A nationwide pro-atheist campaign launched to coincide with Black History Month has some African-Americans reaffirming their spiritual convictions.
“It’s a sign of the end times,” said Reverend Kyev Tatum of Harmony Missionary Baptist Church in Texas. “People will turn from the truth and the Bible says this is going to happen.”
What’s happening is the African Americans for Humanism group is directly targeting African-Americans who may be questioning their religious beliefs with a series of billboards posted in predominantly black areas across the country. The Stiefel Freethought Foundation provided substantial financial support for the campaign.
Some believe it’s a direct attack on African-American Christians, a claim the AAH national director Debbie Goddard refutes.
“We’re not trying to make people lose their religion,” says Goddard, a self-described atheist, humanist and free-thinker who stopped believing in God in sixth grade.
“It was an eye opening experience to realize that the Bible is not real. They’re just stories and God isn’t real,” she says.
However, when people are not only asking if ‘black Christians are the new house negroes,’ but are also taking a step further to assert that “black Christians are the house new negroes,” perhaps African-American Christians are justified in taking things a bit personal.
Nonetheless the campaign takes a collective approach to encouraging skepticism of all forms of organized spirituality with the billboards that read, “Doubts about religion? You’re one of many.” They’ve been posted in Los Angeles; Chicago; Washington, D.C.; New York City; and Durham, North Carolina.
The one scheduled to appear this week in the Oak Cliff community (which is primarily made up of African-Americans and Latinos) of Dallas, Texas has already faced its share of resistance from residents, according to Goddard, and it has not even gone up yet.
“We have a very strong black ministry here, mainly Baptist, and they’re not very fond of this billboard going up in their back yards,” Alix Jules told theGrio. Jules chairs the local chapter of the Coalition of Reason Diversity Council.
The location where the sign will be posted in Dallas along Interstate 35 at Illinois Avenue is within a few miles of about 12 predominantly African-American churches.
Apparently, that’s part of the problem.
One of those nearby churches is the main campus of the 30,000-member mega-church, The Potter’s House, presided by the internationally renown Bishop T. D. Jakes, who has yet to make a public statement about the AAH campaign.
Last year, the Potter’s House responded to the “Life is good without God” December 2010 ads that were posted on Fort Worth, Texas city buses by creating signs with Christian messages. Rev. Tatum also garnered momentum against those ads, leading a charge calling for a bus boycott. He argued that taxpayers were not consulted before the anti-religious signs were posted on the city buses.
But that was 2010, and today, Tatum is taking a more hands off approach and encouraging other pastors to simply ignore the pro-atheism billboard campaign.
“It comes from the devil, right out of the pits of hell,” he says.
The belief in hellish pits, the practice of praying to an invisible entity and a so-called escapist mentality that anticipates a life in heaven have inspired several prominent African-Americans to doubt religion — and God.
Pictured on the AAH ads, alongside contemporary African-American freethinkers, are the images of writer-anthropologist, Zora Neale Hurston, poet-activist Langston Hughes and abolitionist-publisher Frederick Douglass, all supposed religious skeptics and humanists.
But the debate is still out on the spiritual beliefs of Frederick Douglass, an ordained African Methodist Episcopalian minister who wrote: “I prayed for twenty years on my knees but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” The interpretation for some outlines the notion that action should override prayer, or vice versa depending on your spirituality. Atheists and humanists readily use this quote to promote principles of religious skepticism, much to the disapproval of some of the descendants of Frederick Douglass.
“It’s disingenuous…to associate Douglass so directly with atheism as he was strongly bound by his Christian beliefs.”
That’s why Tatum, who served as the NAACP Texas State Vice President for several years and leads the local chapter of the organization for which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. served as its first president — the Southern Christian Leadership Conference — says the AAH should get its fact straight when distributing information during Black History Month.
“It’s absolutely a lie,” he said.
Many African-American atheists believe that sharing the non-religious ideologies of other recognizable figures in black history, like Asa Philip Randolf, W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, and the founder of Black History Month Carter G. Woodson, will help complete the story of the African-American experience.
Goddard says many people are not aware of the tradition of “using logic and reasoning to question authority, religion and superstition” in black history.
But some say using logic to entertain or rationalize atheistic ideologies is not an intelligent thought process. Best-selling author and New Zealand-born pastor, Ray Comfort, puts it this way:
“It’s a philosophy for the dumbest of the dumb, and it’s an insult to the black heritage to try and hoodwink them into believing that nothing created everything.”
Apparently, blacks, according to Comfort, are too smart to fall for “an insane worldview.”
“That’s why there are so few black atheists,” Comfort, who is white, says. “Most atheists are white, educated, and greatly lacking when it comes to common sense.”
And that raises the issue of what it’s like to be a minority within a minority as multiple studies over the years show that African-Americans are the most religious group in America. The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey indicated a doubling in the number of non-religious Americans between 1990 and 2008 whereas 79 percent of African-Americans say religion plays an important role in their lives.
Black atheists are usually isolated from families and friends who often interpret the word “atheist” as “devil-worshipper,” according to Goddard.
“I may as well be a unicorn,” writes Jamila Bey, a writer and comedian who has gained quite a bit of attention within the black atheist community because of her outspoken personality. She says she’s not afraid to use the “A-word.”
Jules, who believes slave owners forced Christianity upon blacks, went from being a Roman Catholic to a Muslim to a doubter. After the doubter status, he said he stopped believing and then he finally used the word “atheist.”
“That’s when the calls stopped,” he said.
He has not spoken to his mother and cousins for several years. But he still sends them Christmas cards, two of which, his mother, mailed back to him. Jules said his wife’s family simply told her to remove them from her mailing list until she “finds Christ.”
Promoting atheism among African-Americans may be an uphill battle as the assimilation of Christianity and spirituality in the black community is one that many uphold, defend and cherish.
“Anyone who has survived the coasts of West Africa, the Middle Passage, and having to go through slavery, segregation, Jim Crow and this thing we call integration and is still able to get an African-American president who’s father is from Kenya and whose mother is from Kansas and still believes there is no God is not living in reality,” Tatum says.
“And that is what has sustained our people- believing in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and through him we get to God.”
Let those who believe say, “Amen.”