Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson on Questioning Religion and Embracing Atheism While Black

Even as African-American attitudes evolve on formerly taboo issues like gay marriage, atheism remains a taboo. After the overwhelming response to "Yes, I'm Black, No I'm Not Christian" on black non-religious women, we reached out to Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson to get her take on what it means to hold no faith as a woman of the African Diaspora. She explores the topic in depth in her book Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars. Our writer, Briana Gunter, asked Dr. Hutchinson about life, work, and insight into what it means to be a black woman atheist.

FH: Can you define humanism for those who may be unfamiliar/unclear what it means?

SH: Secular Humanism is a belief system based on the view that humanity defines morals, ethics, and notions of justice, as opposed to Gods, supernatural forces, religious texts, dogma and tradition. Scientific inquiry and reason are the best vehicles for explaining the emergence of the universe and all life forms, rather than recourse to supernatural causes and explanations. Rather than promote redemption or eternal reward in an afterlife, Humanism reveres human potential, ingenuity, and creativity in the material world and the here and now. Radical humanism holds that religious and secular hierarchies of race, gender, sexuality, and class undermine universal human rights and the self-determination of oppressed peoples that have historically been disenfranchised by white supremacy, patriarchy, heterosexism, capitalism and systems of spatial apartheid. Radical humanism—or what I refer to as culturally relevant humanism—in communities of color seeks to allow non-believers of color cultural legitimacy, visibility, and validity in opposition to the dominant cultural view that says there is only one “authentic” or “essential” way to be black or Latino, and that women and the LGBTQ community are marginal or aberrant.

Further, radical humanism recognizes the inalienable human rights of all people to an equitable education, shelter, food, affordable health care, a clean, violence-free environment and a living wage job. It recognizes women’s inalienable right to self-determination vis-à-vis reproductive choice, abortion and family planning free of state intervention, patriarchal authority and religious control. It recognizes the inherent morality of love between two consenting adults of all sexual orientations and genders as well as the value of LGBTQ identities, families, and communities.

FH: How did you come to be atheist? Did you grow up atheist or did you choose it? 

SH: I grew up in a secular household. My parents were progressive and politically conscious. They were both steeped in the radical activism and intellectual foment of the Sixties. My upbringing was very black-identified; black literature, black social history, black activism. There were no Bibles on our bookshelves or blue-eyed Jesuses on our walls. Prayer and God talk was never a part of the home culture of my immediate family. Because there was no indoctrination into God belief I had no authentic emotional connection to this idea of a supernatural omnipotent being manning the universe’s puppet strings. Naturally though most of my extended family and friends were religious so my limited church connections came through them. In retrospect however, my parents were no doubt mindful of the stigma black communities attach to non-believers and non-belief. So although there was never any explicit talk about atheism in our household I began to self-identify as one after enduring the hostile cultural backwater of my Catholic high school, where writing Beatle lyrics on your paper (as I did in 9th grade) got you branded a reprobate.

FH:What do you think draws people to organized religion? 

SH: What do you think turns people away from organized religion? Tradition, history, culture, economic inequality, and the desire for community draw many people to organized religion—viable social alternatives and changing views about morality, cosmology, life, death, etc. can compel people to turn away from it. That said, just because folk aren’t involved in organized religion doesn’t mean that they’ve rejected God, spirituality and supernatural explanations for the universe. For many urban communities of color, the lifeblood of organized religion is economic injustice. The domino effect of de facto segregation, job discrimination, unemployment, foreclosure, mass incarceration, and educational apartheid has bolstered the influence of religious institutions in many black and Latino neighborhoods where storefront churches line every block. Certainly the experience of surviving racism and racial terrorism has greatly affirmed the role of religious observance in the lives of many African Americans. For example, in the absence of equitable government programs, the Black Church has traditionally been a social welfare resource in African American communities. Social welfare programs such as funding assistance to poor families, food supplies, housing and utilities services, prisoner reentry programs, and day care provision are among the many resources that community-based churches offer… By contrast, relatively low levels of religiosity in Western Europe correlate with the fact that citizens of these countries enjoy a comprehensive social welfare safety net. On average, Western European health care, child care, unemployment compensation, job security, job benefits, and affordable housing subsidies provide a far higher quality of life and standard of living than that in the U.S. Western European cities generally offer more accessible pedestrian and recreational green space than the car dominated sprawl of most American cities. Miles of undeveloped brown zones and vacant lots are symptomatic of dead commercial development and so-called “park poor” urban neighborhoods of color. In South Los Angeles, there are multiple storefront churches for every park. In predominantly white West Los Angeles storefront churches don’t exist and the parks are the most richly appointed and resourced in the city. As in most arenas, racial politics and segregation determine available park space in the U.S. Having the ability to use a clean, safe, accessible park is a luxury that white middle class families take for granted. Further, the bucolic carefree association that parks traditionally conjure up may not be shared by urban youth of color who associate neighborhood parks with crime and gang activity. According to a 2006 study conducted by the City Project, African American and Latino children in Los Angeles County have far less access to park space than do their white counterparts in the Valley and Westside regions of the county. So if there is no engagement with how economic injustice and capitalist exploitation shape hyper-religiosity in communities of color then humanist/atheist critiques will be irrelevant for the majority of people of color.

FH: What are your thoughts on people who think that atheists are immoral or amoral simply because they don’t believe in God?

SH: I’ve always been mystified and frankly offended by the dominant cultural narrative that religious belief equals morality. I grew up in an environment in which two of the most moral, ethical role models I had were secular people deeply committed to social change, yet mainstream American conventions held that Christian religiosity was the foundation of morality. I’ve always found that notion repugnant, particularly given the white supremacist colonialist history of American Christianity and the anti-human rights stance of the Bible vis-à-vis women’s self-determination, the disenfranchisement of gays and lesbians and the demonization of non-believers. As a feminist I believe its problematic to say that one can just cherry pick the Bible for the “good upstanding Kumbaya stuff” when both the Old and New Testaments are steeped in heterosexist swill about women’s bodies as the fount of original sin and human debasement. The fascistic reign of the Religious Right has made the public policy implications of these belief systems even more apparent. The continuing assault on family planning, abortion rights and the very foundation of social welfare is essentially an assault on women’s right to self-determination. Let’s be clear, this assault emerges from a fundamentalist evangelical attempt to rollback the basic human and civil rights that women of color fought and died for. There really is no secular ideological flank to this movement, which is why I think it’s important to highlight the intersection of theocratic control, patriarchy, and capitalism that these currents are based on. The radical fascistic right is essentially the bogeyman that white nationalists project onto the “backward” fundamentalist Middle East. Religion has always conferred men in particular with special license to sexually assault, sexually harass, emotionally abuse and physically subjugate women with the “impunity” granted to them by Gods. Scratch most male megalomaniac sexual predator and there is typically some religious rationale or messianic impulse driving that person.

FH: I was inspired to write my article “Yes I’m Black. No I’m Not Christian.” because I have found the assumption of my religion because of my race to be a fairly common experience. How often do you as a Black atheist experience this assumption and how do you usually handle it?

SH: There is unfortunately a reactionary element within mainstream black culture that says that being religious is one of the most authentic means of black expressivity and of being black. Despite the long tradition of faith-based predators, shysters and charlatans you still have minstrels like Steve Harvey running around making ignorant declarations that atheists have no morals. As an out atheist I’ve been disinvited from speaking engagements and looked askance at when I refused to join prayer circles, cite the pledge of allegiance or corrected folks’ assumptions about observing certain holidays (Easter, etc.). On the other hand, atheist communities are predominantly white and insular. Although the number of real time black freethought, humanist and atheist groups is growing they are still few and far between. The same sense of white entitlement, racism, and white privilege obtains within atheist circles. But these issues are perhaps even more acute because many white folk have this delusional belief that rejecting God means they’ve magically stopped benefiting from institutional racism. Similarly, the good old white boy network of writers, speakers, and conference organizers still predominates, so writers of color who actively challenge racism and sexism get the usual pushback about colorblindness, post-racialism, and what I would call science-based exceptionalism, or the belief that “science and reason” are the West’s great antidotes to social inequality and if poor black folk just read a little more Darwin they wouldn’t be in the ghetto.

FH: One of the atheist commenters on my piece mentioned that her going from a born and raised Catholic to an atheist strained some of her family relationships and even cost her some of her friends. How do you recommend atheists deal with this if/when they encounter it? What tips might you have for them? Have you lost friends or family because of your beliefs? 

SH: The more you openly engage people with the fact that there are different belief systems in the black community (ones that go beyond being religious or even amorphously “spiritual”), the more they will be forced to accept that their way is not the standard for morality, for being black, being female or for how one should live one’s life. There obviously isn’t a lot of real time support/protection for black female non-believers. Fortunately these communities are emerging in larger urban areas and even smaller cities. In the meantime there are loads of Facebook and social networking groups online, in addition to a national resource site called African Americans for Humanism. Black cultural orthodoxies are quite strong, so the most therapeutic thing a new non-believer can do is find some form of community. I have not personally lost friends or family due to my beliefs because I come from a secular household (with extended family members that are religious, but tolerant).

FH: Another commenter used words such as “outcast” and “ostracized” when describing her leave from organized religion. How often do you find that to be the case with the atheists you interact with through your lectures, programs, etc?

SH: As I outline in Moral Combat, being a black female non-believer is even more taboo than being a black male non-believer. Being tacitly religious is almost a litmus test for being black and female. If you think about the rituals of female caregiving in black communities—cooking, holidays, blessings, socializing kids, etc.—they invariably revolve around religiosity in some manner. Buck these conventions and you’re subversive, challenge them publicly and you’re a race traitor and gender apostate. Black atheists I’ve spoken with frequently talk about being ostracized, labeled devil worshippers, branded as amoral, etc. Unfortunately that goes with the turf of being an “out” atheist.

FH: What suggestions do you have for helping atheists and non-atheists understand and respect (even if they don’t necessarily accept) each other’s viewpoints? 

SH: That it’s ok to question, challenge and resist received dogma. Believers should be willing to place atheist critique of religion in a broader context. People of color have a long history of being disenfranchised by racist/white supremacist traditions of morality. Because of these traditions, non-believers of color are doubly stigmatized due to white nationalist Christian cultural biases. Ever since he’s been in office, President Obama has worked overtime to establish his “cred” as a good upstanding Christian and still been vilified as a pinko terrorist spear-chucking infidel. Because of these racist, imperialist traditions white non-believers in “Christian” America are considered to be human, moral citizens whereas black Christians are demonized and criminalized as the ultimate pathological racial violent Other. So it doesn’t matter how “churched” and “prayed up” black folk are—within the context of the dominant culture you’re still just a “nigger” with a white man’s Bible (to paraphrase feminist Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen). On the other hand, some atheists come at religion with a totally ignorant, ahistorical, Eurocentric, reactionary posture which alienates communities of color and other folk who might potentially be interested in humanism, secularism, freethought, etc. The challenge for progressive non-believers will be creating secular and Humanist spaces that provide real community-based alternatives to organized religion. For example, this year Black Skeptics Los Angeles spearheaded a scholarship fund that awards $1000 college scholarships to homeless, foster care, undocumented and LGBTQ youth from South Los Angeles. These youth are historically under-represented in the four year college-going population. Inequitable college access is a major driver of the school-to-prison pipeline that ensnares black and brown youth. We’ve established partnerships with local South L.A. high schools and received donations from the secular community. When black atheist organizations become politically engaged in issues like educational apartheid then there will be greater visibility for the nexus between humanism and social justice.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Imagining Transit: Race, Gender, and Transportation Politics in Los Angeles , Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars, and the Values Wars and Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels (due in April). She is also the founder of Black Skeptics Los Angeles and the Women’s Leadership Project a feminist humanist mentoring program.

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