I’m back and I think I’ve got a very juicy topic to drop on your lap this post. So on Monday (13th August 2012) I took a jaunt to MediaCity in Manchester to do a spot of filming for Channel 4′s ’4Thought.TV’ and what an experience it was. Yes, I sat against *those* white walls and in *that* red chair and for an hour, tried to enlighten my audience on my experiences of ‘leaving’ my religion. The finished clip, which will be about two minutes, should air in mid-October. My fellow Heretics, Alex Gabriel and Rhys Morgan did their own 4Thoughts not long ago. The club is taking over and we’re sharing our views with a wide audience. Just as with my Amish experience, preparing for 4Thought enabled me to re-address my reasons for being an atheist and see if they had changed at all. Being openly anti-religious comes with its own challenges, as does taking any unpopular stance, and one should always be clear on where they stand and what they believe (or don’t believe) in. I won’t spoil the surprise for you and share what answers I gave – I’ll leave that for when the clip airs.
However, a very important thing I did discuss, and have been meaning to write about for a very long time is ‘black atheism’. You may or may not be aware that the two words I have just put together are almost NEVER seen together. This is because, for some reason, the myth of black people and religion, particularly Christianity, being an inevitable union – being one and the same – has very rarely been proven wrong. Black atheists are a tiny minority WITHIN a minority. On Twitter, I threw out a general question to my followers, asking them how many ethnic minority atheists and agnostics they knew personally. Those who responded said they knew a ‘fair amount’. Then I became more specific and asked them how many BLACK atheists and agnostics they knew personally? On average, most of the respondents said ‘one’. Only Alex Gabriel said he knew a good few, and that is because of the very specific skeptic work he does and the heretic circles he moves in. We both agreed that this wasn’t necessarily typical. Today, I was surprised to learn that a few of the people I interact with regularly on Twitter were Afro-Caribbean non-believers. It did surprise me. Really. Throughout my life I’ve only ever known a small handful of black people who have openly denounced religion – and even then these people have been quite apathetic to the issue. They simply don’t believe but have never really deeply questioned why they don’t believe and, more troubling, they have not been that interested in talking about it.
I ran a Google search and came across some interesting stuff. I read a thoroughly enlightening article by a journalist named Cord Jefferson, who writes about the American experience . A lot of what he said rang very true with me. He notes that ‘Black America… is highly religious to the point of exclusion, as if black people living their lives without God don’t count’. He also laments the way that ‘black atheists or agnostics are often looked at by other blacks as alien or pitiable’. I can really relate to what he is saying here. I can confidently make a sweeping statement and claim that the majority of people within the black community (it’s really not as diverse as it ought to be and I don’t make a habit of stereotyping) do not really understand – or allow themselves to understand – “Godlessness”. Jefferson touches on possible reasons for this earnestly. He reminds us that the black community, not just in America, has a long history of devotion to “God”. In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the West went about their missions to ‘civilize’ black people through the use of religious indoctrination. It was Christianity in particular that became synonymous with being ‘Civilized’, ‘progressive’, and ‘modern’. But even before this intrusion, indigenous religions existed within African communities in the villages and the cities of the great continent. For many blacks, it was a case of replacing one ‘idea’ of ‘god’ with another. Looking at it from a more humanitarian side, in times of great struggle, religion became the aid to turn to and ‘God’ offered comfort, safety, and hope in the very idea of believing in ‘Him’. During the Civil Rights struggle in America, black churches and houses of worship doubled up as war rooms to plan protest action and ‘galvanise people made weary by centuries of racist violence and legislation.’ Basically, religion has been sewn into the very fabric of the black community because of its history of suffering. I, as a Marxist, believe that religion is a symptom of a disease within society – a root cause of our ills. I alway bang on about how much I hate that people blame the symptoms of the issue rather than trying to work out what the issue actually is. For instance, many condemned the actions of the London Rioters last year, as they should, but very few condemned the root cause of such disrespect for the law and the runnings of a decent society. I am aware that many of the rioters were actually known criminals and opportunists, but I am sure there were a few there who were really reacting against the Machine that they felt persistently ruined their lives by not offering them a stake in their country’s wealth – social incarceration it seems. But the rioters are not the point of my post; I am simply illustrating how we often blame the symptoms of the disease and the not the root cause of the disease… because it’s easier that way.
From my research, I realised that declaring yourself to be a non-believer in the black community is almost akin to ‘coming out’ in the sense of the level of judgement, shock, and sometimes abuse you may encounter. ‘Social Suicide’ is a good turn of phrase to describe it. Lucky for me, however, I have very little to do with the African community that my family are from. This means my mother’s parenting is not placed under scrutiny and she is not blamed for the choices that I have made, as a grown woman. In America, at the time of Jefferson’s article being published, black Americans were/ are now the *MOST* religious ethnic group in America, with 86 per cent identifying themselves as ‘very’ to ‘moderately’ religious… compared to *just* 65 per cent of white Americans. Surprisingly, statistics concerning the number of black atheists in the UK are not as easy to find. The UK is generally less actively religious than the United States, but even so, I was quite surprised by how little information there was out there on the matter. Then again, America has the ‘Black Atheists of America’ organisation, and the UK has no such counterpart.
According to Wikipedia though (yes, yes, I know), here is the general jist:
‘In the United Kingdom, a 2007 survey found 15% of the population attends church more than once per month. A poll in 2004 by the BBC put the number of people who do not believe in a God at 39%, while a YouGov poll in the same year put the percentage of non-believers at 35% with 21% answering “Don’t Know”. In the YouGov poll men were less likely to believe in a god than women, 39% of men as opposed to 49% of women, and younger people were less likely to believe in a god than older people.
In early 2004, it was announced that atheism would be taught during religious education classes in England. A spokesman for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority stated: “There are many children in England who have no religious affiliation and their beliefs and ideas, whatever they are, should be taken very seriously.” There is also considerable debate in the UK on the status of faith-based schools, which use religious as well as academic selection criteria. A 2009 study reported that two thirds of teenagers in the UK do not believe in God. ’
I’d bet on my life that a significant portion of that 15 per cent of regular church-goers are from the Afro-Caribbean community – the percentage is also probably disproportionate to the their actual total UK population. Even when a black person may not passionately believe in ‘God’, they are often reluctant to totally dismiss the idea of a higher being, due to the teaching within black culture across the board. Atheism is often deemed to be an arrogant, nihilistic, narcissistic, dismissive, and narrow-minded system of belief. Although the atheist population as a whole is increasing, slowly but surely, the issue of black atheism/ ethnic minority atheism, is one that has been stuck behind a smoke screen. I recently read an interesting article by Alom Shaha on the issue. Here is an extract:
“There are issues that black and Asian atheists face that white atheists do not, for example, greater pressure to adhere to the religion of the communities in which they live. Since first writing about my atheism in public, I have been contacted by a number of Asian people who don’t believe in God but feel they have to carry on the pretence of being a Muslim because they genuinely fear that the consequences of “coming out” would be unbearable. They fear being ostracised from their family and friends, and “not being able to get married”. Sure, there are some white people who might face these same issues, but I would suggest the problem is more widespread in, for example, some Muslim communities than in the typical readership of the Guardian.
These are issues that the white “leadership” of the atheist and sceptic movements have largely ignored because they are not issues that concern them. But these issues should concern all atheists – because if we are to be a “community”, if, as so many of us want, we are to be given the same standing in society as people who identify with a religious group, then we must ensure that black and Asian people are not just made to feel welcome but actively encouraged to join atheist and sceptic movements.
I have been disappointed by the refusal of many atheists and sceptics I know to acknowledge that there is even a problem. Saying “there isn’t a big conspiracy to keep black and Asian people out“, is tragically missing the point.”
He is completely correct when he says that black and Asian kids often have different pressures to deal with than caucasian kids and that is because of the very different cultures. Belief is taken for granted when you are black or brown. When you dare to NOT believe, the consequences can be tragic. An Asian friend of mine was disowned from her immediate family and shunned by her extended family because she denounced her faith in Islam. It’s no small business because you are not just saying ‘Oh. Sorry. I’m just gonna not believe in this thing that you believe in.’ You are giving your parents, and grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, family friends, your history, and your cultural identity a MASSIVE BITCH SLAP right where it hurts. You are denying your identity, your destiny. And it’s not pretty. Being black almost ‘requires’ you to walk with “God” thanks to what society currently looks like. In saying that though, as America is a more militantly religious nation than the UK, black atheists there have more to fight against, hence why their fight is becoming increasingly more publicized. Black atheists are finding their voice…. just not over in the UK yet. I guess there is less need.
For me, the biggest battle I face is dealing with the confusion and pity that my lack of belief often stirs in some. I remember an episode at school one lunchtime when I was surrounded by ‘The God Squad’ who chanted and prayed *AT* me with their Bibles and Rosary Beads. They said my ‘soul’ needed ‘saving’ and that I was on a one-way trip to hell and that lifelong bunsen burner if I didn’t ‘repent’. It was truly terrifying and also extremely laughable all at once. They simply didn’t understand me. I didn’t fit into their box, their little world, their narrow world view. They told me I was trying to be ‘white’. I was often called a ‘coconut’, or a ‘milkyway’ or an ‘Oreo’ if the mood was right. You know, black on the outside and white on the inside? I didn’t see it as bullying, and I don’t think it was. It was a terrifyingly real demonstration of the power of religion though. These girls quite often behaved in Un-Christian ways (although there was a wave of “Born Again” business just before we finished year eleven) and I didn’t quite understand why they felt they had the right to preach at me. But then again, the hypocrisy of religious people is something I have always known. The type of black community I was surrounded by was the type that accepts crooks, cons, thugs, woman beaters, drug dealers, absent fathers, womanizers and adulterers, but never gays and never non-believers. The latter did not exist.
At this point… I’d like to stop and BREATHE. My fingers hurt from all the typing. If you’ve made it this far, very well done. If not, well you won’t see this but YOUR LOSS. I’m almost done though…
Like I said in my 4Thought piece, I think religion is always a bad thing and spirituality can be a good thing. I think religion can turn a good person bad but spirituality can make a bad person good. I think I am a good person, and although I have been raised with Christian values (in the sense of what’s been written in *That* Book), I don’t believe that you need to be religious to appreciate the value of treating others as you’d like to be treated, and loving thy neighbour as thy self. In my last post, I threw about some thoughts over a very interesting piece of music… if not art, ‘Letter from God to Man’. In this piece, “God” basically rants about how religion turned good men bad. “He” created people ‘in the image of himself’ – perfect, benevolent, etc… so what went wrong? Well, we did. Organised religion has allowed man to rule man like slaves once again, under the false guise of ‘freedom’ and ‘free-will’.
I realise I am throwing lots of information at you BUT I came across this article earlier today:
So this girl of Nigerian descent becomes homeless with her mother because her mother gives basically all her money to a corrupt church. Her mother gets to deep into this sorry mess and they end up destitute. Her mother develops a mental illness, but she refuses to accept it and vehemently denies that she is in trouble, mentally, physically, and emotionally. That’s another thing, mental illness is a huge taboo in the black community. It is never spoken about. It doesn’t exist. Black people have an inherent fighting spirit and should pick themselves up and drag themselves out of whatever mental anguish they are battling with. We are a race of born-fighters. I found this piece extraordinary because it was another example of the extremes of religious conviction (and corruption) within the black community.
I’d like to wrap up this lengthy post by just saying that I am very lucky to have been raised the way I have been. I do not regret or resent my religious upbringing at all. My mother raised me the only way she knows how, the way she thought best, and I would not be the person I am today if she didn’t. My mother is a very forward thinking, open-minded, and tolerant human being who has always taught me to be the same. She is not a religious fanatic, but she is a devout Christian. She is open to being challenged over her religious views and she often has her angry moments with ‘God’, like any relationship has its ups and downs. My mother did think I was going through a phase, much like my choice to become a vegetarian (another untypical thing for a black person, apparently), but just the other day she told me she now realises I am serious. Even AFTER I sparred with the Amish and was very clear that I don’t walk with ‘God’, it took her some time to accept it. As forward thinking as she is though, she did say that she was disappointed that I had turned away from religion and emphasised that she did not raise me that way. She is right. She didn’t. But she taught me to make my own decisions and I have made them. She also encouraged me to be my own person, not just a product of Mum prays for me every single day. She prays hard and I am grateful to her. She only wants the very best for me. Religion isn’t a hot topic in my household though. It’s our way of finding a way to live together peacefully, despite such different views about something so important (to my mum, and my culture). We’re talking about it a bit more nowadays, but the other day she did say that the only reason why we don’t openly discuss my atheism is because she thought I didn’t want to and she didn’t want to push me (a funny case of crossed wires). I also have younger siblings and she wants them to make up their own mind like I made up mine. I think that’s fair enough. She didn’t seem half as upset talking about it as I thought she might me. I guess I underestimated her.
I am fully aware that I have not broken free from religion completely, even though I ‘left’ it a very long time ago. It’s a powerful force. I go to church every Christmas Day with my family because it’s ‘tradition’. I’ve never not known that tradition. I’m not sure what I’d do if I had the choice to not to go to Church with them every holiday. I’d probably still go anyway. Why? Because no matter how many years pass and how old we both get, I know that that small gesture will always mean the world to my mum. And she means the world to me. And… she never asks me for anything and yet does everything for me. So what’s a daughter to do?
And on that note, I hope that you found this somewhat thought provoking. I think we all deserve a brew after that.
Until the next post.