Tommie Shelby

I found my faith in college — and lost it there, too. Though Harvard is often said to have ruined more good Negroes than bathtub gin, it was actually at Florida A&M University, a historically black university, that I went from being a devout Christian to being an atheist.

Though I didn't read the Bible growing up, I was taught to respect it as the authoritative word of God. In my home, as in many black homes, God's existence was treated as an obvious fact and was never questioned. So when, during the spring of my freshman year, a friend invited me to join a Bible-study group, I couldn't refuse. How could I truthfully say I believed that this sacred text expressed God's will for my life and not even bother to read it?


And so one day, after much study, I joined a church and was baptized. Soon I was earnestly sharing the gospel with family and friends. I lived at home during the summer after my freshman year, and my mother and I studied together. As a result, her faith was renewed. Indeed, she held tightly to her faith until the day she died.

I can't say the same for myself. By the time I graduated, I no longer believed in God. I didn't get to this place easily. It was a painful and trying process that involved hours of study, reflection, self-examination, fasting and prayer.

I had come to my religious belief through, among other things, a search for truth. I felt that if God had given me the rational capacity to discern the truth, I should not hesitate to use it, even if this use involved reconsidering my reasons for believing in his existence. Testing my belief would only make it stronger, right?


So, drawing on the history of philosophy and theology, I carefully considered the main arguments for and against God's existence: Pascal's wager, the first-cause argument, the argument from design, the problem of evil and so on. I took courses in the history of the Bible and on the major world religions.

But the intellectual road was not the hardest part of my journey. Confronting my underlying motives for having faith was much more challenging.

It is a mundane feature of the human condition that we are susceptible to self-deception and wishful thinking. In particular, the cognitive side of our minds can sometimes unknowingly surrender to the emotional, noncognitive side. We believe some things, not because we have good reasons for thinking them true, but because believing them gives us hope, consolation or a sense of security.

I worried that my belief in God was ultimately rooted in things like fear of death, desire for community or longing for the loving father figure I didn't have. Was my attraction to Christian doctrines driven by the fact that I was a lonely, alienated, scared kid looking for something firm to hold on to? After all, faith made me feel powerful and protected.

How could God respect my conviction if it was grounded in such things? I had to look deep inside myself to scrutinize my motives. Once I'd done this, I was free to follow my reasoning wherever it took me.

I don't think there's a good reason to believe in God. And I don't believe that faith alone can be a good reason to form any belief. Rather than say I lost my faith, I should probably say I came to reject faith, to be against it.


I just don't see the justification for carving out a special exception for religious beliefs as convictions that require no reasons or evidence. Not only does faith not ground theism, but it also can't help you decide which of the vast array of religious doctrines, if any, to accept. It would be like flipping a coin.

Many black people with whom I've talked about this, including some people I love, find my rejection of faith baffling or frightening. Some feel sorry for me. Others suspect that my atheism is rooted in disappointment with a particular church or with organized religion in general, in a desire to be free to sin without guilt or in anger toward God for his failure to help when I or my people needed him most.

No doubt some feel that it just confirms their belief that higher education (and the study of philosophy in particular) is a destroyer of faith and distances black youths from the venerable traditions of their people. What the black believers I know rarely do is engage seriously with my reasons for nonbelief. Instead of regarding me as someone with whom they have an honest disagreement, as someone they can perhaps persuade, they look upon me with contempt or pity.


Years ago, at a Thanksgiving dinner in Atlanta, my aunt invited family members to attend services at her church the next day. I flatly declined. When pressed, I revealed (with some relish, I'm embarrassed to admit) that I was not simply a lapsed Christian but a convinced atheist who professed no religious belief.

Some family members were angry and felt betrayed. One called me a fool. My grandmother exclaimed that I had lost my mind. A few, I knew, agreed with me but kept silent, nonetheless.

To my surprise, my mama (the woman I had brought to Christ) defended my right to form beliefs, even about God, as I saw fit and urged others to respect my views and to try to understand where I was coming from. My mama had dropped out of high school while pregnant with me. As a single, working mother of six, she lived a hard, lonely and all-too-short life (she died at age 48). Without her faith and church, I'm certain she would have sunk into deep depression.


I'm an intellectual, by natural disposition and vocation. I have chosen to live a life of the mind in a community of scholars where my nonbelief is unremarkable. My path is not for everyone. And I don't expect most black folk to leave the Lord. What I would like to see, though, is greater respect for and understanding toward the nonbelievers among us. If my mother could muster it, surely we all can.

Tommie Shelby is a professor of African and African-American studies and of philosophy at Harvard University.