It can be argued that in most African American communities it is more acceptable to be a criminal who believes in God and goes to church on Sunday while selling drugs to kids all week than to be an atheist who has a good job, a good education, who contributes to society and supports his family. In these communities you find more tolerance towards gangbangers, drug addicts, and prostitutes, who pray to God for forgiveness than for honest productive citizens who deny the existence of God. This, for me, is one of the most embarrassing elements of Black culture, our zealous embracement of the God of our kidnappers, murderers, slavemasters and oppressors.
That may seem harsh, perhaps even racist, yet I am not stating my opinion of the White race. In fact, I bear no grudge toward the descendebts of our enslavers. Few who know me would imagine otherwise. I am merely stating a fact. None of the African Americans crowding the churches today would be there had we not been dragged from our homeland in chains and forced into church pews at the end of a gun and the tip of a lash. None of us would be Christians today had we not also once been slaves.
Even now thousands of people starving in Africa find that their only relief comes from Christian Missionaries and other “faith-based” charities at the expense of being preached to and converted. Food for minds as it were. Under threat of starvation and lack of medication they flock to these charitable organizations for relief and come out with medicine, sometimes clothing, food in their bellies, and a bible in their hands. Some may see nothing wrong with this. If faith-based charities are the only ones stepping up to help these people why shouldn't they be able to push their products at the same time? The problem is that it is exploitation. They are exploiting the desperation of starving and sick men, women, and children in order to spread their faith and gain more converts.
It must be said that not all of these organizations operate in this manner. Some give without ever proselytizing. They are few however. For most their agenda is clearly set. Food, medicine, clothing, and sometimes shelter in exchange for the minds of the desperate and needy. One of the most exploited continents on earth further exploited in order to spread ignorance and intolerance, because that is what lies at the root of Christianity and most other religions.
If the Spanish Conquistadors had not invaded Mexico, murdering, raping, and pillaging in their thirst for Spanish gold, none of the unshakably devout Mexican Americans would have ever heard of Jesus Christ. Now, after having been indoctrinated into the Christian faith at the point of a sword, they are some of the most pious people on earth.
There is something so wrong in all of this. There is something unseemly about Black Americans being so thoroughly conquered right down to their very minds and spirits. I admit, I find it all rather pathetic and embarrassing. If I were being completely honest I would have to admit that I am saddened and somewhat disgusted by the very idea of a Black Christian.
It would seem to me that after having so recently escaped our slavemasters that we would have had enough of masters. I would have expected even a self-destructive relinquishment and denial of all things that had been forced upon them by their enslavers and a return to their original cultures and faiths. Or, at best, a denial of all faith and a refusal to ever bow to anyone again.
Now, I do understand that some slaves had been so thoroughly brainwashed and cut off from their former beliefs and cultures that for them this would have been nearly impossible. I understand that in a version of Stockholm Syndrome popularly known as “Tomism”, after the famous character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, other’s had learned to love their slavemasters and coveted his life, his ways, and even his God. Others, understandably, saw how powerful their slavemasters were and sought to acquire some of his wealth and power for themselves by imitating his ways. I can understand how they would have thought that it was the White man’s God that had seemingly given him the power to enslave their entire race. This having been driven into their minds along with the idea of White superiority by the heads of the church and the bible itself, which condones making slaves of the “strangers that sojourn among you” and the “heathen races”.
What I don’t understand is how this has continued right through the Civil Rights movement and the Black power movement. How this patriarchal Master/ Slave religion could continue to be so ardently embraced by the children of slaves. What I don’t understand is how we still find ourselves praying to the great overseer in the sky even in the new millennium.
It is true that many of us did seek to leave the Christian faith in favor of more African belief systems such as Yuruba and Islam (another Abrahamic “Master /Slave” religion.) Unfortunately, too many of them returned to Christianity due to pressure from family and friends within our community, reaching out to pull them back in like crabs pulling each other back into the basket that’s heading toward the boiling pot. Others returned missing the old familiarity of the Black Church. This is the same set of circumstances now keeping those who have realized the absurdity of the God hypothesis from following their logical minds instead of their hearts. Following logic and reason often means being led away from an African American community still shackled with superstition. In my own life I have found this to be a truly frustrating and depressing situation.
My own mother is a Christian Minister. My entire family, like most American families, are very devout believers. They express their beliefs freely and unselfconsciously because they enjoy the privilege of being a member of a major majority in America. I, on the other hand, must often keep my own beliefs to myself for fear of offending anyone or alienating myself any further from the family I love. This is a mere microcosm of what the Black atheists must face in regards to his entire culture.
The prevalence of Christian ideology in Black Culture creates a very difficult dilemma for a Black Atheist. Our skepticism must often remain hidden for fear of exclusion. When religion comes up we tend to stay mum or quickly change the subject. Those who are more vocal soon find themselves ostracized and isolated. When it comes to our relationships with the opposite sex we often find our choices limited by mates who are looking for a “good Christian man” or woman. Community activism, particularly Civil rights groups, tend to be dominated by religious organizations, making it difficult for an admitted atheist to even participate in any organized way in the betterment of the race. Politics, likewise, are dominated by the religious-minded. If you expect the Black vote than you had better be a Christian.
In his own family it is even worse for the Black atheist. Black families tend to be extremely matriarchal. This is largely due to the historically high number of Black households led by a single mother going all the way back to the times of slavery when families were often broken up on the auction block and Black men were sold away from their families. This has resulted in a bond between a Black man and his mother that is unusually strong. Black women have tended to be extremely religious as even a casual glance at the average Black church would testify to. Most Black churches, though run primarily by men, are supported almost entirely by the female members of their congregation who then force their husbands and children to attend, often under duress.
For most Black men, the idea of telling our mothers and grandmothers that we no longer believe in god, and thus breaking their hearts, is a painful situation to even contemplate. This is undoubtedly true in many cultures, but it is doubly true in the Black culture. This is one of the main reasons many Black Atheists tend to stay underground and in the closet.
Still, perhaps the biggest reason for the invisibility of the Black Atheist is that there are simply so few of us. So few Black men and women even realize that Atheism is an option. We have been so thoroughly brainwashed that the idea that perhaps God does not exist is one that most could not even contemplate. Atheism in the Black community is synonymous with Satanism. Even when a Black person begins to survey his surroundings and realizes the absurdity of a belief in an all-powerful omnibenevolent deity in light of the evil of which the world is everywhere full, he is often left to question and reason in a relative vacuum due to the stigma attached to atheism in our community. His resources are limited. He is unable to find like-minded individuals with whom to discuss his increasing doubts. Inevitably he turns to his lifelong spiritual advisors, his parents, grandparents, or the church fathers themselves to discuss his disbelief only to find his fledgling arguments battered down by dogmatic theologists and zealots and his questions dismissed with the typical and oft-refuted replies of free-will, intelligent design, and finally… faith. Unsatisfied, but afraid to speak up because he has not yet learned enough powerful counter-arguments and fears being rejected by his own community, he nods his head and feigns agreement, retreating solemnly back behind the protective veil of faith.
My goal in writing this is to let my brothers and sisters know that they are not alone in their skepticism, their doubt, and their utter disbelief. There is an increasing number of African Americans who do recognize the damage done to our people physically, intellectually, and emotionally by religion in general and Christianity in particular. There are many of us asking the questions that belief in God had presupposed, precluding the possibility of ever finding real answers. There is a growing community of Black Atheists striving to someday liberate the minds of Black Americans from the great overseer in the sky just as abolitionists long ago liberated us from the overseer in the cotton and tobacco fields.