Add in that black nonbelievers are a double minority — polls show African-Americans are among the most religious U.S. group — and it becomes even more difficult to discuss the atheism of heroes of black history.
“This is a country that loves the rhetoric of the belief in God,” Pinn said. “And think about how things currently stand. You can be socially ostracized and lose all sorts of connections by voicing one’s disbelief. If it raises these sorts of questions now, what were the consequences of doing it during the mid-20th century when everything about black life in the U.S. was in question?”
Juan Floyd-Thomas, a religious historian and professor at Vanderbilt University and author of a book on the origins of black humanism, agrees with Pinn, and called the traditional view of the civil rights movement as an inevitable extension of American Christianity “a mythology.”
Wright’s and Randolph’s critiques of organized religion, Floyd-Thomas said, “would not be too far out of step with the New Atheists” — best-selling atheist authors like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. But he laments that most African-Americans and even many nontheists are unaware of this history.
“One of the things that can be gained from shining a bright light on the contributions of nontheists to the broad sweep of the civil rights movement would have to be integrity,” he said. “These people had a moral core and that’s something that is sorely needed, whether you are a theist or a nontheist.”
OPTIONAL SIDEBAR FOLLOWS:
Sunday’s (Feb. 26) “Day of Solidarity for Black Nonbelievers, will include a remembrance of African-American atheists of the past, including:
— James Baldwin (1924-1987), poet, playwright, civil rights activist
Once a Pentecostal preacher, Baldwin’s 1963 book, “The Fire Next Time,” describes how “being in the pulpit was like being in the theatre; I was behind the scenes and knew how the illusion worked.” Baldwin never publicly declared his atheism, but he was critical of religion. “If the concept of God has any validity or any use,” he wrote, “it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of him.”
— W.E.B DuBois (1868-1963), co-founder of the NAACP
Columbia University professor Manning Marable wrote that DuBois’ 1903 work, “The Souls of Black Folk,” ‘’helped to create the intellectual argument for the black freedom struggle in the 20th century.” DuBois described himself as a freethinker and was sometimes critical of the black church, which he said was too slow in supporting or promoting racial equality.
— Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965), playwright and journalist