The focus of this site is music, but I decided to veer off that course to delve into something personal. There has been a lot of chatter in my social media circles about black people and atheism. This is a subject that hits very close to home for me because I am a black atheist. To the readers who aren’t black, this might seem like a trivial non-issue, but on the contrary; it’s a very serious issue within the black community and the African diaspora in general. You simply cannot say you don’t have faith and remain unscathed in most black communities. You will be judged negatively and very harshly. A NY Times article about black atheists that has been making the rounds in the last year is The Unbelievers. It takes on this very sensitive subject. I urge you to read it.
A little background on me; I was never a believer. I was a very skeptical and inquisitive child, much to the chagrin of my parents. I routinely embarrassed them in front of company because I asked questions that children weren’t supposed to ask. As a young child, I interrogated my mother about the existence of Santa Claus, or Father Christmas as Nigerians call him. I noticed Father Christmas was at school, and then there was another Father Christmas elsewhere. Right then, I knew he was a fraud. Surely, he couldn’t be at two different locations at the same time. Not to mention, one of them was smaller than the other one. In all the images, Father Christmas was always a jolly fat white man. These ones were black, and they weren’t fat at all. They were wearing padding. I could also see dark stubble behind their clearly fake white beards. I couldn’t wait to tell everyone the truth, but telling the truth made me a pariah. What I had to say wasn’t welcome. It made the adults and children alike upset. Apparently, I was ruining things with my “truth telling”. They preferred to maintain an imaginary world that could easily be disproved with rationality. I learned a valuable lesson from that experience, and I generally kept my skepticism to myself from then on.
Despite being baptized, I grew up in a secular home. My father is not religious at all, and he usually has debates about religion with my cousin’s deeply religious husband during Thanksgiving dinner. That has become the tradition. What religious family member will dad call out this time? He’s a staunch critic of creationism. He’s like a Nigerian Richard Dawkins. One thing you shouldn’t do is debate a man who is a lifelong academic with a Ph.D from Columbia. You will probably lose. To date, I’ve never seen my father lose a debate. My mother on the other-hand to this day, bless her heart, describes herself as an Anglican christian. In reality, she hasn’t attended Sunday service since the 60s. She’s at the very least agnostic, but she wouldn’t dare call herself that dreadful word. Which goes on to the larger point I want to make. Being an atheist or agnostic in the black community is basically heresy. It’s certainly not something black people wear proudly, so many just stifle their feelings. I know quite a few black people that go to church who deep down are non-believers, but they go because it is tradition, and church is a place for gathering and being communal. It isn’t just a place of worship. Proclaiming you’re an atheist is the fastest way to becoming an outcast, which is the last thing you would want to be if you grew up in a communal society. Black people are not a monolith, and that goes without saying, but when it comes to matters of faith, individuality is not a cornerstone in that aspect of black life. You’re supposed to fall inline and believe. Belief in god is the rule, and not the exception.
In the Nigerian community, church is even more important. In the US, people tend to think the evangelicals here are hardcore theists. They have obviously not encountered Nigerian theists. They don’t bible thump, they bible hit you upside the head. You simply cannot function as an atheist in Nigeria without scorn, ridicule and suspicion. The southern half of the country is devoutly christian, while the northern half is muslim, with an implementation of sharia in many regions. My secular thoughts would not be welcome in the south that is devoutly christian, and I know this from first hand experience. In the muslim north, I would flat out be an infidel, and in the regions that have implemented sharia, I’d be concerned for my safety. Groups like Boko Haram are making life there extremely difficult. It pains me to say this, but I am glad I am not there. I want no part of a society that sees fit to ostracize me for having the gall to be a free thinker. A lot of my extended family is religious, and their lives centers around their faith. Thankfully, my immediate family isn’t deeply religious.
In terms of dating, nothing has been overwhelming met with more negativity than telling black women you are an atheist in my experience. I was once on a date that was going quite well, until my date mentioned that she wanted to change her church and asked me what church I attended. I told her I didn’t attend church (note her assumption that I was a christian). She then paused, and then went on about how she knows some people who just privately read the bible and are non-denominational christians. I told her I didn’t read the bible and that I was an atheist. She had a look of sheer horror on her face after I said that, as if I told her I was a pedophile. She then said she could not be in the company of a man who was not “god fearing” and that she had to leave. I can laugh about it now, but it wasn’t funny back then. That experience made me traverse carefully on the subject of religion with black women in general, because if there is something many black women love, it’s jesus. Go to any black church, and I guarantee you that the female congregants will be the majority.
After many negative experiences with being an open atheist with black women, I softened my approach. I wasn’t an atheist anymore, I became “spiritual”, whatever that meant. Nothing about my lack of belief in a god changed, I was still in fact an atheist, but calling myself spiritual was more tolerable than the nasty atheist word when it came to dating black women. Even black women who weren’t devoutly religious were turned off at the mere idea of atheism. You had to have faith, even if you didn’t lead a life according to the tenets of christianity. You simply weren’t going to get far denouncing god.
This is where many black atheists are, whether it’s in their family life, their friendships, or their romantic life. You simply cannot denounce god in the black community without suspicion. Black atheists can’t outwardly claim that they are non-believers because of the serious consequences that come with taking that position. So they trudge along because they fear alienation. They attend church service, and keep their lack of belief to themselves. I completely understand their situation, and I understand that many would be unable to deal with the inevitable fallout that will come.
For decades, we have heard the meme that the civil rights movement is inextricably linked to religion, from Martin Luther King Jr., to Malcolm X. Indeed, many black leaders came from the religious community, but it is disingenuous to keep telling just that tale. Some of the greatest civil rights activists were self described freethinkers, and/or atheists, from W.E.B. Du Bois to A. Phillip Randolph. Saying that the civil rights movement was strictly a religious movement isn’t only not true, it invalidates the history and contributions of the many leaders who were not religious. That’s a history that should not be forgotten. Anyone who equates the civil rights movement with religion is a person that is telling me that they know little about the full breadth of the civil rights movement.
It’s unfortunate that a discussion like this needs to be had, but morality and justice isn’t something that is owned by people with faith. I am glad to see some push-back from black atheists. The internet has given rise to more outspoken people, who in turn are letting others know that they aren’t alone. For that I am grateful, and it is a movement that I will wholeheartedly support. Maybe the black community (and everyone else) can one day evolve to a society that doesn’t ostracize people because they don’t believe in sky gods. Maybe. I certainly hope so.