Interview with Mike Estes October 9, 2007

Interview with Mike Estes

At the Atheist Alliance International convention, I had a chance to meet several prominent leaders and speakers in the atheist community.

One of them was Mike Estes:


Mike is a member of the Atheist Coalition of San Diego. He has given wonderful presentations on African-American atheists in the early 20th century. It’s fascinating to find out how non-religious the black leaders were at the turn of the century when you consider how religious most are today.

If you get a chance, download and listen to the interview (MP3) he did on the Infidel Guy show.

There’s also a wonderful resource site to learn more about famous black freethinkers here.

Here is my interview with Mike:

Hemant: What led to your interest in studying the freethinking aspect of African-American history?

Mike: About twenty years ago, I came across the February 1987 issue of American Atheist magazine, which contained articles on black atheists under the theme “Atheists of a Different Color: The Minority’s Minority.” Upon reading that, I was fascinated, and needed to know more. Up to that point, I hadn’t known about any other black atheists other than myself; after that, I felt less like an island, and more like part of an archipelago [smile].

Hemant: Which African-American’s atheism surprised you the most?

Mike: I would say James Weldon Johnson, (among his many achievements) the first black Executive Secretary of the NAACP, and a major figure of the Harlem Renaissance. He wrote the lyrics of the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which contains several references to a god and is now regarded as the unofficial “Black National Anthem.” His published writings include several collections of Negro spirituals and poems. His written works are very much in tune with the spirituality that is so integral to African-American culture, yet he wrote them all as an atheist! It’s only when you read his autobiography Along This Way that you discover his personal lack of religion; the last two pages of that work are the best succinct discussion of the topic I have seen thus far. I’m very much impressed with Johnson’s philosophical sophistication and self-assurance, reflected in his ability to understand and respect the spirituality in black culture while not subscribing to it personally. That’s something I try to emulate; he’s set a great example.

Hemant: Even in African-American history classes, they don’t talk about the non-religious background of black leaders. Why is that?

Mike: I think it’s not so much a conscious act, but rather a by-product of the prominence religion has in American culture in general and African-American culture in particular. There are many more ways in which the religious background of a person can manifest itself in historical accounts, hence many more ways in which it, as opposed to freethought, can get mentioned in conjunction with something not explicitly connected with religion. For example, people had religious visions, were involved in churches, were priests and ministers, and used “spirituality” and other religious concepts to express themselves. Thus far there’s no real freethought equivalent of these things, so there’s very little chance of a person’s non-religious background manifesting itself in historical accounts unless you’re focusing specifically on a person’s lack of religiosity.

Hemant: I often get the feeling like I’m a double-minority. I’m brown and an atheist. You’re black and atheist….does that help you or hurt you when spreading your message?

Mike: I really hear what you’re saying about feeling like a double minority! In terms of helping or hurting, it does both. It helps in the sense that, as a black atheist, I’m a bit of a novelty, so I get a little more attention and interest than I otherwise think I would get. It hurts in the sense that I get pigeonholed by many white atheists who want my thoughts on issues and topics concerning African-Americans, but don’t really ask me about anything else. Sometimes it’s hard to avoid the feeling of being “rented,” and for those not familiar with the term, it comes from Damali Ayo’s book and website How to Rent a Negro (no, I don’t know the author).

Hemant: Do you see atheism becoming any more acceptable in the black community in the near future?

Mike: No. As freethought and atheism continue to get more exposure, I think more black folks will find them acceptable on an individual basis. I don’t think they will become more acceptable anytime soon on a community level, though, because religion is still too integral a part of the social and cultural infrastructure around which the black community is built. I think that freethought needs to develop its social and cultural infrastructure a LOT more before it will become more acceptable to black society (and American society) as a viable alternative.

Hemant: What led to your own atheism?

Mike: Well, my father was something of a religious skeptic, and by his example he planted in me the seeds of skepticism, and a love of science. Then at age twelve I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which contains come scathingly effective criticisms of Christianity, especially as they apply to black folks. But instead of turning to Islam, as Malcolm X advocated, I began to question religion as a whole. Reading Introduction to African Civilizations by John G. Jackson gave me permission to question established “truths,” think freely, and break free of the paradigms imposed upon me by the larger society. Even then, it took another ten years for me to finally accept that, as far as I can tell, gods do not exist; and to develop a personal worldview that does not include them.

Hemant: Not everyone will get a chance to watch your excellent presentation. However, what would you like readers to understand about it? What pieces of information are most important for them to know?

Mike: I created this presentation primarily to share my pride in, and appreciation of, the extraordinary men and women that I mention—and many others that time prevent me from mentioning. They are true heroes and heroines whose achievements should not be lost to history. I would also hope that the freethought community might gain a greater respect and appreciation of the black experience in America; as a corollary, there is much that the freethought community can learn from the lessons of the civil rights movement, and apply to its own. And lastly, I would hope that knowing what these folks were able to achieve in the face of the most virulent kind of racial intolerance might inspire atheists and other freethinkers as we face the (much less virulent) religious intolerance of today.

Hemant: What can the atheist community do to get more minorities involved in the movement?

Mike: I believe that there is nothing per se that the atheist community can “do” to get more minorities involved in the movement. But, there is something that they can “be.” If the atheist community demonstrates genuine interest in understanding and respecting the experiences of black folks and other minorities and in supporting their goals and related issues, then you will eventually see more minorities involved in the movement. I don’t believe there is any short cut to this; it requires sustained, genuine, and broad-based commitment on the part of the atheist community. So, if the atheist community genuinely wants to get more minorities involved in the movement, I must ask: are you willing to be what it takes to accomplish that?

Hemant: Is your powerpoint presentation available anywhere online? How can groups who wish to see your presentation contact you?

Mike: No, it’s not available anywhere online, and unfortunately, I don’t have any plans to make it available online any time in the near future. If anyone wants to contact me about giving the presentation to their group, I suggest they do so via the website of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers. MAAF President Jason Torpy was kind enough to include me as part of the speakers’ bureau there. Thanks for asking!

[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

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  • Mriana

    You know I see so many superstitious African-Americans, and I do mean superstitious as in even White Christians can see the superstition, because the ones I know speak of ghosts, black cats being evil (my ex is a prime example of this and scared of my black cat) and alike, that I wonder just how they function in this world. It’s refreshing to me to find that there are some who are not superstitious. And no, I’ve taken an African American history class, for my sons, and they don’t talk about the non-religious, except for this one poet of the 60s. I’ll have to look up his name.

    There is one on the bus that I think is an atheist, but he hasn’t come out and said it. What makes me say this? He openly criticisize the Bible, the Religious Reich, superstition, and talks about thinking for oneself. He even gets on a soapbox about the Religious Reich, much like I do. The religious Black people suddenly get quiet when he speaks that you wonder what is going on in their heads. However, I find him very refreshing to talk to and very intelligent as though he managed to get a really good education. Unfortunately, this man is old enough to be my father and his grandson goes to school with my son. 🙁

    Now the religious Black people, as I said some speak of ghosts and alike, but they also get scared when people aren’t religious and ask how can you live life without a higher power. Some seem to be off the deep end with superstition. I even have to laugh at my ex and say, “That’s a strange comment from a Black man to say about another “Black person”” everytime he stiffens up when he sees Scarlette (my black cat) and makes dumb comments about them being evil or goes into this story about a man having a heart attack after he got a black cat. 😆 Sorry, but it probably would have happened anyway, even without the cat. Superstition is so bad sometimes among the Black Community, that you wonder where they get their education.

    Anyway, long story short, I find Mike Estes very refreshing and I would love to hear him speak sometime. Too bad his powerpoint presentation is not online. I’d love to see it.

  • Ellen Brown

    The Atheist movement can learn great lessons from the civil rights movement and would do well to heed those lessons. The bravery exhibited by myriad American blacks (among my personal heroes are Benjamin O. Davis (Sr. and Jr.), A. Philip Randolph, Daniel “Chappie” James, Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers, The Little Rock Nine, Dr. Charles Drew, W.E.B. DuBois and Emmitt Till, to name a few) and their role in bringing about both tangible and philosophical change in our nation, must be related to every new generation. I’d like also to acknowledge the millions of other black Americans whose names we many not remember, but who also rose to challenges most of us will never comprehend.

    It’s hard to be a minority in America– and getting harder every day. My hat’s off to black Americans who are out about their Atheism. I suspect that countless more African-Americans would come forward within the Atheist community if they felt safe, and welcome, in doing so. There is no doubt that the movement would be greatly enriched by their participation.

    My thanks to Mr. Estes for giving everyone in the Atheist community a fresh viewpoint and lots of food for thought.

  • As a fellow double, or maybe even triple minority (gay female atheist), I know I can relate somewhat to feeling like the battle is worse than simply uphill. =)

    Reading the interview with Mike, I agree completely that our struggle could do well to learn from that of the civil rights movement – let’s not lose sight of the fact that our movement is part of that continuing movement. It isn’t that once we fought for rights for minority race groups, and then we fought for rights for women, and now we fight for rights for atheists…

    Rather, and forgive me a moment of idealism, we have always fought, and will continue to fight for the rights of all people, everywhere, to live in peace without fear of persecution and to foster understanding and cooperation.

    We’re all stuck on this rock together (for the time being), so it’s basically a choice between cooperation and self-destruction.

  • There’s a rich tradition- off the top of my head, Paul Robeson, Richard Wright, Angela Davis, and The Black Panther Party come to mind.

  • A. Kwame Lazarus

    I have come to believe that religious indoctrination begins in childhood with the introduction of fairy tales. An innocent child is fed stories of good and bad characters that play roles in determining the outcome of situations they encounter daily.Their definition of right and wrong is carefully formulated at this delicate stage of development. This constant bombardment ultimately leads to a belief in an unseen force or foces that judge peoples behavior. If you think about it there is correlation between how a child views; say santa claus, and how adults view god and jesus. Neither sees them physically but in their heads (minds), however those who believe in their existence tailor their lives around how they think their lives will be affected (rewarded or punished). The child wants to please santa; the adult wants to please jesus (god). Two fairy tales tailor-made to program and control the gullible mind.

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