I love the beauty of stained-glass cathedrals. They evoke fond memories of smiling family during my First Communion. Unlike many of my black friends who were Baptist, I don’t have the stories of revival and rebirth. I had ritual. It was tied to a repeated narrative of freedom through suffering, a familiar tale. Although I wasn’t Jewish, I too was promised a Messiah whose incarnations I saw in the civil rights movements and various social-justice causes. Though I occasionally questioned the goodness of a god who would allow the numerous atrocities aimed at a people because they were different, clergy and family were quick to remind me that “you just have gotta believe.” As one of the many victims of “spare the rod, spoil the child” doctrine, I knew not to press.
In the African-American community, regardless of denomination, being religious and accepting Jesus is almost a prerequisite to being black. It’s more than pigmentation. It’s a shared cultural experience that often comes with a religious test. Religion and cultural identity are nearly inextricable from one another. Though African Americans will reluctantly accept separation of church and state, they will not willingly accept separation of church and race.
It wasn’t until I became hell-bent on disproving secularists’ claims of moral equity and relativism—on addressing the challenges to my scripture—that I came to understand the fallacies of my own arguments. My very journey to validate my faith undid it. By the end of my exploration, I found I had given up my faith but also unwittingly signed over my “black card.” I went from being a Doubting Thomas to also being an Uncle Tom.
I remember the feeling of abandonment when grappling with the realization that it was my belief (or lack of it) that caused the rift in my relationships. I recall receiving a text: “write back when you’ve found Jesus.” There’s no more belittling feeling than being told that your lifelong congregation had been asked to pray for your safe passage and deliverance from Satan, yet watch the church say nothing to condemn priestly pedophilia. I had to come to grips with the harsh truth that because my wedding was nonreligious, many of my friends would refuse to attend. A marriage without God, I was told, is invalid in the eyes of the Lord.
Eventually, I set my grief aside and set out to find other nonbelievers. When I did, I noticed that most didn’t look like me and did not share many of my cultural experiences. I was a minority within a minority. My story is not unique; many atheists and secular humanists of color share similar stories.
In 2008 I went to my first secular Meetup. I was terrified and felt alone. The lack of diversity didn’t help much either. My children had begun feeling ostracized for not belonging to any of the local Dallas churches. At that time there was very little to do with children at these Meetup events, yet I kept bringing them along hoping they’d find children their ages. Eventually, other local atheists and families befriended us and went out of their way to make us feel welcome. As the need continued to present itself, many of our families created an organization (the Fellowship of Freethought Dallas) that would grow to become the largest atheist group in North Texas. Its primary focus was on building a strong, diverse secular community based on family, outreach, and education. More important, my children found friends they needn’t hide their disbelief from. My son, who happens to be autistic, often reminds me how hard it was to “pretend to believe” among his peer group. He no longer has to. My daughters got to play and explore, at an age where everything was and is a testable hypothesis, all without deferring to a god for explanation.
In 2010, after attending the African Americans for Humanism conference hosted by the Center for Inquiry–Washington, D.C., I set my sights on addressing the greater problem of diversity in my secular home while also setting out to build new levels of understanding of secular humanism and atheism within the African–American community. That year I asked the leaders of the Dallas–Fort Worth Coalition of Reason to stand up and live diversity with me. We implemented a Diversity Council, where minority voices and issues would always be heard and always have a spot at the local table. Our coalition billboards, advertisements, and messages shifted from ideas to faces—all showing the diversity we knew existed. We featured a wide array of ethnicity, race, gender, and sexuality. Our local coalition ballooned to over two thousand members (represented by over a dozen organizations), nearly 20 percent ethnically diverse and over 40 percent female (we’re still working on that). We continue to see a steady increase in diversity interests at the local level, as well as increased secular activism on behalf of food banks, book drives, and school-supply drives for minority communities. Many of us volunteer at women’s health clinics. We’ve taken the sanguine challenge (blood drives). We literally donate by the busload, and we jokingly wonder how many of the pious are walking around unknowingly with atheist blood pounding through their evangelical veins.
In February 2012, through the generosity of the Stiefel Freethought Foundation and the extraordinary hard work of Debbie Goddard and the CFI staff, the African Americans for Humanism (AAH) campaign launched a new awareness initiative during Black History Month. It showcased historical and modern African-American secular humanists on billboards. “Doubts about Religion? You’re One of Many” was the theme. Our message was aimed nationally, yet we got responses from around the globe. The initiative allowed us to take the discussion in the minority community to a new level, from whispered taboo to (sometimes) verbal assault and denunciation from the pulpit. But we are talking. Social media has allowed countless segregated or displaced minority atheists to connect, and they are doing it as never before.
In Houston, AAH contributor, author, and former Baptist deacon Donald Wright launched a Day of Solidarity for black nonbelievers, which garnered support from across the country. We’ve seen upticks everywhere in interest and group affiliation, and online discussion groups regarding minorities and religion are emerging.
At March’s Reason Rally in the nation’s capital, we experienced unparalleled diverse representation from the likes of Jamila Bey, Ronnelle Adams, Victor Harris, and Indra Zuno. Many of our national groups are beginning to take notice and are themselves becoming more diverse.
In Atlanta, Mandisa Thomas, AAH activist and cofounder of Black Non-Believers, is challenging the atheist stereotype of academic elitism and working to reshape the local image of an open secular humanist movement—with a human face. Her AAH billboard was well received, and she continues promoting discourse in the South. Other AAH activists are steadily pounding the pavement at conferences and local Meetups, increasing visibility to a growing but sometimes overlooked segment of the population. In Chicago, Kimberly Veal, spokesperson for the AAH Chicago billboard campaign and cohost of Black Freethinker Radio, dares to take on even more challenging topics of faith and diversity, often spotlighting black humanists nationwide, connecting those that need connecting, and challenging the black religious standard. And in Dallas, we recently launched another billboard and movie theater ad campaign featuring images of secular families and taking back the phrase “family values.”
Through heightened outreach and visibility, we hope to address the growing cluster of issues that many of our colleagues in academia tend to overlook. The problems that exist in the world today cannot be solved by the level of thinking that created them, so we’re hoping to bridge the gap between secular scholarship and secular activism, bringing solutions to our communities wherever we can. Many of us believe in the same things that our best and brightest do. We also put education first, but translating that into a daily plan or purpose that is relevant to people’s lives remains somewhat elusive. The human experience for the secular activist is not defined by how many debates are won but rather by how many lives we’ve touched and changed.