Excerpts from Mandisa Thomas’ essay yesterday for CNN. She delivers a much-needed message.
African-American atheists represent a small but growing segment of American atheists at large.
Most blacks, though, identify as religious, and the church is intricately tied to tradition, history and culture.
I am atheist — and I am black.
Yes, we exist — even if many in the media sometimes don’t notice us. In a CNN special that aired on Tuesday, for example, people of color were not as well-represented as American atheism’s more familiar face: You know, white males.
In fact, African-American atheists represent a still small — though growing — segment of American atheists at large…
Most blacks identify as religious. Belief in God is touted with pride, and the church is intricately tied to tradition, history and culture. It is not uncommon to assume that I attend services as a black woman. The question often isn’t if I go to church — it’s where. And even if one doesn’t go to church, surely they still have faith — because our people have endured and overcome so much hardship that it had to be the work of a god… It can be extremely difficult to discuss religion objectively in the black community. Many have social, emotional and financial stakes invested in this institution, so for one to even say they have doubts is like committing treason.
To openly identify as an atheist in the midst of heavy religious influence can be next to impossible, and good luck finding other blacks who also don’t believe. It is very important to note however, that the Internet has made it easier for black atheists to find each other, and there is a large community of us online.
Though I was raised secular — a rarity in my community — I’ve had to endure ostracism from family and friends as a result of openly identifying as an atheist. However, my journey is far from tragic. In founding my organization, Black Nonbelievers, in 2011, I have been fortunate to connect with others who were either raised secular like myself, or who were brought up extremely religious and left it behind. And they have done so bravely, defying the perception and expectation that all blacks blindly accept religion.
My experience in the secular community as a black atheist has ranged from feeling totally welcome to feeling totally isolated, and even ignored…
Progress has been made. There are now a number of secular groups that have helped to bring about more diverse representation for people of color, women and children… There are support systems for people who have lost loved ones, yet they have no religious affiliation. Moreover, there is a tremendous amount of literary and artistic talent. Such representation is now reflected at organized events, in leadership, as well as in media coverage.
While the number of visible minority atheists is still small, we are here and we’re here to stay.
We will continue to grow, in both the black and secular communities. We can lead the charge for this change. The more we make our presence known, the better our chances of working together to turn around the disparities we face, and bolster the recognition we so rightly deserve. We are not alone.