African-American atheists represent a small but growing segment of American atheists at large
Most blacks, though, identify as religious, and the church is intricately tied to tradition, history and culture
Editor’s Note: Thomas founder and current President of Black Nonbelievers, Inc. She also serves on the boards for Foundation Beyond Belief and the Secular Coalition for America. The opinions expressed in this column belong to Thomas.
I am atheist – and I am black.
Yes, we exist – even if many in the media sometimes don’t notice us. In a CNN special that aired on Tuesday, for example, people of color were not as well-represented as American atheism’s more familiar face: You know, white males.
In fact, African-American atheists represent a still small – though growing – segment of American atheists at large. Does this mean that blacks and other minorities generally just don’t gravitate towards nonbelief, or are there other factors which keep us hidden?
There is a harsh truth to face here.
Most blacks identify as religious. Belief in God is touted with pride, and the church is intricately tied to tradition, history and culture. It is not uncommon to assume that I attend services as a black woman. The question often isn’t if I go to church – it’s where. And even if one doesn’t go to church, surely they still have faith – because our people have endured and overcome so much hardship that it had to be the work of a god.
All of this makes the words “black” and “atheist” hard for many to imagine in the same sentence.
It can be extremely difficult to discuss religion objectively in the black community. Many have social, emotional and financial stakes invested in this institution, so for one to even say they have doubts is like committing treason.
To openly identify as an atheist in the midst of heavy religious influence can be next to impossible, and good luck finding other blacks who also don’t believe. It is very important to note however, that the Internet has made it easier for black atheists to find each other, and there is a large community of us online.
Though I was raised secular – a rarity in my community – I’ve had to endure ostracism from family and friends as a result of openly identifying as an atheist. However, my journey is far from tragic. In founding my organization, Black Nonbelievers, in 2011, I have been fortunate to connect with others who were either raised secular like myself, or who were brought up extremely religious and left it behind. And they have done so bravely, defying the perception and expectation that all blacks blindly accept religion.
My experience in the secular community as a black atheist has ranged from feeling totally welcome to feeling totally isolated, and even ignored.
On the one hand, there is common ground shared – our nonbelief and even discontent with religion unites us. On the other hand, there is a notion that since we share this common ground that there are no other issues to address. The lack of people of color at secular events is a problem – partly because there is unawareness of such events existing, but also because there is limited effort placed in accommodation and care. We are sometimes treated as if we are invisible, or even as an afterthought – which does not make the few persons of color feel welcome.
Fortunately, all is not lost. Progress has been made. There are now a number of secular groups that have helped to bring about more diverse representation for people of color, women and children.
There is a more concentrated focus on support for the LGBT demographic, as well for others who come from marginalized and disfranchised backgrounds. There are support systems for people who have lost loved ones, yet they have no religious affiliation. Moreover, there is a tremendous amount of literary and artistic talent. Such representation is now reflected at organized events, in leadership, as well as in media coverage.
While the number of visible minority atheists is still small, we are here and we’re here to stay.
We will continue to grow, in both the black and secular communities. We can lead the charge for this change. The more we make our presence known, the better our chances of working together to turn around the disparities we face, and bolster the recognition we so rightly deserve. We are not alone.