African-American Atheism and the Appeal to Culture

Frances Parker

Forum: Themestream
I recently heard a popular African-American news commentator disparage atheism as something 'out of Europe'. He went on to lament the absence of spirituality and 'God-talk' within public discourse. As an African-American atheist, I have a few comments to make regarding such remarks.

First, let me state that African-American atheists are no different from atheists of any other racial or ethnic background. Most African-American atheists have read, studied, pondered and debated every angle concerning the existence of God. We have consciously decided to live without the counsel of bishops, reverends, evangelists, and deacons. To live in a culture that has a fondness for mysticism and considers critical thinking tools of Satan, can be a trial. Second, anyone who lives without religion will undoubtedly, from time to time, come up against hostility and religious bigotry, which is almost always fueled by ignorance and misinformation.

African-Americans are some of the most religious people in this country. The struggle for freedom was built on the seemingly Christian ideal of the inherent humanity of all God's children. Biblical stories such as the Exodus from Egypt, the Resurrection and the Second Coming of Christ have had an incredible impact in the cultural formation of African-Americans. Our music, our literature, and our folklore all praise the nobility of the slave, who in the mire pit of oppression, looked towards Heaven. Therefore, one need not be surprised by the vehement opposition taken by many within the community.

One should not be surprised by high levels of religiosity among oppressed peoples. In regards to the African-American community, I often think of the oft-quoted words of Marx ‘religion is the opiate of the masses and the sigh of the oppressed'.

One may wonder how or why a people would continually look toward a supernatural being for their deliverance, instead of looking for more realistic means to attain their goals. The dependence on the Black church is to be expected. During the long history of segregation, when Blacks were barred from full participation in America, the Black church provided not only the foundation of the Black community, but also helped Blacks gain experiences that they could not gain elsewhere. The Black minister, who within the White world was bound to have his rights violated, was an important, spiritual leader within the religious subculture. Blacks, within their neighborhood churches, engaged in administrative duties and were able to interpret the scriptures from the Black experience.

Within the Christian framework, suffering is synonymous with virtue; needless to say, it is believed that the more a people suffer, the more righteous they will be in the eyes of the Heavenly Father. In Norm Allen's ‘African-American Humanism: An Anthology', the syndicated columnist and psychiatrist, Charles Faulkner says, ‘The Black churchgoer can find a loving and understanding "Father" in the church, which provides an escape from fear and trouble. It is a way to get back at the evil world or at least to insure that the evildoer, White or Black, will be punished–if not in this world at least in the hereafter. Retribution will surely take place and the "weak shall inherit the earth" The Bible promises it.'

The Jim Crow-era Black had more than simply the unknowable future to worry about. In a world that considered him less than human, where lynchings were simply a part of the Black experience, the Black Christian reasoned that there had to be some divine justice, some divine purpose for his suffering. Judgment had to come from ‘on high'. In the eyes of the Lord, everyone was equal, and everyone would be judged.

While it is true that atheism (within the West) has its roots firmly planted in the intellectual traditions of Europe, to simply dismiss it, or any idea, based solely on its cultural antecedents, is incredibly erroneous. This fallacious argument is what I term the 'Appeal to Culture'. This argument is generally masked in more traditional fallacies, such as Argumentum Ad Hominem or the 'No True Scotsman'. Usually, the 'Appeal to Culture' rears its ugly head in political debates (pro or anti-affirmative action), or socio-cultural debates (abortion, homosexual rights, feminism). The argument simply assumes that any position that is favored by the majority (White media), or has its roots in White grass-roots movements, is automatically incorrect, and is ultimately hostile or antithetical to the concerns of the African-American community. Accusations such as 'You're not Black enough' or 'No real Black person would oppose affirmative action' are examples of this. Therefore, any African-American who expresses views that deviate from what is considered traditional African-American thought, are often faced with this fallacy.

If this argument is taken to its logical conclusion, however, one would have to dismiss practically every aspect of what is considered Western civilization, everything from architecture and literature, to economics and political systems. In fact, African-Americans would pretty much have to toss out much of the humanities and the sciences. Interestingly enough, the 'Appeal to Culture' could also be used to attack Christianity as an European construct, since it was forged in the political and cultural turmoil of the Greco-Roman world. After all, this is the argument leveled by many Black Muslims. One could also point out the fact that much of the brutality and bloodshed endured in Europe (the Crusades, the Inquisition) was instigated by the Church.

But one need not look at history for the sins of Christianity. The pages of the bible itself clearly shows the horror. Imagine the events of the New Testament taking place instead, in the Jim Crow-era Deep South. Imagine, if you will, a young, 30-something Black man who speaks out against the injustices being suffered by his people. He is arrested by the authorities, questioned, beaten, and nailed to a piece of wood and left to hang until dead. I wonder if this could in fact the real cause of why some within the community have resisted portraying Jesus as a Black man in their churches. Would portraying the bloodied, beaten body of a Black man suffering on the cross finally reveal to Christians how truly vicious Christianity really is? The cognitive dissonance alone would probably force many to make unwelcome parallels between the plight of Jesus and the long, painful history of segregation.

This portrayal will hopefully get the African-American Christian to think. At least, he'll know not to dismiss an idea because it 'comes out of Europe'.