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What is it like to be an African-American atheist
January 19, 2014 3:13 PM   Subscribe

In this short documentary, filmmaker Darrin Johnson explores the status of atheism within African-American families and communities, and meets some non-believers from California about their experiences with breaking from religion.
posted by Brandon Blatcher (27 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite

 
I've always been grateful that I, as an atheist, never had to struggle with that kind of cultural baggage.

My favorite part of that video was near the beginning, where the guy describes an argument he had with an ex-girlfriend over religion, where he asked her if African-Americans would have become Christian had they not been brought to the Western Hemisphere as slaves and she replied "Yes", that God had a plan for them, to bring them out of Africa, and so on and so forth. And the guy was appalled and disgusted.
posted by jason's_planet at 3:48 PM on January 19 [2 favorites]


Direct YT link. I found the lyrics from Greydon Square's "Summer's Ending" striking:
these blacks accept the religion of the slave master...
but they wouldn't accept it if you were a gay rapper
(Greydon Square being the interviewee mentioned by jason's_planet)
posted by XMLicious at 3:51 PM on January 19 [4 favorites]


Thanks for turning me on to Greydon Square!
posted by mondo dentro at 4:40 PM on January 19 [2 favorites]


One of the people interviewed in the film, Nicome Taylor, is affiliated with the Black Skeptics Los Angeles who have been doing some exciting community engagement and scholarship work to support high school students like The First In Family Humanist Scholarship, the Blacks in STEM seminar series, and the related Women's Leadership Project founded by Sikivu Hutchinson.

Through following the BSLA I also came across the People of Color Beyond Faith group that hosts video discussions (youtube page) and a regular twitter chat under the hashtag #pocbeyondchat.
posted by audi alteram partem at 5:18 PM on January 19 [2 favorites]


Interesting stuff.

Also worth reading: Allah vs atheism: ‘Leaving Islam was the hardest thing I’ve done
posted by greenhornet at 5:54 PM on January 19


Greydon Square seems cool. I hope he has studied his Charlemagne KRS: If your slavemaster wasn't a Christian, you wouldn't be a Christian." And watched films like Sankofa. As he talked about the convo with his girlfriend and thinking about religion and how one thing led to another thing, it reminded me of Rakim lyrics - I guess nobody told you a little knowledge is dangerous.

When he talks about how he loved Jesus Walks and so he didn't care, and that if Kanye can do that, so can he (with the opposite) - well yeah. That's been happening for eons in rap. I do like that he realized it though, because I can't tell you how many good raps and rappers fell by the wayside while they tried to get all messagy over weak beats.

That said, he's not all that great of a rapper even though I enjoy his voice. But I applaud his effort and hopefully he gets better. Because rap is a great, great way to communicate information and messages in a way that can stay on repeat in someone's head and community.

Back to the meat of the topic, what drives a lot of this is fear. I know a lot of religious black people who I know would venture down the path of thinking about and questioning religion but it is so ingrained into you that you are going to burn in a lake of fire for all eternity if you even think of questioning. This is basically the voice you hear.
posted by cashman at 6:27 PM on January 19 [1 favorite]


he asked her if African-Americans would have become Christian had they not been brought to the Western Hemisphere as slaves

Quite possibly, yes. There's a whole lot of Christianity in Africa that isn't the result of slavery. Has been for centuries. Missionaries, mostly.
posted by IndigoJones at 7:21 PM on January 19 [5 favorites]


Quite possibly, yes. There's a whole lot of Christianity in Africa that isn't the result of slavery. Has been for centuries. Missionaries, mostly.


See, that is a good answer to that question. And not the one that the girlfriend gave. Being given non-answers like "goddidit" to questions that should have answers that can at least be approached via rational inquiry is probably a reason why a lot of folks who were raised as believers turn away.
posted by sparklemotion at 7:34 PM on January 19 [10 favorites]


The atheist culture currently popular among whites is particularly hard to champion because abrasive claims that folks like Dr. Martin Luther King were either, stupid, corrupt or immoral by the very nature of their beliefs, and that the churches that organized people to protect them and champion their liberation, are not gonna fuckin' fly, folks.

Also, you may not think people notice when James Watson is trotted out as a rationalist hero and spouts racist shit, but hey, they really do.
posted by mobunited at 8:00 PM on January 19 [9 favorites]


Great video.

A complicating factor is the extent that religion is so integrated into cultural identity and sense of unity. I think the effect is much greater among some minority populations such as African Americans, who relied on solidarity as a matter of survival. Denying faith in this context is perceived as not only a denial of cultural identity, but a great disrespect to those who depended on religion to foster unity.

This displays the kind of power that religion holds over people, well beyond matters of faith. At that point, such passionate feelings are not based on faith or deities at all, but morphed into something much more powerful: humans committed to their particular narratives.
posted by 2N2222 at 8:23 PM on January 19 [6 favorites]


The atheist culture currently popular among whites

What the hell is atheist culture?
posted by empath at 8:43 PM on January 19 [9 favorites]


What the hell is atheist culture?

There's totally a specific irritating atheist culture out there. They're the people who will tell you how they know more about religion than anyone else, how they're super rational and scientific, etc, etc. They want to watch Richard Dawkins argue with people so they can feel smug. Is it most atheists? No, of course not. Is it a significant portion of the people who tell you about their atheism apropos of almost nothing? Yes.
posted by hoyland at 8:51 PM on January 19 [22 favorites]


What the hell is atheist culture?

Don't leave out the white part.
posted by mobunited at 9:06 PM on January 19


What the hell is atheist culture?

I'm guessing r/atheism image macros are a part of whatever he's talking about
posted by Hoopo at 9:33 PM on January 19 [2 favorites]


There's obviously at least a marketing demographic to sell cultural products like books and movies to.
posted by XMLicious at 10:12 PM on January 19


i guess it's the same as the chris rock bit but whoa wasn't expecting that
posted by atoxyl at 11:01 PM on January 19


The thing that many people refer to as "atheist culture" is often far more than justified annoyance at 14-year kids online who love Richard Dawkins. Quite often, the term references the failed gestation of empathy, humility, and curiosity towards the experiences of atheists who may not be white, male, or raised in a secular or Christian culture. The atheist/skeptic movements (there is quite a bit of overlap depending on the situation) are mostly comprised of white men from middle class households, who often fall in the trap of mistaking their wider spectrum of opportunity in society, for intelligence. One of the main results of this is a refusal to accept the fusion of atheism with social justice that is common among non-white atheists in America. As a black atheist, the homophobic, sexist, often anti-intellectual Christianity that surrounds and upsets me is still something I have no choice but to appreciate. For many people, organized religion is not just ideology or philosophy, it is the only viable source of job networking, affordable child care, assistance with food, housing, education, legal aid, and and so many more collective action problems that systemic racism and absurdly high poverty/unemployment rates often make impossible to solve through secular channels. For other atheists, mainly ex-Muslims, mainstream atheists like Sam Harris and Dawkins represent the same old racist jingoism under a kiss of secular sophistication. I've noticed a widening gulf in the past few years among the internet culture of American atheism. On one hand you have atheist groups who are growing towards alternative activism and outreach that emphasizes recognition of traditional left-wing solutions to the institutional racism that makes political atheism useless for all but solidly middle class minorities, a group smaller than most would assume. On the other hand, you have the moderate, and right wing atheists who rightfully assert their right to an atheism divorced from contemporary social criticism, but who rarely acknowledge this narrower focus for the intensely political opinion that it is. American culture and politics are fairly unstable right now as far as I can tell, and it is unclear which of these two groups will become the true face of American secularism.
posted by IShouldBeStudyingRightNow at 11:29 PM on January 19 [42 favorites]


I should also mention that for now, black feminism seems to be the strain of black political ideology whose interest most frequently aligns with that of minority atheists. This is opposed to black conservatism, black nationalism, or the much more common left-of-center but still moderate standby that most black figures these days still identify with. As a black man, the irony has not been lost on me.
posted by IShouldBeStudyingRightNow at 11:42 PM on January 19 [4 favorites]


For many people, organized religion is not just ideology or philosophy, it is the only viable source of job networking, affordable child care, assistance with food, housing, education, legal aid, and and so many more collective action problems that systemic racism and absurdly high poverty/unemployment rates often make impossible to solve through secular channels.

This.

I think for most religious people, the scientific accuracy of their creation myth or whatever doesn't matter as long as sharing that myth builds community.

Internet Atheism is a luxury for people who don't depend on a religious community, which might partially explain the demographics of Internet Atheism -- younger white guys worshipping older white male academics.
posted by serif at 12:59 AM on January 20 [14 favorites]


My experience of atheism was being the only atheist I knew of up until the age of 18 or so. If there was a community, nobody told me about it. I realize there's a big 'skepticism' community, but most atheists I know don't have any connection to it.
posted by empath at 6:27 AM on January 20 [4 favorites]


What the hell is atheist culture?

Think of it as Atheism™, as opposed to atheism. A subset of the larger, generally unorganized realm of atheists and general non-believers. It's usually characterized by a somewhat violent, usually arrogant, and kneejerk response to any mention of religious belief, no matter how benign, non-denominational, non-proselytizing, or non-confrontational. There is also a strong current of faith in technology to solve all things. To see this culture in action, try mentioning religious faith or belief in a positive manner over at forums like BoingBoing (and, often, even here on the Blue.)
posted by Thorzdad at 6:48 AM on January 20 [1 favorite]


Sounds to me like the 27% of libertarians--a group dominated by young white dudes--who are unaffiliated seem to be ruining it for the everyone else. Per usual.
posted by zombieflanders at 7:14 AM on January 20 [1 favorite]


The withdrawal of support (often replaced with animosity) that nonbelievers often face when revealing their nonbelief to their religious community is one reason for atheist communities starting and growing both online and in real life.

This is one subject covered in a recent hangout by People of Color Beyond Faith on coming out as an atheist. I wish there were a transcript, I haven't had time to listen to the entire thing, but the moderator Donald R. Wright lays out at the start the goal of the group which is to put social justice issues at the forefront of the secular movement and to provide a space of solidarity for people of color leaving religious traditions and for all those facing prejudice and discrimination. The group hosted another hangout a couple days ago with additional coming out narratives.

There can be a disconnect between the diversity of atheists (both today and historically) and certain popular narratives in both the public imagination and in academia. Norm Allen discusses the opportunities missed by black academics:
This raises another point overlooked by black academics. Since the 1990s, there have been scores of humanist and freethought groups all over Africa. They have hosted major conferences, spoken and written in major media, defended church/state separation, opposed superstition, promoted secular ethics, published newsletters, fought for the rights of LGBTs, etc. Similarly, there are humanist groups in such Caribbean nations as Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago, and Barbados. Why are black academics missing the boat when there is so much potential for badly needed research and scholarship in this area?

Black humanist scholar Anthony Pinn of Rice University believes that there should be an entire discipline dedicated to black humanist studies. Indeed, such a discipline would go far in demonstrating that there are important non-religious traditions in the black community. For example, Pinn has written about the secular roots of blues music, and how some blues musicians not only challenged traditional religion, but the very existence of God. (Perhaps it was not called “the devil’s music” for nothing).
Groups like Mandisa Thomas' Black Nonbelievers in Atlanta (along with similar groups in Houston, Orlando, Philadelphia and other cities) and events like the Blackout Secular Rally demonstrate a considerably more complex condition of lived atheisms in the United States than what gets play in a lot of media narratives.
posted by audi alteram partem at 8:35 AM on January 20 [2 favorites]


i guess it's the same as the chris rock bit but whoa wasn't expecting that

Yeah I'm gonna go ahead and not take his advice
posted by Hoopo at 3:19 PM on January 20


What the hell is atheist culture?

It's what we call it when we get together to eat Christian babies, silly!
posted by hell toupee at 10:20 AM on January 21


Black Folk Don't: Do Atheism
Black Folk Don't: Do Feminism
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 11:35 AM on January 21


Heh heh—in the Black Folk Don't: Do Atheism video, the guy from New Orleans says:
I wouldn't call myself an atheist, necessarily, because I think it takes too much effort to be an atheist. Let's just say I'm an uncommitted non-believer.
posted by XMLicious at 2:29 PM on January 21


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