Overturning assumptions

A media fixation on whiteness misses a crucial piece of the story of the nonreligious rise—young Black nonbelievers

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I came across the concept of agnosticism at the age of 12. The existence of the Christian God is an idea I stray farther away from, both because of the way people who identify under it constantly spread hate and lies, and because examples have been presented to me about the illegitimacy of the so called “Word of God”—13 year-old Black agnostic

Big revelation—the global pandemic, a wrecking ball of death, destruction, racial division, and economic inequality, has fueled a record increase in religious “nones” among younger Americans. According to a new Pew Religion Research report, “29% of U.S. adults said they had no religious affiliation, an increase of 6 percentage points from 2016, with millennials leading that shift.” Overall “a growing number of Americans said they are praying less often.” Approximately “32% of those polled by Pew from May 29 to August 25 last year said they seldom or never pray.”

Retreating from the dubious balm of prayer, some of these defectors clearly view the pandemic as a decisive example of the futility of supernatural antidotes to real-world shitstorms.

A recent CNBC article on the report spotlighted religious organizations’ panicked reaction to this trend. Disturbed by the thinning of the ranks, religious leaders have doubled down on Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms to lure back wayward parishioners and scrounge up new ones.

Curiously omitted from the article was any reference to the plethora of secular groups that already exist to meet the needs of the irreligious. There was also no attention to the rise of irreligion and/or religious skepticism among people of color in general and youth of color in particular. Narratives like these are not only problematic vis-à-vis emerging religious demographics but also fail to capture the accelerating decline of white majorities in the U.S.

The final chapter of my 2020 book Humanists in the Hood: Unapologetically Black, Feminist, and Heretical discusses the rise of irreligion among youth of color and queer youth. Although greater numbers of BIPOC youth are openly questioning and rejecting organized religion, mainstream media are still fixated on whiteness and Eurocentric assumptions about who irreligious folks are. A recent forum hosted by the American Humanist Association, Black Skeptics L.A., and the Black Humanist Alliance featuring Black atheist, freethinker, and humanist youth Kola Heyward-Rotimi, Justin Herrera, and Kaylin Nelson, disrupted these notions. All of them are past recipients of Black Skeptics’ First in the Family Humanist college scholarships, a program that serves LGBTQI+, foster care, unhoused, undocumented, and secular youth of color.

Image via Sikivu Hutchinson/Black Skeptics LA

Founded in 2013 as a South L.A. initiative, the program has been funded by the Freedom From Religion Foundation since 2014. During the discussion, the youth emphasized the impact anti-blackness, right-wing religious terrorism, homophobia, and white nationalist backlash against culturally relevant education have had on their lives and politics. Most of them contended that both religious institutions and national secular groups have been largely inadequate for their needs. Some of the most insidious threats to the mental health and wellness of Black secular Gen Z youth include religious bigotry from family members and peers, over-policing, sexual violence and harassment, microaggressions, and invisibility in school curricula.

As queer Black youth dealing with the stress of anti-black racism as well as homophobia and transphobia in their own communities, Kristen and Justin underscored how culturally relevant African American humanism can provide an antidote to these toxic experiences.

Culturally relevant humanism builds on the lived experiences, cultural knowledge, community context, and social histories of BIPOC folks. In practice, it looks like providing mental health support, violence prevention education, gender, social and restorative justice youth leadership, job training, paid internships, and safe, affirming humanist spaces for LGBTQI+ youth of color. Stepping up to this challenge has eluded most mainstream secular organizations, which still cater to a white, typically older, middle-class constituency whose children and grandchildren have the privilege not to go to hyper-segregated K-12 schools.

I have long argued that secular humanist and atheist organizations that focus exclusively on church/state separation cannot fly the flag of “inclusivity” simply by trotting out a handful of uncompensated BIPOC tokens at national conferences. In the final analysis, institutionalizing educational and job opportunities, subsidized mental health care support, grassroots civic engagement training, and college readiness for secular and questioning youth of color should be a priority for humanist organizations claiming to be anti-racist. 

Secular humanist and atheist organizations which focus exclusively on church/state separation cannot fly the flag of “inclusivity” simply by trotting out a handful of uncompensated BIPOC tokens at national conferences.

Last year, Black Skeptics received support from the California Black Freedom Fund to continue developing Black feminist humanist youth leadership programming and organizing with high school and college students. The fund was envisioned as a “commitment to resource, connect and strengthen Black-led power-building organizations in the state” of California. Paid internships, engagement with policymakers, reproductive justice, and culturally responsive mental health care pilots, as well as the development of a Black queer youth camp for 2021-2022, are among our core initiatives.

Although the pandemic-era increase of irreligion among millennials and Gen Z youth of color is a welcome trend, the devastating socioeconomic impact of the pandemic will continue to reverberate for BIPOC nones long after it has receded. Creating culturally relevant humanist initiatives and systems of care is critical to ensuring that the most vulnerable irreligious youth have a safety net beyond the tethers of faith.  

Sikivu Hutchinson is an American feminist, novelist, playwright, and director. She is the author of The Rock ‘n’ Roll Heretic (2021), Humanists in the Hood: Unapologetically Black, Feminist, and Heretical...