How I Became A Black Atheist

October 19, 2017  |  

Close up image of a dictionary entry for the word “Athiest”. The word itself highlighted with a red pen

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“Black atheist” sounds like an oxymoron because the Church and religion, specifically Christianity and Islam, are extremely intertwined with the Black community, but I am here to tell you that we do exist. Yet the paths that led us towards atheism aren’t what most would assume. Looking back at my early years, I don’t think anyone would have guessed I would become the A-word.

My atheism isn’t a rejection of my Christian upbringing, nor is it an inevitable consequence of not having enough religion as a child. In fact, I grew up under circumstances quite opposite of both those scenarios.

My mom was raised as an Episcopalian on the island of Barbuda. Like many former British colonies, church there was a way of life, one my mother was routinely forced into participating. When I was born, she promised herself that she would allow me to explore my beliefs as I aged. Of course, I was christened Episcopalian too, but attended church mostly on holidays as a form of tradition and ritual.

I entered Catholic school in the first grade and began learning about the religion. I remember being embarrassed to tell my teacher that I was an Episcopalian. My first brush with otherness was short-lived, however, because Mrs. Lewis quickly allayed my fears with “That’s OK.” But then I learned that the Catholics were to participate in First Holy Communion, an event that meant, to my 6-year-old self, simply meant the girls got to wear pretty white lace dresses, veils, and gloves. In second grade, my mom allowed me to convert to Catholicism, which meant I was re-baptized and would experience my First Communion. I got to wear the fancy clothes, but more than that I understood what being Catholic meant and later avowed my beliefs by going through the sacrament of Confirmation when I was 12.

Service is a major aspect of attending a Catholic school; you literally couldn’t graduate without completing a specific number of volunteer hours. In high school, I began teaching Sunday school at my home parish. I was tasked with preparing a group of second graders for their First Holy Communion.

Around the same time, I was also a member of the New York Archdiocese’s Archbishop Leadership Program (ALP), a project that initially sought to entice more Black men to enter the priesthood but grew into an addendum education for Black and Brown teen girls and boys. To give you an idea of our ALP re-education, I will share a few of the books included on the summer reading list: The Bluest Eye; When and Where I Enter; Before the Mayflower; The Fire Next Time; Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous?; and The Content of Our Character. These books were not on the radar of my Catholic teachers, and with them, my ALP peers and I challenged and debated the “okey doke” history and tenets our teachers presented.

I can actually point to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart as the novel that really forced me to confront my faith in a religion that was used to enslave and colonize my ancestors. Lerone Bennett Jr.’s Before the Mayflower functioned as the factual proof to back up the warning of Achebe’s acclaimed novel. It wasn’t until I reread, this past summer, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time that I realized how much that memoir also led me to question my faith and Christian beliefs. There’s a passage I highlighted when I was much younger, likely late-teens or early-twenties.

Baldwin writes in the essay “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind”:

“The Christian Church itself–again, as distinguished from some of its ministers–sanctified and rejoiced in the conquests of the flag, and encouraged it, if it did not formulate, the belief that conquest, with the resulting relative well-being of the Western populations, was proof of the favor of God. God had come a long way from the desert–but then so had Allah, though in a very different direction. God, going north, and rising on the wings of power, had become white, and Allah, out of power, and on the on the dark side of Heaven, had become–for all practical purposes, anyway–black. Thus in the realm of morals the role of Christianity has been, at best, ambivalent. Even leaving out of account the remarkable arrogance that assumed that the ways and morals of others were inferior to those Christians, and they therefore had every right … to change them, the collision between cultures–and the schizophrenia in the mind of Christendom–had rendered the domain of morals as chartless as the sea once was, and as treacherous as the sea still is. It is not too much to say that whoever wishes to become a truly moral human being … must first divorce himself from all the prohibitions, crimes, and hypocrisies of the Christian church. If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.”

This selection from Baldwin accurately asserts that Christianity sanctioned colonial conquest and imperialism, which led to chattel slavery in North America and in some form everywhere Christianity spread. But Baldwin also points out that all isn’t lost because morality can exist without religion. People can be decent to each other and the environment around them without belief in a God who doesn’t make them feel free, extraordinary, or loved.

I was 21 when I realized I no longer believed in a God. Although relinquishing Christianity was a years-long journey, I remember the age I became an atheist because it was the same year I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Surely I hadn’t done anything to deserve this disease that typically affected the elderly, nor the subsequent year of chemotherapy. And if I didn’t deserve it, then either God gave it to me and therefore doesn’t deserve my worship, or it just happened. And if things just happen, then there is no God orchestrating every aspect of life, from the tiniest virus to the biggest of the blue whales, for me to worship.

It’s only since I’ve been in my thirties that I’ve been comfortable identifying as an atheist. Black atheists are definitely a double minority, and other Black folks often assume I’m Christian just because, well, I’m Black. I remember starting a new job at a Black publication and two colleagues were gossiping about someone “not believing in Jesus.” They were exasperated, and I got the message: Being non-Christian or simply “spiritual” was just as negative as being an atheist. Up until then, saying I was “spiritual” was the lazy way of dodging the religion question without coming across as a full-on heathen. Now I appreciate dancing to my own drum beat.

I’ve also had the experience in which a white coworker with racist leanings thought my atheism was an attempt at being cool. I hadn’t thought more about it beyond saying, “I don’t believe in God.” She compiled a weekly feature about what the editorial staff was reading and one week I told her my book was Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great, to which she replied that I read a lot of books about atheism. (This was only the second one she knew about.) I responded by pointing out that she was a self-proclaimed bra-shunning feminist who, you guessed it, often read books about feminism or written by feminists because she’s interested. I guess even she couldn’t fathom a Black person truly being an atheist, but then again I don’t think she contemplated Black folks much beyond her apparent fear.

I’m proud of the journey I’ve made in life so far, even if having faith would make finding dates easier. I now believe in things I’ve witnessed or have been proven with empirical evidence and science, and a belief in a higher power doesn’t vibe with that. I believe morality isn’t a luxury solely possessed by believers. I would argue that the righteous atheist is the most moral because we don’t have “the devil made me do it” as an excuse to sin. I believe the power is within us, as humans, to affect change in our environment. However, I’m not above calling on my ancestors for guidance and help. They’ve proven their love for me, and energy doesn’t die.

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