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Not All African-American’s Worship(ed) a Deity

February 27, 2014 Featured, History/Preservation, Religion 41 Comments
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is agnostic
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is agnostic. Photo by David Gamble, 2008.

I couldn’t let February go by without one post on Black History. I know you’re thinking, “what can a white guy have to add to a dialog about black history?”  Well, I can address one aspect of black history that’s often either ignored or deliberately hidden: African-American atheists/agnostics. They don’t fit the accepted narrative of African-Americans as all religious.  Still, the nonreligious is a small percentage:

Slightly more than one-in-ten African-Americans (12%) report being unaffiliated with any particular religion. Although the unaffiliated make up a smaller proportion of the African-American community (12%) than of the adult population overall (16%), the unaffiliated still constitute the third largest “religious” tradition within the black community. However, very few African-Americans (1%) describe themselves as atheist or agnostic. Instead, most unaffiliated African-Americans (11% of African-Americans overall) simply describe their religion as “nothing in particular.” Indeed, among the African-American unaffiliated population, a significant majority (72%) says religion is at least somewhat important in their lives. (A Religious Portrait of African-Americans — recommended)

One of the current top freethinkers is the brilliant astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium:

Tyson is the recipient of eighteen honorary doctorates and the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal, the highest award given by NASA to a non-government citizen. His contributions to the public appreciation of the cosmos have been recognized by the International Astronomical Union in their official naming of asteroid 13123 Tyson. On the lighter side, Tyson was voted Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive by People Magazine in 2000.

In February 2012, Tyson released his tenth book, containing every thought he has ever had on the past, present, and future of space exploration: Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier. Currently, Tyson is working on a 21st century reboot of Carl Sagan’s landmark television series COSMOS, to air in 13 episodes on the FOX network in the spring of 2014. (bio)

He’s one of the leading defenders of science, working to keep creationism out of science classrooms, here’s a few quotes:  

I don’t have an issue with what you do in the church, but I’m going to be up in your face if you’re going to knock on my science classroom and tell me they’ve got to teach what you’re teaching in your Sunday school. Because that’s when we’re going to fight.

Whenever people have used religious documents to make accurate predictions about our base knowledge of the physical world, they have been famously wrong.

Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes…. The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms.

If all that you see, do, measure and discover is the will of a deity, then ideas can never be proven wrong, you have no predictive power, and you are at a loss to understand the principles behind most of the fundamental interconnections of nature.

There’s no tradition of scientists knocking down the Sunday school door, telling the preacher, That might not necessarily be true. That’s never happened. There’re no scientists picketing outside of churches.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is a popular celebrity, appearing on shows like Moyers & Company and The Daily Show, for example. Yes, a scientist as a celebrity!

In 2012 USA Today did a story on some 20th Century African-Americans who rejected a deity, here’s their list:

James Baldwin (1924-1987), poet, playwright, civil rights activist

Once a Pentecostal preacher, Baldwin’s 1963 book, The Fire Next Time, describes how “being in the pulpit was like being in the theatre; I was behind the scenes and knew how the illusion worked.” Baldwin never publicly declared his atheism, but he was critical of religion. “If the concept of God has any validity or any use,” he wrote, “it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of him.”

W.E.B DuBois (1868-1963), co-founder of the NAACP

Columbia University professor Manning Marable wrote that DuBois’ 1903 work, The Souls of Black Folk, “helped to create the intellectual argument for the black freedom struggle in the 20th century.” DuBois described himself as a freethinker and was sometimes critical of the black church, which he said was too slow in supporting or promoting racial equality.

Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965), playwright and journalist

Hansberry’s partly autobiographical play A Raisin in the Sun, shocked Broadway audiences when a black character declared, “God is just one idea I don’t accept. … It’s just that I get so tired of him getting credit for all the things the human race achieves through its own stubborn effort. There simply is no God! There is only man, and it’s he who makes miracles!” She worked with W.E.B. DuBois and Paul Robeson on an African-American progressive newspaper, but her life was cut short at age 34 by cancer.

Hubert Henry Harrison (1883-1927), activist, educator, writer

Harrison promoted positive racial consciousness among African-Americans and is credited with influencing A. Philip Randolph and the godfather of black nationalism, Marcus Garvey. Harrison proudly declared his atheism and wrote, “Show me a population that is deeply religious and I will show you a servile population, content with whips and chains, … content to eat the bread of sorrow and drink the waters of affliction.”

A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979), labor organizer

Randolph was the founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first predominantly black union. He helped convince President Franklin Roosevelt to desegregate military production factories during World War II, and organized the 1963 March on Washington with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In 1973, Randolph signed the Humanist Manifesto II, a public declaration of Humanist principles. He is reported to have said of prayer: “Our aim is to appeal to reason. … Prayer is not one of our remedies; it depends on what one is praying for. We consider prayer nothing more than a fervent wish; consequently the merit and worth of a prayer depend upon what the fervent wish is.”

Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950), journalist and historian

In 1926, Woodson proposed “Negro History Week,” which later evolved into Black History Month. In 1933, he wrote in The Mis-Education of the Negro that “the ritualistic churches into which these Negroes have gone do not touch the masses, and they show no promising future for racial development. Such institutions are controlled by those who offer the Negroes only limited opportunity and then sometimes on the condition that they be segregated in the court of the gentiles outside of the temple of Jehovah.”

Richard Wright (1908-1960), novelist and author

In his memoir Black Boy, Wright wrote, “Before I had been made to go to church, I had given God’s existence a sort of tacit assent, but after having seen his creatures serve him at first hand, I had had my doubts. My faith, as it was, was welded to the common realities of life, anchored in the sensations of my body and in what my mind could grasp, and nothing could ever shake this faith, and surely not my fear of an invisible power.” (USAToday — Blacks say atheists were unseen civil rights heroes)

Another is Langston Hughes

Hughes associated religious authority with other oppressive forces in contemporary America. As one of America’s forgotten black atheists, he was easily an expert on prejudice. (And if being black, allegedly communist, and atheist didn’t subject him to enough prejudice, there were always the rumors that he was gay.) (5 Famous Americans You Never Knew Were Atheists)

Today there’s organizations like African Americans for Humanism to alter the narrative:

African Americans may be the nation’s most religious minority, but the churches and religious leaders don’t speak for many of us.

Today as in the past, many African Americans question religion and religious institutions. More and more of us stand for reason over faith. Freethought over authority. Critical thinking in place of superstition. Many of us are nonreligious; some are nontheistic.

African Americans for Humanism supports skeptics, doubters, humanists, and atheists in the African American community, provides forums for communication and education, and facilitates coordinated action to achieve shared objectives.

The nearest chapter is Kansas City.

Hopefully this post provided a bit of history you weren’t aware of before.

— Steve Patterson


Currently there are "41 comments" on this Article:

  1. Fozzie says:


  2. guest says:

    Have you beaten your wife lately?

  3. guest says:

    Nothing is 100%, but 90% is pretty close.

  4. guest says:

    Your honor, I submit Ex. A. The witness is trying to use tortured logic to make his point. But the facts do not support his statement. The facts are that historically, African Americans are a highly religious group, regardless of the tortured logic being offered by the witness to somehow argue the “black history” of African American atheists and agnostics. Rubbish! I move that the testimony be stricken from the record and that the religious traditions of the African Americans community be honored and respected, especially during Black HIstory Month!

    • samizdat says:

      It would appear that you have missed the main upshot of the post: that the AA experience with religious faith is not universal amongst that community. He then goes on to cite those whose experiences and observations depart dramatically from the typically fervent Christian religiosity of AAs.

      Frankly, as an atheist, I am impatient for the end of religion, as it is often the greatest source of conflict, violence, discrimination (miscegenation, anyone?), oppression, persecution, barbarity, genocide, fratricide, mass murder, ignorance (“intelligent design” and creationism), and other disruptions to civil society.

      I recall reading a couple of articles several years ago which reported the near-extinction of the human race approximately 100,000 years or so ago. Exploring mitochondrial DNA (which is passed only from female to female), two separate and independent groups of research scientists discovered that the variability of the human genome was too limited with respect to the age of humanity. That is, for a species as old as ours, significantly greater differences amongst ethnic groups should have been present in the human genome. Further, they posited–again, independently–that the human race was reduced to as few as 5000 to 35,000 individuals. Now, to my mind, for the human race to survive under those conditions, it would seem that cooperation and sociability, which are natural human traits (shared with other primates and mammals), would be the most desired attributes any human could have. In effect, morality and ethical behavior amongst human beings was present before any religion of any note surfaced in the historical record, belying the notion that only religion can provide a rational, ethical basis for living with other humans. It’s fairly obvious to me that absent our latent tendencies toward compassion, sociability, empathy, and cooperation (and our intelligence, which goes without saying), the human species would have long since died out.

      Religion is entirely unnecessary for humans to thrive. However, the militant individualism of modern society may indeed be the death knell for our species (and millions of others), if the climate disruptions become so severe that only through cooperation and humility can we hope to prevent our own extinction.

    • Your viewpoint is why I did this post, to make the public aware of a minority within a minority.

  5. guest says:

    Sort of an odd observation for Black History month.

  6. moe says:

    “I know you’re thinking, “what can a white guy have to add to a dialog about black history?” Well, I can address one aspect of black history that’s often either ignored or deliberately hidden: African-American atheists/agnostics….” Ignored by you is what you mean. The history has always been there.

  7. Michael says:

    This is the best headline since USA Today printed “Science Yields Benefits.” But seriously, I know you have the best intentions but this really is like saying “gay man found NOT dancing shirtless” or “Jew found who DOESN’T worship money.” (I’m Jewish by the way) I cannot urge you strongly enough to remove this post. Remove it for St. Louis please. (And if you choose not to then at least lose the apostrophe in the headline.)

    • guest says:

      I’ve been chuckling about this all day. Trying to think of more of these sorts of headlines…

  8. RyleyinSTL says:

    I always wondered why the African American population was so Jesus focused…Christianity can’t possibly be what they started with. I’m betting it was force fed to them once arriving here or even before hand, whilst Europe was empire building in Africa and the Caribbean?

    • “A black Christian is like a black person with no memory.” – Chris Rock

      • RyleyinSTL says:

        Ya, that’s kind of what I was thinking.

        • guest says:

          Why don’t you ask a black person about that? Why don’t you stop by Friendly Temple MBC on Dr. Martin Luther King Drive on a Sunday morning, when over 1,000 people show up for church? Or at the Rock Church on N. Grand, an integrated Catholic congregation? The anti-religious venom of some people is very unseemly. Haters gotta hate!

          • samizdat says:

            I don’t hate religion, I just think it’s superfluous nonsense. (Frankly, I’m not a big fan of hatred; it’s a rather dangerous frame of mind to cultivate). As for unseemly, I don’t think that in a secular society such as ours religions get a free pass on criticism or scorn. Far from it, in fact. It is obvious that religions have great influence over the minds of many people in this country, the Christian religion especially. For them to maintain this moral authority, they should be focused, at least with regards to the Christian religion, on the charitable and merciful actions the Jesus figure outlined in the four gospels. Straying from those attributes of humility, charity, empathy, mercy, forgiveness and service should bring all the scorn one can muster to bear. I have found that most organized religions and their adherents practice those traits unevenly at best, and in fact many of them know only hatred and ignorance. As a recovering Roman Catholic, I am all too familiar with the crimes of my former church. As I am familiar with crimes of other Christian sects which cannot bring themselves to practice a more humble and merciful, more loving form of Christianity.

            Seeing as how the Sermon on the Mount (what we papists call the Beatitudes) was the last message of the Jesus figure to his assembled followers (outside of the apostles), one would think that those who proclaim themselves faithful to the words of this man would see this as the most important of his messages. One would think. Alas…

            As I did not know–outside of Mr. deGrasse Tyson–the status with regards to the aforementioned figures’ religiosity, I found this post to be very informative, and thus not without merit. The implication that simply because he is a Caucasian, Mr. Patterson cannot, or is unqualified to address this issue, is ludicrous, and dangerous in a society which professes to respect the free exchange of ideas.

          • Well said, thank you.

          • BC says:

            I’ll second that, Steve. BTW, do you think it would be worthwhile to have a poll assessing the religious affiliation(s) of your readers? Might be getting too far afield, but it does (clearly) play a role in the lives of both urban and suburban St. Louis people.

          • I’ve done it before, but it has been a few years.
            We’re now in the excess drinking period before their “Lent”, where they give up eating meat one day a week so they can consume fried fish.

  9. Phillip Johnson says:

    the Africans that were kidnapped out of Africa were not Christian, the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade meant the Africans came from the late Mali Empire an Arabic nation – the sons and daughters of those who crossed the Middle Passage had Christianity forced on to them – needing a modicum of spirituality many of the slaves adopted Christianity as a salve – today many blacks follow Christianity without recognizing much of the Gospel they now follow was sanitized – as for Negro History Month – we may celebrate out heritage on paper 30 days out of the year, but the reality is too many of us defile our history with our actions

    • Well said Philip, thanks for adding to the dialog.

    • eric4653 says:

      I’m not Christian, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the fact that the Bible has a whole book on the subject of freeing slaves was relevant to them too. I remember learning “Go Down Moses” as a kid in public school. Probably during Black History Month.

      • A whole book? Which book is that? Most criticism I’ve read suggests the bible was ok with slavery: http://www.evilbible.com/Slavery.htm

        In America the bible was used to justify & oppose slavery: http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/04/12/how-the-bible-was-used-to-justify-slavery-abolitionism/

        • eric4653 says:

          “Exodus” (=the departure from slavery)

          • Ah yes, my prior link offers this quote:
            “When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she will not be freed at the end of six years as the men are. If she does not please the man who bought her, he may allow her to be bought back again. But he is not allowed to sell her to foreigners, since he is the one who broke the contract with her. And if the slave girl’s owner arranges for her to marry his son, he may no longer treat her as a slave girl, but he must treat her as his daughter. If he himself marries her and then takes another wife, he may not reduce her food or clothing or fail to sleep with her as his wife. If he fails in any of these three ways, she may leave as a free woman without making any payment. (Exodus 21:7-11 NLT)”

          • eric4653 says:

            I’m not sure I trust the translation from that site. The last couple lines of your quote, in particular, make it sound like an arranged marriage, not slavery.

            Regardless of this particular law, African-Americans understood the story of leaving slavery as a parallel to their situation. That’s not exactly news – as I said before, I learned it in my secular liberal public school.

          • Ok, how about this quote?
            “If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property.” (Exodus 21:20-21)
            You do realize your secular liberal school might have white-washed slavery & religion?

          • eric4653 says:

            There too, if we are questioning translations, I wonder if the original was “punished” or “put to death”.

            My school didn’t teach about religion. Only about black culture.

  10. david says:

    why even bring this up? Who cares?

  11. david says:

    JESUS DIED FOR YOUR SINS, you must be born again, you are separated from God and life is a witness to that, people use “sins” as a way of dealing with life but you can be set free from your bondage, your pains, your hurts, your depression, GOD CAN HEAL YOU! I pray the Lord Jesus Christ saves your soul in Jesus name I pray. It’s not God’s will for mankind to survive life on anti depressants, pain meds, beer and drugs – you can be free. Now all this other religious hate, war stuff, thats man made in the name of God. Jesus is about salvation for your soul not war, violence and the like although crazies uses His name for that type of stuff.

    • guest says:


    • Surprised it took this long for this type of response. And some people wonder why less and less of the population is religious…

      • guest says:

        You’re against salvation of your soul? You’re against building up the Kingdom of God? You’re against freedom from sin? Why?

        • I’m an atheist, I don’t believe the manmade constructs of religion. It worked thousands of years to control the uneducated masses but some of us have evolved.

          • guest says:

            But you believe in the manmade constructs of other things. Lots of other things. What’s the difference? Understand that you are one eyelash, one breath, one blink of an eye from the divine. Why not embrace it?

          • samizdat says:

            “But you believe in the manmade constructs of other things…What’s the difference?” Oh, brother, really? Because there is verifiable and repeatable proof for the existence of “man-made” things. A god is the product of superstition, imagination, and ignorance. Keep your false piety to yourself, and let science do the job of explaining why and how our universe functions.

          • guest says:

            What about art? It’s a manmade construct that evokes spiritual things. Are those spriitual things “real”? Can they be measured? If so, then how are they any different from the spiritual reality of religion. I would think both can be measured through changes in the human mind, the human heart, brain activity, etc.

          • samizdat says:

            Oddly enough, I rather enjoy much of what is referred to as liturgical music, from Hildegard to Bach’s and Handel’s compositions, to Edwin Hawkins, to Henryk Gorecki’s stunning and powerful Miserere, but I derive no spiritual benefit from them. I admire the melody, arrangement, instrumentation, vocal prowess and skill, and I revel in the glorious whole of these compositions, but spirituality isn’t a word I would use to describe the sensations I feel. I have, however, often wondered how a scientific study of prayer versus simple meditation would look. Methodology, protocols, etc., how would it all shake out?

            Beyond that, I enjoy art as a pathway into the artists mind, and the pleasure from seeing the human brain in all of its complexity on canvas, or pulled from stone, or fashioned into bronze, or any other number of media by which we human beings express ourselves.

    • samizdat says:

      In the opinion of myself and other atheists/nontheists, religion is just as mind-numbing a potion as the aforementioned PHARMA drugs, illicit drugs, beer, etc. Worse, religionists even use their beliefs to justify every kind of horrific infamy known to humanity. Religion, especially the fundy “born-again” variety, is every bit of a crutch as intoxicants can be. It is for the weak-minded.


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