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Heretics, humanism, and the hood

Sikivu Hutchinson | 11/23/2010, 7:09 p.m.

As a radical humanist critic of America's Christian slavocracy, Frederick Douglass once wrote, "I prayed for 20 years and received no answer until I prayed with my legs."

What would Douglass, a trailblazing feminist, have made of the brutal ironies of 21st century Black America?

How would he have reconciled the "triumph" of its first Black president with the travesty of Black poverty? Or the decline of mass movement liberation struggle with its prayer cult obsession? Black women's second class citizenship with the sham of "post-feminism"?

In the spirit of Douglass, the Black secular community's moral obligation to social justice was the recurring theme of the L.A. Black Skeptics' first "Going Godless in the Black Community" roundtable. The meeting was one of the first L.A. gatherings of its kind in recent memory. The group was founded in March of this year to give non-theist and skeptic African Americans "congregating" online a real-time community.

Fifteen atheist/humanists from a broad array of backgrounds, ages and world views attended. The discussion ranged from critiques of the influence of hyper-religiosity in the African American community to practical strategies for developing humanist resources and social welfare institutions.

I was recently reminded of the urgent need for humanist mental health and wellness alternatives at a Black/Latina women's conference I attended on "breaking the silence" about domestic violence and HIV/AIDS. Several presenters portrayed faith-based mental health and wellness "remedies" as the most viable approaches to healing.

Prayer will "right you," a woman who had been in a violent long-term relationship declared to a literal amen corner of nodding heads. Relying upon prayer as an antidote to stress and trauma is a common coping strategy in communities of color, particularly for women of color. Race and gender-related stress are major contributors to stroke, hypertension and obesity in African Americans. Yet those who question faith-based healing remedies and belief systems are often marginalized as being "White-identified" and/or elitist.

In some quarters, evidence-based therapy is slammed as something Black and Latino folks simply "don't do" or can't realistically afford.

The mental health crisis among African Americans is a devastating indicator of racial and social inequity, of which the prayer-as-therapy epidemic is an insidious symptom. During the Going Godless discussion, participants focused on the importance of instilling black youth with an appreciation for critical thought and free inquiry. Reflecting on his K-12 education in L.A. schools Black Skeptics member Fred Castro said that he couldn't recall ever being exposed to humanist curricula or anything beyond a traditional Western Judeo Christian lens. High incidences of "faith-based" anti-gay bullying, degradation of young women and the culture of violent hyper-masculinity all underscore the need for anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic humanist youth leadership initiatives.

Atlanta-based activist Black Son spoke about having been socialized into a culture of bigotry from the Bible, noting that African American youth are merely recycling the oppressive images and gender stereotypes they've been taught by "Christian" precepts.

Parenting children amidst a sea of religious conformity and finding secular private schools with multicultural student bodies were also topics of concern. Children of color who come from atheist households--especially those who are taught to openly identify that way--are often subject to ridicule and ostracism as cultural traitors.

In a world of public school Christian Bible study clubs, "mandatory" flag pledges, and teachers who violate church/state separation by using and/or endorsing prayer as a coping strategy, Black children who don't believe are marked as "other."

The gathering also highlighted generational differences in the atheist of color experience; from that of Clyde Young and Bella De Soto, who linked religion to capitalist exploitation and spoke of the need for anti-sexist revolution, to Jermaine Inoue who suggested that socially conscious hip hop was a means of promoting media literacy. Jeffrey "Atheist Walking" Mitchell mused about whether atheists could be spiritual and materialist at the same time.

The discussion became heated, when some men wondered what it would take to make Black women "less religious." There was much debate about whether Black women were entirely responsible for their overinvestment in religion or whether larger societal and cultural forces kept them overinvested.

In response, I noted that there was relatively little social pressure/onus on Black men to exhibit the kind of religious devotion that Black women exhibit in their everyday lives and relationships. Hence, because Black men enjoy patriarchal privilege, the real issue should be transforming masculinity to make men and boys more accountable for the care giving and nurturing roles that women are expected to fulfill.

Reeling from recession, unemployment, wage decreases, foreclosure, homelessness and health disparities, Black communities nationwide have borne the brunt of the global financial meltdown. Humanism can and should engage with the complexity of our disenfranchisement; otherwise it is a vacuous promise asking power to "concede nothing without demand."

Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of the forthcoming book "Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars" (Infidel Books, 2011).