| by Raven Burnes
“If I were to hazard a guess about the future of black religion, I could not imagine it without according a more prominent role to one percenters” (William David Hart, author of “One Percenters”: Black Atheists, Secular Humanists, and Naturalists, page 676).
I read the above quoted essay recently and really enjoyed it. It identified black atheists as approximately one percent of the black population. I’m not sure whether that’s accurate or not. Considering the fact that many atheists are in the closet, either partially or fully, the number could be understated. But, assuming for the moment that the number is accurate, what kind of impact can we expect to realistically have on our theistic brothers and sisters?
I think it is important to remember – and Hart makes this clear in his essay – that black secular humanists, freethinkers, naturalists, and atheists have had a powerful effect on the black liberation movement. Freethinker and Darwinist evolutionary supporter, Hubert Harrison, who was known as the “father of Harlem radicalism,” affected the thinking and writings of several black literary and philosophical leaders, including A. Philip Randolph, Chandler Owen, Cyril Briggs, Richard B. Moore, Marcus Garvey, Countee Cullen, W.E.B. Du Bois, Nella Larsen, Walter White, Jessie Redmon Fauset, James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X (Hart 676). These notables, in turn, have affected many subsequent black leaders.
The late William R. Jones, who wrote “Is God a White Racist,” and Anthony B. Pinn, who wrote Writing God’s Obituary: How a Good Methodist Became a Better Atheist, are two more contemporary black freethinking thought leaders. These two men approach the subject of faith from slightly different angles, however: “As a secular humanist, Jones is less interested in debunking theism in the manner of ‘the New Atheists’ than defanging it, ” (Hart 680) while “debunking theism – that is, an epistemically driven desire to take down theism – motivates Pinn more powerfully than it does Jones” (Hart 682). Sikivu Hutchinson, author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values War, adds a much-needed feminist perspective to the contemporary black atheist discussion.
So, despite the apparently small numbers, African American secular humanists/atheists/freethinkers have played, and continue to play, a pivotal role in the struggle for racial justice. This should give us hope, despite the persistent caricatures of atheists in general, and black atheists specifically. I believe we play a key role in providing an alternative to “New Atheist” groups, which many (rightly or wrongly) find to be narrowly fixated on science alone, staunchly white male in composition, and seemingly unconcerned with the issues that directly impact African American communities.
Speaking of the atheist community in general, as Hart reminds us (688), being an atheist only means that one does not believe in a God or gods. It does not reveal one’s political persuasion, social awareness, level of sexist or racist beliefs, nor even the adoption of various other non-theistic superstitions. Therefore, as black atheists, we must actively choose to become visible participants in the fight for racial and social justice with or without (preferably with) the support of the larger atheist community. We dare not leave social justice and humanitarian activities solely to the church. As it stands, many African Americans do rely on the black church to provide the types of social services that are needed in our communities. Unfortunately, in addition to this beneficial role, the church continues to promote homophobic and sexist ideas. It also fosters dependence upon a non-existent deity who has not, cannot, and will not do anything for us outside of what we do for ourselves. The shift from “belief” to “action” is key, in my opinion, to uniting black theists and atheists in the common struggle.
The actions I propose are the same types of actions that any charitable organization would provide, but under the banner of humanism. The unfortunate stereotype which atheists of all colors are saddled with is that we have no morals. Ignoring for the moment the ridiculousness of this stereotype, in order to be heard, we must combat this false perception with the truth. A common saying among black people is that we must work twice as hard as any other group to get half the respect. Not only is this still true, but atheists have the additional burden of being a minority within a minority. Nevertheless, I am hopeful that the old adage “actions speak louder than words” is no less true today than it has ever been.
Let us pay at least as much attention to what we do as what we believe. If we do so, I believe our “one-percent” status will one day cease to be a hindrance, or even a reality.
Hart, William David. “One Percenters”: Black Atheists, Secular Humanists, And Naturalists.” South Atlantic Quarterly 112.4 (2013): 675-696. Academic Search Complete. Web. 19 Oct. 2015