Atheism in “Raisin in the Sun” August 10, 2009

Atheism in “Raisin in the Sun”

I remember reading Lorraine Hansberry‘s “Raisin in the Sun” the summer before I entered high school. Which means I read it before I became an atheist.

Maybe that’s why the following passage didn’t stick out in my mind (video below) back then. A reader brought it to my attention recently, though, and I’m just in awe of it…

Mama (Kindly): ‘Course you going to be a doctor, honey, God willing.

Beneatha (Drily): God hasn’t got a thing to do with it.

Mama: Beneatha — that just wasn’t necessary.

Beneatha: Well — neither is God. I get sick of hearing about God.

Mama: Beneatha!

Beneatha: I mean it! I’m just tired of hearing about God all the time. What has He got to do with anything? Does He pay tuition?

Mama: You ’bout to get your fresh little jaw slapped!

Ruth: That’s just what she needs, all right!

Beneatha: Why? Why can’t I say what I want to around here, like everybody else?

Mama: It don’t sound nice for a young girl to say things like that — you wasn’t brought up that way. Me and your father went to trouble to get you and Brother to church every Sunday.

Beneatha: Mama, you don’t understand. It’s all a matter of ideas, and God is just one idea I don’t accept. It’s not important. I am not going out and be immoral or commit crimes because I don’t believe in God. I don’t even think about it. It’s just that I get tired of Him getting credit for all the things the human race achieves through its own stubborn effort. There simple is no blasted God — there is only man and it is he who makes miracles!

(MAMA absorbs this speech, studies her daughter and rises slowly and crosses to BENEATHA and slaps her powerfully across the face. After, there is only silence and the daughter drops her eyes from her mother’s face, and MAMA is very tall before her)

Mama: Now — you say after me, in my mother’s house there is still God. (There is a long pause and BENEATHA stares at the floor wordlessly. MAMA repeats the phrase with precision and cool emotion) In my mother’s house there is still God.

Beneatha: In my mother’s house there is still God. (A long pause)

I’m sure the slap is what Jesus would’ve done.

Maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised to see this sort of dialogue, especially in a play about African-Americans. Though the play debuted in 1959, there’s a proud legacy of Humanism in black America in the early part of the 20th century.

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  • Richard Wade

    “Now, what’s yo name agin’ boy?”
    “Kunta Kinte! (Slash!) “Aieeeee!!”
    “Yo name’s Toby!” (Slash! Slash!)
    “Aaaaghh! …Kunta…Kin…te!”
    (Slash! Slash! Slash! Slash!)
    Aaahhhggh! Aaa… aaaaahg…ohhhh.”
    “Now, one mo’ time, what’s yo name!?”

  • Valdyr

    But really, isn’t any level of “corrective” physical abuse justifiable within the religious mindset, if its intent is to save someone’s eternal soul from Hell? I have yet to get a satisfactory reply from a religionist when this point is brought up.

    Eternity is more important than this meager, miserable earthly life, right? So what’s wrong with savagely beating your recalcitrant children until they accept the proper views on matters of spirituality? All the abuser needs to do is genuinely seek forgiveness from Jesus afterwards and everyone’s golden.

  • I had totally forgotten about that passage. I read Raisin in the Sun in (Catholic, though I had been protestant) High School after I had become (acknowledged to myself that I was?) an atheist. (I don’t remember when exactly I read it, but I declared myself an atheist my freshman year… in a video that was later shown in my religion class…) I definitely now recall feeling a little more confident in myself and my convictions when I read that. It’s always good to know you’re not alone, especially when you’re in the middle of alienating everyone and everything you know.

  • Freethought Radio played this clip on air a couple of years ago — nice to see the visual portions.

  • Kayla

    That scene was SO much more powerful in the original movie. Everytime I’d seen it as a child, it would shake me, emotionally. I would always wonder to myself if my own mom would have that reaction to my atheism.

  • medussa

    Very, very depressing.
    What a way to convince your child about morality superiority of religion.

  • Dan W

    What a pathetic mother. Basically “say you believe in God or I’ll slap you!” As if the daughter couldn’t have lied. And slapping her, yeah, that’s sure to make her want to join your religion. Riiiight.

  • Delphine

    Meh, I would’ve slapped her back. My mother quickly learned it’s not good to hit her adult kids after that.

  • Moose Cooper

    I relate to that clip very well. When I came out to my parents about my Atheism, I knew in my heart that I would have to face a huge wall of emotions from both my mother and father. After waiting for years and until I couldn’t take not telling them any more the day came and I spoke out. Their reaction was similar but they didn’t hit me. Knowing if I did express my doubts at an earlier age, I would have gotten a spanking and sent to church as apart of my punishment.

    On a much larger scale, many African-Americans are religious. For some, Christianity was beaten into them, other were simply converted into the religion as I was from Islam. But the roots of Christianity in the African American community are strong, dating back to out time as slaves. We used the religion to help guide us to overcome many tough social challenges. Witch is deeply ingrained into African-American or so said “Black” Culture that often times, when people do speak out against the religion that the response is to exile the person, make them seem as if they do not know what they are talking about, have them seem or feel isolated or rarely physically attack the person unless they are apart of your family.

    I can nearly write a novel about African American and Christianity but I’ll save it for later.

  • aina jaharah

    I am a black Atheist who has lived out this scene!

    I was 12 when I first started to question religion. My mother is a sunday school teacher, head usher and a greeter. My step-father is a minister.

    One sunday, I defiantly announced that I was not going to church. I got threatened with a beating. I was not afraid of physical punishment from my mother; what worried me was the pure white-hot rage in her. My 12 year-old mind was sure she’d keel over from being so angry. I loved my mother and I didn’t want her to die. But it did raise the question of: Why is it so important for me to go to church that if I don’t I’d be subjected to abuse? That’s not love.

    So I went to church with many, many questions. That moment in my childhood was the beginning of my atheism.

    My mother is still an xtian, divorced from my step-father. She has admitted that threatening me with a whipping “probably” was not the best way to go. That’s all she’ll say about my atheism, which is fine with me.

  • I think you’re grossly exaggerating the prevalence of black atheists.

    Blacks tend to be the most religious ethnic group in this country.

    I doubt any group surpasses them in observance and belief.

  • medussa

    Who is exaggerating the prevalence of black atheists, OneSTDV?
    No one here made any reference to any numbers, percentages or anything else.
    Unless you don’t believe that black atheists exist at all? In spite of evidence to the contrary (for starters, the posts above)?

  • Well I’m convinced. Proof of God’s existence delivered decisively and with force. Irrefutable.

  • AnonyMouse

    If anyone ever wants to know why I compulsively lie to my parents on a near-daily basis: this is why. Another time, another place, another race, and that woman is my mother. She never slapped me, but she put me through emotional blackmail like you wouldn’t believe.

  • Although you may not remember it directly, Hemant, it seems likely that it is a meme that colored your later direction. It fed a building vision, perhaps, that became your atheism.

  • CybrgnX

    Its amazing how the religious have to convince YOU that there is a gOd and just do their own thing and believe. They HAVE to shovel it up everyone else’s ass to be convinced.
    This does illustrate why so many women can’t just ‘QUIT’ a religion without some personal sacrifice.
    And I admit to going the easy way out, I did not show my atheistism to the family until after my Moms death (cancer). And during her last I did everything including praying with her to help give her some comfort and happiness. So the girl giving into mama is understandable.

  • Q-Squared

    Man, this sounds exactly like what would happen if I revealed my atheism to my family. Well, not “Exactly”- my mom’d probably throw in an exorcism or two to “cleanse my spirit”.

    ACTUALLY- this semi-happened today, when I refused to go on a whole “raise your hands, speak in tongues, and praise Jeebus” kind of thing. No violence, though- just a bunch of angry lectures, glares, and such.

    I’m still amazed by how much devout Christians freak out when one person doesn’t praise the Jeebs as much as they do, or not at all. It’s like they’re afraid of catching less-devout Christianess or even *gasp* ATHEISM.

  • John L

    I thankfully was raised by the state of California has a foster child so thus my parents were not allowed to enforce their religion on me. They tried a few different religions to make sure of my beliefs, but eventually gave up. I wish all parents treated their children in this way with every aspect of growing up and discovering the world. It’s too often that parents pass on their narrow minded views of the world to their children and enforce.

  • Thank you for reminding me of this. I remember being very moved by this scene when I read it years ago. Only now, having “come out” does it seem to really emotionally resonate with me.

    Anyone of my family on Facebook or who have read my blog know I’m an atheist, but I haven’t spelled it out for my mother. The revelation that I wasn’t christian and wasn’t going to have my child baptised was sufficient to end all conversations about religion. I think she’s afraid to hear me say the “a” word.

  • yoyo

    If Mama doesn’t slap us, then life eventually will. Sin doesn’t hurt God, it hurts people. It’s good to try and stop harmful behaviors before karma kicks one in the rear, no?

    Maybe it was a love-slap.


    Most ppl in tough situations, like Mama, need a myth to help them keep a happy brain. Without this myth, Mama could be in danger of a desolate reality, thus Beneatha could be slapping Mama’s cosmology, thus unknowingly causing her mother subtle violence. Myth can be scientific, too! Modern brain doctors are indeed trendy. Cheers!

  • Aaron Peacher

    I’m religous, there you can stop reading, go ahead ignore the rest of this.

    Why is it, that so many who express the idea of there not being a god seem to look at us church going types as delusional idiots? And i’ve seen some people express the idea that you who consider yourself atheist to not be religous. By my definition a religion is a belief about life and if atheism were’nt as such, you wouldn’t feel the need to talk about it so much.

  • Siamang

    Aaron preacher.

    Why did you come here to post this, on a long-dead discussion thread? Especially since you accuse(?) us of wanting to stop reading after you identify as religious?

    Is that any proper introduction to you? Welcome, friend! Please introduce yourself and join us here.

    We discuss atheism and religion because it is interesting to us.

    Why do some people think religious people are delusional idiots? Well, you’d have to ask those people, as I don’t hold that view. I’ve had a good number of wonderful conversations online with religious people, and I find them to be like anyone else you’re likely to meet: Some are nice, some are not, some are rude and some are not. That’s the internet for you.

    But what brought you to search the internet for an atheist website, and then find this post to post on? What do you hope to get out of this interaction?

    Again, welcome friend, as long as you care to interact here! I’m Siamang, pleased to meet you, Aaron!

  • DSimon

    By my definition a religion is a belief about life[…]

    I don’t think that that’s a very good definition, because it also includes all sorts of other beliefs that are pretty clearly not religions, like “Life would be much less enjoyable were it not for good friends and good food.”

    […]if atheism were’nt as such, you wouldn’t feel the need to talk about it so much.

    I can’t speak for anybody else, but I talk about atheism because (a) I find talking about religion and atheism and belief systems interesting and (b) If I don’t ever mention that I’m an atheist, most people automatically assume that I’m religious, and that kind of bothers me.

  • Aj

    Why is it, that so many who express the idea of there not being a god seem to look at us church going types as delusional idiots?

    I don’t think many atheists think religious people are idiots, they may use idiotic arguments and do idiotic things, it’s more about not using the intelligence they have to question equally religious and non-religious beliefs.

    A delusion just means an unfounded or false belief. Religious people have many unfounded beliefs. Many “church going types” don’t even try to defend their beliefs because they know very well that they’re unfounded.

    …the idea that you who consider yourself atheist to not be religous. By my definition a religion is a belief about life…

    The logical fallacy of equivocation. It doesn’t matter what word you use to describe it, atheists are talking about one thing and you’re talking about another. I doubt that many atheists gave you the impression they weren’t talking about the common meaning of religion that includes superstition i.e. beliefs including the existence of supernatural entities originating from ignorance and fear.

  • I just watched this movie! I randomly picked it off the DVD shelf at the library and loved it!

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