The Scarcity of Black Atheists and the Limits of “Atheism”

Sikivu Hutchinson, founder of the Black Skeptics Group, has a very interesting blog at the Washington Post about the atheist community’s race problem. She notes that African Americans tend to be more religious than other Americans, and also that the self-described atheist movement tends to be overwhelmingly white, well-educated, and affluent.

As a result, there is a mismatch between the concerns and priorities of most atheists (qua atheists) and the concerns of the black community at large:

African Americans still live in disproportionately segregated neighborhoods, with few living-wage jobs, parks, accessible public transportation and healthy grocery stores. We make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, but nearly 40 percent of its prison and homeless populations. This disparity has only deepened in the Obama age.

… White atheists have a markedly different agenda. They are, on average, more affluent than the general population. Their children don’t attend overcrowded “dropout mills” where they are criminalized, subjected to “drill and kill” curricula and shunted off to prison, subminimum-wage jobs or chronic unemployment. White organizations go to battle over church/state separation and creationism in schools.

This creates a conundrum for black skeptics like Hutchinson, given that most of the organizations helping black communities deal with these problems are churches and religious groups. “Faith-based institutions provide resources to these poor and working-class families. They also fight racial discrimination, offer a foundation for community organizing and create access to social welfare, professional networks and educational resources.”

At the same time, efforts to bridge this gap by black atheist groups have been frustrated by charges of “separatism” and, more fundamentally, by apathy.

…[W]hen we look to atheist and humanist organizations for solidarity on these issues, there is a staggering lack of interest. … Simply trotting out atheists of color to speak about “diversity” at overwhelmingly white conferences doesn’t cut it. As Kim Veal of the Black Freethinkers network notes, this kind of tokenism exhibits a superficial interest in “minorities, but not in minority issues.”

I find this whole commentary striking because it reminds me very much of the issues facing another small, overwhelmingly white, affluent, overeducated, schismatic movement obsessed with arcane issues–coughlibertarianscoughcough.

Source: Pew Forum U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, conducted in 2007, released in 2008.
Source: Pew Forum U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, conducted in 2007, released in 2008.

But I have to wonder if Hutchinson hasn’t got her premise wrong. Yes, according to the Pew polling data Hutchinson cites, <1% of African Americans self-identify as “atheist”–but only 1.6% of all Americans do. The difference is large, but the sample sizes are tiny.

If you look at the “religiously unaffiliated” category, which includes 16% of Americans, you see that 73% of the unaffiliated are white and 8% are black, compared to 71% and 11% of the general population respectively. The gap is still significant, but smaller. Perhaps, then, the question isn’t “why are there so few black atheists?”, but rather, why are there so few atheists at all?

Ultimately, if our goal is promoting the good things we associate with nonbelief–secularism, tolerance, and humanist values–we have plenty to build on. But if all atheists really care about is getting more African Americans to tell their families that Jesus is a fairy tale and warm seats at atheist conventions… well, we shouldn’t be surprised that black Americans have better things to do than meet quotas for self-conscious white people fighting to take “In God We Trust” off the currency.

I think part of the problem here is that “atheism” is not a thing. It’s not an ideology, a philosophy, a worldview, or an interest group. It doesn’t have any inherent values or goals. It’s simply a linguistic placeholder for a lack of belief in God, and it’s a placeholder that comes with a lot of baggage.

It’s hard get people to coalesce behind a non-concept, because there is truly nothing to unify behind, except perhaps “religion is bad.” But by itself, that doesn’t have a lot to offer anyone, especially those who see and depend on the good work of religious people. So, on the one hand, you have a tiny, fragmented, narcissistic movement, tenuously bound together by non-belief in an idea, and on the other, you have communities who are relying on institutions and traditions associated with that same idea. And I’m not just talking about poor or minority communities, either. Really, is it such a mystery that “atheism” isn’t more popular?

Don’t mistake me, I’m all for promoting secular charities–I think it’s terrible that so much good work is saddled with superstitious nonsense and ulterior motives. But there need be nothing nothing “atheistic” about a nonreligious charity. Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross don’t hand out copies of The God Delusion or exclusively rescue nonbelievers. And there’s no reason why any charity should, as far as I can tell.

I’m also not knocking atheism. There is no god, no devil, no heaven, no hell, no “holy” books,”chosen” people, or “sacred” land–and this really is a liberating truth about the nature of our world. The myths of religion have done–and in many ways, continue to do–immense and tragic harm. But let us recognize “atheism” for what it is: a way of clearing the space for better debates and better conversations, not a way of settling them or unifying people around a set of answers. It’s not a social or political agenda, and trying to make it one is a mistake.

There is much that is wrong with our politics and our institutions, and much that has failed the poor and disenfranchised–the drug war, the criminal justice system, the public schools, broken transit systems, exorbitant college tuitions, immigration policy, byzantine licensing, industrial protectionism, and the general economic ruination of cities like Detroit.

But the solution to these and other issues is institutional reform and cultural change, and this must come from all over. Confronted with important, difficult, complex issues, “atheism” is just too blunt and too hollow an instrument. You may never have a majority of atheists on your side on any given issue, but you might have a majority of the public.