Friday Freethought: “The Dubious Blessings of Christianity”

Sunday is the Day of Solidarity for Black Non-Believers, which you can find out more about at their Facebook page and on this guest post at Greta’s. And Naima Washington reminds us that the atheist movement at large is still doing a terrible job at diversity. It’s not just women who get shut out.

Image filched from Greta Christina's Blog.
Image filched from Greta Christina’s Blog.

It bothers me that movement atheism is still so damned oblivious, not to mention often actively hostile, to so many people. There are more faces that aren’t older white male than there used to be, and that’s good, but there’s still a dreadful monotony. I’m as guilty of that as anyone. My reading has been rather pale. I’m working to rectify that. This is what I can do: seek out freethinkers of color, shut up, and read. Very much like with women.

Time to look, time to listen. I like to go back to the past for our Friday Freethought, not the least because the past is public domain, but because the past informs the present. It’s harder to find works from freethinkers of centuries past who weren’t white and male, but it can be done, and their voices should never be lost. They spoke to issues we still struggle with now. They can teach us things we desperately need to learn.

Hubert Harrision is one of those who should never be forgotten. He came to New York from a working-class family in St. Croix back at the turn of the last century, came to agnosticism by way of Thomas Paine, and spent a lifetime educating himself. He was an unapologetic radical, a man who worked for a variety of causes, who wrote with a passion and eloquence I’ve seldom seen matched. I’ll have more to say about him, once I’ve had a chance to read more of his work. This won’t be the last time we meet him here.

In this excerpt, he explores the conservatism he noted in many black people, and the dearth of black freethinkers. He concluded that lack of education was a major factor (and we still haven’t solved that issue – you can do your bit here Education, of course, isn’t the only issue today – chilly reception, neglecting concerns, and too often completely ignoring the presence of POC all contribute to the paleness of modern freethought). He also knew that oppression can so damage the oppressed that they can’t fight their oppression, sometimes don’t even see it for what it is.

Hubert Henry Harrison. Image courtesy African Americans for Humanism.
Hubert Henry Harrison. Image courtesy African Americans for Humanism.

On a Certain Conservatism in Negroes

from The Negro and the Nation


It would be a difficult task to name one line of intellectual endeavor among white men in America, in which the American Negro has not taken his part. Yet it is a striking fact that the racial attitude has been dominantly conservative. Radicalism does not yet register to any noticeable extent the contributions of our race in this country. In theological criticism, religious dissent, social and political heresies such as Single Tax, Socialism, Anarchism – in most of the movements arising from the reconstruction made necessary by the great body of that new knowledge which the last two centuries gave us – the Negro in America has taken no part. And today our sociologists and economists still restrict themselves to the compilation of tables of statistics in proof of Negro progress. Our scholars are still expressing the intellectual viewpoints of the eighteenth century. The glimmer of a change is perceptible only in some of the younger men like Locke of Howard University and James C. Waters. It is easy to account for this. Christian America created the color line; and all the great currents of critical opinion, from the eighteenth century to our time, have found the great barrier impassible and well-nigh impervious. Behind the color line one has to think perpetually of the color line, and most of those who grow up behind it can think of nothing else. Even when one essays to think of other things, that thinking is tinged with the shades of the surrounding atmosphere.

Besides, when we consider what Negro education is to-day, when we remember that in certain southern counties the munificent sum of 58 cents is spent for the annual education of a Negro child; that the “great leader” of his race decries “higher” education for them; that Negro boys who get as far as “college” must first surmount tremendous special obstacles – we will cease to wonder at the dearth of thinkers who are radical on other than racial matters.

Yet, it should seem that Negroes, of all Americans, would be found in the Freethought fold, since they have suffered more than any other class of Americans from the dubious blessings of Christianity. It has been well said that the two great instruments for the propagation of race prejudice in America are the Associated Press and the Christian Church. This is quite true. Historically, it was the name of religion that cloaked the beginnings of slavery on the soil of America, and buttressed its continuance. The church saw to it that the religion taught to slaves should stress the servile virtues of subservience and content, and these things have bitten deeply into the souls of black folk. True, the treasured music of these darker millions preserves, here and there, the note of stifled rebellion; but this was in spite of religion – not because of it. Besides, such of their “sorrow-songs” as have this note in them were brutally banned by their masters, and driven to the purlieus of the plantation, there to be sung in secret.

And all through the dark days of slavery, it was the Bible that constituted the divine sanction of this “peculiar institution.” “Cursed be Canaan,” “Servants obey your masters” and similar texts were the best that the slaveholders'” Bible could give of consolation to the brothers in black, while, for the rest, teaching them to read was made a crime so that whatever of social dynamite there might be in certain parts of the book, might not come near their minds.

Lowell, in his “Biglow Papers,” has given a caustic but correct summary of the Christian slaveholders’ theology in regard to the slavery of black working-people:

“All things wuz gin to man for’s use, his sarvice an’ delight;
An’ don’t the Greek an’ Hebrew words that mean a man mean white?
Ain’t it belittlin’ the good book in all its proudes’ features
To think ‘t wuz wrote for black an’ brown an’ ‘lasses-colored creatures,
Thet couldn’ read it ef they would – nor ain’t by lor allowed to,
But ought to take wut we think suits their naturs, an’ be proud to?

* * * *

Where’d their soles go ter, I’d like to know, ef we should let ’em ketch
Freeknowledgism an’ Fourierism an’ Speritoolism an’ sech?”

When the fight for the abolition of slavery was on, the Christian church, not content with quoting scripture, gagged the mouths of such of their adherents as dared to protest against the thing, penalized their open advocacy of abolition, and opposed all the men like Garrison, Lovejoy, Phillips and John Brown, who fought on behalf of the Negro slave. The detailed instances and proofs are given in the last chapter of “A Short History of the Inquisition,” wherein the work shows the relation of the church and slavery.

Yet the church among the Negroes today exerts a more powerful influence than anything else in the sphere of ideas. Nietzsche’s contention that the ethics of Christianity are the slave’s ethics would seem to be justified in this instance. Show me a population that is deeply religious, and I will show you a servile population, content with whips and chains, contumely and the gibbet, content to eat the bread of sorrow and drink the waters of affliction.

The present condition of the Negroes of America is a touching bit of testimony to the truth of this assertion. Here in America the spirit of the Negro has been transformed by three centuries of subjection, physical and mental, so that they have even glorified the fact of subjection and subservience. How many Negro speakers have I not heard vaunting the fact that when in the dark days of the South the Northern armies had the Southern aristocracy by the throat, there was no Negro uprising to make their masters pay for the systematic raping of Negro women and the inhuman cruelties perpetrated on Negro men. And yet the sole reason for this “forbearance” is to be found in the fact that their spirits had been completely crushed by the system of slavery. And to accomplish this, Christianity – the Christianity of their masters – was the most effective instrument.

A recent writer, Mr. E. B. Putnam-Weale, in his book, “The Conflict of Color,” has quite naively disclosed the fact that white people are well aware of this aspect of Christianity and use it for their own ends. Mr. Putnam-Weale makes no pretense of believing in the Christian myth himself, but he wants it taught to the Negroes; and comparing it with Islam, he finds it a more efficient instrument of racial subjugation. The Mohammedan, he finds, preaches the equality of all true believers – and lives up to it. The white Christian preaches the brotherhood of man, but wants “niggers” to sit in the rear pews, to ride in “Jim Crow” cars, and generally to “keep in their place.” He presents this aspect of the case under the caption of “The Black Samson and the White Delilah,” and, with less fear than an angel, frankly advises the white Lords of Empire not so much to civilize as to christianize Africa, so that Deliah’s work may be well done.

Here in America her work has been well done; and I fear that many years must pass before the leaders of thought among my people in this country contribute many representatives to the cause of Freethought. Just now, there are a few Negro Agnostics in New York and Boston, but these are generally found to be West Indians from the French, Spanish, and English islands. The Cuban and Porto Rican cigar-makers are notorious Infidels, due to their acquaintance with the bigotry, ignorance and immorality of the Catholic priesthood in their native islands. Here and there one finds a Negro-American who is reputed to have Agnostic tendencies; but these are seldom, if ever, openly avowed. I can hardly find it in my heart to blame them, for I know the tremendous weight of the social proscription which it is possible to bring to bear upon those who dare defy the idols of our tribe. For those who live by the people must needs be careful of the people’s gods; and

“An up-to-date statesmen has to be on his guard,
If he must have beliefs not to b’lieve ’em too hard.”

Myself, I am inclined to believe that freedom of thought must come from freedom of circumstance; and so long as our “leaders” are dependent on the favor of our masses for their livelihood, just so long will they express the thought of the masses, which of itself may be a good thing or a bad according to the circumstances of the particular case. Still, there is a terrible truth in Kipling’s modern version of Job’s sarcastic bit of criticism:

“No doubt but ye are the people – your throne is above the King’s,
Whoso speaks in your presence must say acceptable things;
Bowing the head in worship, bending the knee in fear –
Bringing the word well-smoothen- such as a King should hear.”

And until this rising generation of Negroes can shake off the trammels of such time-serving leaders as Mr. Washington, and attain the level of that “higher education” against which he solidly sets his face; until they, too, shall have entered into the intellectual heritage of the last two hundred years, there can be little hope of a change in this respect.

Friday Freethought: “The Dubious Blessings of Christianity”

3 thoughts on “Friday Freethought: “The Dubious Blessings of Christianity”

  1. 2

    Wonderful. This was written, I’d guess nearly a hundred years ago and still rings true today.

    You present me with a wonderful quandary, Dana. I can’t decide which I like best, your nature/UFD posts, your geology posts, or those like this one. Fortunately you provide a great balance of all three. I can’t wait for the next episode of Paracutin.

  2. 3

    I’m always amazed and impressed by people who manage to overcome poverty and lack of formal education to accomplish great things. Even more so when they are people of color who have had to deal with racism, oppression, and segregation. I had not heard of Harrison, but that is some excellent writing – he should be better known.

    On a related note, I’ve been re-reading Detroit (A Biography), by Scott Martelle. It’s appalling the degree to which racial tension has defined the city, from very early on. This is in many ways the root cause of most of the problems plaguing the city today. I can remember a time when Detroit was a vibrant city, but even then there was a strong undercurrent of racism and segregation. Sadly, The D has never really recovered from the 1967 riot.

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