In the movie The Color Purple, sisters Celie and Nettie reunite after being separated by decades, oceans and the spite of an abusive Mister.
Running through a lush pasture, neither quite believes her fortune upon reuniting. Old women now, they stumble through the field, arms outstretched, calling to one another, "Ceeeeeelieeeee!" "Nettieeeeee!"
I got to enjoy my very own "Celie-Nettie" moment when I walked into the Center for Inquiry on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., last Sunday afternoon. The African Americans for Humanism conference hosted four to five dozen non-believers—the largest gathering of African-American atheists in history. (As a member of the Center, I was part of the planning committee, and I was also a speaker at the event; "Spare the Rod, Save Your Child," was my topic.)
Of course, the Internet has helped me realize that I'm not the only black atheist around, but until actually being able to embrace and do the "sister-friend squeal" with a couple dozen of other black women who use the "A" word (atheist or agnostic), I have been rather lonely for girlfriends who don't need to schedule activities around their pious obligations.
Within this incredibly religious culture, black Americans are the most devout and routinely rate at the top of every index that measures religiosity. It's difficult—if not impossible—to divorce religion from black culture. We can hardly get on the bus without invoking or thanking Jesus that we'll make it to work on time.
Among black folks, if you're a criminal who shows up at a service on whatever Sabbath you subscribe to, you're just a fallen human who is worthy of love and redemption. But if you're a moral and decent human who doesn't believe in a supernatural force, you'll soon find that your kind is most unwelcome.
One conference participant from the Bible Belt summed it up this way: "Christianity's grasp on black people makes it almost impossible to admit that you're a black atheist. We have to hide our non-belief, otherwise we are excluded. And if we give voice to any objection or doubt, we're ostracized and isolated—or just banished! So any time religion comes up, it's simpler to just change the subject or say nothing if you can't bring yourself to fake an 'amen.' … But don't use my name ‘cause my mother told me when she saw me reading God is Not Great that if any of her children actually believed ‘that mess,' she'd have one less child."
It's fair to say that everyone was pretty excited to come and fellowship with like-minded types from around the country, and one atheist who flew in from India. It was the first time many conference-goers knowingly met another black atheist in the flesh. And for those of us from the nation's capitol, we met a few people who are new to such events, though many take part in message boards and Internet discussion groups.
Ronnelle Adams, a D.C.-area resident, says just coming to the event was thrilling. "I walked in and saw all these black atheists," he said. "I'm not the only one! I was so happy for the discussion and the chance to meet other like-minded people just like me."
Norm Allen, executive director of African Americans for Humanism, kicked off the conference with the discussion "Why it is Time for African American Humanists to Come Out of the Closet." He told the group that he wished more black folks would simply admit their non-belief without pushing their worldview. Also, he asserted that using the term "humanist" rather than the more charged label "atheist" could be a step toward helping black non-believers find some acceptance in their communities.
Naima Washington is a D.C. resident who says she was so excited about the conference that she didn't sleep the night before. Washington says she's tired of trying the gentle and pandering approach. "We're not trying to convince people whose noses are stuck in Bibles or Korans of anything. I'm trying to find other atheists, and we don't need to hide."
A number of attendees agreed that they don't believe they ever made a deliberate decision to "become" an atheist; rather it's a realization that came about after study and simple absence of proof.
Ken Granderson, who calls himself a lifelong thinker, came to the conference from Boston. "You don't choose to be an atheist; you're born that way. Not believing in the Judeo-Christian God is no different than not believing in Thor or Poseidon or Osiris. Someone told me that there's this God, but once I learned to question, I understood that the God I was told about—and the stories about that God—were no different from the mythologies of any other people who created stories to explain their worlds."
The conference concluded with a discussion about how to both encourage more diversity within the atheist or humanist or free-thought movement and how to simply handle going back home to our (sometimes) lonely little corners.
Washington said she was encouraged by the number of black secularists at the convention, but she laments that there is so much more work to be done, especially when considering those who are shaping American atheist policy. "The lack of diversity is a real issue. Are we just to be followers or are we helping to drive this vehicle that is the secular movement?"
Washington's point was echoed in a summary by Center for Inquiry On Campus organizer Debbie Goddard. Goddard called out the skeptic movement for being overwhelmingly white, male and older, but she also noted that there's a thriving college skeptic scene that could likely yield some age, race and gender diversity to the movement as well.
If nothing else, the group assembled was a rational one. And while "fired up," we realize that Americans who claim to have no religious affiliation is only around 15 percent. The number for blacks is even lower, at 12 percent. So as a minority within a deeply closeted minority, we're going to have to work to gain visibility and influence. Those of us who are "out" mustn't apologize for our stance. We also need to join larger non-theistic groups.
And as Celie yelled to Mister when she moved away to her own home, black atheists need to affirm, "I may be black…but I'm here!"
Jamila Bey is an atheist and a writer based in Washington, D.C.