Back in the day, saints sang "Gimme that ole time religion." But now a larger percentage of blacks are saying, “No thanks.”
Unlike grandma and grandpa, who built their lives on deep religious faith, Bible study, prayer meetings and consistent church attendance, more black Americans—now 11 percent—say they have no religion at all. They are not attached to any religious tradition or to any spiritual belief in the existence of God.
Data from the American Religious Identification Survey released last week shows black folk following trends evident in the general population.
Overall, 15 percent of all Americans say they have no religion, based on a survey conducted by Trinity College of 54,000 people.
But culture and custom make it harder for black people to walk away from the idea of God. Who could forget Claudia McNeil slapping Diana Sands in A Raisin In The Sun, when the young woman declared that there was no God and no miracles? She got slapped and was forced to repeat three times. “In my mother's house, there is still God.”
And remember the images of slavery: people praying in the woods, in the fields and singing songs of Zion. Remember the religious fervor of the civil rights marches, deep spiritual voices that often sounded like a Sunday evening church concert.
In historical terms, church was always the one place blacks could go for affirmation, says Stacey Floyd-Thomas, an associate professor in the Vanderbilt University School of Divinity who studies the black church.
"Sunday was that special day for black people. You didn't have to work and you could go to a place, church, and be fully equal," she says. "Now we can go anywhere for that affirmation.”
It’s no secret that blacks now head major corporations, social organizations, colleges and other institutions that were off limits just 40 years ago.
"Still, you would be hard-pressed today to find a black person or a poor person who is an atheist," says the Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church.
The faith and religion that sustained black folk in hard times is the same faith many rely on today. They just don’t express it the same way as their elders once did. And many see religion as an individual thing instead of a community expression.
Warnock says some blacks, like others in the mainstream, are rejecting institutionalized or traditional religious organization. "But if you ask a question on spirituality, you’ll find that they are spiritual."
Ariela Keysar, one of the principal investigators in the Trinity study, agrees.
About 70 percent of Americans believe in a "personal God" says Keysar, and another 12 percent believe in a higher power, but not a personal God.
The first indication of an increase in the percentage of blacks who claim "no religion" was in the 2001 survey, with a jump from 6 percent in 1990 to 11 percent in 2001.
In the overall population, the percentage of people claiming to have no religion increased from 14.2 percent in 2001 to 15 percent in the current study.
The trend on "no religion" in the ARIS report is similar to a study released last year by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. That report showed that people really are losing their religion; 16.1 percent of Americans say they are not affiliated with any particular faith—double the percentage of people who said they were not affiliated with any particular religion as children.
Adults today don't cling as much to the religious traditions of their parents. They're not Baptist just because that was grandma's religion. And when they move to another city, they don't necessarily affiliate with a Methodist church because that's what the family did back home, Warnock said.
The ARIS study also shows a drop in the number of blacks who say they are Baptist from 50 percent in 1990 to 45 percent today.
In the National Council of Churches Yearbook released last month, the three major black Baptist denominations reported no change in membership. The largest, the National Baptist Convention, reported 5 million members. Both the National Missionary Baptist and the Progressive National Baptist reported 2.5 million each.
"Ebenezer is experiencing more growth than it has seen in recent history," Warnock said. The church was founded in 1886 during Reconstruction. Currently, it has 3,500 members on its campus that surrounds the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change.
"People look for a church that meets their needs—the spiritual and physical," Warnock said. "The onus is on us to preach and teach in a way that reaches people where they are and meets their needs—spiritual and physical."
Denise Stewart is a veteran freelance writer and editor living in Alabama.