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Wednesday, September 16, 2015

A Black Woman’s Case for Atheism

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Kim Davis.  Ben Carson.  Donald Trump.  The GOP clown car.  The Planned Parenthood attacks.  The Pope’s misogynistic anti-abortion “forgiveness” gesture.  After a brief holding pattern, the resurgence of aggressive Christian fascist dogma and moral policing of women’s bodies is back on the rise.  The GOP’s full-throated embrace of its reactionary standard bearers—God, gays, guns and gynecology—are the heart and soul of a nativist revival that’s in overdrive.  Historically, when white Middle America felt most under siege “God” always comes out swinging.  It was true in the 18th century with the first Great Awakening and it was true in 2011 when Harold Camping pimped out the Rapture.  And it’s true now as white population growth declines and a so-called minority-majority society looms.

Thus, reports of secular America’s meteoric rise are greatly exaggerated.  Although the Pew Research Center trumpets a significant increase in non-religious Americans (many of whom simply identify as “spiritual”) the impact of this shift on public policy—aside from same sex marriage laws—is debatable.  When it comes to women’s bodies, science education and climate change, Christian Americana’s God is still in the big house, still a flat earther and still a raging sexist.

Which brings me to atheism.  Yes, the historic Black Church played an important role in civil rights organizing and social justice, much of it powered by black women. 

However, despite being among the most religious/churched groups in the nation, there are compelling reasons for black women to be attracted to atheism.  The stigma of public morality, fueled by white supremacy and patriarchy, has always come down more heavily on black women. Religious right policies gutting reproductive health care disproportionately affect poor and working class black women.  Christian fundamentalist propaganda demonizing abortion as “black genocide” vilifies black women’s choices and right to self-determination.  The HIV-AIDS epidemic in African American communities has been enabled by hyper-religious stigmas on black women’s bodies and homophobic, heterosexist views of gay sexuality.  In some of the poorest communities in the U.S., robber baron multimillion dollar mega churches all but use black women as ATMs.   And generations after 19th century religious orator and abolitionist Maria Stewart became the first black woman to preach on social justice and women’s liberation Black Church leadership is still overwhelmingly male dominated.

Yet, the most visible version of public atheism is that of superstar heretic Richard Dawkins and his acolytes—white dudebros who rage that Islam is the fount of all evil.  Every now and then they cheep in outrage about the anti-abortion American Taliban but conveniently turn a blind eye to their complicity in the way white Christians and atheists co-sign racist, nativist and white supremacist policies.  Comfortably segregated in their white enclaves they dismiss atheists of color who advocate for social justice, atheism and humanism.  Despite the organizing and writing of progressive atheists of color, these rugged individualists continue to be the atheist “tribe’s” official representatives.  They speak for the tribe in mainstream media; scoring big publishing contracts and tenured university jobs while reaping the benefits of white privilege in an ivory tower universe where tenured black professors remain a small minority.

The association of atheism with whiteness and white cultural traditions is one of the reasons black feminist atheism is an anomaly.  There is virtually no space for it in black culture, much less academia.  In her 1928 novel Quicksand Nella Larsen depicted one of the few black female non-believers in African American literature.  Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 Raisin in the Sun also portrays a black female freethinker in the character Beneatha Younger.  Not surprisingly, given the gender conventions of the era, both women are rebuked and punished for their views.  

Aside from my books and that of writer Candace Gorham, there has been little published on black women and non-belief.  Atheist/humanist scholarship is still dominated by white males who naturally have far more institutional acceptance than the few people of color in the field.  As an educator who incorporates humanist critique of religion and gender inequity into my work with high school students I’ve been slammed and excluded by narrow-minded religionists.  Recently, a colleague informed me that the real reason a gender justice pilot I’d developed for black girls was shut down last year by a fellow black woman administrator was because I was an atheist.  Evidently this person would rather have black girls go without culturally responsive programs than see them administered by an amoral devil worshiper.


Atheism doesn’t require constant jockeying to justify the inaction of a particular god or gods on questions of morality and ethics.  Believers’ endless gyrations in defense of the righteousness and omnipotence of their preferred supernatural representative(s) are sidestepped.  Human beings have the ultimate agency and responsibility for defining morality, ethics and social justice. In a nation in which black women have historically had little institutional control over their personhood, atheism—eschewing gods/goddesses/spirits and other human inventions—is liberating.  As the white atheist feminist and women’s rights activist Ernestine Rose once said, “Do you tell me that the Bible is against our rights? Then I say our claims do not rest upon a book…Books and opinions, no matter from whom they came, if they are in opposition to human rights are nothing but dead letters.”  Centuries later, in a “secular” country where the white nationalist backlash is in the ascendant, the Bible’s dead letters are still Middle America’s fascist literary weapon of choice.