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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