Science and Faith in the Black Community October 21, 2010

Science and Faith in the Black Community

Howard University recently hosted a panel of atheists to discuss the topic of “Science and Faith in the Black Community” — certainly a topic that needs far more attention that it has received in the past.

The event was sponsored by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science and the panelists included Richard Dawkins, Anthony Pinn, Sikivu Hutchinson, and Todd Stiefel. Mark Hatcher, the president of the Secular Students at Howard University, was the moderator:

Professor Anthony Pinn, Religious Studies at Rice University: “This is an ideal time and this event is an important opportunity to stress the importance for African Americans to critically engage the world and, through reasonable means, assess the issues impinging upon quality of life for African Americans across the country.”

Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson, noted author and activist: ”The Black Church’s policing of the bodies and destinies of black women and the lives of black gays and lesbians represents a bankrupt ‘morality’ which is just as pernicious as that of the Religious Right…if being black and being Christian are synonymous, then being black, female and religious (whatever the denomination) is practically compulsory. Insofar as atheism and humanism provide an implicit rejection of both black patriarchy and ‘authentic’ blackness, those who would dare to come out of the closet as atheists are potential race traitors.”

I only had a chance to watch the beginning, but I can’t wait to sit down and see the entire thing.

In the meantime, any thoughts on what they discuss in the video? Any parts we should watch in particular? (Please leave a timestamp if that’s the case!)

(Thanks to Claudia for the link)

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  • Heidi

    Before watching it, my first thought is that I wish Dr. Tyson had been there. I would love to hear his opinions on this. And actually on pretty much anything else, too.

  • AM

    On a side note, Mark Hatcher is an excellently clear, eloquent and intelligent speaking presenter. Very captivating. Here’s wishing him a very successful future.

  • I love the part from 16:15 to 18:55. Asking about the contributions to humanity of theology and science. An honest answer while remaining as charitable as possible.

  • Canny

    It was sad to see, when they brought up Leviticus, that they did not even understand it in relation to the New Testament.

  • I also enjoyed the dialogue between the christian young man and Richard Dawkins from 1:01:45-1:03:32. A strident atheist Dawkins most certainly wasn’t, while holding to his points, and both men were smiling afterwards.

    There was one additional comment that caught my attention so much I didn’t get a timestamp for, but it was a reveral of the “how can you have morality without religion” argument. It went along the lines of: how can religious people be moral to those outside their faith community and remain faithful to their god’s commandments?

    If anyone has the exact quote or time, I’d love to get it correctly to use in future.

  • Claudia

    An excellent talk. At first I thought that Tyson was a glaring absence, but then again its nice to have a talk now and again not dominated with “look at science, isn’t it awesome?!” exclusively.
    What I’m a little perplexed by is why I have not heard of these people before. Particularly Anthony Pinn, who seems to be such a great educator. Why is this guy not all over our youtubes all the time? Why have I not seen any TAM talks from him?

  • Heidi

    Ok, after watching it… the whole thing is relevant and captivating. The panelists are fantastic.

    My favorite part is from 23:33 to 24:34. Hatcher brings up the “he’s not a true Christian” and “how can we have morals without god” points that we hear so often. Professor Pinn turns it around and asks, given all the atrocities committed in the name of religion, how can we have morals with god.

    But I did also like the roaring laughter near the end when the student asked Dr. Dawkins if he was ready to accept Jesus Christ as his personal savior.

  • Heidi

    Cross-posted with “Eh”theist, but I think the part I mentioned is what you were looking for. Looks like we both liked the same parts. 🙂

  • Claudia

    @The “Eh”theist it’s from minute 24 onwards:

    You also have to address the flip-side, that in the name of god or gods you have atrocious activities taking place, so you can flip this and ask the question “How can you behave morally and ethically with respect to folks who don’t fall within your group, if you believe in God?”

  • Thanks @Heidi and @Claudia, that’s it exactly.

    I love how it turns the typical “morals” discussion on its head. 🙂

  • bluenightfox

    Finally, a good conversation!

  • YES! Watch the whole thing, everyone was brilliant and had something to say that is definitely worth your time. I learned a great deal, and now have some new stuff to research. Thank you for this, Hemant.

  • Aj

    It was boring compared to the discussion between Dawkins and Tyson, I love listening to those guys so much. One of the problems was the questions from the audience were terrible, another was that there wasn’t a great deal of interaction between the panel. I can’t help feeling that Tyson would have been a much better person to have than Dawkins, but he’s consistently been reluctant to politically be involved in the movement, and I don’t blame him at all.

    Hearing your anti-slavery rhetoric earlier, is ironic viewing the non… largley non-howard audience. I was wondering how welcoming is the atheist community to Black Thought? As well as is… is athe… is athe… is being able to be atheist just a symptom of white privilege, to be allowed to reject a higher power for idealizing themselves through atheism. Thank you.

    I think I just threw-up in my mouth a little. I’m pretty sure the response to this nonsense would have been much stronger if the idiot had been able to clearly and coherently express her ignorant insulting bullshit.

  • Jon Peterson

    Just a note that may help with navigating to timestamps quickly… You can add a timestamp to the end of the URL in your address bar using the following syntax: becomes
    (This links to a point 61 minutes, 45 seconds into the video… a moment recommended by The “Eh”theist in comment #5. You can replace the numbers for minutes and seconds to link to a different timestamp.)

  • An extremely interesting video.
    I have to agree with Aj though that the question he quoted seemed to be entirely wrong-headed and approaching things the wrong way.
    Thankfully Prof. Anthony Pinn summed up the correct answer by telling the questioner that she had given up too much.
    I think it’s also important to point out that despite the poor diversity within the demographics of our freethought community (something that is I think improving), there are almost no rational people I have ever met who were racist. Of course I would say racism was in itself irrational, so that will skew the numbers somewhat – but to judge a community on it’s demographics instead of it’s actual ideas is very unfair.

  • i am an African-American. i’ll say right now: this sort of high brow stuff? it accomplishes little. it’s great for young people and those of us who are middle class and doubting. but the majority of less fortunate AAs? utterly unconvinced by self-congratulatory seminar style crap like this. i did this for a long time, as an academic. no, most AAs don’t listen to “thinkers” like this. they are much, much more interested in “sexy” pastors like Eddie Long. you know, that religious leader of Atlanta’s most successful “prosperity gospel” black church, who to this day defends him, even though he was caught taking pictures of himself in spandex underwear, advertising himself for gay sex to teen boys.

    these forums are great, and make great youtubes. but no believers were in the audience, or the ones that were? mostly already tolerant of us. going into the lion’s den of the black church is the only, hard, solution. moderate believers are mostly the only ones who can. gosh, what a white audience for a “Howard” crowd, also. the “moderate” believing black community will burn every last one of us at the stake, before it gives up its black preachers. sorry, but that’s just flat out true right now. has anyone here been to a black church? ask around, you’ll find what i say is true.

  • Chicago Dyke makes some fantastically brilliant points there, I’m afraid. While the conference is gold to the ‘converted’ (non-converts) of rational-thinking, breaking the generational identity of “the church” within AA community is next to impossible. It is set up like a propaganda monolith that IS the ‘Black’ identity in America.

    Turn your back on ‘the church’ or separate yourself from it in any way, and you will be presented as the ENEMY of the culture (sell out, confused, etc). It likely wouldn’t be such an issue had the culture not been galvanized through hegemon oppression (looking to serve as a culture/identity eraser)

  • Valhar2000

    Chicago Dyke: I am not surprised. I don’t think that this sort of thing has much traction with most white people either; most people are not college educated science-loving intellectuals. Nonetheless, it has its audience, including me, and we keep coming back for more.

    That said, could making a greater effort to have African-American speakers in these sorts of events, and in conferences like TAM, not have a positive effect? Might it not cause the existence of AA atheists to become normalized to some degree, thus encouraging more existing AA atheists to come out and admit that they are?

    If your complaint is that it does little to convince established believers to begin doubting… well, I agree, but that is an incredibly difficult goal to achieve with any given group of people right now, and I think it is pointless to waste any effort even trying. It will be much more productive, at least in the short term, to concentrate on galvanizing the atheists that already exist.

  • Claudia

    @chicago dyke, since you’re both a member of the GLBT community and a member of the AA community, you’re in a good position to answer a question:
    Was the GLBT movement damaged by it’s inability/refusal to reach out to racial minorities?

    I’ve heard from several different sources (though mostly white) that it was, and it continues to pay the price today. I don’t want us making that same mistake.

    I get that for most AAs (most whites too, I’ll bet) high-brow doesn’t cut it, but I think any step is a good step. I think it’s vital that for those black young people who come to the realization that religion is false they not feel like they are some sort of unicorn, destined to never find anyone like them, since all the blacks are religious and all the atheists are white. No, you’re never gonna convince a gawd-loving believer (of any color) with passionate appeals to our more skeptical natures, but you may make it feel safer for the minority within a minority that is the black nonbeliever. It may be a big effort for a small number of people for now, but no in-roads will ever be made into the community if you don’t start somewhere, and if there was ever a community that needed the yoke of irrational thought and wasteful expense less, it has to be the African American commuity.

    [edit]: As a follow-up, what do you think would do the trick? What do you view as a good strategy? Or is the only real way to bring the African American community out of its disproportionate poverty, so atheism simply becomes much more demographically likely?

  • Maliknant

    i am an African-American. i’ll say right now: this sort of high brow stuff? it accomplishes little. it’s great for young people and those of us who are middle class and doubting. but the majority of less fortunate AAs? utterly unconvinced by self-congratulatory seminar style crap like this.

    This wasn’t a debate, where the atheists and the religious duke it out to try and prove themselves right and their opponents wrong. The purpose of the dialogue was to describe atheism and it’s history in the AA community. I felt it was very successful in that regard. I know I learned a thing or two.

    Not for one second did it seem to me that the speakers were trying to convince anybody to abandon their religious beliefs. So yes, I would agree that this talk would not convince a believer to abandon or even question their beliefs, but since that obviously wasn’t the purpose of this talk, I don’t see the problem with it. It’s like insisting that every science book should have an introduction that trashes Creationism and Intelligent Design. I agree that they should be denounced, but wouldn’t that be OTT?

  • Chicago Dyke: yeah, you’re right that stuff like this is preaching to the (de)converted.

    The problem from where I’m sitting is: a lot of people in the skeptical community are, in fact, white. My feeling is that if a white bloke (like myself) walks into a Black Church group and tells them he’s an atheist, he’s unlikely to convince anyone. It just gives the churchgoers another excuse to close ranks against him. Am I wrong here?

    White atheists can help make sure that the community is welcoming to any afro-americans or other racial groups who do show up. Talks like this one are part of that effort. But what else can we do?

    This is not a rhetorical question – if you’ve got any ideas I’d be very interested to hear them.

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