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 third in the series, The Root talked to Mark D. Hatcher. He is the 30-year old chief financial officer of the nonprofit Black Atheists of America and the founder of Secular Students at Howard University, where he’s a Ph.D. candidate in physiology and biophysics.
Read the other interviews here.
The Root: Are African Americans better or worse off as a result of religion, and why?
Mark D. Hatcher: Religion does seem to provide a sense of security and community to many religious people in general, but these things can be achieved without using God as a middleman. Given the amount of time and money dedicated to securing one’s salvation instead of reinforcing [one’s] own personal needs, religion acts as a vacuum on the resources of the black community.
How much interest can tithe money accrue over a year? How far would the “building fund” monies go if dedicated to hypertension research? How many job applications can one fill out in the time spent on [one’s] knees praying for a change?
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?
MDH: It is well-established that religion has historically spread through conquest and colonization, and this, too, can be applied to the Christianity forced onto American slaves. However, religion became especially central to this culture because it was one of the only places where they could be a culture. This evolved into the black church becoming the hub for education, fellowship, dating, counseling, politics, etc.
While white cultures had 4-H clubs, country clubs, access to mental-health care and political rallies, the blacks with no access to these things due to segregation found it under the steeple. These powerful roots make it hard to extinguish associations with religion, even among the doubters.
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?
MDH: I believe that the increase in outward atheism or agnosticism is simply a result of the world moving away from outdated ideas. The same occurred with growing equality of blacks and women, and we are still making great strides with the homosexual community as well. The world is growing tired of thinking a certain way because “that’s just how it is.” The idea that so many young people identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious” seems to indicate that they have outgrown religious restriction in favor of thinking for themselves.