News & Politics

Atheism: Living Life Unfettered by Supernaturalism and Groupthink -- Interview With Sikivu Hutchinson

African-American atheist Sikivu Hutchinson calls on black atheists to play a critical role in the atheism movement.

What is it like to be a black atheist?

Obviously, I wouldn't know. But via Friendly Atheist, I recently read a piece by Sikivu Hutchinson for the L.A. Watts Times, titled 'Out of the Closet' -- Black Atheists. (A must-read, by the way.) Her piece focused on one side of this question -- being an atheist in the African American community. But I was curious about the other side: What is it like to be African American in the atheist community?

I don't think this is something atheists talk about enough. We're too willing to let our most prominent leaders and speakers mostly be white; we're critical of the negative effect religion has on communities of color, but we don't look very hard at why the atheist movement is so predominantly white, or what we could be doing to make our movement a safer place to land for people of color who are leaving religion.

So when I read Sikivu's piece, I thought she's be a good person to ask about this stuff. She was kind enough to give me an interview, and we spoke -- well, okay, emailed -- about privilege, the intersection of race and religion, the history of Christianity in African- American culture, what atheism has to contribute to society, and more. Here is that interview.

Greta Christina: In your piece for the L.A. Watts Times, you talked about being an atheist in the black community. Can you tell me a little about the flip side of that? What is it like to be a African- American in the atheist community? Have you encountered much racism? Have you found it to be pretty inclusive? Is it somewhere in between?

Sikivu Hutchinson: As it is with many prominent issues of ideological/ social relevance the assumption that white male thinkers and writers are the definitive spokespeople on atheism is highly problematic. I would like to see more atheists of color rise to prominence as theorists and scholars of record on atheist discourse, rather than the continued privileging of the usual "authorial" white suspects (i.e., Dawkins, Hitchens, Sam Harris).

GC: On that topic: There's often an assumption in political movements (I've seen it in the LGBT movement) that being inclusive of people of color simply means not being overtly and grossly racist. (As a queer woman, I've seen something similar, where people or organizations make subtle or not- so- subtle assumptions of heterosexuality, but they think they're not being homophobic because they're not hurling epithets or turning us away at the door.) Can you talk a little about that? What is the difference between being actively inclusive and welcoming of people of color... and simply not being overtly racist? And how does that play out in the atheist community?

SH: Oftentimes white folk engage with the issue of people of color and religious observance in a very paternalistic way -- musing about the "backwardness" of people of color, particularly African Americans, who subscribe to Christian and Muslim dogma despite their histories of colonialism, terrorism and slavery. Although religious observance among African Americans is paradoxical for these very reasons, the white critique of said world view is narrow and lacking in consciousness of the cultural context that informs black adoption of Judeo- Christian mores and values. Hence, the European- American atheist community can't be truly inclusive unless there is some recognition of how privilege and positionality undergird the very articulation of atheism as an ideological space that empowers white folk to deconstruct the cultural tethers of organized religion, without having their authorial right to do so be questioned.

GC: Getting away from race for a moment: Can you tell me a little about your own atheism? Were you raised as a non-believer, or did you have religion at one time and then deconvert... and if you deconverted, how did that happen? What effect did it have on your life and your relationship with family and friends at the time, and how has that changed over time?

SH: I was fortunate to have grown up in a very secular household. My parents were highly literate politically conscious writer-teachers and placed a premium on independent thought. That said religion was still a part of my life because it was so integral to much of African American extended family and community. My grandparents were very religious and I frequently went to their Methodist church when I was growing up. I had some vague notion of and belief in the existence of God up until the first year of high school when I was totally galvanized into agnosticism by an utterly brain-dead Catholic School experience which signaled the end of my suspension of disbelief!

GC: There's a common assumption that the black community, and other communities of color in the U.S. such as the Hispanic community, are more deeply religious than white people. Do you think that's true? If so, why do you think that is? And if not, where do you think that assumption comes from?

SH: As I mentioned before religious observance is a powerful influence in communities of color. However, given the enormous political influence of white Christian fundamentalism in the U.S. it would be reductive to say that people of color are "more" religious than whites —- rather, religion, for better or for ill, has in many respects played a formative role in allowing people of color to navigate and survive institutional racism and domestic terrorism. This is the defining difference between white Christian fundamentalist observance and, say, African American spiritualism predicated on a notion of liberation theology that derives from a redemptive view of the moral universe. In this regard African Americans who have broken from these traditions have a more complex "meta-critical" relationship with organized religion than do white atheists who have rejected religion.

GC: On that topic: When people criticize atheism and the newly vocal, "openly critical of religion" atheist movement, one of the tropes that I see a lot is that this openly critical atheism is disrespectful to marginalized communities like the black community. The argument goes that because religion is so deeply interwoven into black history and black culture, and because the comfort of religion is so important to a community that's had such a hard time of it, criticizing religion is disrespectful and racist. As a black atheist, what are your thoughts on that?

SH: Clearly criticizing religion is not racist. One of the charges of atheistic discourse is foregrounding how there is nothing intrinsically superior about religious observance -- its value for African Americans as a people derives from a specific cultural and historical context of institutional racism and oppression. The supposed basic moral precepts of Judeo- Christian theology -- love for one’s neighbor, tolerance, doing unto others, non-judgment, etc. -- are certainly not exclusive to religious doctrine, while the hierarchies, persecution and intolerance based on race, gender, sexuality and ideology that religious doctrine breeds effectively negate the moral preeminence that organized religion presumes. These contradictions open up a path for critical engagement by atheists of color with why organized religion has been so toxic vis-a-vis validating the rich diversity of communities of color. African American intellectuals and thinkers (see for example Frederick Douglass' critique of "slaveholding" Christianity) have always challenged the role religious orthodoxy plays in African American communities. This historical complexity has just never been "officially" recognized by white scholars.

GC: Again moving away from race for a moment: A lot of atheists are talking about how we need to not just criticize religion: we also need to present the positive aspects of atheism as a meaningful and satisfying way to live. What do you see as the meaningful and beneficial side of atheism? And how does your atheism shape the way you live your life?

SH: Sure atheism could use a PR infusion that extols the virtues and sexiness of secular belief. However, much of the discourse around atheism necessarily involves upending the orthodoxies and hypocrisies of organized religion that enshrine it as a "natural" and "normal" way of life for many. I for one think that there has not been enough political exposure of the massive welfare state entitlements that have been conferred on organized religion in the form of so-called faith-based initiatives. Atheist "activists" have an important role to play in shifting the discourse to frame organized religion (and highlight the theocratic nature of the U.S. and the continued degradation of the separation between church and state) as just another corrupt welfare swilling special interest that reflects a particular narrow and sectarian belief system -- why let Rove, Limbaugh and the Fox regime control the terms of debate?

With regard to your second question, atheism has value for the uninitiated both as a means of unpacking the social and cultural contradictions that inform so-called religious morality, and as a means of living life unfettered by the conventions and hierarchical dictates of supernaturalism. It’s an antidote to groupthink and blind acceptance, a dynamic that has always informed my outlook on and approach to life's complexities.

GC: And do you think there's any chance of a political alliance between the atheist community and the black community? Or is the black community just too hostile to atheism for that to happen?

SH: That question assumes that there is a monolithic "black community." Certainly atheists of all walks of life and African American "freethinkers" of all walks of life can forge solidarity on certain issues, but a fundamental wariness will remain if white atheist communities continue to maintain a paternalistic stance toward both the dissemination of atheist discourse and the critique of African American belief systems.

GC: Finally, is there anything else you'd like to add -- on these topics, or any other?

Ever since the debate on Prop 8 debate and same-sex marriage emerged it has been critical for me as an atheist and a black feminist to make my voice heard in opposing the presumed solidarity of African American communities in support of the initiative. Rather than allow white atheists to control the terms of debate, black atheists of conscience can play a critical role in these and other political firestorms which highlight the disproportionate influence of organized religion in general, and Christian fascism in particular, on public policy.

Sources for further reading:

The Black Atheists of The Harlem Renaissance: (1917-1928), by John G. Jackson, on American Atheists

Ralph Dumain's Page, Atheist Nexus

The Invisibility of The Black Atheist, by Wrath James White, on Words of Wrath

Read more of Greta Christina at her blog.
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