author Donald Wright

Donald Wright is a Houston-based freethought activist and the author of The Only Prayer I’ll Ever Pray: Let My People Go.

In recognition of the seminal yet historically overlooked impact of black freethought traditions, he has proposed the fourth Sunday in February as a “Day of Solidarity” for African American freethinkers, humanists, and atheists.

You were once a deacon and devoted member of your church. What was the catalyst for your journey to non-theism?

If I include being born into a Christian family, I have over 50 years of experience of being involved in religion. My parents and sisters were active members of a Christian church so I followed in their footsteps. Aside from the five years of college, which I did continue attending church especially since I wanted to maintain a relationship with my church going college sweetheart, I had been an active and devoted church member until September 2006. My church activities included: Sunday school, choir, usher, youth groups, fundraising committees, co-leader with my wife of new members’ orientation, and being a deacon.

To describe the catalyst for my journey to non-theism, I must provide some background information that represents my church/religious experiences. There is not a shortage of malfeasance among black church pastors and leaders. The claim against Eddie Long in Atlanta, Georgia, is a well publicized example. Describe it as naïve, but I expected pastors, men called by God, to be of higher character and dedication to the instructions of the Bible. Not that they don’t exist, but I had not been a member of a church with a female pastor so pardon my gender reference. I assumed that the God-calling provided a spiritual strength, humility, and godly insight that was unavailable to normal everyday Christians. A pastor’s inappropriate behavior was very disturbing to me and it was amplified when he lacked a display of remorse. To add to my discomfort, majority of the members were too tolerable and readily to forgive. I can’t count the number of times I heard “the pastor is just a man” as a reason to not demand accountability. Most pastors are arrogant and demand a stature position that requires hero worship and most members in black churches accommodate.

I was a member of this pre-dominantly black mega-church in Houston for 19 years. It was the church where I was a deacon. In 2003, the pastor’s involvement in a homosexual scandal was exposed. It found its way into the local and national media. The pastor was portraying a happy heterosexual marriage. This was devastating to the membership. A special meeting was held to determine his fate. The membership voted and by a small margin, the majority preferred him to remain as pastor with the condition that he would agree to counseling.

Our family was not alone in leaving, as a substantial number of members immediately chose to find another church. This situation was very disturbing because within two years the church membership decreased well over 50%. Homosexuality is a major theological challenge for most Christians and obviously I did not accept it as a lifestyle choice for a church leader.

This incident was the catalyst. Following the decision to find another church, I committed to becoming a greater student of the Bible and the religious practice of Christianity. I was no longer going to be dependent on the preachers and anointed Bible teachers for interpretation and instructions. The next two years involved intense self-study in addition to enrollment in a local Bible college to obtain a Bible teaching certificate. Some family members and friends suggested I was being called to the ministry. The study required me to ask hard and challenging questions. It required me to pursue the history and origin of the Bible. It led me to observing clear contradictions in Bible. Eventually I would find my way to reading the Age of Reason by Thomas Paine and in September 2006 my religious journey was terminated. Self-study led me away from religion and into a life-stance centered on Humanism and Atheism. I am glad I finally decided to scholarly study the Bible.

What kinds of advocacy work do you do around humanism/atheism in the Houston community?

I am an active member of the Humanists of Houston organization, currently serving as vice-president. The intent of my involvement with this group, in addition to the benefits of being among more like-minded individuals, is to encourage more community service and outreach as humanists. We must become more visible in the community to offset the service provided by religious organizations. Our society needs to learn that it is not religion that gives people the desire to help and care for others.

Also, I have organized a discussion group, Radical Forum – Houston. The group assembles monthly to examine various topics and issues through an open dialogue. The group decides the topic or issue and a volunteer will lead the discussion. The primary objective of the group is to promote a better society and lessen human oppression and exploitation. The forum serves to motivate and to be an intellectual resource. Our society cannot change until people change. People cannot change until their thinking change. Thoughts and attitudes are modified through new information. My individual responsibility is to make certain that the information shared during the discussion is tested through humanistic values and examined from a non-religious perspective.

How has your involvement in the emerging community of black non-believers changed your outlook on life?

My outlook on life began to change a few years before my escape from religion. Although I did not recognize this immediately, but the start of my new worldview was when I started my engineering consulting firm in January 2002. I discovered a freedom that transcends monetary wealth. I had acquired major control of my time and priorities. I can determine what truly is important. At this time my daughter was a sophomore in high school. I cannot explain the joy of attending her basketball games in the middle of the afternoon without having to get permission from the boss. She still treasures her feeling of knowing her dad was in the stands for the majority of games cheering for her and the team. I learned to value that experience more than the acquisition of a lot of money. My business objective was then and remains to keep it small but adequate. I was beginning to reject some of the ideals of corporate America and the capitalistic influence.

During the past nine years, my worldview on religion, politics, government, capitalism, our monetary system, health, and many other subjects has significantly altered. I have read more books, asked more hard questions, shared conversation with more extraordinary and brilliant people, and studied diligently to determine truth. The function of truth is to bring light to the hidden facts. Truth transforms humans only when we submit to it. Humans who seek truth cannot resist the need to transform. I may have to write another book to describe my reasons for becoming disenchanted with life in the United States.

Attending the African American for Humanism Conference, sponsored by Center for Inquiry, in Washington, D.C. in May last year was a huge impact. I have a photo of the group framed and mounted on my office wall. It was a historical event because it was the first major gathering of black non-believers in the Unites States. I met and established relationships with many other black non-believers from various cities across the country. I anticipate many of those relationships to solidify and last for a lifetime. There was so much comfort in sharing experiences and similar journeys. It was so surprising to hear the stories of individuals that had started their journey during their youth. Some of the individuals at this conference will be very influential in the humanist movement. My perspective on humanism and its place in the black community was broadened. I have more confidence and greater hope for the black community that it will lessen its dependence on religion. I look forward to the future for attending the first major gathering of black non-believers here in Houston, Texas.

What do you think are the main priorities for black non-believers?

The most important activity for a black non-believer is to make yourself available for establishing a friendship with other black non-believers. Because of the dominance of religion in our community, it is not unusual to experience a feeling of loneliness so a local friend is invaluable. Emails, Facebook, Twitter, and blogging cannot replace face to face communication. In preparation for befriending a fellow black non-believer, be certain you care enough to share your experiences and offer genuine support.

The next priority is to develop boldness in purpose because the religious institutions must be challenged. Their negative influence on our society must be exposed. When faith is tested through facts, logic, reason, or science it should fail. In preparation to confront believers, you must be solidly grounded in this life-stance and confident enough to discuss it with anyone interested in a conversation. As non-believers, we must become more visible and our voices heard. As non-believers, we offer an alternative that could make substantial improvements in our society and our community must know that we exist.

Also, we must participate with national humanist and atheist organizations to offer support as these organizations are confronting policies through the political process. The religious landscape of the United States must be removed and replaced with reason and free thought.

To my fellow black non-believers, I suggest sharing knowledge and speaking truth without any fear. Human attitudes, opinions, and behavior can be modified. A believer can become a non-believer. I am that example.

In your book, you talk about black male ambivalence toward the culture of charismatic male leadership in the Black Church. Does this ambivalence keep men away from the church and how does it encourage emotional/sexual abuse and co-dependency amongst women?

I will address the latter part of the question first.

I am almost certain that the majority of pastors in the black church are men. I have the same certainty that the majority of the members of black churches are women, which means they have the greater number in church service attendance and participation in church activities. Because of this dynamic, the pastors must cater primarily to the needs of the women. Black women are achieving more independence and earning larger incomes as professionals and business owners than ever before. Many have moved from the kitchen to the boardroom and their monetary contributions reflect this status. But note that surveys indicate that the largest segment of people that is religious and unmarried is black women. They love the church and adore the pastor especially the singles. This environment creates a playground for the unscrupulous men with charisma, authority, and fine tailored suits. These men have become celebrities and as a result of our society’s celebrity culture, many women become victims emotionally and sexually. What can be more problematic than a single woman seeking counsel and prayer for finding a husband or a companion in the dim lights of the pastor’s study? If they only knew that their best chance for a qualified mate is not in the church. Too many black women depend on and seek solace from the church.

A large percentage of black men struggle with the desire to attend church—simultaneously they lack the interest in supporting the pastor. In the black community the pastor is the church. It is not uncommon to hear a member say, “I attend Pastor XYZ’s church.” This group of struggling black men recognize these selfish and manipulative characteristics in preachers because of their own experiences and characteristics, making it difficult to ignore the negative possibilities. These negative possibilities include improper management of the building fund to justify a new car or receiving sexual pleasure from a distraught woman that attempts to show her gratitude to the pastor for paying her electric bill. In street language they see him the same as the “pimp” or “player.” The pimp controls and the player attracts. The need to attend church is ingrained in black culture. Most black men accept this as vital and prefer not to risk their soul’s salvation, but their social instincts alert them to [the pastor’s] con artist[istry]. They cannot ignore this alert so many of them stay away from church choosing instead to read the Bible and listen to gospel music on Sundays. Well, maybe not every Sunday.

You recently proposed a “Day of Solidarity” for African American non-believers. What was the motivation for this initiative?

The idea of a Day of Solidarity occurred as a result of me pondering Black History Month with more focus on black free thinkers and non-believers. I felt that an effort should be given to assemble black non-believers in our local towns and cities eliminating the need for expensive travel. I visualized a special day of observance once a year on the 4th Sunday in February to promote fellowship, share experiences, meet new non-believers, and discuss the lives of black non-believers that our typical history books omit. Also, this could be the opportunity to encourage community activism. The gathering is to be provided with minimum requirements and cost. Two or more people could meet in the park if the weather permits.

I was really hoping the fellowship would be the attracting piece in the purpose for the gathering. Since the beginning of my journey away from religion in 2006, I desperately needed and still need to meet more black non-believers. Fellowship, a sustaining characteristic of the church, is valuable in our society regardless of the group’s purpose. We need each other. Our technological advancements allow us to communicate with many people around the world, sharing information at the click of a button. We are meeting and making new friends online everyday. But no technology can replace the need for human interaction, face to face, the look into another person eyes during the moment of a true passionate expression, or the sight of sharing a gut wrenching laugh. We still need a hug or a little rub on the back when times get tough. Communicating through emails, Facebook, Twitter, and blogging can’t tell the whole human story.

So far, the response has been a little disappointing. It has caused me to reflect on what it takes to get people to support a cause. Our society needs so many positive actions to offset the decay and turmoil. In our celebrity culture, in order to initiate a peoples’ movement do you have to be a celebrity? Would the idea been received with greater interest if it was presented by someone such as Tavis Smiley? I was baffled by a number of people in particular that chose not to offer a simple comment, for or against the idea. For new ideas, criticisms can be a benefit. But I’ll be fine. I have no interest in becoming a celebrity. I’m only trying to make a contribution before my days are done.

I am hopeful that the gathering is received in truth and for its intent. So get from behind those computers and build solidarity with your fellow non-believers.

Many women of color and some men of color embrace humanism/atheism as part of a feminist and anti-heterosexist world view. What is your perspective on the relationship between gender equity and humanism/atheism? What specifically can black men do to advance gender justice?

The significant phase of my transformation was when I began to truly embrace humanism and atheism. Being humanist is much more relevant than being an atheist. An atheist simply is an individual that do not believe in a god. I don’t believe in a god because I don’t have to. I do not have enough evidence that proves a god exists. I am a humanist because I support the betterment of all humans and sustaining their innate ability to make rational decisions regarding life. I support peace and harmony in the universe and maintaining its natural order and resources. Humanism is my fundamental worldview. It is the guiding principle by which I use to take a position on all issues affecting our society. Humanism is tolerant and respects individuality. Humanism is fairness and strives for truth. I can’t be a humanist and support or practice any organized religion that exists in our world today according to my awareness. Religion is in opposition to humanism and most religions encourage the recognition of some type of god.

I hope to witness an overwhelming increase of blacks in the United States that make a rational decision to move away from religion and choose to embrace humanism.

In terms of gender equity, I think humanism is the means to assure its existence. There is overwhelming evidence of how religions, particularly the most dominant ones here in the United States, promote gender inequality with men being in positions of authority. The Bible is a collection of this ideology. Women recognized this fallacy and demanded a different society that acknowledges the rights of women, which is evident today, but some remain in bondage to their religious dogma and continue to be subjugated to a fictitious role. Our society fails, primarily due to religion, in the attempt to identify the roles of women and men and many of us become deranged in the struggle for adherence. We should allow science to help us to understand the true natural differences between women and men, then as individuals we determine our role as we adapt to our society. We should learn and understand personalities and weigh the factors that shape our character. This is especially significant when we are developing relationships or partnerships, more commonly known as marriage, with other humans. Religion distorts this concept also. Who should determine the make-up of the partnership and head of the household or the need for one, the church, Paul the self-proclaimed apostle, or the individuals involved? Humanism is not about defining gender or sexual orientation; it is systematic in determining what’s best for human beings.

For black men to advance gender justice, my primary suggestion is stay away from religion. Free your mind from the bondage of religious dogma. Become a free thinking individual. Black men must understand that gender injustice is a human malfunction just like racism. Our community cannot afford this behavior. Black men must relinquish this misguided attitude of the male authoritative perspective as practiced in the black church. Appreciate the qualities and skills of our black women equally without restrictions. We need each other operating at its highest efficiency to promote an equitable society. Human injustice, oppression and exploitation are inefficient.

Contact Donald Wright, [email protected], www.drwrightbooks.com

Black Skeptics’ Interview with Author Donald Wright

What If…

By Shawn Brown

Black atheist! Do these words mean anything? Certainly not if such a person does not exist.

Everyone knows that black people love Jesus. With tears in our eyes and a bittersweet joy in our hearts, we marvel at the wonder of the divine. With hands raised high we sway to our own celestial rhythm. With a look of transcendent torment upon our faces, we sing His praises. Don’t we love Jesus? Don’t we all love Jesus?

I’ve heard it said that black people have a “Jesus fixation”, a single minded focus on God. From our earliest days we are taught that there is a mysterious and powerful man in the heavens above- enthroned some place between time and space. Omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient- He is God-the-Father. The ethereal embodiment, if you will allow, of benevolence and love. We are taught by parents, grandparents and the preacher that “God is good!”

But, as the lesson of God’s goodness is taught with one breath, we are taught that God is awful with the next. He knows our thoughts, He knows our feelings, He knows what we will do next, and He knows our secrets and the hour of our deaths. This God is not to be trifled with. What fool would question Him- even in the quiet of one’s own mind?

Respecting the God that black Christians serve means not speaking doubt or even thinking it. How could there ever be such a thing as a black Atheist?

You serve the Lord with fear and trembling. You serve Him in perfect submission. You must love Him always. You must never think ill of Him. He is without fault. He is responsible for everything good in your life- not you. You are responsible for everything bad in your life- not Him. Praise the Lord when things go right; beg His forgiveness when they go wrong.

Now, how did we end up with this particular religious system? Well, that’s simple: Slavery. One of the original justifications for slavery was to bring the “heathen” African into contact with Christianity. The earliest enslaved Africans were converted by force before even leaving the slave castles of western Africa. They were now Christian by virtue of the slave trader’s power.

As time passed, many slaveholders ceased to rely on this pre-textual justification for slavery. After all, if you do not free the enslaved once they have become Christians, then providing them salvation seems a flimsy rationale. Continuing to parrot the old justification of Christianizing the African would be too absurd even for a slaveholder. However, Christianity was still useful to them. Logically, the slaveholder continued to teach Christianity in a way beneficial to their more genuine economic motives. From Ephesians they likely taught “slaves obey your masters here on Earth…” From Matthew 5:5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the Earth.” From Matthew 18:4 “[w]hoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” The slaveholders’ true intention was not to save souls, but to create a docile workforce. Unfortunately, this strategic impartation of Christianity began to take root.

As time passed, African-Americans began to replicate these religious norms independently. With each passing year our addiction to religion grew more complete, until finally Christianity became synonymous with blackness. The imposing nexus of historical indoctrination and present day hardship conspire to keep African-Americans chained to religion. Christian faith and hardship stand in equipoise within the black community- and understandably so. When people are oppressed there is a hunger for hope that can never fully be satisfied so long as the unjust conditions persist. The desire for justice is transferred to hope for happiness in a time yet to come.

This is why we love the Lord. This is why there are no black atheists. This is why we all love Jesus.

But, what happens if you do not? What happens if you began to doubt Jesus when you stopped believing in Santa Clause? What if you realized early on that there are two creation stories in Genesis, and that they are not the same? What if you realized that no god could be simple minded enough to use either method to create the universe? What if you believe that culture and isolation explain linguistic differences, and not the Tower of Babel? What if you believe it wrong to stone children- even when they disobey? What if you believe that eating an apple, which God intentionally put within Eve’s grasp, is not a just reason to thrust the world into suffering? What if you do not believe that a person could survive three days in the belly of a whale? What if you think it silly for an all knowing god to create his own nemesis? What if you think it odd for God to send Himself, to save us- from Himself? Would not it have been easier to simply forgive our sins without the blood soaked spectacle of Calvary? What if you find it inconceivable for an all-loving god to create an unimaginable hell for His own children? What if…

What if we stopped waiting on Jesus and started planning? What if we realized that deferring justice until the next life meant deferring it forever? What if we understood that following a religion which too often perpetuates patriarchy has a chilling effect on the development of millions of our potential leaders? What if we knew that our gay brothers and sisters had just as much right to exist as the rest of us (something that would be obvious to a historically oppressed people but for religious influence)? What if we could drop the inaction of religion, for the urgency that comes with knowing that it is up to us? What if we could drop the divisiveness of faith for the loving kindness of humanism? What if…

Of course this could never happen, not if you are black. No! You see, being a good Christian is never to question aloud. Being a good Christian is never to allow a question to linger in your mind. Being a good Christian means to turn off your rational mind when it becomes bothersome to your faith. Unfortunately, black people are good Christians.

If you are the type of person who believes that love began with Jesus, that morality was created by God, that mercy and justice are religious concepts, then you find my words striking. However, if you have dared to think beyond what you were told, if you prefer enlightenment to conditioning, then you may just see it differently. You will have realized that love, courage, empathy and kindness are all human inventions-not the altruistic inventions of a cosmic overlord. You will have realized that we are not abject by birth, but just as valuable as our ancestors have made us.

If you believe these things as I do, then you know that the justice we have long been denied is within our grasp. We can believe in our own virtue, instead of dismissing any notion of our own human goodness. We can accept the challenges of the present and master them completely. If we are courageous enough to examine our beliefs, we can break the chains placed on our minds so long ago. In so doing, we can, for once, live in a world of our choosing – but only if there exists such a thing as a black atheist.

Shawn Brown is an attorney who has studied law both in the United States and England. He has been a freethinker for several years and currently resides in the southwestern United States.

What If…