In the past few months, I have occasionally been invited to write posts on other people’s blogs. Phil Ferguson has invited me to post occasional guest spots on Skeptic Money, I had a post up on Skeptic North, and Hemant Mehta asked me to contribute something to Friendly Atheist. You can probably notice a trend in these sites – they’re all atheist/skeptic friendly blogs that discuss religion in the same way that I do. However, last week I was invited to cross-post one of my pieces on anti-racism blog Racialicious. I have been a Racialicious reader for 2 years now, and so it was a really exciting opportunity to open my writing to a new kind of scrutiny.
And boy howdy, did that happen:
Atheists can be just as preachy and dogmatic as any other group. And the idea that an atheist is a “freethinker” by virtue of being atheist is just as disingenuous as the idea that some white ex-Christian is an oppressed religious minority.
Are there things that bug the ish out of me around the black community’s relationship to the church? Definitely! But I’m not on a mission to educate, encourage or “liberate” black folks of color from Christianity because that feels too much like organized religion to me.
Something about having to join a meeting and band together with other people in a set location to discuss a lack of religious beliefs feels a little, well… church-like to me. And convincing other people of your train of thought, atheistic or otherwise, and passionately wanting more people of color to join your side strikes me as very… evangelical.
Once again, one can see a pattern emerging. I am well-versed in defending anti-racism among discussions with atheists. Having to defend atheism, particularly my active form of it, among a group of anti-racists was a new experience for me. It was made a bit more frustrating by the fact that the post wasn’t even about why people of colour (PoCs) should be atheist, or why they (we) should be abandoning religion. It was simply an examination of some of the issues that might be keeping PoC who are atheists away from joining the mainstream movement. While a couple of the comments dealt with the issues I had raised, the majority of them were like the ones above – variations on a theme of “why bother to be part of an organized atheist movement?” or “why bother to be an atheist?”
Funnily enough, this is a conversation that I’ve had with atheists a number of times, but from the other side – “why do you need to be a black atheist? Why can’t we all just be atheists?” or the ever popular refrain that racial differences will cease to exist when we just stop paying attention to them. My usual response to a question like that is usually something flippant – “why do we have to call ourselves atheists? Why can’t we all just be bipeds?” The point being that labels are useful when there are real differences between groups or positions.
As with all things on this blog, I am not going to pretend that I can give a definite answer to either of these questions. I will, however, provide you with my own reasons for why I am black, atheist, and a black atheist.
Why call yourself black?
As I’ve alluded to before, I’ve struggled with my racial identity for most of my life. Where I’ve settled, for now at least, is that since the world treats me like a black man rather than a mixed-race person, I might as well call myself black. I can (and do) draw a great deal of strength and existential context from my African heritage. While everyone has their identity as individuals, it is more or less inevitable that we will also find a way to place ourselves in groups. I embrace this rather than trying to continue a futile struggle to assert my unique snowflake-ness.
Why call yourself an atheist?
This question usually has more to do with being a vocal atheist – what some people continue to insist on calling ‘militant’. (Just a caveat here: until someone begins to use violence to intimidate others, they are not militant, and you’re just using the word to score cheap rhetorical points.) Why get together with other atheists and talk about being atheists? This is the subject, surely, for an entire post of its own, but there can be great value – socially, politically, and in terms of security – in banding together with like-minded people. I am a vocal atheist because I recognize the harm that religion does in the world, and the privileged position it holds that allows this harm to continue apace. Religion needs people who are not afraid or too apathetic to criticize it and bring the conversation into the mainstream.
Why call yourself a black atheist?
I have actively chosen both the labels ‘black’ and ‘atheist’ for myself. It is not simply a question of passive de facto categorization – both of these labels meaningfully inform my outlook on life. In a reciprocal way, each of the labels affects the other. My lack of belief puts me at odds with most of the black community. At the same time however, the skeptical tools that I use in my discussion of religion have helped me immensely in my discussions of race. Being black makes me an outlier within the atheist community, but I can readily reach for examples when discussions of privilege come up, and the civil rights struggle is perfectly mirrored in what the atheist community is attempting to achieve now.
So far from simply being the accidental collision of my race and my beliefs, I take great pride in being a black atheist. Not only do the labels describe me meaningfully on their own, they operate in parallel to reinforce each other. I don’t see any problem in this kind of self-identification. Some do not choose to see themselves that way, and I can’t make the decision for them. However, I have little patience for those who would attempt to minimize or trivialize my own choice simply because they do not choose it for themselves.
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