On Black Atheism: Eddie S. Glaude Jr.

When it comes to faith, this Princeton professor says that African Americans have always been complex.

Princeton University

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 sixth and final interview in the series, The Root talked to Eddie S. Glaude Jr., the William S. Tod Professor of Religion and chair of the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University. 

Read the other interviews here.

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

Eddie S. Glaude Jr.: It's an odd question. Religion has played a significant role in the formation of African-American cultural life. It has played a central role in the formation of African-American institutional life and has provided extraordinary resources in the personal lives of many African Americans.

To ask whether religion is beneficial or a problem for people is really a question that is a vestige of secular skepticism; I don't think it's a question that bears an answer. Religion does the kinds of work that it does.

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?

ESG: It has something to do with the importance of black religious institutions to African-American life. There's a wonderful line in W.E.B. Du Bois' Souls of Black Folk that says the church predates the black family. It's out of black churches that black civil society emerges.

And so, there's a sense in which these religious vocabularies are crucial to the personal and political identities of African Americans. It's certainly the case that God talk is central to our community experience, so it's reflective of our historical reality.

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?