It’s not easy being a black atheist.
“Less than one-half of a percent of African-Americans identify themselves as atheists, compared with 1.6 percent of the total population,” the New York Times noted in a feature story on Nov. 25. “Black atheists, then, find they are a minority within a minority.”
The reasons for this are complicated.
“Religion is a large part of the black American culture,” says Ayanna Watson, founder of Black Atheists of America, Inc. “Hence, it is extremely difficult for black atheists to be open about their stance regarding religion. Unfortunately, it is viewed as turning your back on your culture.”
The black church has played a central role in the community for more than 100 years, and during the civil rights movement, it was a crucial site for organizing.
It’s hard for blacks to be atheists because they not only risk alienating family members and friends. They also may be accused of being disrespectful to their heritage.
Gays and lesbians in the black community have had to deal with similar accusations, since black churches are often homophobic. It’s not uncommon to hear the phrase "God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”
But the New York Times article found that for some blacks, coming out as an atheist is even trickier than coming out as gay.
The black community needs to be more tolerant of the atheists in its midst. The civil rights and labor leader A. Philip Randolph was an atheist, after all, as was the actress Butterfly McQueen.
Today, the Black Atheists of America has about 3,500 people following it on social networks, says Watson.
“I formed Black Atheists of America, Inc., to build a support group for black atheists and to bring diversity to the overall atheist community,” she says.
Here’s to hoping for tolerance no matter your sexual orientation, race, religion or lack of same.
There is room here for all of us.
Akilah Bolden-Monifa is a freelance writer based in Oakland, Calif. She can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
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