In my mind there are many possibilities: if it were not so, I would have told you. I imagine ahead to prepare a place for you.
For me, being a Black atheist means thinking critically about the role of religion in the lives of Black people. For far too long, few have written about the negative aspects of religion in Black life, preferring only to write about the positives aspects. Yes, religion was something that our ancestors called upon to help them navigate a White racist world that insisted on their inferiority. But, religion has also been the site of much brutality in the lives of Black people.
If we were to grade the role religion has played in Black life, particularly Judeo-Christianity, I would say that it has earned a “F.” There are simply too many instances of religion being both tool of liberation and tool of oppression in the lives of Blacks. For example, the bible was constantly utilized to justify the enslavement of Black people. I’m sorry, but an “F” average is simply not good enough for a religion that makes divine and/or supernatural claims. Surely, there should be a better track record for something that is ruled by an all-powerful god?
We have been told by the gatekeepers of Black History that religion, and religion alone, has gotten us over. We fail to take into account the secular ways that Black people have utilized in their dealings with a White racist society. For every Bishop Henry McNeal, there has been a Frederick Douglass. For every Sojourner Truth, there has been a Butterfly McQueen. While it is true that Blacks have utilized religion, it has not been the only thing that we have utilized, and our failure to recognize this stunts our collective growth, and undermines what we think we are capable of when addressing the problems that plague our communities.
I would suggest that there is a very real danger in Black people thinking we are nothing without religion. We, Black people, were a people before we were indoctrinated, and we will be someone afterwards. This is not to suggest that religion cannot be a useful tool for examining the issues facing Black people but, more often than not, it is usually a tool of conservatism holding Black people back.
Reverend Irene Monroe is a religious Black person that uses her role in organized religion to critically examine issues facing the Black community. She is not of the conservative ilk populated by Black exploiters like Eddie Long, Bernice King, and Harry Jackson. These pastors participate in the degradation of Black life by insisting that we are simple, lacking in complexity, and diversity. That we are a people only, and always, marked by conservatism. They fail to take into account the diversity of Black life, instead insisting on its monotony.
As enthralled as I am with Reverend Irene Monroe, as a Black atheist, I insist on making it known that religion, nor belief in god, are necessary in Black life. I am not of the belief that Blacks should embrace a form of cultural nihilism, because one can be atheist and very hopeful about the potential for positive transformation of Black life. I simply do not believe that Black people need religion. We absolutely need structures for coming together, and so often this has been the primary role of religion in Black life, but this can be achieved without religion and belief in god.
Black people need to find their legs, and I don’t think we are able to do that sufficiently by returning to the same old Judeo-Christian fables that we have so often turned to. It is time for us to get in touch with our own African cultural myths, and see what we can glean, for the better, from our diverse history. Do we need to hold these myths as truth in order to appreciate them, and learn from them? No, but I think we do need to at least be aware of them.
Many myths have plagued Black people in America. There have been racial myths that have insisted on our inferiority. There have been gender myths that have insisted on our inferiority. There has also been a religious myth, and in relation a god myth, that has insisted that we are nothing without it. I am calling for Black people to examine these myths, challenge these myths, and abandon these myths. Black thinkers like Sikivi Hutchinson and Norm Allen are leading the way, in our need to examine the many myths that plague Black life. The narratives of Blackness must be pushed forward in order to include something that isn’t always foregrounded on religion. We are, I truly believe, so much more than the religion that was, for the most part, forced upon us on our departure to this land.
We must examine the role of religion in Black life. This is not a necessary thing, but an urgent thing.