On Black Atheism: Zaheer Ali

This Muslim scholar says that we can all claim an "African-American civil religion."

Zaheer Ali

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 fifth in the series, The Root talked to Zaheer Ali, a doctoral student in history at Columbia University who researches 20th-century African-American history and religion. He is the former project manager of Columbia's Malcolm X Project. Follow him on Twitter @zaheerali.

Read the other interviews here.

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

Zaheer Ali: African-American religious traditions, communities and institutions have undeniably enriched black life throughout America's history. Culturally, black religion provided not only the material but also the training ground for black musicians, writers and artists to hone their craft. Just as importantly, black religious theologies provided psychic armor protecting and affirming black humanity in the face of racist attacks and discriminatory practices.

To this day, black churches especially, but also black mosques and other houses of worship, serve as important institutional sites that provide organizational resources for mobilizing people, pooling resources and delivering social services to the neediest in their communities. Religiously affiliated independent schools, after-school programs, community-development corporations and low-income housing developments have often been the only safety net in communities abandoned by the state.

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?

ZA: I think much of this has to do with the historical legacy of the black church in particular, and African-American religious communities in general, as the central site for black progress. As a result, much of black life -- even for the unchurched -- remains encoded with theism: the belief in a deity as an unseen, transcendent power. Even the most profane rapper will, when accepting an award, thank God.

Furthermore, the repeated failures and disappointments of political leadership and the nation-state (agents of "this world" or, as Muslims would call it, the "Dunya") in protecting the lives of black people or delivering justice reveal the limitations of human agency. While, for some, putting their faith in God is an act of escapism, for others it imbues the lives of everyday people with hope for a better future and the ability (even with what sometimes seems like supernatural power) to see beyond their material conditions, envision new possibilities and strive toward realizing "God's Kingdom" on Earth even as it is in heaven -- or, as Muslims would say, "the best in this world and the next."

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?