What is it like to be an African American who doesn’t praise Jesus Christ or Allah? Or one who doesn’t ascribe to a denomination of Christianity, such as Baptist, Methodist or Pentecostal, that’s part of a historically black church?
A 2009 Pew Research analysis found that 59 percent of African Americans were members of black Protestant churches, but there were others — many others — who fell into the category of “Other.” Five out of the 59 percent were grouped as an Other Historically Black Protestant. Two out of 15 percent of black Episcopalian Protestants fell into the category of Other. Then there are Buddhists, Scientologists and yes, atheists, who fall into their own realm of Other. They ascribe to a way of life or belief system that is outside the mainstream of religions often followed by African Americans.
What are the others like? How do they fit into a society that skews to mainstream Christians, and a culture in which so many black gatherings start or end with a gospel brunch, prayer breakfast or Christian church service?
In The Other Believers, we spoke with five African Americans about their lives outside of mainstream historically black religions. Here is the story of one of them.
Mark D. Hatcher, 31, is a Ph. D. student in physiology and biophysics at Howard University. He started the group Secular Students, the first of its kind at any historically black college or university, at Howard in 2011. Hatcher is a consultant with African Americans for Humanism. This is his story:
I was brought up religious. My father was Baptist; my mom was Catholic. I was baptized and raised Catholic. I was raised in private schools. I was raised very Christian. I believed that there was something up there. We went to church sparingly — my parents, they’d rather hang out with the kids on Sunday and do other stuff. They weren’t big church people, but they were religious... I got most of my [religious] education from school. Most of the Sunday school things that people get, I got all of that five days a week. I remember back thinking [on] Jonah and the Whale: “That’s a nice story. How does that work?” I was always asking questions, and teachers [would say], “Well, it just is”...
What really clicked for me was when I started learning about — I hate to say it — evolution and the origin of the cosmos. [It] was, I think, the last thread holding the whole God thing in place for me. Look around. Why is there something rather than nothing? With the very elegant solutions that evolution by natural selection provides, it’s a very simple, very natural way of getting from point A to point B. Then we have to think about the origin of the cosmos. We can explain how there’s zero total energy in the universe and how things can’t have come from nothing, because nothing really isn’t nothing but a boiling, bubbling brew of a bunch of stuff. At that point I thought about it and I said, “You know, if there’s a God up there, then he’s bored. He got nothing to do.” He’s redundant at best.
I really weighed it upon myself to say, “Well, is it a better explanation for me to say ‘Well, there’s a God out there, that’s breaking all sorts of laws of physics and caring about us, or did we just kind of make him up to explain things we were worried about in our scientific infancy before we really had the tools to go out and explore the world around us? Is it just the way we had of coping with our ignorance?” And that made more sense. That’s how I became an atheist. People don’t become atheists as much as they just realize that they are...
I remember telling my mom about it, and sitting her down...I thought I was going to get hellfire and brimstone rained down upon me...She said to me, “You know, I’m a believer, but half of that stuff I don’t buy either.” She said to me that she still believes in God and she still believes that he touches lives, but she’s like “Preachers, a lot of preachers don’t know what they’re talking about. I don’t really do the heaven or hell thing,” and I was so surprised...But now looking back on it, the fact that she’s so inquisitive and she always taught my brother and I to be inquisitive, it shouldn’t have been that surprising as it was. But she said she felt a lot of pressure from her mother to raise us as religious as she did, which is not surprising at all, either. She’s been extremely supportive and I can’t thank her enough for it.
A lot of people don’t really understand that when you say you’re an Atheist, you’re not saying ‘I’m telling you that there’s no God up there.’ Atheist means ‘I don’t have a belief in it.’ When people ask me what I am and I’m trying to be legally correct about it, I say I’m an agnostic atheist. And I don’t say agnostic because it’s a 50/50...agnostic means “We can’t know for sure.” There are a lot of agnostic atheists out there — they are people that believe in God, but they’re not positive. I’m an agnostic atheist. I don’t have faith. I don’t have a belief in a God, but I don’t know for sure...I never really stopped going to church, because I never really started, but to this day if somebody invites me to go, I’ll go. I love the songs. I love the music, I love the community, I love the fact that people can come together and feel good and try to spread good messages. Sometimes those messages get muddled by bronze-age philosophy, but people coming together and singing and having a good time...it’s great. That’s a wonderful experience. That’s something that Atheists don’t do enough of. What we need in our community is someplace where we can go and just hang out...
[One day] I’m walking across campus, and normally don’t have it on, but I had my Atheist t-shirt on. Somebody came up to me and said “Oh my God, I thought I was crazy, I thought I was the only one. Thank you for letting me know I’m not insane.” That’s understandable in our community. You gotta love Jesus. If you don’t love Jesus, you gotta love somebody. My mom’s first question to me was ‘What, so you don’t believe in anything?!” And that’s hard in the black community. You gotta believe in something in order to be a complete person. This person coming up to me, saying that they thought they were insane because of the type of pressure that was on them to believe in something that they just simply couldn’t, I was like, “You know what? We need a community here”...
The reaction on campus was generally positive. We haven’t gotten any overt horrible things. I’ve had somebody run up and throw holy water on me once, but that was the worst that has ever happened. For the most part, we haven’t had any problems outwardly. I’ve heard rumblings...and whenever we put up our fliers, a lot of times they get vandalized or ripped down. That’s unfortunately an expected response, but we haven’t had any problems from the administration outwardly. We haven’t had any people coming up and yelling “You’re going to hell” — yet.
I have at least two long-term relationships terminated simply because of [my beliefs]...I almost feel a responsibility, when I’m interested in someone, to just put it out there. I feel like that’s the responsible thing to do because I feel like I’d be leading somebody on otherwise, and that’s not true, but the amount of religiosity in black women — I kind of have to expect that somebody’s not gonna be interested which is more often than not the case...I have to be intellectually honest in everything that I’m thinking and everything I’m believing, and that helps being a scientist, because you know as a scientist that there could be something out there that you couldn’t even have fathomed...I expect to be wrong in a lot of things that I do because I can’t have all of the information in everything, so if I’m wrong about something, I rejoice. I’m happy to be wrong! I’ve learned something new. If I’m wrong about it, Yay! I want to know the truth, but insofar as the evidence available to me, I don’t see a reason to believe. But I could be wrong.
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