What It’s Like to Be Black and Atheist

African-Americans are statistically the most religious group in the U.S. Leaving that community can be extremely hard, and carry a heavy price.

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

On Nov. 15—and just in time for awkward Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners—nonbelievers everywhere celebrated Openly Secular Day. But being out about one’s secularity is often easier said than done.

While honesty may be said to be the best policy, for American atheists who are still in the metaphorical closet, it may also come with a price tag. And this can especially be the case for African-American atheists—often referred to as a minority within a minority.

But just what does this designation mean and how representative is it of the black atheist story?

“This has been a valid observation and experience for me and others,” says Mandisa Thomas, president of the organization Black Nonbelievers. A nonprofit in Atlanta, the organization connects black atheists (and allies) who are living without religion and have lost family and friends in doing so.

“I was raised in what is known as the ‘Conscious/Black Nationalist’ community. I was educated early on about black history and culture, as well as the effects of institutionalized racism and injustice that was committed against marginalized groups in the United States.” She sees Christianity as a religion forced on African Americans during slavery, leading to its prevalence.

“I wasn’t directly raised with religion but was still exposed to it, and as a result, I vowed never to subscribe to any of them [religions].”

Thomas notes that black nonbelievers are a minority among African Americans. Past studies of African Americans and faith show that at they are demographically (87 percent) the most religious group in the nation. Additionally, other studies have shown that 87 percent of black women rank as the most religious in America. Additionally, she notes, “the number of blacks and other ‘minorities’ who openly identify as atheist, while growing, are still small.”

Candace Gorham, author of The Ebony Exodus Project: Why Some Black Women are Walking Out on Religion—and Others Should Too, also sees African-American atheism as a double-minority. “When I’m around a lot of black people,” she says by email, “I ‘pray’ that religion doesn’t come up! I don’t want to have to answer questions and I don’t want to be expected to pray or agree or whatever else. But if you’re around black people for long enough, it will come up.”

Gorham was raised a Jehovah’s Witness until (by age 9) her parents separated. She stayed curious about religion and joined a Methodist church, later becoming involved in a non-denominational church ministry connected to a prosperity gospel message.

“I eventually was ordained as a prophetess and evangelist,” she says, “and was involved in things like casting out demons, speaking in tongues, and faith healing.” She’s had many personal life challenges, she adds, but “what started the decline for me was when I started learning about the errancy of the Bible.” Discovering that the Bible wasn’t infallible “really wreaked havoc” on her faith.

Gorham generally tries to keep quiet about her non-belief in her daily life and avoids “aggressively” attacking religion when with family. “It has, however, caused some significant problems with certain extended family and close friends,” she adds, “such that I’ve lost several relationships as a result.”

Regardless of the difficulties, there are many black nonbelievers who want to assure others that leaving the church is an option.

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Exodus: The Documentary, for example, is a forthcoming full-length film from Christian journalist David Person and Chuck Miller (regional director for the American Atheists), and it looks at the increasing number of African Americans becoming nonbelievers and the difficulties they face in doing so.

“Today, more than ever, black people… particularly our young people, are leaving the church, religion and god,” says Bridgett (Bria) Crutchfield by email. She’s the founder of the Detroit affiliate of Black Nonbelievers and is interviewed in Exodus. (She appears in the film’s sizzle reel at Indiegogo.)

“Unlike atheists of yesterday, we’re for the most part… vocal. Exodus focuses on African Americans and their exodus-exit from the church. It’s honest, raw, and intimate.”

Crutchfield was raised in a conservative Jehovah’s Witness family until she was 18. She later became a Pentecostal Christian in her thirties, and then the doubts about her faith began. “I’d describe it as an almost perfect puzzle piece,” she says. “It seemed to fit, but when you move your hand, you can see the gap.”

She says that it was ultimately her re-evaluating of the Bible “objectively” and what she sees as the overall “hypocrisy” in church that drove her out. “I believed in God, but I had enough of God’s goddamn people,” she emphasizes.

She is, however, tired of the double-minority phrase. She thinks it’s overused, though she admits it’s true. Her family, for example, still prays for her. “There’s no way to wrap a bow around unbelief and present it as beautiful to a (black) religious family,” she says. She’s also lost what she sees as “fair weather” friends. But she insists she’s gained more than she’s lost.

“I think we’re nearing another of many tipping points where we’ll see the normalization of black Atheism,” says Alix Jules, who also appears in Exodus. “Telling our stories helps with that.”

“The Exodus documentary is our story,” he adds, “something that isn’t often told in first person. A few years ago you’d find only a handful of visible black atheists if you tried really hard. This documentary wants to change that.” But for now they are still seeking full funding for the project.

Baptized and confirmed Catholic, Jules spent time in a Seventh Day Adventists school until fourth grade, after which—due to his love of math and science—he was transferred to a Lutheran school in Brooklyn. He loved debating theology and even studied Islam. He later returned to his faith as an adult, only to find the big questions unanswered. He took on the label “spiritual but not religious,” until he eventually accepted the fact that he was an atheist.

This new identity brought family tension. His mother blamed herself, he says.

“Belief is often inextricably tied to race in the black community,” says Jules. “Although I disagree with the message, for many it’s a source of hope, connection, history, and sometimes empowerment.” Distancing from that means losing resources and adding burdens, which he says curtails any decision to leave the church.

“I don’t hide my atheism,” he insists, and his activism shows it. He chairs the Dallas-Fort Worth Coalition of Reason’s Diversity Council and is an organizer for the Dallas wing of Black Nonbelievers. He’s appeared in many articles and interviews, and was once featured in Ebony Magazine for his atheism.

But as a result of his openness, he’s been forced to look for—and to help create—a new community. And now, he adds, “my wife and I have friends that have become staples in our lives and sources of boundless support.”

Another side of the double-minority dilemma comes from within the secular and atheist world—a segment of society that is part of the growing religiously unaffiliated—a sizeable 23 percent in America.

Statistically speaking, the face of atheism in the United States leans strongly towards a male (68 percent) and largely white (78 percent) demographic, a number that is 12 percent higher than the general U.S. population.

The recent study, Exodus: Why Americans are Leaving Religion—and Why They’re Unlikely to Come Back from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) shows that among the religiously unaffiliated, numbers by race vary. The study divides the demographic up by three groups: rejectionists (58 percent), who say that religion is not personally important and does more harm than good; apatheists (22 percent), who say that religion is also not personally important for them, but believe it is more help than harm; and the unattached believers (18 percent), who say religion is important to them.

Among these three segments of the religiously unaffiliated, the majority are white. “Fewer than one in ten Rejectionists (4%) and Apatheists (8%) are black, compared to 27% of Unattached Believers,” according to the study.

As a result of this makeup, African-American atheists within the secular world have a variety of experiences, some finding stronger community than others.

Gorham says she feels very connected to the secular world. “I have an amazing atheist network in my city and surrounding area. Our local chapter of the Freedom from Religion Foundation is very active and there are other really active social groups.” As an author she’s found many chances to speak and meet leaders in the movement.

But there remains a constant reminder that racism is a universal human problem, regardless of one’s opinions of religion.

“Atheism, like any other demographic or group is subject to the biases visible everywhere else,” says Jules. “Although more liberal and left leaning in the US, I haven’t found racism, sexism, or many other socially unacceptable labels significantly ‘less represented’ in Atheism.”

Jules, however, has found a place in the atheist world, which he pinpoints “at the three-way intersection of controversy, race-relations, and rational discourse.”

“One may not see many of us well represented at secular related events,” adds Mandisa Thomas. “There is still a tendency for the secular community at large to center the attention on the ‘celebrities’ of the movement, most of whom are white. However, we are working to turn this around.”

Secular atheist organizations, like The Center for Inquiry (CFI)—which seeks to foster a secular society based on science, reason, and humanist values—also have programs to support black nonbelievers, such as African Americans for Humanism (AAH).

“If the secular community wants to be sure that we’re building a strong movement,” says Debbie Goddard, director of AAH and of Outreach for CFI, “then representation and diversity must be important to us.”

Started in 1989, she says, AAH “is focused on getting more humanism into the black community and more people of color into the humanist community. AAH helps give black atheists a voice at the grassroots and at the organization level by maintaining an advisory committee, a speakers bureau, and a network of affiliated groups around the country.”

Goddard says that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work. “I’ve been glad to see more representation and a growing number of local groups in the last few years and look forward to seeing more in the future.”

Others also see significant room remaining for substantive improvement within the organized secular world.

“My work focuses on emphasizing and encouraging a more inclusive secular humanist framework,” says Sincere Kirabo, the social justice coordinator for the American Humanists Association (AHA) and blogger at Patheos.

When it comes to diversity, he says, many “conflate representation with inclusivity.” For the former, “the secular community overall has made incremental strides forward, though some diversity efforts result in tokenism, which is a lot of things but not true diversity.”

“Meaningful diversity,” he argues, “requires authentic inclusion—a seat and voice at the table. This means a fundamental upgrade in organizational leadership, mission principles, and agenda expectations.”

The double-minority status is repeatedly affirmed as a real and complicated place to be.

After writing his “Goodbye, Christ,” Langston Hughes discovered there’s nothing thought to be more un-American than the rejection of Christianity. Religious leaders, after all, didn’t react well to his telling Christ to “Beat it on away from here now.” Similarly, being “a minority with a minority” is a reminder for black atheists that in every American sphere of life there is an Orwellian Animal Farm dilemma—that all are equal, “but some are more equal than others.”