Theology Thursdays: Black Non-Theists Coming Out by Norm R. Allen Jr.
Black non-theists face special challenges. No group has been more dependent upon religion than have African Americans. There’s no denying that. On the other hand, we cannot ignore the fact that African Americans have suffered greatly because of religion. Religion has given us great leaders such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Religious leaders played an important role in the abolition of slavery and in other human rights struggles. But religionists also opposed the abolition of slavery. Religionists also opposed Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. So the first thing we have to realize is that religion—like the people that embrace it—is not perfect. We also have to realize and appreciate the fact that religion is not for everybody, and that we all have the right to reject it if we so desire.
Most Black people seem to believe that religion must play a central role in every Black movement. When we go to NAACP meetings, they often begin with prayers. If we go to reparations rallies, we are led in prayer. If we go to political gatherings, religious leaders demand that we pray. If we go to public gatherings in government buildings, we are told to pray. If we go to listen to speeches by charismatic Black leaders, they exhort us to pray.
Of course, we Black non-theists feel alienated in these settings. Don’t we count? Don’t our ideas count? Don’t we have much to contribute to human rights struggles? How would religionists feel if non-theists started every meeting by coercing everyone into denying the existence of God? Would they stand for it? And more importantly, would it be fair? Would it build the unity we are striving for?
You don’t have to be an atheist or agnostic to embrace a secular worldview. After all, Malcolm X came to endorse a secular worldview. He taught that religion did far more to divide us than to unite us. And he was right. He taught that religion is personal, and that it should be kept out of our meetings. He formed a secular group—the Organization of Afro-American Unity—and formed a separate religious entity known as the Muslim Mosque, Inc. And this devout Muslim once told an audience, “If your religion hasn’t done any more for you than it has, you need to forget it anyway.” Amen to that!
After all is said and done, there is no good reason to believe that our success depends upon God. Whether God exists or not, as we continue into the 21st century, it should be clear that human thought and human action must be at the center of our movements. All of our accomplishments can be explained in terms that are clearly and strictly human. There were no credible reports of angels on hand during the Battle of Gettysburg or Sherman’s March on Atlanta. There was no burning bush that spoke to Martin Luther King during the 1963 March on Washington. No one turned into a pillar of salt at the Million Man March. All of these events came to pass as a result of human thought and human action. And there is no good reason to assume that God has been responsible for any of our incredible achievements.
Black humanists and freethinkers have long been involved in Black intellectualism and activism. Hubert Henry Harrison was one of the greatest orators of the early part of the 20th century. He was a leading thinker and editor of the newspaper, the Negro World, of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. Under Harrison’s leadership, the paper became the largest selling Black paper in the world.
A. Philip Randolph founded and led the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and called for the first March on Washington. He was the “grandfather” of the Civil Rights Movement. He became one of the “Big Six” major civil rights leaders, and signed Humanist Manifesto II in 1973.
Joel Augustus Rogers was an influential Black anthropologist. He wrote such books as From Superman to Man, As Nature Leads, 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro, three volumes of Sex and Race, two volumes of World’s Great Men of Color, and Africa’s Gift to America. He challenged the racist scholarship of his day and spent 50 years researching Black history.
The Black Panthers practiced what Huey Newton called “revolutionary humanism.” Their 10-point program was completely secular and they wisely heeded Malcolm’s call to keep religion out of their organization. Their program was human-centered and they were primarily concerned with concrete problems such as eliminating police brutality and feeding the hungry.
Maulana Karenga is a leading Black studies scholar. He is a former leader of the activist organization United Slaves, and he spoke at the Million Man March. Karenga established Kwanzaa—a major secular celebration of Black life and culture. He has shown that one can contribute to Black uplift without making a belief in God central to Black existence.
Black humanists, freethinkers, atheists, rationalists, and agnostics will continue to contribute to human advancement. But now is the time for us to come out of the closet. We Blacks are a diverse people, and this is nothing to be ashamed of. We have many religions, and some of us have none at all. We should be no more ashamed of our non-theism than we are of our African ancestry. It is time once and for all to stand up and be counted. We have a very proud past, and if we courageously defend our worldview, we will be in an even better position to forge a glorious future.
The above is the text of a speech delivered at the Godless Americans March on Washington on November 2, 2002 by African Americans for Humanism (AAH) executive director Norm R. Allen, Jr. AAH can be contacted via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Norm R. Allen Jr.
Thursday, June 16, 2005