Our Fatherâs Not in Heaven:<br />
The New Black Atheism

Why God?

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.

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.

"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