Faith

So I’m Not The Only Black Skeptic

Writer Jamila Bey poses with others at an event for skeptics at Howard University.

Faron Coggins, Mark Hatcher, Neil de Grasse Tyson, Ayanna Watson and Jamila Bey are pictured at a recent event for the Secular Students of Howard University in Washington, D.C. Jamila Bey hide caption

itoggle caption Jamila Bey

I was so unattractive in high school.

Until my prom, I was dateless.

I had plenty of friends who were boys but they were all just interested in my much cuter girlfriends.  For a particularly late bloomer, such as I was, college held a desperate appeal.

I jumped in with gusto!

I lived with people from countries I couldn’t even spell.  I took classes with people who lived off campus with roommates of the opposite sex. Ever the “debate nerd,” I was delighted to find one of my first assignments was to write a paper on the quote attributed to Aristotle: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

I was accustomed to arguing either side of an argument at weekend debate tournaments, but to do so in class seemed delightfully wicked to me.  And though I was the lone freshman in upper level courses, I indeed earned an A.

And then I went home for a break (with a boyfriend).

When I admitted to my family that I was agnostic – something I had probably been since elementary school although I had just recently learned the philosophy behind my stance – I was met with wide-eyed disbelief.

“I can’t believe I have a child who could think such a thing,” my mother said while nearly choking.

My uncle, the prophet, “laid hands” on me. I gently showed him a move I learned in my Kung Fu intramural training.

My siblings were intractable in their insistence that I was simply trying to get a rise out of anyone who would permit me to.

I’d be challenged to explain evolution to people whose only arguments had to do with the continued existence of monkeys and apes or quotes from their pastors or our uncle. And when I wasn’t explaining this to family I’d have to clarify my position with the folks in the Black Student Union office on campus.

But now, with the help of the Internet, I know that I’m not the only black atheist on the planet. I also know that my experiences are far from unusual.

So it was with extreme delight that I recently attended the inaugural event of Secular Students of Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, D.C. The event featured evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (author of “The God Delusion”), and Neil de Grasse Tyson, astrophysicist and host of “Nova ScienceNOW”.

Of particular enjoyment was a discussion of the role religion has played in black culture and history. 
Anyone who has ever attended an event on a black college campus knows you can't convene without an opening prayer, and you can't escape at least half a dozen references to Jesus before the thing concludes. It was a big step that Howard University would host such an event, and the school should truly be commended for encouraging its students to participate. I was delighted to meet more skeptics of color.

I was also encouraged to talk with people who were in attendance to entertain, but perhaps not to accept, the notion that skepticism and requirements of proof of all claims should even be applied to the religious traditions in which one has been raised.

Thanks to this event, I’ve learned that Howard University offers a doctorate in Rhetorical Communications. I’ve toyed awhile with the idea of studying the rhetoric of religion.  No promises, but I already have an advisor in mind. He commended me on getting Richard Dawkins to sign my iPad and my feeble attempts at speaking Yiddish.

We both agree that Howard could use another atheist student.

Jamila Bey is a writer and freelance journalist living in Washington, D.C.

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