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

Why God?

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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