Beyond Christianity: Yes, Non-Religious Blacks Find Spiritual Connection Too

by  C. Imani Williams

We all need a source of strength and hope to make it through life.

Almost all organized religions center around a belief in a Higher Power, something greater than oneself. This belief provides followers with a community they can turn to when in need of support and fellowship. It also provides them with guidance for dealing with life’s challenges and obstacles. Many Black folks in the U.S. follow some denomination of Christianity. They may also identify as Muslim, following the lessons put forth in the Quran. There are also Black Jews, even if not as widely recognized.

There are also those who practice the non-Abrahamic faiths. Buddhism, while not centered around the belief of monotheism, is practiced in many forms by those seeking an inward journey to better understand the meaning of life. There are also those who embrace traditional African spiritual practices, either as a stand-alone faith or mixed with elements of Christianity. For example, many African-Americans have a hard time understanding Vodoun as a legitimate religion, and allow European misinterpretations to inform them on the history of Vodoun, which is more culturally accepted by Black people outside of the United States. As usual, that which we don't understand or have been taught to fear is not researched, and instead, is shunned and looked upon with disdain.

How we find and give a name to this source of strength, hope, and connection varies widely. In 2015, there are Black people of all backgrounds turning to alternative spiritual practices, as they move away from the traditional religious beliefs they were raised with. Reasons may vary—from not feeling connected to a particular ideology or to disagreement with a church’s government or political leanings. Those who have suffered abuse, loss, or other tragedies may also change their definition or practice of faith. And individuals who may have been shunned because of their sexuality or other aspects about their lives that are deemed “ungodly” may turn away from organized religion as well.

And even less talked about and widely misunderstood are the practices followed by Black agnostics (those who do not have a definite belief about whether God exists) and atheists (those who do not believe in the existence of God or other deities).

Despite the fact that there are many different ways to practice spirituality and connectedness, many religious Black people have a hard time understanding how people find strength, peace, and hope in their lives without a firm belief in God.

How do Black women make it if they do not believe in God, whose existence is a source of love and guidance for so many of us? Where do people who identify as agnostic or atheist go, to gain strength and peace in hard times? Just because one does not belong to a singular or traditional religion doesn’t mean they don’t have an understanding of the connectedness and grounded-ness of “stepping out on faith,” especially in those moments when we don’t know how to maneuver through a situation or the solutions to problems are unknown and appear beyond our reach.

Non-religious Black people have found ways to cope spiritually for centuries. Consider the millions of of Africans forced to give up their culture, traditional spiritual practices, families, freedom, and everything else familiar to their lives, in order to survive as enslaved Africans in the Americas. With Christianity forced on them through their oppressors, they had to blend a number of various beliefs to remain strong, resilient, and hopeful.

Christianity was purported by those who did not have their best interest in mind, who enslaved them and tried to use the religion as proof for why they should be “happy” to serve their white owners. Many of those Africans did not easily dismiss their original culture and spiritual practices. Managing the impossible, they held on to the beliefs of home as best as they could in efforts to survive in a strange and cruel land.

Risking violence and even death, they used oral storytelling as a salve for troubled spirits and bodies by sharing their traditional beliefs and practices with their fellow enslaved brothers and sisters born on American soil. To make it through the horrors of slavery, surely our ancestors had to find ways to survive and hold on in order to maintain life and sanity in the uncertain world and the unfathomable conditions they found themselves in.

They did this through sheer will, relying on inner strength and a mixture of traditional African spirituality and the Christian doctrine forced upon them.

In the same way that our ancestors found a unique way to create a spirituality that empowered them to keep going, it stands to reason that agnostics and atheists have their own spiritual support systems as well. Simply put, they find ways for dealing with the stressors in life by building and maintaining relationships with those who uplift, encourage, and are in fellowship with them. For example, The Black Agnostic is a website that serves as a meeting space to talk and fellowship while supporting people with similar beliefs—very similar to the way religious Blacks congregate within churches.

Agnostics and atheists also do what all of us on our own distinct spiritual paths do: they reach inside and draw strength from their inner power and sense of self-determination to make it through rough patches. They may also rely on mindfulness practices like meditation and self-reflection, both spiritual tools that help us connect to the parts of ourselves that are most good. They develop their own defined value system that purposes right from wrong and a moral conscious helps people along the path towards becoming their best selves.

As with all of us, finding connectedness—whether religious or non-religious—is an ongoing process. We all possess the tools inside needed to reach our highest levels. While some may be more in tune with these tools than others, we all have what we need inside. It is the effort of connecting with that energy and setting intentions for good that make clarity possible. To this end, one can raise consciousness in whatever way works best for them.

Black people who chart their own spiritual path are often met with questioning and confusion. As religion has played such a large role in the lives of Black Americans throughout our history, many people feel that not belonging to a formal religious tradition is “wrong.” However, this thought is incorrect. A person can determine their own beliefs and be committed to living a good, moral life without belonging to a specific faith.

Photo: Shutterstock

C. Imani Williams, is a freelance writer and human justice activist. She holds an MFA in Creative Non-Fiction writing from Antioch University, Los Angeles, and a Masters in Guidance and Counseling from Eastern Michigan University. Her work has been published in Between the Lines, Tucson Weekly, The Michigan Citizen, Harlem Times, and with various popular culture, health, news blogs and magazines.

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