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.
Black America's religious problem isn't that it's highly religious—most of America is religious—it's that, in my experience, it's highly religious to the point of exclusion, as if black people living their lives without God don't count. Black atheists or agnostics are often looked at by other blacks as alien or pitiable. A black atheist quoted in the New York Times last year said his mother was bothered more by the admission that he is an atheist than the admission that he is gay. Another in the Huffington Post said that declaring she was an atheist to her black friends was "social suicide."
I can understand where they're coming from. In high school, I went on a day-trip to a convocation of Black Students Unions, where we were all asked to bow our heads and pray before lunch. I was shocked. I tipped my head out of politeness, but rather than pray, I just sat there and wondered if what we were doing was legal. A few years later, during my freshman year in college, a black girl asked me what church I was going to attend as if it were as certain as asking me where I planned on eating or breathing. When I told her I wouldn't be going to any church, she wrenched her face away from me, aghast, like I'd vomited onto her lap. "Oh," she responded, "OK." We literally never spoke again.
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?" My father, who had been raised in the Baptist church and converted to Catholicism for his first marriage before leaving both, is the person who gave me my initial skepticism of religion, so he laughed at my question. "It's because if you believe in a certain kind of god," he answered after a long bit of silence, "you believe that that god provides you with everything. It's like thanking the sun for an ear of corn. You wouldn't be able to get the corn without a farmer or a truck, but before those things, you need the sun."
I always thought that was an elegant description of why some people thank god for even the smallest things, but it never fully sated me. And as I got older and more interested in what my ethnicity meant to me, I grew increasingly troubled by how linked so much of black history—and thus modern black America—is with religion.
To begin with, there are the Reverends King, Ralph Abernathy, Joseph Lowery, Fred Shuttlesworth, Al Sharpton, and Jesse Jackson, not to mention countless others both alive and dead. After escaping from slavery, Frederick Douglass was briefly a preacher in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Booker T. Washington taught Sunday school at his Baptist church in West Virginia, and, when he was appointed president of the Tuskegee Institute, he said the school should be sure to impact the "moral and religious life of the people." Harriet Tubman believed the intense dreams she had of salvation and freedom were gifts from God. Even early America's preeminent black scientist, George Washington Carver, put his faith in the Lord, saying that the key to his success was a Bible passage: "In all thy ways acknowledge Him and He shall direct thy paths.'"
Elsewhere, there is the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. There are the Christian hymns turned folk anthems—"Go Tell It on the Mountain," "This Little Light of Mine," "We Shall Overcome"—that bathed Civil Rights marches in even more Christianity. There is the Black National Anthem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing," which mentions "God" four times compared to the single mention in the "Star-Spangled Banner" (there's no mention of God at all in the abridged version we sing). There is Black liberation theology, a form of worship that seeks to combat racism via Biblical principles and narratives. Black liberation theology became somewhat of a household term in 2008, when Barack Obama's pastor, Jeremiah Wright, was accused of being a radical purveyor of it.
Black religious life has always extended beyond Christianity, of course, to notable Muslims like Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad, Yusef Lateef, Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def), and the many, many black Muslims who aren't famous. There is also an increasing number of African-American Jews, who have had some mild fame at least since Sammy Davis Jr. converted.
It's impossible to criticize the black community for its history of devotion to God. 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.
Blacks are now the most religious ethnic group in America, with 86 percent saying they're "very" to "moderately" religious compared to just 65 percent of whites. Even blacks who purport to have no involvement with any church, mosque, or synagogue whatsoever are generally unwilling to reject the concept of God entirely, making African-Americans also the least likely to call themselves atheist or agnostic. For us people of color with no devotion to religion whatsoever, a tiny minority within a minority, the internal culture clash can sometimes prove awkward. It's this culture clash that I find so irritating and ugly.
And the job of airing the "black perspective" on cable news is very often given to people like Reverend Jackson or Reverend Sharpton or Roland Martin, who has a master's degree in "Christian Communications" from Louisiana Baptist University, an unaccredited religious institution. I don't care that so many African-American leaders are steeped in deep religious tradition; I care that those are the people called upon to speak for all of black America, and they always have been. Most white Americans are religious, too, and yet MSNBC or CNN would never call on the pastor Joel Osteen to dissect the problems facing all white Americans. The networks would understand, rightly, that Osteen's deep religious conviction makes him an inapt spokesperson for a group of people with diverse beliefs. That those networks don't afford blacks the same respect is telling, and it's a tacit acceptance of the myth that blacks and religion, particularly Christianity, are one and the same.
So that I don't come off as someone content to reject the status quo without offering a solution, I'd like to make a formal nomination: I nominate astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson as the black leader America needs in the 21st Century. Though our numbers remain small, African-Americans willing to out themselves as agnostic or atheist represent a growing category, with one report finding that the percentage of blacks calling themselves nonreligious nearly doubled from 1990 to 2008. To that end, it's important to begin moving away from the near monopoly religious persons have over professional black leadership. This doesn't mean we have to stop listening to Reverends Sharpton and Jackson. Rather, 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.
One of the things that irritates me to no end about black churches is how many of them spread noxious homophobia. Many white churches do the same, of course, but those aren't the ones preaching to communities being ravaged by HIV and AIDS. To be fair, Al Sharpton has come out against the black church's anti-gay nonsense before, yet it still persists, supported by pastors who believe the Bible both condemns homosexuality and trumps whatever any mortal like Sharpton says. That's always the problem with heralding a holy book while attempting to scoff at what people believe that holy book says; it's hard to have it both ways.