Guest post by James Murray
A few months back after recording my podcast interview with Black Nonbelievers, Inc President Mandisa Thomas, I had the misfortune of experiencing the divisive nature of religion when an older cousin called me to discuss the interview.
“I just don’t understand! Why don’t you believe?” she repeated, unsatisfied with the reasons I gave her. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to get someone who has never talked to an admitted atheist to understand skepticism toward faith. I pressed on, however, using the best analogies I could think of to work through this herculean, possibly futile, task.
My go-to for such occasions is the “We’re all atheists” approach: Basically, everyone is a non-believer with respect to other people’s gods in other religions—I just believe in one fewer god than they do. The message failed, though, and after insulting my mother for supposedly not raising me in the Church, she conveniently had to end the conversation. Subsequent calls from me in the following weeks were ignored. I had been “holy ghosted,” so to speak, due to hyper-religiosity and willful ignorance—an unfortunate aspect of black American life that has been fodder for many arguments and fuel for ostracism from my own.
As a son of the South, nothing quite irks me more than having people in my hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas continually asking me where I’m from. Yes, I’ve been around the block when it comes to travel and places that I’ve lived, but like any good skeptic, I don’t take these questions at face value. Often what is being said beneath the surface is that my verbal expression—my diction—doesn’t match how I look.
Ironically, English language-mangler and former President George W. Bush once mentioned “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” and that phrase succinctly captures what I have to go through as a dreadlocked black man. And of course, these third-degree sessions always end with me being told I’m “articulate” and that I “speak well.” It only angers me more to know that my cadence and accent wouldn’t even come up if I were white.
Although I hear this from both black and white folks, I find it bit more hurtful coming from my own. Low expectations from one’s in-group can produce inured malcontents like me, but the sneaking suspicion that blacks, specifically those who are the descendants of American chattel slavery, aren’t quite as intelligent as other groups is a ubiquitous notion that undergirds American life, from anti-black jokes on the matter to couching racism in “science” in books like The Bell Curve.
Perception of intellectual inferiority from the larger society and from other black folks is truly a war on two fronts. I had always tried to tie black America’s high levels of religiosity and lack of atheist representation to a strain of anti-intellectualism within the community. However, anti-intellectualism is a social ill that goes far beyond the confines of black America. In fact, it’s been a powerful driving force for political and religious movements since the republic’s inception.
In the 1960s, historian Richard Hoftstadter wrote at length about the American public’s mistrust and aversion to experts and their perceived elitism. In more modern times, the conservative African-American linguist John McWhorter noted the phenomenon and its manifestations in African-American life in his 2002 work, Losing the Race. McWhorter notes that the oft-told insult of black kids “acting white” for focusing on academics (and any other activity associated with whites, say… atheism) really wasn’t part of black cultural parlance before the Civil Rights era.
There are also aspects of African-American culture that discourage individual growth. Some of this comes from being an oppressed minority in a country where we are still recovering from the physical and emotional vestiges of slavery and Jim Crow, not to mention the current everyday subtle messages of anti-blackness.
It seems to me that many within the black community rely on arguments from authority to find reasons for their faith. Younger generations are told to revere their elders, and this is a part of that. This very African-American trope manifests in many black families as grandmothers, sometimes affectionately called “Big Mama,” whose wisdom from living a long life is taken as gospel by their progeny.
I’m all for getting advice from those who came before me on practical matters like household maintenance or the art of courtship. But when their homespun knowledge clashes with scientific evidence, I see danger in simply accepting claims just because “Grandma said so.” I’m convinced this line of non-critical thinking helped create the conspiratorial culture you see among many African Americans.
It doesn’t take long to find these flat-earth-theory-believing, moon-landing-and-evolution-denying young people spreading ignorance on their YouTube channels. Science isn’t a belief system, it is a collection of observations of the natural world that are tested and replicable, giving us better ways to understand our surroundings (See: the germ theory of disease and gravity).
Trust me, I do myself no favors by disparaging the faith and religiosity of my own community. I’ve invested many hours of my waking life questioning the existence of deities I was told were always there. While family members were skimming over passages in the Bible on which their pastors preached, I was examining philosophers like David Hume, delving into his skepticism of religious miracles.
What’s sad is that these supposed learned leaders of the Church aren’t at all well-read outside of their holy book, so talking to a pastor in my salad days got me nowhere. They would just tell me “you’re too logical,” which baffles me because in what other realm of our lives is thinking and being logical a liability? The reason society sees blacks as averse to reason are complex, but after we’ve willingly internalized these stereotypes it’s no wonder we get movements such as “Negritude,” whose axiom “Emotion is Negro, reason is Greek” evokes racist Enlightenment Age ideas of blacks being valued exclusively for their physical prowess and child-like mental faculties.
For far too many, “blackness” is a social marker shaped by white supremacists in order to render a group subservient in a kind of unacknowledged caste system rather than a way of being in the world that adamantly questions and resists the system which subjugates them for possessing certain phenotypical traits. It’s an accident of birth, if you will, and it should never be synonymous with belief in a god figure.
James Murray is a native of Little Rock, Arkansas and currently resides in Pensacola, Florida. You can catch him talking politics and other issues that interest or bother him on his podcast, Maladjusted Life, available on iTunes, Stitcher and Spotify.