Black Atheists Explain What It’s Like to Be a ‘Double Minority’

Apr 26, 2016

By Brian Josephs

A study cited by the American Psychiatric Association states that 85 percent of African Americans consider themselves “fairly religious” or “religious.” Like many things concerning black life, this finding is rooted in history. The 60s Civil Rights Movement has closely been linked with religion: Malcolm Little didn’t become Malcolm X and then el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz without Islam, and Martin Luther King Jr. often has “reverend” prefixed on his name. Churches have long been the black community’s safe space in a Eurocentric nation, and even the Black American National Anthem—which, by virtue of being a “national anthem,” is supposed to be a holistic proclamation of a population’s hopes—has strong Christian overtones. So to most people, you’re not black and religious, because to be black in America is to be religious. Black Nonbelievers, Inc. president and founder Mandisa Thomas puts it like this, “The question often isn’t if I go to church—it’s where.”

So what happens if you’re a black atheist? Are you still black? Well, yes. To disagree implies civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates would be “less black,” because they are also atheists.

But the States are still centered on Judeo-Christian beliefs, so black atheists face additional isolation. Being a black atheist gives white believers looking to discriminate another thing to hate, because “Christianity is American.” Being a black atheist also makes them an anomaly to the black theist majority. And while the predominantly white atheist groups might welcome a black face, many black atheists feel their voices are obscured. Black atheist must find a way to navigate these issues while living in a country that isn’t exactly inclusive towards them.

We talked to five black atheists about what it’s like to be black in America and reject the the idea of a higher power. It’s worth noting that although they do identify as atheists, the term only represents a fraction of their worldview. Some also refer to humanism, a wider encompassing belief that roots itself in the potential of human beings. Here’s what they had to say.

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7 comments on “Black Atheists Explain What It’s Like to Be a ‘Double Minority’

  • What difference does race make when your family, friends, and community disown you because you’re an atheist? Atheist organizations that think it is better to segregate themselves by race should not be condoned. Atheist is atheist, period.

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  • The greatest minority of all is the individual. Until and unless we fully grasp that conception and properly identify, define, and defend individual rights we are hopelessly going to fail if we merely view rights from a tribal group, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, etc. viewpoint.

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  • 4
    fadeordraw says:

    OK, so I didn’t know there’s a Black American National Anthem and now, thanks to this article and Google, I do. But I did know that African North-South Americans enjoyed Christian-based religious celebrations and fantastic singing; and about Malcom X, Muhammad Ali and Islam. Still, the statement that, “85 percent of African Americans consider themselves “fairly religious” or “religious”, does make one wonder about the implication; as in, are all of the 85% somewhat following religious practices? Nevertheless, I suppose, the 15% of the population not being religiously inclined would have implications within certain communities/families in which regular religious participation is sociologically important, though the percentage of when that would be significant would be interesting. Also, this stat is a snap shot; is that 15% as growth, is it now 40%, was is 0%? My belief is that there are far more black atheists than the stat indicates and, therefore, other than the singing and the family, …

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  • Our ancestors shoved Christianity down the throats of indigenous North Americans and black slaves to make them docile. The natives have largely thrown off the yoke of Christianity, but black people have embraced it. I this very strange.

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  • @ alf1200 #1

    The composer Billy Strayhorn, had he not died, of cancer, and had he not been black and gay, would probably have surpassed Leonard Bernstein. If he had been white, gay and an atheist? No problem.

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  • I got on the Black Atheist Facebook site a year or two ago and it was the most interesting site. It had a slide show of “black scientists who aren’t Neil Degrasse Tyson” and it was great – had a bunch of women scientists I hadn’t known about.

    I think we – everybody – need visible black atheists because there is a strong presumption within and without black communities that all African-Americans are religious.

    I know atheists often share only their atheism in common but we should all support each other in that common interest. And I think it’s generally a good idea to widen your base of knowledge and point of view. Become more catholic haha!

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