Several years ago, I pitched a freelance piece about black atheism to a prominent magazine geared toward African-Americans. The pitch was denied, but not for any real reason. “That one might be a bit, uh, hard,” is all my editor said. I’d later come to find out that he was merely sheltering me from his ultra-Christian executive editor, who would never let a piece questioning religion run in the magazine.
I can’t remember exactly when the last line of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” address began to bother me, but I think it was sometime around 6th grade. That was the year my history teacher had the class sit through all 14 hours of Eyes on the Prize, memorizing dates and important heroes and the names “Selma” and “Little Rock.” Growing up with a black history-buff father, I’d heard the speech many times before. But I’d never pored over it in conjunction with a deep dissection of the Civil Rights movement as a whole. And when I finally did, I just couldn’t get over that last line.
“One day, if everyone does get free at last,” I asked my dad, “why would we thank God Almighty? Why not thank ourselves for working hard?”…
Jefferson doesn’t blame African-Americans for their religious devotion — like so many people, church is much more than just some place where they listen to theological bullshit:
For a long time, black houses of worship doubled as war rooms to plan protest actions and galvanize people made weary by centuries of racist violence and legislation. When many black children attended Sunday school throughout the 19th and early 20th century, they not only received the standard Biblical lessons, they also learned to read and write, skills not necessarily afforded to them, often by law. By the time Dr. King was preaching in churches throughout the South, the strength of the black church was made obvious by how many white supremacists sought to destroy them with explosions and fire — the Klan wasn’t bombing black bars or brothels, and there was a reason for that.
Change in the religious demographics of African-Americans will be hard to come by, though, especially when so many leaders in their community have their foot in the church doors and the word “Reverend” in front of their names. So what’s the solution to this?
Ironically, Jefferson proposes Neil deGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist who won’t even bring himself to use the word “atheist,” as the new black leader. (For what it’s worth, I don’t disagree with the idea. Tyson’s still fantastic, even if he shies away from the “A word.”)
… I’d simply like us to start listening to and seeking out the opinions of blacks who eschew religious faith in favor of finding motivation and glory outside the church. I think we’d discover that many of the opinions religious blacks may think of as churchly are actually similar to those held by nonreligious blacks, which would be a lesson in and of itself.
So why Tyson? Not only because he self-identifies as an agnostic and says that there is “no evidence” to support the fact that anyone benevolent created the universe. But also because Tyson, whose Twitter account and YouTube reputation are stuff of internet legend, seems to be possessed of an inquisitiveness from which I believe the entire world could learn.
Jefferson thinks Tyson can help bring about the change he wants to see. I don’t know if that’s necessary. We just need more black people willing to go public with their atheism. Jefferson’s piece — and hopefully the many others that will follow it — is one of the best ways to spur the discussion that is needed.