It was her freshman year of college that Jeanetta Smith came to the conclusion that there was no God. “I started taking a Philosophy course and when the subject of God came up, I honestly didn’t even know it was up for debate. The notion of there being ‘no God at all’ just completely threw me for a loop,” 19-year-old Jeanetta explains. “But eventually, my mind broadened and I began to listen. For me, everything just made more sense without a God.”
As Jeanetta began to explore her new beliefs she started a YouTube channel to give voice to a nearly invisible population of atheists — African-American females. Jean’s Take is a web series where Jeanetta openly discusses her beliefs with other YouTube users. Her channel has grown in popularity and now has over 2,000 subscribers. Yet despite her outspoken views online, there was one important group of people who didn’t know about Jeanetta’s beliefs – her parents.
“I really was unsure of how I would bring it up. I was thinking something along the lines of ‘The next time she asks me if I want to go to church with them, I’ll break it to them right then & there.’ I always ended up chickening out though,” Jeanetta said.
She never got the chance to break the news herself. Instead, in her most popular YouTube video, Jeanetta shares the story of how her mother found out she was atheist via Facebook, and the subsequent silent treatment she had to endure while her mother dealt with the shock.
To be atheist in the African-American community can be an incredibly isolating experience. As a whole the atheist population in the United States totals roughly 12 percent, according to a 2008 American Religious Identification Survey. Recent books like God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens and city-wide advertisements like “Good Without God” sponsored by local atheist organizations have raised the profile of atheism in the United States. However within the growing population of public atheists, African-Americans are few and far between.
In fact statistics point to blacks being one of the most religious ethnic groups in America. A recent poll by the Barna Group revealed that 84 percent of the African-Americans surveyed identified God as “the all-powerful, all-knowing, perfect creator of the universe who rules the world today.” Another study conducted by Pew Forum found that of all the major ethic and racial groups in America, blacks are the most likely to claim a formal religious affiliation.
These statistics only corroborate the cultural significance of religion, specifically Christianity, to African-Americans. Historically the church has been ingrained in the black community from the slavery, through the Civil Rights Movement, right up to the election of President Barack Obama. The church is the cornerstone of black society and is often the source of leadership for the entire community. Consequently to come out as someone who does not believe in God is to risk ostracism from not only your community, but quite possibly your culture.
Weighing the risk of being the only “out” black atheist, the internet has proven to be a great source for atheists seeking like-minded individuals. Poplar websites like Infidelguy.com and forums on atheistnexus.org give black atheists a safe place to share their beliefs and struggles without the fear of rejection. On Facebook 300-plus membership of the Black Atheists group acknowledges the specific difficulties many face. “Many of us are afraid to come out in fear of being shunned by our families, friends and the African American community as a whole,” it says in the group’s description. “This is a way to come together and create our own community on Facebook.”Mario Stanton, creator of the Black Atheists Facebook group, understands how difficult it is to find like-minded people in the black community. “Finding outspoken black, or even latino, atheists is like trying to find that proverbial needle in the haystack,” he said. “The relevance of a group such as mine is to let each other and the world know that atheists of color do exist and also to give us an opportunity to talk about subjects that may be unique to the black atheist experience.”
A recent topic discussed in the Facebook group was the difficulties of dating for a black atheist, a problem that group member Raina Rhoades has had first had experience with. “The guys I usually end up talking to are preoccupied with trying to get me to come to church and to convert me,” Raina said. “I live in the South now so I find its much worse down here, people often ask you what church you attend. When you tell them you don’t there’s an awkward pause and then sometime later they’ll try to probe you to see if you even believe in god and why.”
Black female atheists are an even tinier subgroup of this burgeoning population. African-Americans for Humanism is one of the most prominent organizations for black atheists, and it’s membership skews largely male, according to the group’s founder, Norm Allen. This gender trend is reflected in the Black Atheist Facebook group and in atheism as a whole.
So where are the black female atheists? Take a look at any black church congregation on Sunday and it’s easy to surmise that women are more likely to be spiritual. This trend crosses racial boundaries, as the aforementioned Pew Forum study also found that roughly 20 percent of men claimed no religious affiliation, in comparison to only 13 percent of women.
Raina believes if there were more black female atheist role models, more women would be willing to explore the belief. “We tend to observe our mothers and women we admire in church. I think [religion] is a hard thing to let go of and if we don’t have positive role models as black women who aren’t theists what we tend to see again are mostly white male intellectuals.”
Jeanetta’s theory is that you can trace women’s religious fervor back to slavery. “When a group is suppressed like that, they feel like they need something greater to believe in,” she said. “Whatever local form of hope they’ve been exposed to is usually what they will believe throughout their lives.”
Jeanetta and Raina may be among the few who have broken from the African-American spiritual tradition, but thanks to the internet black atheist are now finding support groups they may not have experience within their individual communities. In Jeanetta’s first Youtube video she posted, she’s very adamant about not being converted from her beliefs. To her surprise she found the exact opposite happened.
“People were supporting me, letting me know I wasn’t alone, and giving some really great responses and advice, which they still do on a daily basis,” she says. “I’m so thankful for that!”