Friday, June 11, 2010

Not Knocking on Heaven’s Door:* Black Atheists, Urban America

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Late Saturday afternoon, like clockwork, the street corner preachers on Crenshaw and King Boulevard in South Los Angeles take to the “stage.” Decked out in flowing robes and dreadlocks, they fulminate into their mikes about the universe, God’s will and “unnatural” homosexuals to a motley audience waiting for the next express bus. Members of the Black Israelites, they are part of a long tradition of performative religiosity in urban African American communities. This particular corner of black America is a hotbed of social commerce. Kids who’ve just gotten out of school mingle jubilantly as pedestrians flow past fast food places, mom and pop retailers, street vendors and Jehovah’s Witness’ hawking Watchtower magazines. The Israelites have become a fixture of this street corner’s otherwise shifting tableaux. Exclusively male and virulently sexist and homophobic, they are tolerated in some African American communities in part because of the lingering visceral and misguided appeal of Black nationalism.

While the Israelites’ millennialist “racial uplift” ethos ostensibly fits right in to the bustle of this prominent South L.A. street, other belief systems are not as easily assimilated. Since 2006, the L.A.-based street philosopher Jeffrey “P Funk” Mitchell has been documenting his conversations with everyday folk on questions of atheism and faith. Using the handle “Atheist Walking,” Mitchell also conducts free-ranging inquiries into Christianity’s contradictions with a rolling video camera and a satirically raised eyebrow. Adopting the role of the bemused urban flaneur, ala the commentator- pedestrian immortalized by French poet Charles Baudelaire, he delves into “atheist spirituality,” biblical literalism and the paradoxes of faith. Mitchell is a member of the L.A.-based Black Skeptics, a group that was formed earlier this year to provide an outlet and platform for secular humanist African Americans. The Skeptics are part of a small but growing segment of African Americans who are searching for humanist alternatives to organized religion. In May, the Washington DC Center for Inquiry’s first annual African Americans for Humanism conference drew over fifty participants. Chat groups and websites like the Black Atheists of America have sprung up to accommodate the longing for community amongst non-theist African Americans who feel marginalized in a sea of black hyper-religiosity. Organizations such as the Institute for Humanist Studies cultivate African American secularist scholarship and advocacy.

With over 85% of African Americans professing religious belief, black religiosity is a formidable influence. Racial segregation, the historical role of the Black Church, and African American social conformity reinforce Christianity’s powerful hold on black communities. Indeed, I was recently told that I’d been deemed an unsuitable culmination speaker for a bourgie philanthropic organization’s young women mentees because of my decidedly unladylike public atheism (Perhaps the Israelite’s Old Testament shout-out to silent prostrate women would be more acceptable). Proper role models for impressionable black youth are, at the very least, skillful church lady pretenders with ornate hats in tow. Secular organizations that seek to build humanist community with a predominantly African American base and social justice world view are challenged by the association of charitable giving, philanthropy, poverty work and education with faith-based communities. For many, successfully emulating the strong social and cultural networks that have sustained church congregations is an elusive goal.

And then, there is the deep and abiding desire for belief in the supernatural, the ineffable faith-passion that propels some through the trauma of racial indignities and personal crisis. Yet, humanism asks why we should cede enlightenment and the potential for restoration to the supernatural. Humanism challenges the implication that the sublimity of the natural world, and our connection to those that we love, admire and respect, is somehow impoverished without a divine creator. In one of his bus stop monologues, Mitchell comments, “I want people to look at each other with the same reverence that they look at God and realize that ‘we’ did this, we made this happen.” The “we” represents will, agency, and motive force; qualities that many believers would attribute to God as omniscient architect and overseer. Non-believers are compelled to ask whether individual actions (for good or ill) are determined by God, or whether human beings simply act on their own volition in a universe overseen by God. Since time immemorial, non-believers have questioned whether God exercises control over those who commit evil acts or whether hell is the only “medium” for justice. By refusing to invest supernatural forces with divine authority over human affairs, humanism emphasizes human responsibility for the outcome of our pursuits. Morality is defined by just deeds, fairness, equality and respect for difference; not by how blusteringly one claims to adhere to “Godly” principles.

However, in communities that are plagued with double digit unemployment and a sense of cultural devaluation, notions of self-sufficiency and ultimate human agency may be perceived as demoralizing if not dangerously radical. As a child preacher steeped in the fiery oratory of the Black Church, writer James Baldwin recounted his growing cynicism about spreading “the gospel.” Lamenting the grip of religion on poor blacks, Baldwin said, “When I faced a congregation, it began to take all the strength I had not to…tell them to throw away their Bibles and get off their knees and go home and organize.” In Baldwin’s view organized religion’s requirement that believers suspend disbelief and submit to “God’s will” is a liability for working class African Americans. Religious dogma anesthetizes as it bonds, a dangerous combination in an era in which the proliferation of storefront churches in urban black communities is a symptom of economic underdevelopment.

Echoing Baldwin, Chicago-based Education professor and atheist Kamau Rashid argues that “Freethought is an extension and expression of the struggle that African Americans have waged for self-determination. In fact it represents a heightened phase of such a struggle wherein one of the final stages of ‘conceptual incarceration,’ the belief in a God or gods, is discarded for a belief in the human potential, for a belief in ourselves.”

And why, in a heritage steeped in the revolutionary thought of such dirty outlaw skeptics as Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Nella Larsen, A. Philip Randolph, James Forman and Alice Walker, would this be so viscerally frightening?

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of, a member of the Black Skeptics Group and the author of the forthcoming book Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and Secular America.

*With apologies to Bob Dylan


mike said...

so in the african diaspora, the african natives were stripped of their heritage and preached the values of Christianity. its not that those teachings were entirely wrong, but altered to makes those slaves believe [the white] man was superior. now yes there are imperfections in the Bible but ask yourself, where these imperfections purposely made? the bible has been changed, tittled, and altered for years. and whats the reason behind it "to make it more understandable" I believe that is crap and that is why it was so easy for athiesm to uprise. if there was no God then why is the cursive writing for Coca-Cola, in arabic mean "no Allah"? Flip the logo upside down and it has drastic similarities to the Arabic language. This can also tie in with subliminal backwards messages. You play Obama's "Yes we can" slogan backwards and it says Thank you Satan. Every president of the US has been a 33rd mason. Every politician that runs for president, republican and democrat are freemason. the illuminati want to make sure they can control the world as they do now. i can go on & on, but the media is always denouncin Islamic and Christian faith, always makin a mockery of those religions and Jewish religion. Peter the Apostle prophesized this in 2n Peter 2:1-9, and by bein an atheist ur only makin it easier on the illuminati. if u dont believe in God then wat do u belief in? karma? hunches? coincidences? how can u live ur life in fear like that and call urself sane. religions like mormons and buddhist ALMOST NEVER get chastised by the media but let a person who believes in God, His son Jesus, & the Holy Ghost, all hell breaks loose. before u join these afflilations that look to break down the natural love for God as yourself, why is the World helpin u when they wont help theologists?

Itohan said...

the comment right above me shows why we need more black humanists. If only we'd put as much critical thinking into rebuilding our communities as we do into looking for "demonic" and "satanic" symbols as well as the "illuminati."

Apanage21 said...

Ms. Hutchinson,

I am nowhere near as excellent a writer as you are (I'm working on it). I have been reading your material for a good while now - I have not read a bad one yet. You hit the nail - hard and beautifully. My problem is that I write the way I talk - I am trying to change that (maybe not). As an unapologetic Black Atheist, I don't hide my views and I don't let Christians run over me with their bullshit. There was a time when we needed to stop the nonsense of slavery and jim crow - this is the time for us Black folks to stop the nonsense of Christianity and Islam.

9-11-2001 was the day I became undisciminatingly vocal about my atheism (a good Japanese friend of mine - Seima Aoyama died on one of the planes), I have been "hardcore" ever since. I was vocal previous to that day - but discriminating. My attitude now?When YOUR beliefs are killing innocent OTHERS - fuck you till the day I die. Amazingly, I have not lost any business due to my honest responses when queried about my beliefs. Read the postings "A Christian Dialogue - Part 1," and "Have Respect For My Pastor" - these two (older) postings are me at full blast.

shutch said...

Ooh, Obama's slogan says "thank you satan" backwards? Makes perfect sense given his predilection for the purpos-driven drivel of annointed homophobes like Rick Warren. Check out the Beatles "Revolution Number 9." Played backwards that says "turn me on dead man."

Apanage, I look forward to checking out your blog and am glad to know that you're out there making your unabashed intolerance for theist encroachment known. In our Black Skeptics group meeting we were talking about the need to address theists presumptions frontally because of the often unrelenting personal propaganda that some of us get from believers in the community. I think it makes a big difference for black youth in particular to see that there are visible vocal secularist AAs because so many skeptical, critical thinking young people have been cowed into submission by religious groupthink in their schools and peer groups.

Apanage21 said...

Thank you Ms. Hutchinson. It has all been "frontal." Many of us HAVE been cowed by the "have respect for my beliefs" idea. Black people need to understand that I am a "Constitutionalist" - meaning that I respect your right as an American/human to hold any "beliefs" that you desire. But when those "beliefs" are verbalized in my direction, I have an equal right to regard them as "fair game." Especially if those ideas are limiting for or harmful to Black people. "Mr. Christian - you need to hear what I have to say. Listen to something different for a change - you might actually learn something. Because I can see from what you are telling me - that Bible has not brought you up to speed on anything."