Princeton University

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 sixth and final interview in the series, The Root talked to Eddie S. Glaude Jr., the William S. Tod Professor of Religion and chair of the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University. 

Read the other interviews here.

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

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Eddie S. Glaude Jr.: It's an odd question. Religion has played a significant role in the formation of African-American cultural life. It has played a central role in the formation of African-American institutional life and has provided extraordinary resources in the personal lives of many African Americans.

To ask whether religion is beneficial or a problem for people is really a question that is a vestige of secular skepticism; I don't think it's a question that bears an answer. Religion does the kinds of work that it does.

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?

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ESG: It has something to do with the importance of black religious institutions to African-American life. There's a wonderful line in W.E.B. Du Bois' Souls of Black Folk that says the church predates the black family. It's out of black churches that black civil society emerges.

And so, there's a sense in which these religious vocabularies are crucial to the personal and political identities of African Americans. It's certainly the case that God talk is central to our community experience, so it's reflective of our historical reality.

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?

ESG: I would have to do the work to see if this is actually right. If you look at African-American political discourse in the '30s and '40s, there's a very vocal skepticism about God talk. What we see is a kind of media landscape that allows for different voices to find their way into the mainstream.

But we've always had a tradition of unchurched, unbelieving African Americans — look at [Benjamin] Elijah Mays' wonderful book The Negro's God [as Reflected in His Literature]. It's not like atheism is something that's new or something that's now more pervasive. It's just that the media landscape has allowed us to bring it into view.

TR: What are the best and worst ways that religion factors into African-American political views and political activity? How is faith leveraged to motivate or to manipulate?

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ESG: We can see it in the context of the civil rights movement. We can see it in the context of local churches that are actively involved in neighborhoods and communities. We see it in the context of an active social gospel.

In other words, religious institutions such as churches and mosques function as social institutions as well as simply religious institutions: They're sites where people gather; … they're places where people are mobilized and people mobilize each other. To that extent, they factor in a very positive way.

Oftentimes, though, like other institutions, religious institutions can be captured by the negative power of charisma, where particular people and their voice become dominant, and people follow like a flock of sheep. So they can become places where people lose sight of their own interests and their own voice and their own capacity.

TR: Could the civil rights movement have happened without Christianity?

ESG: Of course! Wherever you have oppressed people, there is energy and willingness at some point to strike the blow for freedom. We have to understand that the role of African-American Protestantism, and religion generally, in the civil rights movement was a highly complex one.

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It's not the case that all African-American churches, pastors and people who professed faith were involved in the civil rights movement, or that all African Americans opened their doors to the folks who were organizing on behalf of black folks. It's not a matter of Christianity being always already a good — it's about what human beings who have faith do with the lives that they lead.

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?

ESG: We'll have to see. We'll have to cash it out. There's no necessary relationship between being committed to the Christian gospel, being a Muslim or being a person who professes faith and being committed to social justice. There are a whole lot of people who profess Christianity who are not, in my view, advocates for social justice.

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We would have to see the current ratio between those who profess a faith and their commitment to questions of social justice and what those questions of social justice involve. Are we talking about same-sex love? Are we talking about the freedom of a woman to choose? When we begin to drill down to certain questions, we see that these beliefs actually cash out in different ways in term of the political decisions and choices that people make. 

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?

ESG: It predicts that we're just as complex as anyone else and that folks will find their resources and meaning from different places. It suggests that African Americans have always been complex, and sometimes our story of ourselves betrays that complexity and makes it seem as if we've always been prophetic Christians or that we never really had a conservative Christianity or that African-American churches have always been on the front lines of the freedom struggle.

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We've always had a range of people: people who are doing amazing things, people who are not doing such amazing things; people who are fighting for freedom and people who are standing on the sidelines, reaping the benefits; people who are conservative and people who are progressive; and people who are just trying to feed families and make it to the next day. So the fact that Christianity or religious commitment may be waning — that there are more people who are unchurched — is just a sign of the complexity of our moment in this time, so we still have to struggle for freedom, no matter what.  

Jenée Desmond-Harris is a contributing editor to The Root.