On Black Atheism: Anthony B. Pinn

The Rice University professor says we're better off without a cosmic security blanket.

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A recent New York Times article profiled African Americans who don't believe in God or who have eschewed the faith that many assume is central to the black experience. What does the apparent rise in atheism and agnosticism (pdf) among blacks tell us about the utility of religion for African Americans in today's social and political climate? Interviews with academics, activists and advocates from everywhere on the religious spectrum reveal the diversity of views on this historically fraught -- and, for many, highly personal -- topic. 

For the first in the series, The Root talked to Anthony B. Pinn, Ph.D., a professor of religious studies at Rice University and expert on humanism within African-American communities, liberation theology and African-American religious history.

The Root: Are African Americans better or worse off as a result of religion, and why? 

Anthony B. Pinn: I think African Americans are worse off because of their allegiance to theism. The belief in God and gods has not been particularly useful or productive for them. It has lessened their appeal to their own creativity and ingenuity, and in most cases 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.

TR: Research shows that African Americans believe in God at higher rates than the general population. What explains and sustains the higher rate of spirituality in the black community?

ABP: What's also important is the increase in the number of African Americans who say they don't adhere to any particular religious tradition [pdf]. That number over the past couple of decades has radically increased. But I think this belief in God remains fairly strong within the African-American community because it provides a kind of safety mechanism. In a world that seems absurd, living in a community that continuously encounters death-dealing forces, the idea that there's something out there that has your back, that's ultimately looking out for you and wants the best for you, can be comforting, although there's no real evidence for it and no real substance behind it. It's a kind of cosmic security blanket.

TR: While less than one-half of a percent of African Americans identify themselves as atheists, compared with 1.6 percent of the total population, this group has become more vocal in recent years. What's changed that has allowed blacks to feel more comfortable admitting that they don't believe in God?

It also seems to reflect a general trend within the larger culture toward becoming more accepting of those who say, "I don't believe, and I don't apologize for it."

Finally, in Obama's inaugural address, he spoke of nonbelief in a rather positive way. No doubt that that encouraged others to say, "Well, OK, this is what I am. No apologies."

TR: What are the best and worst ways that religion factors into African-American political views and political activity? How is faith leveraged to motivate or to manipulate? 

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