Panelists Discuss Atheism in the Black Community

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Karisma Davis

“Atheism is a baseline declaration of unbelief.”

On Thursday, the MultiCultural Center hosted a panel discussing atheism, specifically in relation to black people and how it affects black lives. The panel consisted of Sikivu Hutchinson, the first African-American woman to publish a book on atheism, William David Hart, a professor at Macalester College whose research pertains to the intersection of religion, ethics, and politics, and James Edward Ford III, Assistant Professor at Occidental College, research African-American literature, black radicalism, psychoanalysis, and Messianism. The panelists answered questions from Joseph Blankholm, a professor in the religious studies department, and then took questions from the audience.

Each of the panelists answered each question individually but there was agreement on the definition of atheism. Atheism is surrounded by negative connotations of hatred and is more often than not associated with white supremacy. Hart continually pointed out that atheism is not a “one size fits all” idea. Atheism does not imply ethics nor is there any connection between politics and atheism.

The historical significance of the black church was the basis of much of the conversation being had. The panelists agreed that the black freedom movement is distorted when the emphasis is focused on the religion of the black church.  

“I think it is really important to foreground that there has been this activist and social justice and progressive and radical tradition within African-American communities that has pushed back against the tyranny of heteronormativity and heterosexism in the black church,” Hutchinson stated.

The panelists agreed that there are many misconceptions about the role the black church played during the Civil Rights Movement. The black church during this time had a monopolizing position and a minority role. Ford referenced a statistic he had come across that stated that the only a quarter of the black churches during this time were actually supportive of the Civil Rights Movement.  Hutchinson made it a point to mention the marginalization of black women in the black church as well as the sexual violence they were often subjected to during the Civil Rights Movement.

The black church is a commons for black people to get together and associate with people they can relate to. Sikivu Hutchison spoke about historical sightings of the Klu Klux Klan in her hometown of Inglewood and how the black church during this time was the only place for black people to go.

“Do you know where you can find the most black atheists?” asked Hart. “In the black church. You’d be surprised.”

The lack of conversation about atheism in the black community is due predominantly to Christian fascism in the black church, the panelists agreed. “It is important to have these discussions because all black people are not the same,” Hart explained. Growing up in the Evangelical context surrounds you with certain norms that are hard to break out of when they are what you have been taught your entire life, they said.

An audience member asked the panelists how a younger person would negotiate with their family members and others about their views on religion. The panelists were unable to answer the question immediately.

“With great difficulty,” Hart said after much thought. Ford emphasized the importance of questioning others and the beliefs that are being forced on [oneself]. Hutchinson claimed the best thing to do when being ostracized by family members is to “expose contradictions through politics.”

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