Statistics on the religious beliefs of African Americans are part of Western cultural literacy. Many are familiar with the findings that reveal African Americans to be among the most religious ethnic group in America, largely holding a particular Christian expression of belief. In 2009, the Barna Group found that “blacks were the group most likely to be born again Christians (59 percent, compared to a national average of 46 percent) and were the ethnic segment most likely to consider themselves to be Christian (92 percent did so, versus 85 percent nationally).”
Similarly, in 2011, Barna examined 15 years of religious beliefs among Americans and found that African Americans are “the segment that possesses beliefs most likely to align with those taught in the Bible.” Specifically, African Americans were more likely than other segments to say that they believe that God is “the all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfect Creator of the universe who still rules the world today,” and were the most likely to engage in church-centric activities, and to read the Bible other than at church events during a typical week. According to Barna’s research, African Americans are only half as likely as either whites or Hispanics to be unchurched. Therefore, the announcement of the report justifiably noted, “From the earliest days of America’s history, a deep-rooted spirituality has been one of the hallmarks of the black population in the country. . . [and] the passage of time has not diminished the importance of faith in the lives of African Americans.
It might seem anomalous to turn from the pages of that report to find that there is a growing atheistic movement within the African American community. Local chapters of organized African American atheistic groups are appearing in major American cities. There are vocal activists for this atheism, including comedians and journalists. Rice University professor of humanities and religious studies Anthony Pinn and Harvard University professor of African and African American studies and of philosophy Tommie Shelby also lend their intellectual muscle to the movement through their writings.
Although equal to its white counterpart in its denial of the possibility of and need for a Divine Being, African American atheism differs in its object of attack from “The New Atheism.” Whereas Richard Dawkins positions science against Christian belief and the late Christopher Hitchens attacked Christians’ claim of God being “good,” African American atheism directs its “no-Creator” tirade at the character of the black church and history of African Americans.
The popular discussion has two primary foci. The first is to suggest that many within the African American community have participated in the Christian faith because “going to church” is a cultural expression of this community. To go against this expression in ages past would have brought the sort of ostracism previously experienced by African American homosexuals. African American atheists tend to employ the “coming out of the closet” language when speaking of sharing their humanist conversion experiences with their family members.
The second focus is the black church itself—-or its iniquities. While the church plays a prominent role in the lives of African Americans, the community shows signs of disaster in almost all other social indicators, including education, wealth and poverty, unemployment, marriage, and crime. Thus, the evangelists of African American atheism can point to an apparent absence of divine power among the black church’s ardent followers, and thus an absence of a deity.
In contrast, the academic discussion attacks long-held scholarly and popular consensus concerning the place of the church in the success of the African American community. Accurately, the African American atheists demonstrate that many people of prominence in the African American community (from its inception in antebellum period to the present) gave deference to the church for utilitarian purposes—-for the sake of the liberation and empowerment of a people given to religion. The images we have of the civil rights movement anchoring itself in fiery worship services and community gatherings in churches local to the nearest protest march mask the quiet internal compromises many of the non-religious made for the sake of uniting with the massive cause for justice.
Just as many discover this anti-Christian organism, it already has evolved into a fully grown system fighting for its place alongside of the church in the lives of African Americans and American society. Observably, a few factors within the African American community have created the perfect conditions for its appearance. Heterosexual marriage is on the decline; as Joy Jones recognized, some African Americans even view marriage as a white institution. Single African American women are asking whether the church is contributing to their singleness and loneliness, due to the church’s high standards for sexual purity and low numbers of single African American men. Following the majority culture, homosexuality is accepted as a family member within the African American community, with many church leaders acting as advocates. Finally, the internet gives African American atheism a powerful communication tool for unifying the movement and preaching its platform.
The non-believers behind W. E. B. Du Bois’s veil are correct on one part of their historical analysis: Atheistic tares have grown in the fields home to the Negro spirituals and gospel music, the SCLC, the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., and the founding of many historically black colleges and universities. Yet the inference they draw from this reality is incorrect. The historical presence of atheists of color does not invalidate the black church’s role as the uniting force in the survival of the African American community.
While some sought the resources of the church for political gain or “the greater good” of an oppressed people, this is not true for the majority. Many members of today’s black church attend because their parents, who introduced them to Christ and the church, are believers—-believers themselves who are the children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren of slaves and freedmen who went to church because they believed in a God who would free them from slavery just as he freed the children of Israel from Egypt. My grandfather, great-grandfathers, and great-great grandfathers, all humble, land-owning (but not well-to-do) farmers, had no ambitions or motives for being churchgoers other than to please Christ, their faithful Lord. The same could be said for the faith of millions of African Americans who preached, prayed, sang, and gave their monies so that their children might follow in the faith as free members in the land of the free.
The African American community, at large, however, still presents a huge mission field ripe for the gospel. The statistics on attendance can be misleading: Attendance should not be equated with conversion, spiritual maturity, biblical literacy, or theological knowledge. Believers should pray for God’s mercy upon unbelievers inside and outside of the black church’s pews. If the Lord is merciful to us, maybe the atheists, too, will be converted.