I am black. I am also an atheist.
It’s understandable if that surprises you.
You’ve probably heard that the number of religiously unaffiliated people is rising. According to the Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Study, the percentage of Americans who identify as "unaffiliated," or “religious nones,” is currently 22.8 percent. That’s a huge increase from only 16 percent in 2007.
However, this growth is not happening as rapidly in one notable sphere: the black community.
Among those identifying as religiously unaffiliated, only 9 percent are black. Contrast this with the fact that African Americans make up 13 percent of the population as a whole, and that no other racial group falls outside the margin of error for proportional representation, and you can be forgiven for not knowing many black atheists.
We can infer some of the possible causes for this racial disparity. In reference to the Pew study, we know that African Americans are far more likely to confidently believe in God when compared with whites and Hispanics. More than three-quarters of African Americans say they are absolutely certain there is a God, compared with less than two-thirds of whites and Hispanics who say the same.
There is also evidence to support a correlation between education level and religiosity. Only 6 percent of people with a high school diploma or less say they don’t believe in God. This is compared with 9 percent of those who’ve had some college, 14 percent of those who have a bachelor's degree and 15 percent of people who have obtained postgraduate degrees. When you combine this with the fact that there are huge discrepancies between college-graduation rates for black students and rates for whites and Hispanics, it’s clear how this could be a factor in the demographic’s religiosity.
I received degrees from Morehouse College and Fayetteville State University, both HBCUs. The brothers and sisters I gained for life there share my driven passion, and they relate to the struggles and experiences that being black brings. However, I missed out on diversity exposure beyond racial diversity: Religious, gender, political and ideological diversity are all essential elements of a balanced worldview.
The late author and journalist Christopher Hitchens used to say that the most important thing to happen to a person is to have his mind changed about something in which he believes fervently. This kind of perspective shift doesn’t happen if we do not meet diverse people, if we are not exposed to new ideas or practice having open minds.
The lack of racial diversity in the secular community is troubling. While the numbers are growing, thanks to efforts led by Mandisa Thomas and Black Nonbelievers Inc., the most significant social interactions between secular black people happen primarily online. It’s for these reasons, and others, that I recently shifted my time and energy toward increasing black representation within the secular demographic.
While many secular-advocacy organizations understand the challenges of diversity within our community, the Secular Student Alliance is taking an active stand to change this reality. The SSA empowers secular students to proudly express their identity, promotes secular values and sets a course for lifelong activism—a mission that begins by building secular student communities at the college level.
We are seeing more young people embracing secular identities each year, and building these groups at a critical stage of maturation will help students connect to causes they care about, creating a foundation that will serve far beyond graduation day. But the diversity issue that pervades the secular community in the general population also affects our schools: Out of over 270 SSA groups at schools across the country today, there is only one active group at a historically black college.
As an SSA board member, I am happy to be working on an initiative to proactively expand our student groups to HBCUs. I believe the key factor that allows someone to be open about a minority belief is a level of societal acceptance. The lack of exposure to secularism on HBCU campuses has a major impact on the number of black people who are willing to identify as secular, even anonymously. Building a sustainable presence at HBCUs will allow black students to socialize with people who share their views on religion, for very possibly the first time.
My hope is that, in time, we will see more religious diversity at HBCUs, and more racial diversity in the secular community, so that someday soon, meeting a black atheist will just be an everyday thing.
If you are a student or faculty member at an HBCU, please reach out to the SSA for support, tools and funding opportunities to build a secular community on your campus.
Bishop McNeill is the manager of the Freethought Equality Fund, where he develops fundraising strategies, directs independent expenditures for endorsed candidates, recruits and trains volunteers for political activism, and coordinates campaign-related activities in support of the PAC’s endorsements. He is currently pursuing a master's in political management from George Washington University, concentrating on issue advocacy.