Ten years ago, a casual discovery while completing research for a book project led UNC historian Christopher Cameron to plunge into the nearly untold history of Black unbelief in the United States. He discusses both the history and the rich unfolding reality of Black freethought with host Anthony Pinn.

Episode excerpt

ANTHONY PINN: If you think across humanist organizations, it seems to me the wrong question often dominates—Why would Black people embrace a religion that was used to enslave them? When it seems to me there’s a better question to ask: Why hasn’t humanism been more appealing?

CHRISTOPHER CAMERON: I get this question often. And it’s often phrased as “Why are Black people so religious?” And I respond, “Why aren’t white free thinkers doing a better job of bringing Blacks and Latinos and other races into the fold?” So I think we can sort of flip that around. But to me, that question is based on racist assumptions about the sort of barbarism and savagery of African Americans that goes back to the beginning of the slave trade. But we can even see it very prominently in the writings and speeches of 19th-century white freethinkers.

Nathan Alexander has just published a really great book called Race in a Godless World, where he explores the intersections of race and atheism in the United States and Britain from about the Civil War, till the start of World War I. And one of the things that he shows is that there were a lot of white freethinkers in the late 19th century, who bought into the common racist assumptions of their day and argued that basically African Americans were too savage, too barbarous, lacked the capabilities of, you know, critical thought and reason, and thus could not be a part of the freethought fold. So it was a kind of a convenient excuse to sort of segregate African Americans from the broader freethought movement.

Even if we don’t have the sort of outright or hostile racist statements that we saw back then, there’s still this notion that Black people are more emotional than reasonable or logical. And that’s one of the things that keeps them tied to the Black church Instead of embracing secularism.

AP: I think that’s absolutely correct. And I think humanist organizations often work based upon a false premise, that if you free yourself from religion, you free yourself from harmful ideologies. And as a result, these organizations don’t adequately address white privilege. So for example, separation of church and state, extremely important. Science education, extremely important. But neither one of those would have kept Trayvon Martin alive. George Floyd alive, Breonna Taylor alive. It requires a tackling of white supremacy and white privilege and our agenda within humanist organizations. The humanist movement writ large, it seems to me has been too lax when it comes to this kind of internal critique of white privilege and white supremacy that live within these movements.

Separation of church and state, extremely important. Science education, extremely important. But neither one of those would have kept Trayvon Martin alive, George Floyd alive, Breonna Taylor alive.

DR. ANTHONY PINN

CC: Absolutely, I think Sikivu Hutchinson probably explores this better than anyone in her books Moral Combat and Godless Americana, where she’s looking at the history and contemporary politics of secular and humanist organizations. And showing that, you know, if, if humanist organizations want to appeal to Black people, then one of the things they need to do is take on some of the functions that Black churches have taken on, right, and have, you know, failed to do adequately. So they need to start, they need to start actively working to address things like the school-to-prison pipeline, or housing disparities, or lack of affordable housing, health care disparities, right? If folks don’t have enough food to eat, they’re not going to hear your message of secularism, right? It’s not just people aren’t just looking towards reasonable ideas, but they’re looking towards ideas that also sort of mesh with their lived reality. So if Black folks start seeing white humanists out here, protesting alongside them, and building institutions alongside them, and contributing to a more just world, that in itself is going to make humanism more appealing to Black people.

If folks don’t have enough food to eat, they’re not going to hear your message of secularism.

DR. CHRISTOPHER CAMERON

AP: In some of these circles, it seems to me there’s an implicit assumption that critique is activism. I’m critiquing the Black church, so I’m all about the well-being of Black people. As opposed to recognizing that the advancement of Black people the ending of anti-Black racism requires something of white people well beyond critique. They gotta give something up.

CC: Yeah, and you know, it’s kind of funny because even though I’m an atheist, and I critique the Black church, I don’t really like it when white people do it. Because I don’t necessarily get down with the Black church, but it’s still our church.

Dr. Christopher Cameron earned a PhD in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is currently a professor of history and director of Africana Studies at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. Dr. Cameron is also the founding president of the African American Intellectual History Society. And in addition to courses related to the intellectual history of the United States, he teaches one of the few courses in the United States dealing with unbelief in America. His publications include The Abolitionist Movement: Documents Decoded, and Black Freethinkers: A History of African American Secularism.

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Anthony Pinn

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.

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Anthony Cruz Pantojas

Anthony Cruz Pantojas, MATS, MALS, serves as the Humanist Chaplain at Tufts University, where they are also the inaugural graduate student In the Anti-Racist Curatorial Practice Program. Anthony has...