He Never Lost His Faith December 13, 2011

He Never Lost His Faith

The Root has been doing a marvelous job lately of giving voice to black atheists.

In this article, Harvard professor Tommie Shelby talks about how he never “lost his faith”; he just flat-out rejected it:

Though Harvard is often said to have ruined more good Negroes than bathtub gin, it was actually at Florida A&M University, a historically black university, that I went from being a devout Christian to being an atheist.

Many black people with whom I’ve talked about this, including some people I love, find my rejection of faith baffling or frightening. Some feel sorry for me. Others suspect that my atheism is rooted in disappointment with a particular church or with organized religion in general, in a desire to be free to sin without guilt or in anger toward God for his failure to help when I or my people needed him most.

No doubt some feel that it just confirms their belief that higher education (and the study of philosophy in particular) is a destroyer of faith and distances black youths from the venerable traditions of their people. What the black believers I know rarely do is engage seriously with my reasons for nonbelief. Instead of regarding me as someone with whom they have an honest disagreement, as someone they can perhaps persuade, they look upon me with contempt or pity.

The more you listen to black atheists, the more striking it is how much they’re really up against when rejecting Christianity. It’s not just dismissing a family faith — you have to be ready to be labeled a cultural apostate as well. It’s as if you can’t truly be “black” unless you’re religious, too. It’s completely illogical, but it’s the reality so many black atheists are up against.

(Thanks to Dennis for the link!)

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  • The Other Weirdo

    It must be pointed out that nothing he says is true of *only* blacks. Non-black Christians who go through the same experience run into exactly the same problems with their circles of friends and family.

  • Erik Cameron

    I knew black people in my undergrad that were homosexuals. It was very hard for them. Most of the black community hated homosexuals (not disapproved of, hated). Religion was a very important part of the community. This didn’t stop the homosexual black people from believing in the religion, but it did make them feel alienated. I can see how atheism could do the same thing. Coming out would be intimidating.

  • Erik Cameron

    Usually when someone talks about black people or any racial group, they understand that an issue happens with every race and are implying that it happens disproportionately more often to a specific racial group. In this case the point is that its harder to be an atheist in a black community, not that it is hard to be an atheist only in the black community. We just don’t explicitly say this because it’s obvious.
    Also you rarely heard it argued that Christianity is an essential part of your ‘white identity’ because in general white people are treated as the default and aren’t expected to adapt a racial identity in the same way that black people are.

  • Abram Larson

    It still astounds me that after years of forced subjugation, the subjugated have taken on the superstitions of their oppressors. It’s Stockholm system writ large. What started as a way to appease their masters, has taken hold and become a part of them. What happened to them is what the Christian church has known for so long. By forcing people to admit to believing something, even when they don’t, cognitive dissonance sets in, and after time, they actually start to believe it.

  • For some reason I read that as “The Roots have been doing a marvelous job lately of giving voice to black atheists” and I thought you meant the band “The Roots”.  Haha

  • Archbishop Desmond Tutu said something like “The white people came to our land holding bibles. They said “let us close our eyes and pray”. So we did, and when we opened our eyes, we held the bibles and they had the land”. And he is a believer

  • Anonymous

    “Others suspect that my atheism is rooted in disappointment with a particular church or with organized religion in general, in a desire to be free to sin without guilt or in anger toward God for his failure to help when I or my people needed him most.”That’s a misconception that apparently crosses racial lines. I, for one, derived a lot of social benefits from church. I wasn’t traumatized or abused in a religious context (though it is an awful reality that some have been). But a lot of Christians, if they hear someone like me who was raised as a Christian talk about my past, and how I realize the ideas I was exposed to were wrong, will say “I’m sorry you had a bad experience, but…” Of course, since there are so many bad experiences had by so many, maybe they have some excuse for assuming that.

  • Denis Robert

    As a Quebecer, coming from a background where our cultural identity was completely enmeshed in the Church, where you couldn’t be “Canadien” (the word only applied to the French, originally; Anglos would refer to themselves by their nationality of origin, English, Scottish or Irish for the most part) without also being Catholic, and leaving the Church, even for a Protestant one, was considered an act of treason against one’s people, I can definitely sympathize.

  • Erp

    I wonder if this is also true of Irish-Americans or Italian-Americans; that to be considered a ‘proper’ X that one must be Catholic.

    BTW Anthony Pinn has written extensively on African-American religions (and also African-American humanists). 

  • Nazani14

    Are we supposed to understand what a “good Negro” is, and what it means to be “ruined?”  I’m old, but not that old.  These terms have to be spelled out for me.

  • I think when he uses the term “good Negroes”, he uses it as the stereotype that is set in the black community for who is a moral person: churchgoers, pious, intelligent, tithing, etc. What he means by being “ruined” by higher education is the belief that many in the African American community hold (I’m Black BTW and have experiences this) is that seeking higher education is tantamount to turning away from your roots, especially if the institution of higher education is NOT a HBCU

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