Wednesday, March 30, 2016

10 Fierce Atheists: Unapologetically Black Women Beyond Belief

By Sikivu Hutchinson

There’s a pivotal scene in freethinker Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun in which matriarch Lena Younger tries to put the fear of God in her rebellious, politically conscious daughter Beneatha.  Beneatha, an Afrocentric atheist, has been mouthing off about God’s non-existence and irrelevance, proclaiming “Mama…it’s all a matter of ideas and God is just one idea I don’t accept…I get so tired of Him getting credit for all the things the human race achieves through its own stubborn effort.”  Lena responds by slapping Beneatha and making her repeat, “In my mother’s house there is still God.”

Lena’s violent rebuke of Beneatha is a caveat to all the uppity Black female atheists who’ve been rendered invisible—both by a white secular culture that only sees atheism through the Islamophobic lens of Richard Dawkins, and a black religious culture that uses heteronormative Christian respectability politics to silence and police women.  Decades after the literary slap heard around Black America, to be female, beyond belief and Black (to recast Hansberry’s iconic phrase) is still the ultimate betrayal of the race.  

Nonetheless, over the past several years, Black women have assumed leadership roles in the secular, humanist and atheist movements. But they continue to be eclipsed by white male gatekeepers whose narrow, often reactionary, view of secular practice and ideology has come to define organized atheism.   The challenge is compounded by the prevalence of Jesus-idolatry in mainstream African American culture (if you’re a rapper/singer/actor/politician who doesn’t publicly thank god/Father god/Jesus/Him for your success you practically get your race credentials revoked) as well as the relative dearth of scholarship on Black women’s secular practice.  How, then, do black women go beyond belief, while working within their communities as activists, educators and writers? And how do they connect their humanistic views and atheism to blackness, queerness, feminism, social justice and pushing back on white supremacy?  For Women’s History month here are ten fierce, unapologetically Black women atheists who are doing just that:

Deanna Adams is the author of the blog "Musings on a Limb," where she expresses her views as an African-American, atheist, professional mom on subjects related to the intersectionality of racism and skepticism.
“I believe the Black church has done great harm to Black women, especially with its misogynistic gender roles that demean us intellectually while using us as workhorses to further the aims of the church/pastor. My goal is to encourage other Black women to break the bondage of the psychological abuse known as religion so we can actively take on the dismantling of the white supremacist patriarchy, which remains because of our learned docility.”

Diane Burkholder is a Black mixed-race queer atheist shit starter, currently living in Kansas City, MO. She is a founder of One Struggle KC, co-moderator of Kansas City Freethinkers of Color and co-moderator of Kansas City Mixed Roots. 

“I describe myself as an ‘atheist’ to normalize the term among Black and Brown people as many are taught that atheists are white men who ‘worship the devil’.  As a Black feminist who lives in the Bible belt, I use my voice to create space for other non-religious people who are often shut out of social justice conversations because they are not ‘in the church’. It's also critical that we dig deeper and unpack our internalized oppression. We cannot replace white supremacy with Black heterosexism- they are all tools of power and control. ALL Black people must be free, not just ‘conscious’ heterosexual Black men. Intersectionality or bust.”

Bridgett “Bria” Crutchfield is an agnostic atheist, secular activist, secular leader, fabulously 40-something out lesbian. She heads the Black Non-Believers of Detroit group.
“I am a black woman, lesbian and atheist.  I fight for the underdog because no one fought for me.  My being an atheist is an integral part of my being and it'll be a cold day in hell before I sweep myself under the rug in order to assuage the masses.” 

Debbie Goddard is a queer, atheist, secular organizer, skeptical activist.  She is vice president of outreach and director of African Americans for Humanism at the Center for Inquiry.

“I see too many good people use religion to defend and shield their prejudice, bigotry, and inaction.  As a queer black atheist in America, I know that if things are going to change, then we need to question and challenge those religious attitudes.  And we need to take action now, today, in this world, instead of waiting for justice in some imagined afterlife.”

Laurie James, is an atheist “maverick” and accounting administrator

“I spent 30 years in the faith...after struggling with continuous doubt, I finally abandoned the faith. I thought god must be horribly incompetent, sadistical, or just doesn't exist. I concluded he doesn't exist.  For me, atheism means freedom; freedom to make my own decision, without the looming of a mythological god that can never be proven.”

Jimmie Luthuli is a public policy professional and a fighter for the rights of disenfranchised communities. She serves on the board of the Wanda Alston Foundation for LGBTQ homeless youth and is a member of Secular Sistahs of D.C.

“I identify as an atheist because supernatural creatures are not real.  More than that, the stories that surround their existence are all too often preposterous, frightening and oppressive.  Christianity was forced upon African captives who were kidnapped and enslaved in the Americas.”

Charone Nix has been a social justice /human rights activist for over 25 years. She is the co-host of the Lambda Radio Report on WRFG, Atlanta.
“As a disabled, queer, poor, feminist, atheist, it became clear to me that believing in a god was believing in invisible forces that work against my own interest.”

Liz Ross is a member of Black Skeptics Los Angeles and the founder of the Coalition of Vegan Activists of Color.

“I came to identify as an atheist after exploring the question of why there is so much senseless suffering – including animal suffering – and challenging white supremacy, patriarchy and anti-LGBT sentiment embedded in religious doctrine and our culture.  The experience also played a pivotal role in liberating my mind from negative reflections of myself.  Secular-humanist thinking helped me get a better sense of the interconnecting systems that create inequities in the world and reinforced in me the need to get involved in creating social change.”  

Mandisa Thomas is the founder and President of Black Nonbelievers, Inc.

“I am a Black atheist, and proud of it. Our existence is just as important to the Black community as any other, and there must be a reminder of the diversity that was always present. We can no longer treat atheism like the elephant in the room, even if we don't agree, there should be an understanding that we are here - and that we aren't going anywhere.”  

Ayana Williford is a 35 year-old social worker committed to social justice and empowering the black community.  She is a member of the Secular Sistahs.

“I identify as a Black female atheist by denouncing all forms of religious doctrine and advocating for other Black women to live freely.”

Sikivu Hutchinson is the founder of Black Skeptics Los Angeles and the author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars. Her new novel White Nights, Black Paradise focuses on Black women, Peoples Temple and the 1978 Jonestown massacre.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Just Give ‘Em a Little Jesus: Black Marriage Meets White Paternalism

By Sikivu Hutchinson

These days, a standard caveat from some religious black folk is that errant souls just “need Jesus” to straighten them out.  From white Christian missionaries to inner city street corner evangelists, “getting Jesus” and going to church have long been touted as the great antidotes to criminality and “bad behavior”. In their new book Soul Mates: Religion, Sex, Love and Marriage Among African Americans and Latinos, white Family Studies’ researchers Bradford Wilcox and Nicholas Wolfinger use this thesis to draw sweeping conclusions about churchgoing and recidivism rates among African American men, arguing that faith plays a key role in helping black men “flourish”. In a recent article in The Atlantic, entitled “How the Church Allows Black Men to Thrive”, the authors cite the higher levels of religiosity among African American men, claiming that “compared to their less religious peers, these 6 million or so black men are significantly more likely to thrive.” But it’s unclear who these “less religious peers” are (other black men? Non-black men?), because in the previous sentence Wilcox and Wolfinger note that non-black men are significantly less religious than black men.  However, although African Americans as a whole are overwhelmingly religious, black men have disproportionate rates of homicide, unemployment, incarceration and homelessness. In their data, the authors found that “only 4 percent of young black men aged 22 to 26 who attended church earlier in their 20s ended up in prison, compared to 6 percent who did not regularly attend church, again after controlling for a wide range of social and economic factors.” 

Yet, the 2% difference between those who did and did not recidivate is hardly a ringing endorsement of faith or churchgoing. And the suggestion that there is a causal relationship between faith and lower recidivism rates is simply not supported by the data.  One might ask— how is “faith” being defined? Is it “faith” in biblical literalism with its rigid gender roles and prohibitions on female sexuality and autonomy? And what social supports and employment options did the two groups of men have? What crimes were they convicted of? Presumably those who attended church were also beneficiaries of prisoner reentry programming and structured initiatives provided by church institutions, resources that were unavailable to those who did not attend church. If this is the case, then “faith” did not curtail recidivism—job training, educational counseling, mentoring etc. were, in all probability, more responsible.

The authors appear to confuse “faith” with social welfare provision, an institutional benefit that does not require religion or Christian morality. Because of the intersection of racial segregation, wealth inequality and capitalism, black churches are often the most prominent providers of social welfare in working class and middle class African American communities. Given these disparities, some churches may in fact provide a path out of recidivism because they are literally the only accessible avenue for cultural and communal connection in neighborhoods devastated by economic depression. But to suggest that recidivism is the most salient measure of black male “flourishing” ignores the insidious harm caused by cultures of sexual abuse, homophobia and transphobia which male-dominated churches often prop up and enable.

Further, recent studies have reinforced the secular thesis that religiosity does not determine moral behavior. Indeed, a study published last year in Current Biology concluded that Christian and Muslim children were actually less moral than non-religious children due to a phenomenon dubbed “moral licensing”. Moral licensing entailsdoing something that enhances one’s positive self-image and makes them less worried about the consequences of immoral behavior.”
Another claim the authors make is that “regular religious practice helps make black men more marriageable—a term social scientists use to explain why some men are more likely to get married than others.” Churchgoing, we’re led to believe, transforms offenders into upstanding, law-abiding citizens.  In this missionary scenario, the sinners get Jesus—some even converting to Christianity in prison—and foreswear a life of crime (as one of their interview subjects noted, God “met me when I was selling drugs in prison. So, you know, that was a big thing for me, knowing that I have a relationship with God.”).

The authors’ conclusion that churchgoing makes (presumably heterosexual) black men more marriageable is laughable—it would certainly do so if only because of the high numbers of single black women who go to church seeking eligible bachelors (Deborrah Cooper chronicles the downside of this phenomenon in her scathing critique The Black Church: Where Women Pray and Men Prey).  The moral argument that church converts “disreputable” black men into respectable, marriageable patriarchs assumes that being in a straight marriage is the most desirable endgame and outcome for black men.  According to this logic, black churches mold “successful” black men because they impart certain moral and ethical values. But, again, the cold reality is that while African Americans remain the most solidly churched group in the U.S., our communities are plagued with some of the highest national rates of intimate partner violence, sexual abuse, sex trafficking (the majority of domestic minor sex trafficking victims in the U.S. are black girls) and HIV/AIDS contraction. Not only has the Black Church failed to adequately address these issues but it has often sanctioned the sexism, misogyny and homophobia which drive these ills.  Thus, the authors’ endorsement of hetero-normative respectability is both an offensive caricature of social conservative bootstraps arguments and an insult to black LGBTQ folk who have been victimized by homophobic and transphobic religious discrimination. Simplistic cause-and-effect valorizations of “faith” without critical analysis of how organized religion can be complicit in structures of oppression that hinder black America are insidious. 

Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of  Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars and  White Nights, Black Paradise , a novel on Peoples Temple & the Jonestown Massacre