The Largest Ever Gathering of Black Atheists May 21, 2010

The Largest Ever Gathering of Black Atheists

Last weekend, the Center For Inquiry recently hosted an African Americans for Humanism conference in Washington, D.C. At nearly 60 guests, it was arguably the largest gathering of non-religious African Americans ever (at least if we’re talking about meeting specifically as atheists).

Writer Jamila Bey was there and writes about the event at The Root:

Among black folks, if you’re a criminal who shows up at a service on whatever Sabbath you subscribe to, you’re just a fallen human who is worthy of love and redemption. But if you’re a moral and decent human who doesn’t believe in a supernatural force, you’ll soon find that your kind is most unwelcome.

One conference participant from the Bible Belt summed it up this way: “Christianity’s grasp on black people makes it almost impossible to admit that you’re a black atheist. We have to hide our non-belief, otherwise we are excluded. And if we give voice to any objection or doubt, we’re ostracized and isolated — or just banished! So any time religion comes up, it’s simpler to just change the subject or say nothing if you can’t bring yourself to fake an ‘amen.’ … But don’t use my name ‘cause my mother told me when she saw me reading God is Not Great that if any of her children actually believed ‘that mess,’ she’d have one less child.”

… as a minority within a deeply closeted minority, we’re going to have to work to gain visibility and influence. Those of us who are “out” mustn’t apologize for our stance. We also need to join larger non-theistic groups.

It’s mentioned in the article but I would hope many college atheist groups are more inclusive and welcoming to younger generations of black atheists than the older, more established groups may be. If we can get more black leaders in the movement — and, more importantly, get more people overall being open about their atheism — I think that’ll be a huge turning point for us.

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  • vivian

    This reminds me of my Education professor’s, who shoved Intelligent Design down our throats, comment after reading my copy of the FFRF newsletter. She said, “There are no people of diversity here. Just a bunch of old white people.” She basically went on to bash FFRF or non-belief in general, because it’s just the thought of rich white snobs. (BTW, I’m Asian and she is Hispanic).

    I didn’t even know how to respond to such a fallacy. I wish it didn’t come down to race.

  • I find it odd that rationalists would choose to segregate themselves from other rationalists using race as the criteria.

  • Patrick

    As a black atheist in the South, her quote did resonate with me. It is like you murdered someone if you even have a thought different from God.

    The reason why there isn’t a lot of African American non-believers is because their culture is intertwined with their belief system. This is the same reason why the Jews and the Muslims believe so strongly even if it is beyond any logical comprehension.

    Another reason why I think people believe in the Christian God is because of slavery. People long ago who were slaves lost their culture and adopted the middle eastern ethnocentric belief system as well.

    I was told to believe that God was as real as air but you “know” it is there. Just like you cannot see air you cannot see God. I finally realized that wind is a physical force that can manifest into hurricanes and tornadoes and do physical effects. I realized that the wind is invisible, but has traces of its existence. This desert god “Yahweh” did not.

    I do not know if I can tell people face to face that I do not believe in a god or goddess. If I did I would probably be shunned from most of my family. I probably will only have what is left of my true friends and true family members.

    My parents have stopped asking me to go to church with them after a few years of not wanting to go and we barely talk about stuff like that. I just leave it like that because I do not want to start a large argument which would probably create a rift in the family. If someone questions though I will defend my position to the fullest.

  • Mala Malum

    @ the Godless monster: I would ask you (and anyone else who comments in this thread) not to jump to the ‘self-segregation’ conclusion that always without fail comes up whenever minority groups have in-group theme meetings.

    Jamila wrote that there is a need for African-America humanists and atheists to join larger organizations. I wouldn’t imagine that that statement means that no other black atheist/humanist isn’t a member of FFRF or FBB, or that non-blacks weren’t allowed at the conference.

    So why intone self segregation? I think that if more people looked at meetings like these as being in the same ‘spirit’ (heh) as women’s conferences, meetings of microbiologists, historians or what have you, this false characterization wouldn’t arise so often.

    All that said, I wish I had known about this conference…and that I was about 300 miles closer to the DC metro area!

  • @Mala Malum,
    My thoughts on this issue are not something I just came up with.
    I am a minority myself and simply do not approve of such segregation.
    If you can give me a rational, logical, well thought out argument for segregation based on sex or race, I would be open to hearing it.
    By the way, to equate what somebody does, with what somebody is makes for a poor supporting argument.
    I have an ethical and logical problem with segregation of any sort.

  • 60! Wow! I can’t even imagine that. I don’t think I’ve ever met another black atheist in person.

  • Floyd

    I know what it feels like to be the only sane thinking person among your peers and people you look up to as mentors and such. Christianity among blacks is a force that grips you since you’re little and tries its best keep you there. Even if some have doubts, the basic belief in a higher power never tend to cease. I’m only 20, but have let go of the religion I was brought up in. I’ve only met one other black atheist (that I know of), a female friend of mine from highschool that first got me asking questions.

    The unwillingness to consider facts and logic in the quest for understanding the world is exasperating at times. Getting together to talk about this particular topic is good for everyone.

    Also I’m sure this gathering was not strictly blacks only, but wanted to invite people who have this one attribute to meet and talk about it. Like any inclusive group: farmers, teachers, whatever. Because this attribute is still a very defining characteristic among those who have it. It shapes and forms how you approach life, including holding onto Christianity as your living philosophy. It’d be nice to maybe brainstorm some ideas on how to approach this particular group.

  • Jen

    (I am saying this as a white woman)

    I certainly can see why Af-Am people may feel they need their own conference. As the article points out, they have specific issues relating to their non-theism and their race, and it is nice to find people who are like you. If they were to go to TAM or something, there would be other black atheists there, but maybe not a forum to really discuss those issues. As long as Norm Allen is free to go to the TAMs and the FFRF events, etc, I don’t see the harm in creating an event focuses on issues that are of interest specifically to a certain group.

  • mride

    The last place I worked (1994) had a black managers association. The company paid for the bma employees to travel to chicago and the company put on a two day conference for the bma. The company also held special training classes for ‘minority’ employees to get them fast tracked into high paying IT positions. whites were excluded from participation. My black co-workers explained to me that they deserved overt special treatment to balance out the subtle discrimination they experienced. So, what I see is that there is an overt cultural norm that expects and accepts minorities, blacks, grouping together for common benefit and support. And also a cultural norm that discourages whites from doing the same. Right or wrong, that’s the way it is.

  • @Godless: One logical reason that sometimes minorities self-segregate is that often when we don’t, we get straight white males taking over the meetings and/or man-splaining things to us.

    Which is not to say we NEVER want to hang with straight white dudes, but occasionally we don’t. That’s it.

  • Mala Malum

    @ Godless monster

    “By the way, to equate what somebody does, with what somebody is makes for a poor supporting argument.”

    Understood. My principal point is that such events cannot be labeled as self-segregation. What social segregation is, and what this conference was are two different things. So, I cannot give you (or care to give anyone) a rational argument for self imposed segregation, because that phenomenon is not what happened at this conference.

    I think that the conference was one of special-interest solidarity. Like-minded people coming together to share experiences, ideas or just get social support because of the dearth of contacts/voices of people like them within the larger movement.

    Perhaps the lack of black voices and perspectives within mainstream humanist, atheist, agnostic will change over time as (hopefully) more of us choose to part with christianity/islam. Then perhaps such things would not be needed.

  • @Mala Malum,

    What social segregation is, and what this conference was are two different things.

    This was a logical explanation. I do indeed understand where you are coming from now. Thank you very much for opening my eyes and teaching me something new.

  • @Tizzle,

    @Godless: One logical reason that sometimes minorities self-segregate is that often when we don’t, we get straight white males taking over the meetings and/or man-splaining things to us.

    Your answer comes off as contrived. I’ve got a difficult time envisioning roving bands of talkative straight white males searching for lesbian group meets to bore to death.

  • I wonder why blacks have the lowest rate of atheism and (ethnic) Jews have the highest.

  • Aaron

    My in-laws are black (well they were until my mother in law got divorced) and church is like a religion to them. No really.
    You can’t get through a minute without conversations about church and religion coming up. It is entwined in everything they talk about. It’s almost like it is in their grammar, they just can’t seem to express certain concepts without religion.
    It might also be that going to a black church is a lot like going to a gospel concert. It’s pretty much a free party every week and all your friends are there. I suspect that black folks feel like they have to “put up” with the world the other six days of the week, and Sunday at church is the only time they can be themselves in public without white people watching.
    I might be one of the largest theings that has held the black community together. Dismissing it probably makes them feel that your are dismissing them. That might be the way most religious people feel.
    It would be like military family’s kids calling the army a bunch of baby-killers.

    A great line from the show WEEDS was one where the murderous black drug dealer tells the gay kid “Man, you need Jesus!” while holding him at gunpoint and forcing him to have sex with a prostitute.

  • gwen

    I am a black atheist who figured it out as a child. My mom was a black atheist as was her brother, and both of my sons are atheists. I received an invitation, I wish I could have gone..damn job got in the way!!

  • gwen

    Jen, on thing I have found is that when my sons and I go to an atheist event, we are usually the only blacks there. We usually have fun, but it is discouraging that there are usually no other minorities there. We gave up on going to ‘skeptics in the pub’ unless we are expecting to be able to mingle with at least one or two people we know from gatherings. We are all outgoing and gregarious, but in the pub, people always treat us as if we are lost, because no one expects black atheists. It would have been nice to go to the conference and hear what other black atheists have to go through with the black community and the community at large.

  • @Godless: 1st, you made me laugh. Roving bands of men indeed.

    2nd: I don’t know what you mean by contrived. Maybe I didn’t explain well or put passion into my previous comment. Well, that’s believable. I got the term “mansplaining” from a blog called “Thus Spake Zuska” on scienceblogs. Love the word, love the concept. She explains it better than I, naturally.

    I think what I want to say is this: sometimes we (anyone) want to be alone in our little isolated group without having to explain to anyone else why we think or say or do anything in particular. So sometimes I hang with only women. Sometimes I hang with only students. Sometimes I hang only with gay people. I never purposefully hang with only white people, but that’s cause this isn’t my issue…I can see why maybe an ethnic minority might choose to not invite me to a particular party/event.

    It’s like consciousness raising for women in the 70s (as I read the history)–something necessary for the time, but not the end-goal of the women’s movement. A step on the path. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least that black atheists first need to find others like them before they can join the larger atheist movement.

  • I think it’s great to reach out to various groups to let them know they have a home in the movement. I also think we could do this more often – individuals with disabilities, for example, are often heavily submersed in and marginalized by religion.

    Would it be possible to hold these events within a larger conference?

  • Claudia

    (Speaking as a white female) I think that, once again, we should look to the GBLT community for lessons learned. You hear a lot of parallel discussions; blacks saying that it’s tougher to be gay in the black community and they have issues specific to them and (some) whites insisting that color shouldn’t be an issue and that having minority-specific discussions amounts to segregation or “special treatment”. This causes a lot of division and sometimes disastrous consequences. For instance during the Prop 8 fiasco the GLBT movement, dominated by whites who want to pretend that race doesn’t exist, did very little practical outreach to minority communities, who came out in big numbers for Obama and voted in favour of Prop. 8.
    Let’s please not have this happen to us. I think its objectively unquestionable that atheists are under-represented in the black community and that these communities, for many different reasons, are deeply connected to religion. Both of these things means being a black atheist is harder than being a white atheist and we should make an effort to specifically and proactively address these issues. The time to make ourselves overtly welcoming to non-middle class, non-white, non-males (that’s getting better, thankfully) is now. That doesn’t mean you put non-qualified people of color in positions of authority, something that I’m sure is insulting anyway (I wonder how black people view Michael Steele), it means not pretending race isn’t an issue in the hope that you can wish the issue away. We can’t.

  • Black female atheist here. I live in the DC area and wish I’d known about this gathering because my partner and I would’ve been there.

    I respect any group’s desire to self-segregate by any criteria of its choosing for whatever reason it chooses because I respect people’s autonomy.

  • Anonymous

    As a black atheist I’m surprised no one has offered an explanation of why religion, and more specifically church, is so important in the black community.

    Here’s my understanding of why church/religion is so important to the black community:

    Religion and church were one of the few ways blacks maintained any sense of hope as well as dignity in the time of slavery. Black churches were one of the few places that black people could go to escape the never ending control of their oppressors. This is not just true of slavery times, but also true during the civil rights era, and it is true now. In church blacks were free to think on their own, pray for freedom, maintain their sanity, fellowship with other blacks, etc. Also church allowed for an opportunity for leadership roles (pastors, deacons, etc.) within the black community- this was an opportunity that was not available in their everyday interactions with white people. So naturally a strong bond was created between black people and their churches. Also, church (more specifically the Christian doctrine) had many inspirational words that appealed, and still do appeal to black people. For example, imagine being a slave and having a horrible life, but there is one place you can go to where there is a hope of an afterlife. In this place you will be free and never have to worry about anything because you’ll be in the arms of Jesus. The place blacks went to hear this inspirational message was and still is church.

    What I’m trying to say is that church for black people isn’t only about religion. It’s about fellowship, having an opportunity to escape from some of the struggles that present itself when one is a minority, celebrating and admiring people who are like you in a world that sometimes degrades the people of your ethnicity, and receiving the inspirational message of an eternal after life with no struggles, pain, misery, etc.

  • @Miki:

    CFI DC’s (co-organizers) website is at We have an email list, facebook, meetup etc. for future events.

    African Americans for Humanism (co-organizers) is in Amherst, NY:

    Thanks for the mention Hemant!

  • @Simon: Thank you!

  • @Tizzle,
    NOW I got it…thanks for ‘splaining :-).
    I find it interesting that since my deconversion I have learned much more from women than from men.
    Perhaps it is that I am now more willing to listen?

  • Like minded people getting together is only self-segregation when they’re black. It’s called “meeting while black”.

  • @ Anonymous at May 22nd, 2010 at 9:33 am:

    In reference to your last paragraph, it is that psychological anesthetization to which I objected in coming to terms with my lack of belief.

  • Erp

    I should point out that there have been African American humanists for a long time, people like A. Philip Randolph and W. E. B. Du Bois.

  • Heidi

    I would love to hear more from the black people in our community. For that matter, I’d be interested in hearing from any other groups who feel even more marginalized than the rest of us. What are your specific issues, how can the rest of us help with that, etc.

    Meanwhile, if they want to get together and support each other, cool. Make it a regular thing, if it helps. I don’t have to be invited to every party.

  • “I would love to hear more from the black people in our community.”

    Me too. Posts like these remind me that I’m not the only one. There ought to be a website.

  • luz

    As a Latina Atheist(PuertoRican)I would love,love, love to met other Latinas/ Latinos that are also Atheists. Not because I want to self-segregate ,but because there are so few us ( that I am aware of)and it is important that we are able to discuss issues that are unique to our communities. I dont know any Latino Atheist and the only African American Atheists that I know are my son and my best friend.

  • Mala Malum

    It’s awesome to hear from other black atheists on this thread! I have been to a handful (if even that) of webblogs written by black atheists, although I didn’t like them enough to bookmark them.

    I’ve thought about starting my own for a while, but as I’m in the middle of a demanding year (becoming a phd candidate is hard!), I don’t think that I have the time. At least for this year.

    “I should point out that there have been African American humanists for a long time, people like A. Philip Randolph and W. E. B. Du Bois.”

    I have a lot of reading to catch up on. I was aware of W.E.B. DuBois, but since some of my political ideologies are more in sync with the Booker Washington school of thought, I haven’t made myself as familiar with his work. Zora Neale Hurston, Lorraine Hansberry (I believe), and Alice Walker were/are humanists as well.

  • I am the only Director of any national organization in the secular community that does not focus on a specific ethnic group, at least that I know of. Whenever I go to meetings and conferences, I am automatically asked to provide the answers to the question of diversity (or lack thereof) in the movement. When I first started my job, I was totally taken back by the fact that the majority of people in a room at any given moment where either, white, male, elderly, or usually a combination of all three. It took some getting used to! I often ask myself how to I get people to understand that diversity and humanism are not mutually exclusive terms. Walking away from ones beliefs are far more complex when those beliefs are integrated into every aspect of one’s culture. The rejection and isolation can be overwhelming and cause severe emotional and psychological trauma. As humanist, my expectation is for members of the humanist community to try to be empathetic. As humanist, we have a moral obligation to address suffering not ignore it. That is what this conference aimed to do. I wrote about my personal impressions of the event in my blog. If you are interested, see the link below. Also note that the first response is from my very upset father, Rev. Dr. Earl Griffin!

    “Advancing a Humanist Response to Issues Facing Communities of Color” (

  • Julie

    I remember when I was representing our atheist group at our booth during the Activity Fair on campus a couple of years ago, and a young black man approached with a huge smile on his face. He said he loved what we were doing and wished he could be as open an honest as we were, but that if he were to come out to his friends and family with what he really believed they’d kill him. I laughed thinking it was a joke but he suddenly lost the smile and looked me in the eye and said, “No, really.” While I doubt they’d really intentionally kill him, the look on his face said at the very least he’d get the shit beaten out of him and definitely ostracized from his loved ones afterward.

  • Mehta, thanks for this post.

  • There is a great book on the topic in this website written by University of Florida English professor Michael Lackey “African American Atheists and Political Liberation: A Study of the Socio-Cultural Dynamics of Faith”

  • Recovering Religionist

    I’ve seen a lot of links to African American atheists, but what about Black British atheists? Just like luz (Latina female), I know no one in my community who is struggling to come to terms with losing their faith. And why is everything about atheists? What about agnostics, sceptics, recovering religionists and those who struggle with or question their faith?

    I find that the atheist community is not just unwelcoming towards ethnic minorities (it is often assumed that we are there to preach religion), but also towards agnostics, sceptics and recovering religionists. I’ve been rejected by many atheist and humanist groups for not being “atheist” enough, for being a “fence sitter”, for being a “non-practising Christian” and not taking part in militant humanist demonstrations.

    Many atheists see things in black and white like religious and political ideologists (communists, anarchists, socialists etc.), i.e. if you are either with us or with them, no middle ground, no “fence sitting”, no room for doubting, pondering or compromise.

    The reality is that when you are born, raised and still live in a religious community, it is hard to escape it, especially if you are from an ethnic minority, poorly educated or from a low waged background. When you finally make it out of the community, you carry all the traditions and indoctrinations influenced from your upbringing. It stays with you for the rest of your life, whether you accept it or not. You can’t just leave religion and automatically become an atheist – that’s what atheists need to realise. People are at different stages in their journey.

    P.S. Apologies for my poor grammar, repetition and spelling.

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