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?

Advertisement

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?

Advertisement

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?

ZA: The worst of our religious expressions can be dogmatic, sectarian, self-righteous and judgmental. They can rely on ahistorical readings of historically constructed theologies that ignore new knowledge and sanctify hierarchies of oppression in our communities along lines of class, gender, sexual orientation and the like. While not the cause of atheism (which has to do strictly with belief), I do feel that these narrow, exclusionary practices contribute to many people's disillusionment with religion and, eventually, with God.

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?

ZA: Deeply troubling are the attempts to translate the conservative social values of many African-American religious communities into public policies that police people's personal lives. Thankfully, at its best, prophetic black religion speaks truth to power, nurtures the souls of black folk and has sustained a strong progressive political tradition in black America that champions public policies that protect the least of those in our society.

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

ZA: The institutional resources, organizational skill and cultural reach of the black church and its networks were crucial to interstate communications, strategic planning and mobilization of various desegregation campaigns. It goes without saying that the power of Martin Luther King Jr. as a prophetic voice honed in the church was essential. But the civil rights movement was not exclusively Christian in organization or ideology; nor was it a one-man show. Just as important were labor unions, communists, progressive Jews and others. And it is important to note that the inspiration for the movement's main tactic of nonviolent civil disobedience came from the philosophy of satyagraha, or "soul force," formulated by Gandhi, a Hindu.

Advertisement

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?

ZA: As the Muslim leader Malcolm X once said, "You don't catch hell because you're a Methodist or Baptist … You catch hell, all of us catch hell, for the same reason … we're all black people." The fight for social justice has never been the prerogative of any one religious denomination or sect, but the responsibility of all in our society.

Our religious communities continue to play an important role in the black freedom movement, but it is a role shared by believers of different faiths and nonbelievers alike. Even the Nation of Islam, with its theocratic aspirations, has stated for decades in its "What the Muslims Believe" raison d'être: "We believe in justice for all, whether in God or not."

Advertisement

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?

ZA: African-American atheism is not a threat to the community's religious sensibilities. In fact, religion need not be predicated on any particular or expressed form of theism. We already have a kind of African-American civil religion, with venerated ancestors in the black freedom movement; holy days commemorating emancipation (Juneteenth) or births of prophetic figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X; and sacred spaces like the Lorraine Motel, where King was assassinated, or other historic sites in Birmingham, Harlem, Detroit, Chicago, etc. This is a religion we can all claim, whether in God or not.

Tomorrow: Eddie S. Glaude Jr., the William S. Tod Professor of Religion and chair of the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University. 

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