Black Humanists Put Faith in Secular Life

Norm Allen, head of African Americans for Humanism, and Anthea Butler, assistant professor of religion at the University of Rochester, discuss humanism in the African-American community.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Most African-American families have roots in traditional Christian faiths, but today black Americans are also Buddhists, Muslims, agnostics and atheists. Still, other blacks put their faith in mankind and call themselves humanists. So what is humanism and how is it different than traditional religion?

NPR's Tony Cox talked to Norm Allen, who heads African Americans for Humanism. That's based in Buffalo, New York. And joining them was Anthea Butler, assistant professor of religion at the University of Rochester. We start out with Norm, who grew up in a Baptist family during the time of the Black Power movement.

Mr. NORM ALLEN (Executive Director, African Americans for Humanism): Well, I'm a member of the Council for Secular Humanism. We believe in the primacy of reason. We believe in the scientific methods of investigation. We believe that human beings can take control of their own destiny. That probably is opposed to, say, a type of religious humanism or a religion in general. So as humanists, we primarily are concerned with life in the here and now and what we can do as human beings to solve our problems.

COX: Well, Anthea, help make the distinction for me even more so, if you can, between humanism and, say, organized religion.

Professor ANTHEA BUTLER (Religion, University of Rochester): Well, humanism would have human agency as its focus. In other words, you wouldn't focus on a particular theistic type of being whatever that you might call that. For organized religion, let's say, you are organized in terms of hierarchies and groups with the top of the hierarchy, of course, being a deity, some type of figure that you would worship.

COX: In this country African-Americans are generally identified when you start talking about religion with either Christianity or Islam and to a lesser extent Buddhism, but not a great deal do you hear about African-Americans and humanism. Norm, what's your thought about that and why that is?

Mr. ALLEN: If you look at the statistics, most African-Americans do tend to be deeply religious. And if you look at the African-American community as far as humanist go, we tend to only be about four percent of that population when you look at most of the studies that have been conducted onto topic.

However, our influence has been strong, and it's been strong not only in the civil rights movement but it's been strong in general throughout the community. For example, if you look at the civil rights movement, you'll see that a lot of people will look at Martin Luther King and numerous other religious figures who, of course, were extremely influential. But you also have secular humanists involved, such as A. Philip Randolph, James Farmer, James Foreman and numerous others. So though our numbers haven't been large, our influence has been great.

COX: The question I have for you, though, is whether or not your message has been received in a strong way. Even though you have small numbers, the message - is that getting through?

Mr. ALLEN: Our message has been getting out there but we don't really have the resources that you'll find among organized religion. So we still tend not to be very well known throughout the community.

COX: Well, Anthea, you are a professor of religion at the University of Rochester. Put it in your expert opinion for us why humanism has not caught on with the larger African-American community.

Prof. BUTLER: I think historically what we could look at is people who've critiqued the sort of religious milieu African-Americans - Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois and others. This has been a longstanding question because of issues of slavery, racism, the inherent evils of society, sometimes it has been caused by people who espoused religious beliefs.

So I think the questions have always been there and the people have always been within the community. It's just that their voices have been sort of, in a way, muted by this broader discourse. And I'd also probably say the broader stereotypical notions of what African-Americans are. I always like to say to my students, when you look at a black person, just don't see a Baptist because that's not the truth.

COX: Norm, for the masses of people in this country do you find perhaps that humanism as a concept is something that people just are not quite clear about?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, yes, we do have that problem. In fact, some people within the humanist movement have said that trying to define humanism was like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall. There are so many different kinds of humanism, or if you will, humanisms. I try to do what I can to get the message out in a very clear way.

We have a newsletter and that goes out to various people who are interested in knowing more about what humanism is. So we have been able to spell it out. But the problem has been trying to get our message into the media, which has not always been receptive.

COX: You know, earlier this year, National Public Radio, in fact, reported about the rising appeal of books that might be described as anti-religion. Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion" is the best example of that. Anthea, is this a sign, an indication that this thought through this books is gaining traction?

Prof. BUTLER: You know, I think it's always been there. What Dawson and Sam Harris and others have done is made public the discourse in a certain sort of way. And the way I like to tell my students, I think this is the backlash. It gives the sort of theocratic way of government and sort of evangelical push that we've had for the last 15 to 20 years to be involved in government.

I think that people who hold to humanistic belief without believing in a divine entity would say that it's time for them to proselytize just as much as it's time for Christians to proselytize. The problem I think is that between the two groups the level of discourse at this point is more polemic than useful. And that's what I find problematic within the African-American community, because we've had to work through a lot of issues. I hope that our discourse could be a little bit more intellectual and not so much polemical.

COX: Well, Norm, W.E.B. DuBois, as a humanist - not withstanding the fact that he was one and he was obviously at the turn of the century and through the Harlem Renaissance - how much of the issue of humanism and how widely accepted or not accepted it is within the African-American community, how much of that is generational? Think about grandmothers who go to the Baptist Church and, you know, you can't talk to them about humanism, can you?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, it's very difficult. In fact, that is true. It does seem to be generational. And it seems to be even more so in other parts of the world. For example, if you look at Africa, you'll see that there are numerous humanist groups that are proliferating there. There are about now 60 humanist groups throughout the African continent, and they're almost all headed by young leaders, almost all coming straight out of the colleges. And so, yes, there is that generational divide.

COX: Anthea Butler, Norm Allen, thank you very much. It was an enlightening conversation.

Mr. ALLEN: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: That was NPR's Tony Cox speaking with Norman Allen, head of African-Americans For Humanism, also with Anthea Butler, a professor of religion at the University of Rochester.

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