I’m black and I’m an atheist.
That really shouldn’t be a shocking statement. Everyone knows that African Americans aren’t a monolith. We have a wide variety of lifestyles and diverse opinions on many topics, religion included. But if you switch on the TV, you get a different story. The study of mass media has taught me just how much religiosity is expected of blacks. A huge majority of films and television shows featuring African-American casts heavily feature church. It’s in our music. It’s part of our award shows and drives the plot of even many plays with black actors. It’s inescapable.
Here’s how this stereotyping plays out for me: I am often told that being atheist is a “white” thing—as if not accepting any religion, including the one forced upon our ancestors, makes me care less about my community. This is despite the fact that I’m a member of the Black Skeptics Los Angeles, a group of nonreligious people who are all active in helping underprivileged communities.
This year BSLA has awarded scholarships to undocumented, homeless, foster-care and LGBTQ youths for the second year in a row. Consciousness of the needs of our community naturally goes hand-in-hand with our atheism. That’s because while many consider it to be worthwhile to pray for change, we would rather get up and make those changes ourselves.
I didn’t always think this way. I was actually raised a Christian. My curiosity bred questions to which I never received adequate answers. As I grew older and became more interested in history, I learned about how religion has historically been used to both manipulate and oppress people. Christianity being forced onto my ancestors as part of American slavery, particularly, did not sit well with me.
The death of my mother when I was a teenager played a part as well. When a pastor asked my sisters and me if we really believed that our mother went to heaven, just a couple of days after we were told of her death, it angered me. It seemed inappropriate to put us on the spot, with the shock of her death still so fresh in our minds. To add to my anger, instead of a focus at her funeral on what made my mother special, everything about her was tied to God and church. Her service felt like more of a church recruiting tool than an honest memorial.
I’ve heard a lot that without religion, one cannot have any morals. But of course, many of the people who have committed the most heinous crimes were religious. This itself proves that religion is no guarantee of morality. Some of the kindest, most generous people I know are not religious at all. Personally, my gradual journey to atheism also resulted in my being more conscious of the needs of others. Re-evaluating my place in the world changed my views on religion, as well as my views on how I should treat my fellow human beings.
Recently I made a short documentary about African-American atheists as part of my master’s thesis project. During its development, I found out that many people didn’t even know that there were black atheists. As a result, showing that nonreligious blacks do exist became a focal point for the project. Though the project was completed, I am now looking for funding to turn this project into a full-length documentary because I want more people to receive this message.
Unfortunately, American media and culture have made “coming out” as a nonbeliever difficult. We deal with fear of rejection by our friends and family and have to grapple with the knowledge that we’re looked down upon. My hope is that my story will convince other nonbelievers of color to come out about their skepticism, as well as correct some of the misinformation. The more we grow and find our voices, the more we can combat the misconceptions and prejudices about us.
Darrin Johnson lives near Los Angeles and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communications and a master’s degree in journalism. He’s an aspiring journalist and documentarian with a focus on social justice and mass media. Follow him on Twitter.