Late last year, I surveyed Black youth between the ages of 15-24 about their views on Black humanism, media representations of Black and women of color atheists, respectability politics, and the connection between religion, misogynoir, and homophobia. The majority of them were from South Los Angeles. I followed up with a podcast featuring four of my young Black women and gender-expansive Women’s Leadership Project mentees who range in age from 15-21.
During the discussion, Beverly, a 10th-grade Black female atheist student, expressed anxiety about being repeatedly told she was “going to hell” by a male student at her high school. These views were echoed by a teacher who, upon finding out she was an atheist, retorted, “you still have morals, right?” The harassment led Beverly to keep her views and identity to herself. On school campuses, scorn and stigma prevent young Black female nonbelievers, agnostics, and skeptics from speaking up about their views or questioning faith-based assumptions equating religion and God belief with morality. The constant threat of being adultified and hypersexualized also deters Black girls from espousing straight-up atheism. The mainstream invisibility of humanist principles and values is another deterrent to espousing alternative views.
Reinforcing this point, the youth who responded to the survey almost unanimously reported that they’d seen little to no images of women of color atheists or secularists in the media or any other form of representation. Fifty percent said that the prevailing image/stereotype of Black atheists was that they were immoral. Twenty-five percent said the values of Black atheists were portrayed as being markedly “different than religious peoples.” The majority felt that there was more social and cultural pressure on Black women to be religious. And over 90 percent believed that greater numbers of youth were rejecting organized religion because of sexist, homophobic, and transphobic practices.
In addition, few knew what humanism was or had even heard of it. If humanism is to have any relevance to Black youth it must be grounded in their realities. For example, a new CDC report documenting the alarming mental health crisis among 9th-12th grade girls and queer youth also underscores the lack of accessible humanist, culturally responsive, anti-racist, and anti-sexist therapeutic and violence prevention resources that are available to youth. According to the CDC’s Kathleen Ethier, “Of every ten teen girls that you know, at least one of them—possibly more—have been raped…And so, not surprisingly, we’re also seeing that almost 60% of teen girls had depressive symptoms in the past year.” The report confirms that these levels are the highest reported in a decade. Moreover, “1 in 3 girls had seriously considered attempting suicide, which is up by 60% over the last decade. (And among) teens who identify as LGBTQ+ more than half reported experiencing poor mental health…(while) 1 in 5 had actually attempted suicide in the past year.”
From 2003–2019, suicide among Black girls increased by 59%. The biggest increase occurred among 12–14-year-old girls.
Skyrocketing rates of depression, suicidal ideation, and suicide among Black girls and Black queer youth are also precipitated by toxic anti-black, misogynist, homophobic, and transphobic school climates that silence and victim-shame female-identified and queer youth violence survivors. Youth leadership, therapy, arts-based and community-building opportunities can provide coping resources for and safe havens from the unrelenting violence youth of color experience in their everyday lives. The connection to humanistic alternatives of care are clear—in neighborhoods where churches may provide the only physically safe after-school/extracurricular space for Black and Brown youth, access to non-faith-based resources is imperative.
White humanist or atheist narratives rarely reference place, space or in-the-flesh neighborhoods or communities. This “omission” disguises how residential segregation further cements white supremacy and privilege. It also reinforces the so-called objective gaze of the white universal subject, supposedly untethered from the material conditions of white wealth, status, access, and racial capital. White folks moving en masse into historically Black neighborhoods is also a humanist mental health crisis because it displaces Black folks, drives up home and rental prices, undermines Black self-determination, and erodes generational wealth. These upheavals further undermine the possibility of establishing Black secular humanist community institutions and spaces in Black neighborhoods.
According to Christianity Today, over the past decade, “the share of African Americans who say that they have no religious affiliation has risen more dramatically than whites, Latinx or Asian (folks).” Social and gender justice issues are the primary reason why some young African Americans are kicking church traditions to the curb and forging their own paths. Higher levels of gender fluidity and queer identification, coupled with lower levels of tolerance for theocratic bs and hypocrisy, as well as white Christian fascism, and Christian nationalism, are driving this generational shift. My college students also speak of how the easy availability of Internet material challenging religious dogma is a major influence. Gen Z’s 2022 midterm rebuke of the GOP’s ultra-conservative abortion rights, climate change, and voting rights policies was a clear example of the more liberal-progressive/secularized orientation of young voters.
What is less clear is how these trends are informed by humanistic belief systems. Part of the “universal” appeal of the bible, Koran, and other so-called holy books, are the road maps they provide believers. Religious tracts offer the modern seeker a litany of tenets, codes, and doctrines to follow, half-step around or reject outright, buttressed by specious claims of heavenly rewards or eternal hellfire. By contrast, Black secular humanist belief systems are not codified in any one “good book,” but have a hidden-in-plain-sight status because they have been utilized in social justice, gender justice, and anti-racist practice.
Progressive Black secular humanism eschews supernaturalism and supernatural explanations for the existence of the universe and all life in it. It instead embraces scientific, materialist, and naturalist explanations for the emergence of the universe, such as evolution and the Big Bang theory. Unlike European American and Eurocentric humanist traditions, it is based upon a critique of the white supremacist, colonialist, and imperialist origins of US state power, authority, and control. This challenge seeks to situate the rise of the European Enlightenment within the context of slavery, racial capitalism, settler colonialism, sexual violence, and the theft and dispossession of Indigenous land, labor, and capital. It also connects this trajectory with contemporary systems of segregation and spatial apartheid that ensure the economic dominance of private/faith-based social welfare structures which ultimately disenfranchise poor and working-class Black folks and people of color in hyper-segregated urban and rural communities with high unemployment, homelessness, domestic violence, policing, and mass incarceration.
Black progressive secular humanism acknowledges and challenges the impact that legacies of domestic violence, sexual violence and terrorism (be they faith-based, familial, and/or state-sanctioned) have had on Black communities, bodies, and genders by putting violence prevention education and alternative systems of care in place. It seeks to amplify the importance of everyday lived experience and cultural knowledge among African descent peoples, valuing intersectionality, interdependence, and queerness within Black communities. It strives to be more than just reactive to how white Christian nationalist, fascist regimes are demonizing Black and BIPOC youth in K-12 schools. It espouses teaching, curricula, and youth-driven outreach that can provide liberatory models for leadership, critical consciousness, and empowerment. It espouses the development of Black-affirming secular humanist community spaces as an alternative to hierarchical religious, faith-based spaces which have traditionally been oppressive and disenfranchising for Black women and queer folks.
These are some of the core tenets of Black progressive secular humanism which speak to the lived experiences of Black women, femmes, and queer youth struggling with anti-Black racism, misogynoir, homophobia/transphobia, and displacement in their school communities. As our youth continue to bear the brunt of this nation’s mental health crisis, humanist organizations must step up to meet the challenge or risk becoming obsolete.
Sikivu Hutchinson is the founder of Black Skeptics L.A. (BSLA) and the Women’s Leadership Project (WLP), a Black feminist humanist mentoring and advocacy program whose youth spearheaded the #Standing4BlackGirls coalition. This semester she is teaching a course on African American Humanism at Pitzer College. BSLA and the WLP provide national multi-year scholarships, culturally responsive therapy resources, paid internships, leadership development, and job opportunities for Black and BIPOC girls, femmes, and queer youth in L.A. County.