Black Women Who Use the "A" Word

The largest gathering of African-American atheists is a reminder that non-believers are not alone.

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In the movie The Color Purple, sisters Celie and Nettie reunite after being separated by decades, oceans and the spite of an abusive Mister.

Running through a lush pasture, neither quite believes her fortune upon reuniting. Old women now, they stumble through the field, arms outstretched, calling to one another, "Ceeeeeelieeeee!" "Nettieeeeee!"

I got to enjoy my very own "Celie-Nettie" moment when I walked into the Center for Inquiry on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., last Sunday afternoon. The African Americans for Humanism conference hosted four to five dozen non-believers--the largest gathering of African-American atheists in history. (As a member of the Center, I was part of the planning committee, and I was also a speaker at the event; "Spare the Rod, Save Your Child," was my topic.)

Of course, the Internet has helped me realize that I'm not the only black atheist around, but until actually being able to embrace and do the "sister-friend squeal" with a couple dozen of other black women who use the "A" word (atheist or agnostic), I have been rather lonely for girlfriends who don't need to schedule activities around their pious obligations.

Within this incredibly religious culture, black Americans are the most devout and routinely rate at the top of every index that measures religiosity. It's difficult--if not impossible--to divorce religion from black culture. We can hardly get on the bus without invoking or thanking Jesus that we'll make it to work on time.

Among black folks, if you're a criminal who shows up at a service on whatever Sabbath you subscribe to, you're just a fallen human who is worthy of love and redemption. But if you're a moral and decent human who doesn't believe in a supernatural force, you'll soon find that your kind is most unwelcome.

One conference participant from the Bible Belt summed it up this way: "Christianity's grasp on black people makes it almost impossible to admit that you're a black atheist. We have to hide our non-belief, otherwise we are excluded. And if we give voice to any objection or doubt, we're ostracized and isolated--or just banished! So any time religion comes up, it's simpler to just change the subject or say nothing if you can't bring yourself to fake an 'amen.' ... But don't use my name ‘cause my mother told me when she saw me reading God is Not Great that if any of her children actually believed ‘that mess,' she'd have one less child."

It's fair to say that everyone was pretty excited to come and fellowship with like-minded types from around the country, and one atheist who flew in from India. It was the first time many conference-goers knowingly met another black atheist in the flesh. And for those of us from the nation's capitol, we met a few people who are new to such events, though many take part in message boards and Internet discussion groups.

Ronnelle Adams, a D.C.-area resident, says just coming to the event was thrilling. "I walked in and saw all these black atheists," he said. "I'm not the only one! I was so happy for the discussion and the chance to meet other like-minded people just like me."

Norm Allen, executive director of African Americans for Humanism, kicked off the conference with the discussion "Why it is Time for African American Humanists to Come Out of the Closet." He told the group that he wished more black folks would simply admit their non-belief without pushing their worldview. Also, he asserted that using the term "humanist" rather than the more charged label "atheist" could be a step toward helping black non-believers find some acceptance in their communities.

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