ISSA/University of Illinois

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 fourth in the series, The Root talked to Jamila Bey, the host of SPARring With Jamila: The Sex Politics and Religion Hour on the Voice of Russia Radio.

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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Jamila Bey: We are worse off. Religion has enslaved us physically. Religion continues to enslave us mentally. It keeps us away from scientific advancement. It tells us that we know, which gives us no reason to explore and discover. Religiosity kills your brain cells, son. It kills your brain cells.

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?

JB: African Americans have allowed the story to be told that we are a God-fearing people. Our culture dictates — mandates, even — that we be spiritual. Accepting that definition of who we are forces us to defend our blackness should we have doubts about spirituality. [Accepting that definition means accepting that to be] authentically black is to be religious — wrongly — and that to doubt God is a white thing — wrongly. We let others define us, and we dare not buck that expectation.

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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?

JB: I take issue with your numbers. Pew [and ARIS] allege that there are 16 percent of all Americans who have no religious affiliation, and up to two-thirds of those could be considered atheist or agnostic. Similarly, about 12 percent of African Americans are without religious belief.

The issue is that most atheists are afraid to admit that they think religion is bunk. When you talk about black folks, we're really not going to say that we don't believe what our mama and grandmama and our great-grandmama taught us, so the numbers will always be smaller.

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However, the Internet is our salvation … It is our balm in Gilead. It has shown us the way to others. It has shown us the light of reason and offered proof that the doubters are not alone.

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?

JB: The two-party system has been proven insufficient time and time again, particularly when one party or another can go into churches and tell pastors how to instruct their flock. Proposition 8 in California was the Mormon Church imposing its hatred of homosexuality on people who vote the way their pastors tell them ("The Bible says it's wrong. We will vote in accordance with the Bible") … Political aims for good can be taken at the behest of pastors, but the potential and the evidence of that going horribly awry are too great.

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

JB: Absolutely. It did [happen without Christianity]. Churches [as opposed to Christianity] provided a physical location for meeting and sharing information. In the South, Jim Crow laws were such that two black people congregating was a meeting that should be broken up by police. You call it a church meeting and people show up, and the cops tend to stay away. Infiltrators are easily identified because the church is a community that knows who's in it.

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The church also afforded white society a way to disseminate information ("Pastor, we don't want no problems. You tell your people"). It had its purpose, but the utility of the black church is greatly diminished today.

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?

JB: All people yearn to move and to breathe unimpeded and unoppressed. It's not a Christian desire to be unoppressed. It's a human desire. Those who want freedom need not be religious. So if those who want freedom don't need to be religious, those who demand it don't need to be religious; those who agree that freedom and justice are good values need not be religious. I would argue most people are indeed humanistic in their tendencies. Those values and those desires stand apart from the need for a supernatural higher being.

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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?

JB: Fewer of us will subject ourselves to the tyranny of religious oppression. Fewer of us will support those who use the church to do harm. Perhaps we will explore science. Perhaps we will explore philosophy. Perhaps we will vaccinate our children rather than praying. Perhaps we will make more of the days that we are on this Earth rather than waiting for some reward in the imagined hereafter.

Tomorrow: Zaheer Ali, a doctoral student in history at Columbia University. 

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