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?
ABP: One of the negative ways religion has factored in is to provide justification for discrimination in the African-American community. Religion became a way, first, for denying women full participation … It’s also provided a way for folks to disregard and abuse gays and lesbians. It allows for an “in group” and an “out group,” and you can do whatever you’d like to the out group. It has justified horrible, horrific behavior with respect to the out groups.
TR: Could the civil rights movement have happened without Christianity?
ABP: We give Christianity too much credit. Like Martin Luther King Jr. argued, the vast majority of churches weren’t involved. We also forget there was a humanist and atheist presence within the civil rights movement. So the question is, could it have happened without determined people? No. Was it a movement that was completely dependent upon Christians and other theists? No, never.
TR: If Christianity — and religious belief overall — declines in the African-American community, how, if at all, will it impact the fight for social justice moving forward?
ABP: It seems to me it will ground the fight for justice within human activity, what we can gather through the strength of our own determination and capacity as human beings, rather than relying on some sort of cosmic assistance that never comes through.
TR: If more African Americans are atheists or agnostics these days, what does that say about where we are as a community? What does it predict for the future of black people in America?
ABP: It simply points to the long-standing diversity within our community, in which atheists and humanists have always existed. It also puts responsibility for progress of African Americans squarely on the shoulders of people.
Tomorrow: American Atheists’ director of development, A.J. Johnson.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is a contributing editor to The Root.