I’ve never met a Black person who doubts the existence of God. If I did, I wasn’t aware of it. Not that I expect them to wear a scarlet “A” like Hester Prynne or screenprinted T-shirts that scream “Take Your Jehovah and Shove Him.” I just haven’t heard the words “I don’t believe in God,” or anything similar, come from mouth of someone who looks like me. That being said, I won’t douse them with holy oil or fake a Fred Sanford heart attack when that almost inevitable moment comes.
I know that Black atheists or non-believers—whichever term they’re most comfortable with—are a minority within a minority, but they’re coming out of obscurity to shake off the stigma of living without the Lord. I hesitate to say they’re on the rise, but they’re definitely more confident in declaring their faithlessness.
Now, that doesn’t mean I haven’t been party to more than my fair share of deep conversation and theological debate with other folks who claim to be “spiritual, not religious.” Organized religion, they argue, is stifling. Controlling. Manipulative. But in my experience, every single time without fail, the discussion ends up being about Christianity, Jesus and the Bible. They’re the first point of attack. Not once have I ever had to defend the Quran or the Torah, imams or rabbis, mosques or temples. The argument is painted using the broad strokes of organized religion, but what they mean to say is Christianity. Christianity is stifling. Christianity is controlling. Christianity is manipulative. For people who’ve had disappointing run-ins in the past, it’s understandable for their walk to be dubious.
But many other disenchanteds—not all, but many—got a little bit of education under their belts and have become overly analytical and overly critical of the church and the faith as a whole. With their new enlightenment and shiny, sparkly degrees dangling from their walls, suddenly what worked for their mamas and grandmamas and grandmamas before them seems archaic and out-of-date. Who needs Jesus when you’ve got a six-figure salary and a couple of academic credentials behind your name? With education propelling so many worldly opportunities, other worldly religion seems so old school.
“African Americans are worse off because of their allegiance to theism,” said Anthony B. Pinn, Ph.D., a professor of religious studies at Rice University in a recent story on The Root, who is running a pretty interesting series on Black atheists. “It has resulted in a kind of bizarre understanding of suffering as a marker of closeness to God and a mark of divine favor. Nothing good can come out of that.”
True, back in the day saints were just trying to reserve their spot in glory. In a society that wasn’t at all interested in creating fast change, what with slavery and Jim Crow and economic oppression and all, they envisioned a reward built up for themselves in heaven. So they needed their faith to get them through to the other side. I think you’d be hard pressed to find a contemporary Christian who believes their assignment is a life of strife and self-sacrifice in order to be closer to the Lord. Heck, I know one very specifically who would be tempted to jump ship and head for greener pastures if that was the honest-to-goodness case. Luckily, my God is a God of affluence and prosperity, whether I have an advanced degree or an upwardly mobile agenda. I know better than to question the mighty hand that feeds me just because I now know homiletics as well as ol’ time religion.
At the end of this week, 2011 will wheeze its final breaths and usher in a fresh set of 364 days to dream, work and hustle through and occasionally, piddle away. And I, and probably a million other Black folks, will spend at least a little time with my butt parked on somebody’s church pew, reflecting on the year just passed and the one that’s shouldering its way in. Even after all of my very theoretical, very deep, very philosophical discussions about his omnipotence and power, I’ll be foolishly praying to a God that I can’t watch on CNN or see at the convention center. Being empowered with post-secondary education has made some of us disdainful of the church and Christianity in general because we feel like we’re smarter than a spirit. But it’s made me even more sure that I couldn’t have made it this far by myself.