The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Atheism has a big race problem that no one’s talking about

A billboard written in Hebrew and English sponsored by the American Atheists is seen next to the Kosciuszko Bridge in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

Just as cliché holds that there are no atheists in foxholes, it’s commonly believed that there are no atheists in overwhelmingly Christian black America. African Americans are the most religious ethnic group in the nation; nonbelievers make up just 1 percent of the population.

That’s a problem, and not just because atheists face discrimination in their own communities.

African Americans still live in disproportionately segregated neighborhoods, with few living-wage jobs, parks, accessible public transportation and healthy grocery stores. We make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, but nearly 40 percent of its prison and homeless populations. This disparity has only deepened in the Obama age.

Faith-based institutions provide resources to these poor and working-class families. They also fight racial discrimination, offer a foundation for community organizing and create access to social welfare, professional networks and educational resources. These are essential issues, and atheists of color often find themselves allied in these missions.

White atheists have a markedly different agenda. They are, on average, more affluent than the general population. Their children don’t attend overcrowded “dropout mills” where they are criminalized, subjected to “drill and kill” curricula and shunted off to prison, subminimum-wage jobs or chronic unemployment. White organizations go to battle over church/state separation and creationism in schools.

They largely ignore the fact that black nonbelievers face a racial and gender divide precipitated by rollbacks on affirmative action, voting rights, affordable housing, reproductive rights, education and job opportunities. With the highest national rates of juvenile incarceration, as well as suspension and expulsion in K-12 schools, African American youth in particular have been deeply impacted by these assaults on civil rights. According to the Education Trust, “If current trends continue, only one in twenty African American students in the state of California will go on to a four-year college or university.”

But when we look to atheist and humanist organizations for solidarity on these issues, there is a staggering lack of interest. And though some mainstream atheist organizations have jumped on the “diversity” bandwagon, they haven’t seriously grappled with the issue. Simply trotting out atheists of color to speak about “diversity” at overwhelmingly white conferences doesn’t cut it. As Kim Veal of the Black Freethinkers network notes, this kind of tokenism exhibits a superficial interest in “minorities, but not in minority issues.”

So, in a nation where African Americans and whites are still separate and decidedly unequal, black atheists are forced to form their own organizations, often getting pushback from some whites about creating “separatist” groups. Ultimately, if people of color don’t see atheists and humanists stepping up on issues that directly affect their communities, atheists proselytizing about the evils of organized religion will be dismissed as empty paternalism.

What should this look like? Take an issue that many white atheists care about — science education in schools. The number of black and Latino youth with access to quality science and math education is still abysmally low. Nonetheless, when it comes to educational equity in K-12 schools of color, atheist organizations have been MIA, ignoring the very race and class disparities that make STEM professions largely white male bastions in the first place.

They could also step up in other ways. In 2013, for example, the Black Skeptics Los Angeles created a First in the Family college scholarship for foster care, undocumented, homeless, LGBTQ and atheist youth. With the support of secular organizations such as the American Humanists Association and Foundation Beyond Belief, five young people from South Los Angeles received scholarships.

And they can participate in conferences hosted by groups like the Black Nonbelievers Inc., Black Atheists of America and Black Skeptics Chicago. In February, many black atheists observe the Day of Solidarity for Black Non-Believers, a national event that was created by author Donald Wright in 2010 to promote awareness of black secular humanist traditions.

This fall the Black Skeptics Group, the People of Color Beyond Faith network and African Americans for Humanism will spearhead the first atheist of color conference on social justice at the Center for Inquiry in Los Angeles. Going beyond the sexy buzzword of diversity (and the narrow lens of “atheist equals good” versus “religion equals bad”), the conference will bring together nonbelievers and progressive faith organizations on such issues as homophobia and transphobia in the Black Church and prison pipelining.