(The Root) —
"I'm so frustrated. Just because I'm black/African American doesn't mean I'm Christian. I was raised in a home where we attended church, but during college I decided to officially call myself an atheist. Yet other black people are constantly assuming that I have a 'church home' or saying they will pray for me or telling me to pray about something — it's like they have never met someone my color who isn't 'saved' before. It's such an assumption, and white people aren't treated the same way. How can I tell the world to stop making this assumption about me without offending and encourage people to think before they put their belief systems on others?" —Annoyed Atheist
I'm not surprised to hear that you're having this experience. After all, according to a Pew poll, black Americans are more likely than members of any other racial or ethnic group in the country to report a formal religious affiliation. And even among those who didn't select a particular religion in that survey, three out of four identified as "religious unaffiliated" (meaning they didn't choose a denomination but said religion was either somewhat or very important in their lives). That's compared with slightly more than one-third of the unaffiliated population overall.
So, the people who are making assumptions about your religious beliefs aren't being particularly sensitive, but they are making a pretty safe bet.
"Plus, if you break it down by gender, black women are the single most religious demographic in the country," journalist Jamila Bey, host of The Sex Politics and Religion Hour: SPAR With Jamila, told me. Bey is an actual poster child for black atheists, having been featured in an African Americans for Humanism campaign showcasing religious skepticism in the black community. ("Doubts about religion? You're one of many" was the advertisement featuring her photo split with one of Frederick Douglass.)
Then we have images of African Americans on the big and small screens reflecting and reinforcing high rates of religiosity among black people. There's Tyler Perry's cinematic assembly line of films with black stars and heavy-handed Christian messaging, plus reality series like The Sisterhood (starring the first ladies of Atlanta-based churches) and The Sheards (the story of a gospel superstar family in Detroit). BET is Black Entertainment Television, not Black Religion Television, but programs like Morning Inspiration remind anyone flipping through channels that worship is part and parcel of the mainstream black experience in America.
To be fair, it's not just your skin color that's getting you the unsolicited blessings, prayers and labels, though. Some of what you're experiencing is explained by the simple fact that we live in a predominantly Christian country. "Ask your Jewish friends. They'll tell you it's 'Merry Christmas, Jesus loves you,' all the time," says Bey. She explains that it's a simple issue of the dominant culture imposing assumptions on everyone else, and it leads to some of her personal pet peeves, comments like, "You're such a good person/You're such a good parent. Clearly, you're a Christian."
But you're probably on to something to feel that your race is playing a role in what people decide that you believe. "Intraculturally, we look at each other and say, 'I don't see you wearing a headscarf, so clearly you're a Christian' and 'You look like me, so we clearly share a religion,' " says Bey.
Your frustration is a reminder that being stereotyped doesn't feel any better just because the offender thinks the assumption he or she is making about you is a positive one (even the most positive one possible, as Christianity likely is to many Americans). And it doesn't make it any better when the offender is the same race, either.
So I hope you don't worry too much about being offensive by clarifying that you don't believe in God. You wouldn't apologize for your race or gender, would you? And this is part of your identity just as those factors are.
"If you make an assumption [that I'm Christian], I'm not going to let you have the wrong idea — I will correct you so we're dealing in fact," says Bey.
She shared with me some of her go-to responses to common commentary that reveals assumption about her beliefs.
* "We don't have a church home. We stay in our real home on Sundays."
* "No, being blessed didn't have anything to do with that accomplishment. I worked very hard on that."
* "Actually, I'm an atheist, so I choose to do what I do. I'm not doing it for brownie points after I die."
Your response doesn't have to be a zinger, though. A simple "I'm an atheist, so I actually don't believe that, but thanks" could be a good start.
I also wonder if any of your frustration about this issue could be emphasized by a sense of isolation. That brings us to what I think is the most important part of my advice: recommendations for groups of like-minded people that you might consider joining. Start with African Americans for Humanism, which "supports skeptics, doubters, humanists and atheists in the African-American community, provides forums for communication and education and facilitates coordinated action to achieve shared objectives." There you can find information on groups of black atheists and nonbelievers throughout the country.
And they don't just sit around and talk about what they don't believe in; a part of their mission is often to use nonreligious reasoning to make the world a better place. It's possible that making this your focus could help you feel more inspired rather than annoyed in those moments when your difference from much of the black community is brought to your attention.
But Bey was quick to correct me when I suggested that these organizations would be a source of support in a lifelong battle in which people would constantly make assumptions about your religion. Not so, she said, pointing out that the fastest-growing segment of the population is those who are without belief in some supernatural higher power, with 30 percent of those under age 30 actively identifying as nonreligious.
"We're everywhere," Bey assured me. And when it comes to those frustrating assumptions that inspired your letter, "There are a whole lot of us who are not going to nod and amen our way through things. So many of us are putting an end to that unfortunate practice. Everyone's soon going to know us."
That sounds like something you can believe in.
The Root's staff writer, Jenée Desmond-Harris, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life — and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her on Twitter.
Need race-related advice? Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previously in Race Manners: "Talking Her Out of Skin Bleaching Won't Work"