Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Pew Study--what can it tell us about the rarity of the black atheist?

The Pew Forum on Religion and the public life has a very interesting website full of data they collected on americans and their religious beliefs and practices. They studied catholics, jews, protestants, muslims, evangelicals and those who attend african american churches. The study was interesting to me because it highlighted some interesting aspects of the african american religious experience in america. Although I think that defining myself as a black atheist is somewhat arbitrary (I could just as easily have named it the gay atheist, but I didn't want to incite the wrath of god) I thought it was important to self-identify myself given the paucity of other black atheists in america today.

Being a black atheist can be an isolating experience at times. Of all the african americans I know myself and my partner are the only two atheists. The pew study on religion showed that 90% of people in historically black churches are absolutely certain that god exists (compared to 71% of the population at large). Additionally, 7% were 'pretty certain' that god exists while 0% classified themselves as atheists. Although the 0% is obviously not true it hints at just how rare black atheists are. Why are there so few of us out there?

The pew study has a very useful tool that allows for comparison of different religious groups and, somewhat unsurprisingly, african american church-goers rate very high with regards to regularity of church attendance (60% go at least once a week vs. 39% for the US at large). Additionally 85% (!) of african american church goers say religion is 'very important' in their lives compared to 56% of the population at large. It is easy to imagine that it is difficult to develop the independent thinking skills necessary for becoming an atheist with such a high level of consistant exposure. I've met many people in my life that are capable of asking the right questions and display a healthy level of skepticism but these flickers of skepticism never have a chance to grow into the seeds of atheism because the church life is the only one they know. I know that when I left home for college and gradually went to church less frequently I was able to separate myself from that particular lifestyle which was very important in my own personal journey. Many african americans are never in that position, even if they move away from home.

Daniel Dennet hit the nail on the head when he talked about 'belief in belief'. Basically, the idea is that people may not believe everything they say they believe with regards to their theological beliefs but that they believe in believing. I had a friend tell me recently that she was going to an ethics class where they were discussing the accuracy of the bible and she said 'well its just not in me to question it; it is what it is'. From her tone I gathered that, despite her skepticism in the bible, she was just not capable of challenging it. In my experience these types of attitudes are prevalent in the african american community and, considering the level of religious exposure african americans encounter, its easy to understand why.

Is it possible to toss off the shackles of religion when you are constantly exposed to it?


Bayesian Bouffant, FCD said...

Camp Out
is a feature documentary film that follows ten Midwestern teenagers as they attend the first overnight Bible Camp for gay Christian youths...

I do not understand gays who want to somehow reconcile themselves with a religion whose foundational documents clearly reject them.

Siditty said...

The black atheist is a rarity indeed, and to be an openly atheist black person is almost shunned. I do wonder why black people have embraced Christianity, when it is that very religion that justified their slavery.

relentless said...

MLK would disagree with you Siditty, and so would almost every black person. The way the church is used is of course, only a topic of discussion among skeptics. Christians only discuss the way the church should be used and black Christians think that the church should have been used to free them from slavery, but not to enslave them initially. Religion is just one of the many bits of black culture that are put into almost complete disarray when they are mixed with all the other aspects of black culture. Blacks must feel as if, rejecting the church would be like rejecting their grandparents (as Obama so eloquently explained in his speech regarding the Wright situation).

It's a damn shame. I wonder if Obama is a closet atheist. According to something I read, Obama's reading list consisted of authors like Nietzsche and Rorty. I was wondering if our host (The Black Atheist) would chime in with his opinion on this one?

Culturally Zoroastrian Nietzschean said...

I'm sorry, I just need to test if my new name worked.

Ramon said...

For years I've questioned how we could possibly believe the crap that passes for religion. Afrocentrists and Liberation Theologists have tried to sweeten the deal, but when the smokes clears, the Bible is at best acopy of stories told before. In fact, the discovery of the Rosetta Stone should have been the death knell for Christianity as the basis for every story in the Bible had its basis in ancient Egypt. The redemptive suffering of liberation theology makes as much sense as racial conservatives and Microsoct works. At some point there is a clear difference between shit and Shinola

dkan71 said...

Wow. This is great. I wouldn't go so far as to call myself an athiest, but I'm definitely not a Christian. I don't think the Bible is the word of any meddling God the father. And let's face it folks, Jesus isn't coming back.

I do belive in a creative universal power, but not one that's interested in any code of morality. That said, it's been very hard as a black immigrant to "fit in" with African-Americans.

I literally can't relate to something that is a core value for many of them and I have a bit of scorn for the Jesus-loving that is so prevalent.

It's made dating difficult and reading this post was actually an aha moment for no wonder I seem to gravitate towards dating white men. It's not the white, it's the non-Christian...cuz I assure you none of them were Christian or any other kind of religious for that matter.

QueenTiye said...

Hi. I may wish to link to your thread, if indeed you are open to other opinions. As an African American, I'm one of those 90% who is sure God is real, and yet, I'm not Christian. It gives me a slightly different understanding. Anyway - I have some interest in your pov about what makes atheism.

Siditty - just for a point of reference - black churches are described differently crossing numerous denominations, because black theology has always differed from white theology. Even now, with the integrationist tendencies of mega-churches, I suspect that black folks just think differently about God, Christ, etc.


sherifffruitfly said...

Gawd knows I heart Dennett, but his is a wussed-out version of the unvarnished Nietzsche:

"But the fact that the ascetic ideal has meant so much to man is an expression of the fundamental fact concerning the human will,
namely, its horror vacuii: it needs an aim - and it would sooner will nothingness than not will at all."

sherifffruitfly said...

And to hell with (yet another) white commenter telling black folks "what they should do".

Chivid said...

I dated a black atheist from Chicago once. The woman was, in a word, wonderful

Unfortunately, whatever trauma she faced in her overtly religious past kept her from being loved and I was unable to hold onto her.

I'm guessing the excessive religious background of many American black people stems from a deep rooted sense of social and political desperation from generations of social injustice.

I am reminded of the words of Susan B Anthony who said during her struggle for women's rights "To no form of religion is woman indebted for one impulse of freedom."

I wonder if black people ever had such a voice.

Terra Nadir said...

I had no idea how rare Black non-believers were until I became one. Not to minimize the trauma and rejection felt by lgbt folks, but admitting it to friends and family and dealing with their reactions has been very difficult.

As many have previously stated in various ways, there are few Black athiest because, well, there are few black athiest. Meaning, we are scattered and isolated, we are not reproducing with each other and we have created not alternative institutions to the churchfor, reflection, emotional growth, and community building.

Further, it is often the nature of freethinkers to have no interest in converting people. Which is laudable. The consequence of that however, is that it makes it difficult to introduce new folks to the fold. We all just have to tumble in...generally after spending sometime away from home.

J. Scott said...

Another Black Atheist Here,

Although I do actually prefer the term agnostic. That's also a testament to how thoroughly saturated my upbringing was in the principles of Christianity, and the warnings about becoming an unbeliever. I can't be disappointed with the fact that Black tradition has mired us in a high state of religiosity, but I am sometimes inpatient that so few of us seek to know the real truth.
I have been discussing the problems with Christianity with my wife for months. She usually changes the subject because she is too uncomfortable with the topic. Today, she finally admitted that she doesn't really care how accurate or real the Bible is. She has to believe in something. Good enough for now I suppose. Also, in response to relentless, I'm pretty sure that Obama is a closet agnostic at the least, and maintains religious appearances to avoid unnecessary political losses.

The Sin City Mad Baker said...

I am a black atheist. Isolated and weary. I lost my job. Family members. Just because I don't believe in god. I sit through a lecture week after week in my Psychology class, in which my teacher rants and raves about how good "god" is. Glad to see I'm not alone.

Adrian said...

My mother and I are the only black atheists I know (though she has a tragic reason for not believing in God), and it's weird to think that I was pretty much raised to be an atheist. My father is white and probably the most hostile atheist I know.

That being said, someone already touched on this before, but I think that religion is so interwoven in the African American culture because so many depended on the church and the belief in God while being oppressed for hundreds of years. The hope of a glorious afterlife following the hopeless existence of enslavement was as natural for parents to pass on to their children as it was teaching them how to walk.

Now that the nightmare of slavery is a thing of the past and the prevalance of discrimination is fading ever so slowly, I think the number of black atheists will increase. That obiously doesn't bother me, but it's not up to me to decide whether or not it's a bad thing. A childhood friend of mine, who was black, literally slapped me in the back of the head upon learning I was atheist, so he would wholeheartedly disagree with my position.

cassandra said...

then there are us black buddhists (atheist).

Tommy said...

Fortunately, I was not raised in a household that practiced any form of religion. Quite to the contrary, religion was frequently scoffed upon, and labeled as quite absurd. Most, if not all of my immediate family had religious beliefs ranging from moderate, to absolute. I tend not to identify with the term "atheist" for one practical reason; it should not be connoted as a given that their is a god, and therefore one should not be burdened with refuting, or denying credence to it's existence. Atheism is an existential term, allowed only to exist if a subjective, and divisive dogma is granted prevalence in one's static intellect. Everyone, should be permitted to be, or believe as they choose. Shamefully, most, if not all, practiced religion does not afford that opportunity.

Martin said...

Thanks for posting this story… and for the blog in general. As a keen advocator of atheism, I was always intrigued by an apparent lack of black atheists. They clearly exist, as they do in all ethnic and social groups the world over, but I believe it’s just a case of not being very vocal about it. Why is this?

Religiosity in black communities and families seems very strong, so perhaps there’s a fear to speak out against it? It’s a shame there’s no iconic figures representing black atheism, giving black youth a way out, and confidence to speak out for free-thinking… The only black speakers I hear are overly religious, including politicians and entertainers, who are always at pains to credit their successes to the divine. This sends the wrong message to the disadvantaged youth, be they black, white or whatever!

DorianWrites said...

We (the black community) have embraced Christianity as if it was ours from time immemorial. It's a choice, as is my choice NOT to believe. Sadly, this does not go over well in the black community, with family and friends changing their perceptions of you. For many years, I tried to discover this "belief", to "feel" what everyone around me no avail. And so, I have settled into the comfort of understanding a theory of things which abstains from either affirming or denying the existence of God. I guess that makes me agnostic.

Anonymous said...

I am also a black (gay) atheist. Technically, I'm mixed, but I was raised by my African-American mother and step-father, so that's all I [can] claim. My mother is deeply religious, and so was my grandmother who raised till I was 10, but I can never say I was Christian. I always had doubt as to whether there was God or that Christianity was true. Seemed like just another story.

I knew I declared myself atheist when I was 12. I was to scared to change the status quo, so I continued to pretend to be "Christian", and go to church. It freaked my mother out.

I'm out of college and financially independent. I go to church, about once a year so she can boast about my accomplishments to parishioners, but that's it. I guess one day I'll let her know, but I got I have more than one closet to come out of.

If it makes a differences, black males are less likely to go to church. But are likely to have the same conservative view point.

Anonymous said...

Well im not following to hell,being another Evil coming from Europeans,thats there thing,you follow Demon?Never heard of black atheist,you may as well join the vaticans in,or Roman catholic they don`t believe in the Creation of God either.

Anonymous said...

I am a black female atheist (luckily I'm not left-handed too) researching the black atheist community. Black atheist have contributed historically to the black experience and hopefully will continue to do so. I have also met quite a few black atheist in the past years so I believe the number is higher than reported. Glad I finally found this site!

Apanage21 said...

Actually - I love telling fellow blacks that I am atheist. It is so amusing to watch them ventilate and turn flips - just because someone has a different opinion about reality. It also helps to get people that are not worth talking to out of my environment. Atheism clears the air!

Velvet said...

Black female atheist here. I would love to ask a Black person point blank "even if there is a God, isn't it obvious by now he doesn't care about your Black ass?"

Surrendering your destiny to a Heavenly Father--and along with it pastors and church authorities--explains the very mentality that keeps us with men who abuse us, waiting for Whites give us reparations for slavery, and knocking our poor children upside the head.

The lazy thinking and lack of taking resposibility for your own future ("I'm just going to pray on it. The Good Lord will make a way")is a plague on the black race.

It says a lot when you worship the very same person who sits silently while blacks dangle at the bottom rung of every civilized society. This God is obviously not very concerned with our advancement or generous with his affection for us. Yet here we go, 90% of us praising glory to Jesus!! HMMM... speaks volumes about or gluttony for punishment...should have just stayed on the plantation if we can't even move past the idea of some phantom in the sky.