Is Your Race in Conflict with Your Humanism? October 11, 2010

Is Your Race in Conflict with Your Humanism?

NPR recently did a nice piece about how secular students are finding their place on college campuses. They interviewed Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain at Harvard; Debbie Goddard, spokesperson for the Center for Inquiry; and Mark Hatcher, founder of the Secular Students of Howard University.

I especially loved this segment discussing African-American Humanism:

Michael Martin: And can I ask you though, Debbie, of all your sort of various identities, do you ever feel like being African-American and being a humanist are ever in conflict in a way that you find difficult to resolve?

Debbie Goddard: I find other people tell me so. But I grew up in a very African-American neighborhood. However my mother is from Trinidad and so my black identity was different than that of many people around me. I didn’t grow up on soul food. I grew up with Caribbean food. And I’ve talked to other people who have a Caribbean background who have said the same thing. That we need to kind of expand our idea of what it means to be African-American sometimes.

How true is that.

I was at a wedding over the weekend — the groom was someone I knew from my family’s Jain community.

When making smalltalk with another guest, I was asked if I had gone to a recent temple event that the groom had attended.

I responded: “Nope… I’m not a Jain anymore.”

I think he nearly spit out his drink.

It felt awesome to say that. And liberating, too.

Another former-Jain also told me he was now an atheist.

Debbie’s words work in our case, too. Just because I’m Indian doesn’t mean I’m religious in any way. The more people who can come out and admit it, the easier it is for everyone after us.

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  • Jessica

    Just because my dad is a minister doesn’t mean I’m religious in any way.

    Not that that’s race related, but you still get the auto assumption upon introduction, and the horrified gasps upon denial.

  • “I responded: “Nope… I’m not a Jain anymore.”
    I think he nearly spit out his drink.
    It felt awesome to say that. And liberating, too.”

    Man, do I envy you. My Dad knows I’m atheist and he’s an atheist as well. Still, we both had to fake it and pray during the funeral of a male clan member when we visited our home village in the Hezbollah controlled area of Lebanon last spring. I’d give anything to be able to tell members of my extended family that I am not a Muslim, but I am terrified to bring shame upon my father. He’s managed to mask his atheism so well over the years. I’d hate to blow it for him.

  • JD

    It’s a culture thing, not a race thing. There’s nothing about race in itself that has anything to do with religion. That doesn’t stop people from making assumptions about people by looking at skin color and other surface features, but that doesn’t make it true.

  • i’m really sorry i had some other problems this weekend that prevented me from going to a neighborhood “Black Church” in which an atheist friend of mine is a deacon. he’s really, really subversive and likes to use scripture to mess with the congregation there, who literally worship him because he’s a young, handsome black man with no stereotypical “problems most black men have” and a PhD from Div School. he doesn’t talk about atheism in church, so much as he makes a lot of points using scripture that cause the congregation to become uncomfortable with some of their assumptions (about gays, about Obama, about the community as a whole, etc).

    i know just what you mean, H. it’s tough being a minority within a minority community. one tends to feel like a bit of a traitor. it’s really hard in the case of African-Americans, because of course so many of our greatest heroes were religious leaders. i got cured of that, meeting some of leadership of the black church while in school (men and women who make Eddie Long look honest and a model of Christian charity). there is no bigger scam than the modern day black church. it’s so… evil it’s hard for me to describe it without people wondering if i’m a tad insane. but it makes me so angry. it takes money from the few elements in African-American society that still have wealth to share and freedom of thought and action, and uses that money to pay for mistresses and rent boys, vacation homes and fancy cars… all while doing NOTHING to alleviate the poverty and political impotence of the most needy members of our community. openly! unabashedly! it disgusts me.

    sure, saying stuff like this doesn’t make me very popular with the HBC believing set and the religious “talented tenth.” still, i’ve worked with plenty of nonbelieving African-American youth and i have great hope in the future. while black grandmoms and church goers are busy convincing themselves that they are the future, younger African-Americans are joining a growing wave of nonbelieving american youth. the internet empowers them, and the hypocrisy of the modern black church disgusts them like it does me. they are turning elsewhere for leadership, increasingly.

  • Hitch

    Pretty good example why I’m generally troubled by the notion of “identity”. I literally know nobody who is like me. Am I an island of identity? Or am I supposed to give some flexibility to accept identification with slack?

    It really is non-sensical to me. Race is a silly concept, because it tries to erect identifiable differences, when in reality if one moves across the globe, “race” morphes smoothly and there is no real or at least clear boundaries.

    The associations are socially and culturally constructed.

    The real identification is with “nice people”. Much else I don’t know.

    But yeah atheists have this even more. How to identify around a non-concept.

  • @JD,

    “It’s a culture thing, not a race thing.”

    Lebanon is definitely solid proof of that.

  • Claudia

    do you ever feel like being African-American and being a humanist are ever in conflict in a way that you find difficult to resolve?

    OK, I freely admit that this could be due to being white, but my first reaction to that was “Huh? What the hell are you talking about?” One is a race, the other a philosophical viewpoint. At first blush, they should be totally divorced from one another.

    Of course then I did the mental step and realized of course that what’s meant by it is “The deep religiosity of the African American community makes Humanism incompatible”. Just the fact that you could simply interchange a racial identity with a religious one as if they were one and the same is a depressing statement of how far the African American community has to go to free itself of religion. All the more reason our community has to do really proactive outreach to African American atheists. We’re all (especially us white folk) so terrified of the damn race issue, and think that pretending race doesn’t exist in our personal lives is enough. However we can’t deny that it’s just harder to be an atheist in the African American community (probably also in the Appalachian community, mind you) and that should be addressed specifically.

  • Things are beginning to change, slowly but surely. This weekend I was bumming around on YouTube and found several dozen rather vocal black atheists. Their stories are much like what you’d expect – lots of anger and resistance to their disbelief from their families. But the stigma is starting to fade, bit by bit.

  • Disclaimers: 1.I’m white 2.I’m a literary junkie who has read most of the major tombs of early african-american lit which feature a lot of christianity

    What I think: It’s obvious that there is a cultural history in which christianity was leveraged among african americans — in the mid to late 1800’s, the heyday of slavery — to elevate the status of slaves by citing scripture as evidence. At the time, this was a most beautiful thing because the slaves used the white man’s biblical evidence against him…

    Then, take into account major african american historical figures — the obvious one being MLK — and you can see why black culture does not want give up it’s “roots.”

    I could go on, but I’ll spare you since I tend to be overly loquacious.

  • SecularLez

    When I tell people I’m an atheist, a lot of them are shocked because they say they have never met an African-American who is an atheist.
    I think there is always this assumption that black people are Christians or just religious in general.

  • La Hereja

    Any Hispanic atheists out there? I’ve heard of a few extended family members (myself included)who are atheists, however, there seems to be no desire to either organize, or seek each other out. I don’t know if it is a cultural thing (growing up in a predominantly Hispanic/Catholic community) but the practice of one’s dogma was more introspective and ritualistic than evangelical and zealous. I did, however, notice a change in my attitudes when I moved to the ‘Bible Belt’ and dealt with a more evangelical culture. Suddenly, it wasn’t a private and personal matter. Although I still consider my beliefs (or lack thereof) to be personal, I did put a Darwin Fish bumper sticker on my vehicle. My main contribution to the cause, however, will be to raise my two kids to be independent free thinkers who question everything.

  • Ethanator

    People also forget (or don’t know) that there have been atheists in India for thousands of years. Not only are there the completely irreligious Carvakas but also many Indian Buddhists argued quite explicitly for atheism (although they also argued for karma and rebirth, which goes to show that it’s technically possible to be a religious atheist).

  • fyrefye

    Isn’t Jainism an atheist “religion” anyway?

  • gwen

    I am a middle aged second generation African American atheist, with two middle aged African American sons who are also atheists. My dad grew up in a very religious family, my mom was an atheist from an early age.

  • Hehe… That must’ve been quite a sight!

    Amongst Indians, religion/ sects is usually seen as an integral aspect of one’s entity. I prefer to be identified as a Marwari/ Rajasthani (the region where my ancestors hailed from) myself, rather than the religious denomination I belong to.

  • It’s more just plain old-fashioned stereotyping. Blacks are bouyant Christians, Indians Hindus or some other (to white America, frankly) mystic religion (I’ve got to admit I never heard of Jainism before you) and Hispanics are all Catholics. It’s stupid but the assumption is there. I have had black friends bitch about this assumption but they also probably complained to me for two reasons: they knew I’m Atheist and I’m a good listener who’s almost always willing to be a shoulder to lean on.

    I’m still wondering if my French last name and the assumption that the French are Catholic had anything to do with my getting the job in that State agency I was harrassed on after openly stating I was Atheist when someone asked my religion.

  • prospera

    I responded: “Nope… I’m not a Jain anymore.”


    That means you were, at one time, a part of that belief system, correct?

    My question is this: How much (if any) of who you are, do you think, is shaped by this earlier influence in your life?

    (Hemant says: Quite a bit. I certainly don’t have a lot of anti-Christian baggage. The morality I was raised with was within that framework. But you can still buy into all that without believing in a god.)

    I don’t mean to challenge you. I only ask because I often ponder this question about myself… not only in reference to religion but other experiences as well.

    By the way, I admire your courage. I don’t think I could be as brave to make such a statement to my family and friends.

  • Ethanator

    In ancient and medieval India, some religious philosophers denied the existence of a single creator God. In addition to the Carvakas and Buddhists I mentioned earlier, Jain philosophers denied such a thing as did the Mimamsa school of Hindu philosophy (the latter had to deny God to protect the authorless authority of the Vedas!). Although I think only Carvakas were what most of us now would now call atheists (they denied all gods and an afterlife). I think the rise of various bhakti (devotion) movements during the last several hundred years obscured the atheist religions so that now Indian religions are much closer to Western religions in having the concept of devotion and worship toward God. However, I only really know the ancient philosophical schools (I am an academic nerd specializing in classical Indian philosophy, sorry). I don’t know much about contemporary religious practice, so don’t take my word for it.

    But I do think knowing about the ancient schools can help people expand their concepts of “atheism” and “religion” and shake up their stereotypes (especially about a “spiritual” India), which can in turn keep them from embarrassing themselves as did the people mentioned in this post. So philosophy is good for something after all!

  • Filipino’s are usually Catholic, so being an atheist, or GLBT, makes everyone’s nana’s cry. I blame the Spaniards.


  • Claudia

    @krissthesexyatheist, speaking as a Spaniard, I have to say it’s ironic how deeply Catholic many of the ex-colonies are, while Spain itself has become more secular by leaps and bounds. Let me assure you that modern Spaniards would never approve of the forced conversion that was visited upon your country. Hell, in Spain a gay atheist can marry his boyfriend and then divorce his husband if he wants.

  • (raises hands!)

    Afro Latino Atheist RIGHT HERE…

  • svaz

    Another Latino atheist coming to you live from AZ.

    I told my mother a while back (my father passed on before I ‘came out’) and she simply refused to believe it. Since then I just avoid conversations about religion with her. My sister, wife, & children know. I’ve left my in-laws and co-worker with their assumptions, but I won’t hesitate a second if asked. One White co-worker, whose wife is Mexican, was slightly stunned to meet a Latino that wasn’t Roman Catholic – like coming across an air-breathing fish, you know they exist you just never expect to see one live. 🙂

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