JB: The two-party system has been proven insufficient time and time again, particularly when one party or another can go into churches and tell pastors how to instruct their flock. Proposition 8 in California was the Mormon Church imposing its hatred of homosexuality on people who vote the way their pastors tell them (“The Bible says it’s wrong. We will vote in accordance with the Bible”) … Political aims for good can be taken at the behest of pastors, but the potential and the evidence of that going horribly awry are too great.
TR: Could the civil rights movement have happened without Christianity?
JB: Absolutely. It did [happen without Christianity]. Churches [as opposed to Christianity] provided a physical location for meeting and sharing information. In the South, Jim Crow laws were such that two black people congregating was a meeting that should be broken up by police. You call it a church meeting and people show up, and the cops tend to stay away. Infiltrators are easily identified because the church is a community that knows who’s in it.
The church also afforded white society a way to disseminate information (“Pastor, we don’t want no problems. You tell your people”). It had its purpose, but the utility of the black church is greatly diminished today.
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?
JB: All people yearn to move and to breathe unimpeded and unoppressed. It’s not a Christian desire to be unoppressed. It’s a human desire. Those who want freedom need not be religious. So if those who want freedom don’t need to be religious, those who demand it don’t need to be religious; those who agree that freedom and justice are good values need not be religious. I would argue most people are indeed humanistic in their tendencies. Those values and those desires stand apart from the need for a supernatural higher being.
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?
JB: Fewer of us will subject ourselves to the tyranny of religious oppression. Fewer of us will support those who use the church to do harm. Perhaps we will explore science. Perhaps we will explore philosophy. Perhaps we will vaccinate our children rather than praying. Perhaps we will make more of the days that we are on this Earth rather than waiting for some reward in the imagined hereafter.
Tomorrow: Zaheer Ali, a doctoral student in history at Columbia University.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is a contributing editor to The Root.