Thursday, November 11, 2010

Heretics, Humanism, and "the Hood"

By Sikivu Hutchinson

As a radical humanist critic of America’s Christian slavocracy Frederick Douglass once wrote, “I prayed for twenty years and received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” What would Douglass, a trailblazing male feminist, have made of the brutal ironies of twenty first century black America? How would he have reconciled the “triumph” of its first black president with the travesty of crushing black poverty? The decline of mass movement liberation struggle with its prayer cult obsession? Or Black women’s second class citizenship with the sham of “post-feminism?”

In the spirit of Douglass, the black secular community’s moral obligation to social justice was the recurring theme of the L.A. Black Skeptics’ first “Going Godless in the Black Community” roundtable. Held in South Los Angeles, the heart of the West Coast’s Black Bible Belt, the meeting was one of the first L.A. gatherings of its kind in recent memory. The group was founded in March of this year to give non-theist and skeptic African Americans “congregating” online a real time community. Fifteen atheist/humanists from a broad array of backgrounds, ages and world views attended. The discussion ranged from critiques of the influence of hyper-religiosity in the African American community to practical strategies for developing humanist resources and social welfare institutions. I was recently reminded of the urgent need for humanist mental health and wellness alternatives at a black/Latina women’s conference I attended on “breaking the silence” about domestic violence and HIV/AIDS. Several presenters portrayed faith-based mental health and wellness “remedies” as the most viable approaches to healing. Prayer will “right you,” a woman who had been in a violent long term relationship declared to a literal amen corner of nodding heads. Relying upon prayer as an antidote to stress and trauma is a common coping strategy in communities of color, particularly for women of color. Race and gender-related stress are major contributors to stroke, hypertension and obesity in African Americans. Yet those who question faith-based healing remedies and belief systems are often marginalized as being “white-identified” and/or elitist. In some quarters evidence-based therapy is slammed as something black and Latino folks simply “don’t do” or can’t realistically afford.

The mental health crisis amongst African Americans is a devastating indicator of racial and social inequity, of which the prayer as therapy epidemic is an insidious symptom. During the Going Godless discussion participants focused on the importance of instilling black youth with an appreciation for critical thought and free inquiry. Reflecting on his K-12 education in L.A. schools Black Skeptics member Fred Castro said that he couldn’t recall ever being exposed to humanist curricula or anything beyond a traditional Western Judeo Christian lens. As the second largest school district in the nation, with skyrocketing dropout rates and youth who are homeless, in foster care and/or on probation, Los Angeles city schools are particularly challenged by the absence of systemic culturally relevant education. High incidences of “faith-based” bullying and harassment, degradation of young women and the culture of violent hyper-masculinity all underscore the need for anti-racist anti-sexist anti-homophobic humanist youth leadership initiatives. Atlanta-based activist Black Son spoke forcefully about having imbibed a culture of bigotry from the Bible, noting that African American youth are merely recycling the oppressive images and gender stereotypes they’ve been taught by “Christian” precepts. Parenting children amidst a sea of religious conformity and finding secular private schools with multicultural student bodies were also topics of concern. Children of color who come from atheist households—especially those who are taught to openly identify that way—are often subject to ridicule and ostracism as cultural traitors. In a world of public school Christian Bible study clubs, “mandatory” flag pledges, and teachers who violate church/state separation by using and/or endorsing prayer as a coping strategy, black children who don’t believe are marked as other.

The gathering also highlighted generational differences in atheist of color experience; from that of Clyde Young and Bella De Soto who linked religion to capitalist exploitation and spoke of the need for anti-sexist revolution, to Jermaine Inoue who suggested that socially conscious hip hop was a means of promoting media literacy. Jeffrey “Atheist Walking” Mitchell mused about whether atheists could be spiritual and materialist at the same time, eliciting a comment from artist Rachel Ross about having faith in empirical evidence versus “magical thinking.” The discussion became heated when some men wondered what it would take to make black women “less religious.” There was much debate about whether black women were entirely responsible for their overinvestment in religion or whether larger societal and cultural forces kept them overinvested. In response, I noted that there was relatively little social pressure/onus on black men to exhibit the kind of religious devotion that black women exhibit in their everyday lives and relationships. Hence, because black men enjoy patriarchal privilege, the real issue should be transforming masculinity to make men and boys more accountable for the care giving and nurturing roles that women are expected to fulfill. Merely criticizing the God-investment of black women without interrogating how patriarchy works in everyday space won’t change sexist power relations.

Reeling from recession, unemployment, wage decreases, foreclosure, homelessness and health disparities, black communities nationwide have borne the brunt of the global financial meltdown. Humanism can and should engage with the complexity of our disenfranchisement; otherwise it is a vacuous promise asking power to “concede nothing without demand.”

Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of the forthcoming book Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars (Infidel Books, 2011).


  1. I'm an Italian Atheist/skeptic, I live in a small town in the North of Vatican-dominated Italy -- as far from LA as it could be.
    But I would like to express my joy and support for what you are doing, and hope that your meeting was just the first of a long string.
    Good luck!

  2. I greatly enjoyed this post, and I highly agree that we must interrogate how patriarchy works in order to acknowledge how it has an affect on black women's hyper-religiousity. Thank you for an insightful article.

  3. Thank you for the shout out from Italy and your comments about patriarchy (a major part of the group's social justice lens), we hope to build momentum over the next year.

  4. I'm so glad to see this group. Please contact me so we can talk about ways Black Skeptics and Atheists United can cooperate.