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Blacks, Mirroring Larger U.S. Trend, ‘Come Out’ as Nonbelievers

WASHINGTON (RNS) Standing before a room full of fellow African-Americans, Jamila Bey took a deep breath and announced she’s come out of the closet.
Her soul-bearing declaration is nearly taboo, she says.
“It’s the A-word,” said Bey, 33, feigning a whisper. “You commit social suicide as a black person when you say you’re an atheist.”
Bey and other black atheists, agnostics and secularists are struggling to openly affirm their secular viewpoints in a community that’s historically heralded as one of America’s most religious.
At the first African Americans for Humanism conference recently hosted by the non-profit Center for Inquiry, about 50 people gathered to discuss the ins and outs of navigating their dual identities as blacks and followers of the non-religious philosophy known as humanism.
“We need black non-theists to gather in one place and say, `Look at her or look at him: he looks like me and they’re atheists. And that’s OK,”‘ said Norm Allen, a former Baptist and now the executive director of African Americans for Humanism.
A 2009 study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that African-Americans were more religious on a variety of measures than the U.S. population as a whole, with 87 percent of African-Americans describing themselves as belonging to one religious group or another.
Nearly eight in 10 African-Americans said religion is very important in their lives, compared with 56 percent of the general U.S. adult population.
“You renounce your blackness,” said Bey. “You almost denigrate your heritage and history of the people if you claim atheism.”
The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey found that those who claimed “no religion” — popularly known as the “nones” — were the only demographic group that grew in every state within the last 18 years, according to researchers at Trinity College.
Between 1990 and 2008, the number of nonreligious Americans nearly doubled, from 8 percent to 15 percent, according to the ARIS study.
Among African-Americans, the increase was also nearly double, from 6 percent to 11 percent.
Howard University graduate student Mark Hatcher says African-Americans are largely invisible in a secular movement that has long been represented by white male thinkers.
Concerned that black religious skeptics were alienated on campus, he started a humanist student group this year. “It is extremely important to get these people in one room and say, `Hey, you’re not crazy,”‘ he said.
Mia Fite, a student at Johnson & Wales University in Colorado, attended the conference for that assurance. She counts herself as one of the few non-religious people among her predominantly black circle of friends.
“You expect it from white people, but it’s rare for African-American people to talk critically about religion,” she said.
Many black American humanists agree that religious principles get in the way of effectively addressing the social ills facing the black community, including a higher proportion of HIV and AIDS cases compared with other races and ethnicities.
Diane Griffin, a former lobbyist for the National Minority AIDS Council, said one of her challenges while working to pass legislation was getting black leaders to encourage condom use.
“They feel that’s gonna say that they are somehow promoting homosexuality,” she said.
Bey agreed that black churches can sometimes be part of the problem, not the solution. “We need clinics, jobs, and schools in black neighborhoods,” she said. “We need proactive solutions, and praying and churches is not the answer.”
But for so long, the church has been the only answer, says Los Angeles racial studies writer and lecturer Sikivu Hutchinson. “It’s been a source of redemption, succor, and community-building throughout African-American history,” she said.
Yet the movement is seen by some black leaders as more of a threat than an opportunity. On any given Sunday morning, the Rev. Kenneth Fowlkes’ voice rises in dramatic crescendos from his pulpit at Kingdom Builders Church of God in Christ in Hanover, Md., rousing the congregation to clap, stomp, and dance.
“Humanists are encouraging African Americans to go to hell,” he said in an interview.
Such condemnation is why many black Humanists say the journey to secularism can be a lonely one. Engineering student Duen McLean, who once thought of becoming a Southern Baptist missionary, traveled from Florida to attend the conference.
“My family, my friends, my co-workers, my identity — everything was ripped away from me when I left Christianity,” said the soft-spoken Jamaican-American.
Jonathan, a 29-year-old Washington resident who wouldn’t reveal his last name out of fear of backlash among friends and family, said his lack of religion has been nearly paralyzing.
“If I want a second date or a job in the community, I won’t say I’m an atheist,” he said. “It’s like we’re fighting for our rights all over
c. 2010 Religion News Service
Copyright 2010 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

  • pagansister

    So cknuck…what do you think? My guess…you think the surveys are wrong…and all Blacks are really religious…it’s all the humanists fault…. Personally, I think there are some smart people out there who have finally gotten brave enough to speak out. Not a bad thing at all.

  • cknuck

    It’s my guess that would be your guess. You are as much in the dark about African Americans as these folk who in my opinion are just trying to get some ink. African Americans are as diverse as any other American group. It’s ridiculous to think of us as one entity, that’s like when white people think that all African Americans should know the African American that they are talking about. Some are dark, some are light, some speak perfect English and some speak a language you may hardly recognize. Some are Mainstream Christian and some are Muslim or some practice Buddhism, some are scholars and some can barely afford to go to high-school, some believe in God and some don’t. I could go on pagan but I hope you get a clearer picture of African Americans.

  • nnmns

    Well 11% is not so far below 15% and it’s getting better.
    I think I understand black churches were a place of succor and probably more in some really hard times, so some folks have loyalty. But unless they are providing some social value now they don’t deserve to be attended out of loyalty. And as for the religion, no doubt it’s as bad there as anywhere else: without foundation. So this is a good thing.

  • pagansister

    Guess again, cknuck. I actually know that all people who happen to be Black are a varied as those of us who are white (or Chinese, or Vietnamese, or Spanish etc). I actually know that they come in as many different shades as whites do etc. So, no, I don’t lump everyone of color as all being the same. But thanks for letting me know that. I understand everything you attempted to relate, even though I also know about language,and their different religions or lack there of. This article happens to be about Blacks being brave enough to actually say they are non-believers. Guess that was supposed to be a hard thing to do, given that the church historically is/was supposed to be a major part of the history of the struggle for rights in this country, and a refuge druing slavery etc.

  • cmaglaughlin

    @Jonathan….You say, “It’s like fighting for our RIGHTS all over again.” Funny…I seem to recall that “we are endowed by our CREATOR with certain inalienable RIGHTS…Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” If you ONCE had rights, and lost them, whose fault is that and where did yours come from? Now that you feel you don’t have them anymore, where do you think they are going to come from? Talk about between a Rock and hard place! The only “Rock” that doesn’t move is Jesus Christ. What’s your rock?

  • Heretic_for_Christ

    My rock is Ockflorp The Mighty, who celebrates his 811,719th birthday this week in his palace on Neptune, from which he rules the universe with absolute wisdom and justice, as revealed in the inerrant Liber Ockflorpium.

  • Sprocket

    All Hail Ockflorp.
    The only “rock” I need is the faith I have in my own decisions, my own moral compass and the collective ethics of my good and bad experiences. Looking to another source for that leaves people open to the whims and wills of others speaking “on behalf” of that other source. I find it sad that “religion” feels it has a monopoly on good behavior or moral superiority and that society allows that misconception to endure.

  • nnmns

    Putting your faith in a rock resting on the sand of total lack of reliable evidence for the supernatural nature, indeed the existence of a guy who (may have) lived 2000 years ago, and hasn’t been seen since, is not my idea of security.
    It’s interesting how, the smaller the evidence for something, the bigger the adherent’s claims.
    Me, I’m sticking with the Flying Spaghetti Monster but I might be swayed toward Ockflorp. I believe neither of them have incited problems for anyone at all. That speaks highly for a deity.

  • http://Oh? Georgia Dude

    This will serve fodder to those who already hate blacks. Why must these folks have their own group. Like any other minority. Blacks wants equality when it serves thier interest, but also want seperatism when it suits them, like having their own television network (i.e. BET) as well as their own racially identified beauty peagents and other things to promoting themselves as a group, while the man is told not do the same thing, because he will call a racist bigot. Go figure!

  • nnmns

    I fail to understand why anyone would hate blacks. In the US they’ve had a tough time due to their ancestors being sold into slavery by other blacks and bought by whites, they were denied a lot of things during slavery and Jim Crow and other tough things have happened to them, the fault of a lot of people black and white. But the black folks in America, generally speaking, have been more victims than not. And most importantly, in addition to all that they are fellow humans. So why would any sane person hate blacks as a group? And what’s unusual about a group of people wanting things for them? GD that was a puzzling post.
    Read more:

  • nnmns

    I don’t know why that URL got into my post. I didn’t intentionally put it there.
    And I am familiar with the natural inclination to (hate, distrust, …) people different than ourselves that was perhaps useful for survival when humans were tribal but is deadly now and which we all need to be fighting in ourselves and others.

  • cknuck

    H4c, quote, “My rock is Ockflorp The Mighty,”
    Thanks for that revelation H, I’ll have to remember that one.
    Georgia Dude, quote, “while the man is told not do the same thing,”
    Kind of not surprise people like you are still around, who is “the man” by the way? So in your mind African Americans should not own their own TV network? What else we shouldn’t have in your perfect world?
    nnmns you must have just discovered that “some” Africans sold their own people into slavery, lately you have been using that fact a lot. Trying to justify? I don’t want to stoop to that level make a list of what White people have done to African Americans but I’m so glad your African American awareness is not limited?

  • nnmns

    I was trying to be sympathetic but realistic cknuck. Nothing justifies slavery. And snideness doesn’t become you.

  • cknuck

    nnmns I wish I didn’t have to be snide but when you go through the trouble to remind us that some Africans did sell Africans to White slave traders it makes me feel like you are just being mean. Some slave were sold but most were just taken including the slaves that were sold the buyers took advantage of the evil men who sold the slaves.
    Anyway the church is important to our heritage as it was a safe place to gather except on those occasions that the Klan bombed or burned them. But we are not such a backwards people that we would discriminate against people because they don’t go to church. There was a time this may have been true but not in a mean way, but in a way that it would add to the person’s credibility if he went to church, especially a church that the voters were familiar with but that would be most Americans not just African Americans.

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