Black Atheists Say Non-Belief Means Cultural Outsider

For centuries, African-American culture has been significantly influenced by the black church and the Christian faith. So being both black and atheist can be a lonely and isolating experience for some. But, the largest-ever gathering of African-American atheists was recently held in Washington, D.C. Participant and journalist Jamila Bey shares her experience, and is joined by Norm Allen, executive director of African Americans for Humanism, which hosted the conference. Bey recently wrote about being an atheist for the online magazine TheRoot.com.

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TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

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But, first, for a couple of centuries, African-American culture has been imbued with Christianity. The church figured prominently in both the abolitionist and civil rights movements. And today in many communities, the Christian church continues to be the nucleus of black life.

So, what about the black nonbelievers? It's one isolating experience, according to Jamila Bey. She recently wrote about what it's like as a black atheist for TheRoot.com. But she adds that she found joy in a community of like-minded people, a conference of African-Americans for humanism. Jamila Bey joins me now in our studio in Washington. Also with us is Norm Allen, executive director of African-Americans for Humanism. Welcome to the both of you.

Mr. NORM ALLEN (Executive Director, African-Americans for Humanism): Thank you.

Ms. JAMILA BEY (Writer, TheRoot.com): Thank you for having us.

COX: Jamila, I'm going to begin with you because you wrote something in your blog for The Root that really caught my eye. You compared going to this conference with the movie "The Color Purple," and when Celie and Nettie found each other and it was this really embracing moment. Why was it like that for you?

Ms. BEY: It was rapture, to use a word that I guess, you know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BEY: ...my Christian brethren would tend to use. The beauty of this conference was these people who look like me, who think as I do, who are intelligent and love science and love reason and love rational thought and feel what I do sometimes in that our culture doesn't respect us because we don't follow the typical belief system.

Going into a place where everybody at least, you know, when you sneeze, just kind of let you be. It was fun. It was great. I imagine it was like what people who look for each other their whole lives - but you know, I don't know if the gentlemen would agree, it was like finding a long-lost brother.

COX: Well, let's bring Norm into the conversation to talk about putting that event together. But before you answer that question, Norm, maybe it will be helpful if we define some terms for the audience. Humanism, atheism, what is each and what is the difference between the two?

Mr. ALLEN: An atheist is simply one who doesn't believe in a god or gods, whereas a humanist is someone who does have an alternative to religion and someone who believes in certain things such as church-state separation, evolution, good science teaching and things of that nature.

COX: Now, with regard to atheism, does it have to do, I'll direct this to you, Jamila, is it particularly sort of anti-Christian or are you suggesting that there is no God, no Muhammad, no prophet, nobody that is to be believed in?

Ms. BEY: For me I feel that the question of God is just sort of irrelevant because I'm not anti anything. If you choose to believe in Jesus, if you choose to believe in Osiris or Vishnu, that's your choice. I don't believe in anything that can't be proven. I don't believe in the mythology of whatever people have come before me. So...

COX: No life after death for you.

Ms. BEY: No, that's not proven. That's not provable. We know that we stop breathing and we decompose. And I know that that's not the nicest, most wonderful way of thinking about things to people who have been taught that their salvation will come after they stop living in this physical life, but sorry, that's just not the case.

COX: So, Norm, why is this such an issue for black people who believe in either humanism or atheism?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, we believe you have to have an alternative. And so often not only do we promote a positive alternative to religion, but we also see that there have been some very negative aspects of religion that have been holding our people back for centuries. You mentioned earlier about the importance of religion in the abolitionist movement and in the civil rights movement, and obviously there have been many benefits to come from religion.

But at the same time, there have been many negative aspects to religion. For example, even though religion was used during the abolitionist movement to help free African-American slaves, the fact of the matter is that Christianity was used to enslave African-Americans in the first place. So, you have on the one hand a liberative type of force coming from Christianity. But on the other hand you have an enslaving force.

And so you have this dichotomy. You have this paradox that is religion. And what we believe that as non-religious people, we have to look at this objectively and talk about the positive aspects as well as the negative aspects. And it's hard for us to move forward unless we do so.

COX: Now, one of the things that you wrote about, Jamila, in your post, and that I'd like for you to talk about with us today is the impact of your decision, being an African-American woman, a wife, mother, in the workplace and these views are such that you feel isolated. Black people don't understand other black people who don't believe in God, is what you're saying.

Ms. BEY: Indeed.

COX: And that that is a real issue for you. So, how does it impact you day to day with your friends, with your family?

Ms. BEY: Well, my mother pretty much just says, you know, baby, I don't want to talk about that. I do get a lot of snide remarks that are like, well, you know, it will be revealed to you. You're just angry right now. And I go, you know what? Be that as it may. It's not true, but you believe whatever you want. You know, I didn't choose to become an atheist. It is what I am. And it is the way I think. It's sort of unfortunate that we even need to use that word. People aren't running around going, I don't believe in Poseidon.

You know, when I got to certain hospitals, there are procedures that I can't have done or drugs that I won't have administered based on what religious affiliation that hospital is. That's Christianity imposing itself on my day to day life.

COX: Well, let me ask you this, did you grow up in the church?

Ms. BEY: My mother was a Southern Baptist convert to Catholicism. I went through all Catholic schools from with the exception of a couple years in public school and middle school. My father was a non-practicing black Muslim. And so I already got a bunch of conflicting information at home. That fostered in me a desire for knowledge. I would get thrown out of religion class for asking questions.

And the more I learned, the more I studied, the more I realized what I was being told isn't what was actually in that book. And it led itself to me just being a skeptic by the time I was seven years old. And I just never got it. I never bought into it. None of it's provable, it doesn't sustain itself. And that's the way it is.

COX: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox sitting in for Michel Martin. We are talking about humanism and atheism within the black community. And I am joined by Jamila Bey and by Norm Allen.

Norm, I don't know if you know the answer to this, but are you able to give us a sense of how many black folks there are who are of like mind as you and Jamila?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, as far as the movement I couldn't tell you. But as far as how many African-American humanists there are, whether they're involved in the movement or not, most of the studies I've seen have said about three percent to four percent, some of the later studies have said between 11 percent and 12 percent. But my experience has been it might be close to three and four percent.

But even though our numbers have been small, our influence has been great. We've had a lot of very influential African-American humanists who have been involved in the civil rights movement. We have people such as W.E.B. DuBois and just countless others who have been involved in ways to uplift African-American people. So, though our numbers have been small, our influence has been great.

COX: Jamila, let me put another personal question to you. Because the numbers that Norm is giving us, he said three percent, which is really small, and because of the, what you have written in your own blog about going to this place and being so happy to be around others who feel and believe and think as you do, do you ever find yourself in a circumstance because there are so few African-Americans who share your belief in the nonexistence of God, do you ever have doubts because there are so few other people who think like you think?

Ms. BEY: Absolutely not. I don't base my intellectual ability on a democratic process. Just because one person may be screaming, you know, the truth, the truth, the truth and others don't see it, doesn't mean that, you know, I'm doubtful in any way.

COX: Norm, what do you do at this conference and how often do you have them?

Mr. ALLEN: This is the first conference we'd had of African-American humanists on a national basis. We hope to have them on a yearly basis. And basically what we do, is we come together, we try to strengthen ourselves. We try to show that we do have a need for a sense of community. We get together, we try to decide on how we're going to go about getting more African-Americans involved, how to get them to come out of the closet and how to get them to feel safe in doing so.

That's been a problem that we've had for quite a while. And that there are a lot of people who are coming off online. There are people involved in various chat rooms and black atheist talk groups and things such as that. But a lot of them have not been comfortable in coming out. So the first thing we want to do is to try to make a place for them, to let them know that it is safe to come out. It is safe for them to get involved. And if we can get involved, I think we'll be able to put ourselves in a better position to become part of the public discussion.

COX: You use the word safe. I'm assuming you mean, and I'd like for you to clarify, that you're talking about just where you won't be attacked verbally or emotionally, but nothing beyond that.

Mr. ALLEN: Well, that's what I'm talking about. In fact, that's something I pointed out in our conference. And that it's not the way it was a long time ago. I use the example of Hubert Henry Harrison, who was one of our great free thinkers, one of our great African-American activists and one of our great African-American orators from the earlier part of the 20th century. Back when he was going about talking about free thought and promoting the teachings of Thomas Paine and debating religious ministers, it was very dangerous.

You know, he was being attacked. He was having his meetings disrupted. He had policemen coming into his meetings, causing problems. And we don't have that type of situation today. But there are a lot of people who do feel ostracized, and they feel that they'll become more deeply ostracized if they do come out of the closet. So what we're trying to say is that there are others out there who think we do. Because there are people all over the country who feel that they're all alone. And it's our job to let them know that they're not.

COX: A final thing for you, Jamila. You said that you grew up in a household where there were conflicting religious points of views, from your parents. What are you going to tell your child?

Ms. BEY: What I do tell him is science is good. Question everything. He's only two now, but when he's older, I'm sure this will bite me in the behind. Question everything. There is nothing that you can't inquire about. And if people tell you to have faith, grab your wallet and, you know, come and talk to mommy about it and we'll find some more information for you. But don't accept anything at all that they tell you not to question.

If they tell you, oh well, the pastor says this or somebody tells me this or it'll be revealed to you. That's code word for we don't have a real answer, just go along with it. And we don't do that in this house, little boy.

COX: Jamila Bey is a D.C. based journalist and she joined me here in our D.C. studio. Norm Allen is the executive director of African-Americans for Humanism. He joined us from NPR member station WBFO in Buffalo, New York. Norm, Jamila, thank you both.

Mr. ALLEN: Thank you.

Ms. BEY: Thank you.

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