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While few would deny the diversity of the Black community when it comes to secular issues like economic class or political party, it is a common assumption that all Black people are religious. The assumption exists to such an extent that the Black Church, according to the late sociologist of religion C. Eric Lincoln, is the Black community.

This is poor thinking. We’ve lived for too long guided by this truncated sense of Black identity. 

Now is a good time to debunk this stereotypical depiction by pointing out recent demographic developments. We have in mind the growing number of Blacks who claim no particular religious affiliation, with a good percentage of this group holding to a philosophy of life easily identified as humanism. This population of Black “nones”, as it is commonly referenced, doesn’t represent a fad; instead, Black “nones” are the fastest-growing group of “nones” in the United States.  And their presence has profound implications and importance. Not only does it say something about individual practices and beliefs, but it also has consequences for how we think about issues of justice and the organizations we trust to guide public life related to these issues.

We’ve seen changes—from the Civil Rights Movement and the Movement for Black Lives, to name just two—reflecting a growing and vocal community of Black nonbelievers. But we’ve not given enough attention to the nature and meaning of these demographics and institutions. However, when we stop to reflect on them, the conclusion is somewhat obvious: they call for a re-evaluation of Black people’s relationship to religion, as well as what religion is and how it functions. We can take seriously the growth of the Black “nones” and reframe Black identity accordingly, or we are doomed to repeat mistaken assumptions and misguided arguments that ignore the complex ways in which Black people have worked to make life meaningful. Old ways of thinking about belief and disbelief, and the way they have warped and damaged Black identity, can only result in continued infighting within Black communities that distracts from the real enemies to our collective well-being. 

How should we understand the landscape of Black belief in light of this growing group of non-believers? What do Black nonbelievers actually believe, and what do they practice?  Is the relationship between Black churches and disbelief necessarily antagonistic? Does the thriving of Black people in the USA require the presence of the Black Church?  If yes, how might its role change and shift to address the complexities of the Black community?  If not, what organizational forms and structures of thought/action might replace it? Are there things secular humanists, for example, get wrong about Black churches? Are there things Black theists get wrong about Black nonbelievers? What’s the look of a more balanced and thoughtful presentation of these two communities, and what is required to reach and maintain that type of balance?

Over a two-day period, October 26-27, we are convening a symposium –“(Dis)Belief: Reimagining the Religious Landscape of Black America”—meant to address these important questions. The aim is to provide an opportunity for a diverse group of thinkers to engage. Some will approach these questions from a decidedly theistic perspective, with clear allegiance to the Black Church; and others will approach them without theological commitments, instead grounding their work in a more secular worldview.

There is also space for those who fall somewhere on the spectrum in their ideologies between belief and unbelief. Yet there is a shared concern with forming a language and conceptual framework of collective life robust and compelling enough to harness energy across these differences, and in this way allow for modes of justice work that produce the best examples of holding our complex community “in care” and with kindness.

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We believe any work aiming to foster a more just world requires a nuanced conversation concerning Black belief and Black disbelief—a conversation that recognizes the humanity of all involved and avoids destructive attacks on those who don’t share any particular set of theological or philosophical commitments. In a word, our struggle for a more just social world requires all of us; and, we can’t work together if we don’t see, understand, and respect each other. This symposium provides a venue for respecting our differences rather than seeing difference as a problem to solve.

We invite you to register and join us for this important set of conversations. Join us as we dig into topics like:

  • It Can’t All Be Bullsh*t: Black Millennials and the Rising Tide of Disbelief
  • Truce: Bridging Secular and Religious Communities to Address Black Mental Health
  • Scorned: Faith, Gender, and the Aesthetics of Disbelief
  • Do Black Lives Matter to God? How Black Theodicy Shapes Black Resistance
  • Reimagining Rituals: Worship & Black (Un)Belief

As these themes suggest, symposium lectures and conversations won’t hold back; they promise to tackle the hard and uncomfortable topics and, in the process, maintain a constructive and humanizing approach. We are certain you’ll be inspired by the presenters’ insights and perhaps you’ll walk away with tools and strategies to use within your community.

The symposium is free, and we invite you to take advantage of this unusual opportunity to gain and share strategies for recognizing and nurturing the complexities of Black life for those who believe in God and for those who don’t. Still, we make no claims that this symposium and what we gather from it will change the world—that it alone is enough to transform our circumstances or even our approach to our circumstances. But we believe without this type of new conversation, a gathering framed by mutuality, we stand no chance of developing communal approaches to the conditions that plague us that stand a chance of affirming our collective humanity and the vitality of multiple approaches to the world.

Anthony Pinn is one of the foremost scholars of African American humanism, author of more than 20 books, and the Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities and Professor of Religious Studies at Rice University.

Dr. Sabrina E. Dent is the director of the BJC Center for Faith, Justice and Reconciliation.

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