I Didn't Lose Faith. I Just Don't Have It
Many mistake this nonbeliever for a lapsed Christian. Here's what they don't understand.
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.