Back in the day, saints sang “Gimme that ole time religion.” But now a larger percentage of blacks are saying, “No thanks.”
Unlike grandma and grandpa, who built their lives on deep religious faith, Bible study, prayer meetings and consistent church attendance, more black Americans—now 11 percent—say they have no religion at all. They are not attached to any religious tradition or to any spiritual belief in the existence of God.
Data from the American Religious Identification Survey released last week shows black folk following trends evident in the general population.
Overall, 15 percent of all Americans say they have no religion, based on a survey conducted by Trinity College of 54,000 people.
But culture and custom make it harder for black people to walk away from the idea of God. Who could forget Claudia McNeil slapping Diana Sands in A Raisin In The Sun, when the young woman declared that there was no God and no miracles? She got slapped and was forced to repeat three times. “In my mother’s house, there is still God.”
And remember the images of slavery: people praying in the woods, in the fields and singing songs of Zion. Remember the religious fervor of the civil rights marches, deep spiritual voices that often sounded like a Sunday evening church concert.
In historical terms, church was always the one place blacks could go for affirmation, says Stacey Floyd-Thomas, an associate professor in the Vanderbilt University School of Divinity who studies the black church.
“Sunday was that special day for black people. You didn’t have to work and you could go to a place, church, and be fully equal,” she says. “Now we can go anywhere for that affirmation.”
It’s no secret that blacks now head major corporations, social organizations, colleges and other institutions that were off limits just 40 years ago.
“Still, you would be hard-pressed today to find a black person or a poor person who is an atheist,” says the Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church.
The faith and religion that sustained black folk in hard times is the same faith many rely on today. They just don’t express it the same way as their elders once did. And many see religion as an individual thing instead of a community expression.