No God Flow: Is The Black Church Driving More African Americans To Atheism?
Religion on the decline globally
The views expressed in this Op-Ed do not necessarily reflect those of Loop 21.
So, you've finally decided to get your life together.
You wake up on Sunday morning and decide to attend that church your mother has been begging you to visit since you struck out on your own.
You went of your way not to get drunk on Saturday night so you wouldn't stumble into church with a hangover and your football game is programmed on your DVR.
For years you've heard that the choir is great, the preacher is awesome and the
women are fine congregation is welcoming.
You meant to get there early to beat the long lines in the parking lot and find a decent seat. You get there 20 minutes late, but you get the parking space and that seat in the pew.
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How? Probably because there is not as much competition in the pews anymore.
The Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism, a study released in August of this year, found that the number of Americans who say they are religious dropped from 73 percent in 2005 to 60 percent in 2012. A 2011 poll conducted by The Barna Group revealed similar findings. Barna Group looked at church attendance from 1991 to 2011 and found that it dropped from 48 percent to 39 percent. A GIRA poll found that Americans who identify as atheist rose from 1 percent to 5 percent.
That sounds like a lot of extra seats. Something that was unheard of from 2004 to 2006, considered the "peak" of mega-church popularity.
Black folks have cherry-picked what days they want to attend church since...forever. That isn't new. But what is new is the growing number of black people who are leaving the church, and their faith. This despite the Barna Group's finding that despite the drop in church attendance, black people remain the most stable when it comes to sticking with their religion.
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While there is no readily available head count on the number of black atheists in America, a Facebook group called Black Atheists of America offers at least a small peek into how many there may be among us. If "likes" are valued as social media currency, there are 5,432 members (and counting) in the group. And that number dwarfs the "likes" the United Black Christians of United Church of Christ has right now.
"That group has grown a lot in the last year," said Ronnell Adams, a children's book author who describes himself as an "atheist activist." "The word is getting out about us."
Adams--who published his book "Aching and Praying" last year--makes his home in Washington, D.C., is black, atheist and gay. He says his mother was more upset about his not believing in God than she was about his homosexuality. He credits his journey to becoming a better Christian for ironically leading him to his decision of non-belief.
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"I really wanted to get into it," said Adams, who started questioning religion at the age of 16 and let it go by the time he turned 20. "I didn't want to be one of those fake Christians that don't read the Bible. I basically had a moment of clarity to get deep into the faith, but it actually led me away from it because I didn't believe in it any more. There's a difference between hearing a pastor's stories as a child and hearing them as an adult. The more I read, the more it fell apart. It stopped being this magical thing. It was manmade."
Adams' story is often repeated in atheist circles: read the Bible, look up the history, find flaws and move on. But there are other reasons as well.
Psychology Today describes atheists as people who tend to be either highly educated or financially stable, and who don't depend on religion for answers to life's problems--as so many black people do, especially the poor.
"I think you have to have an economic and social luxury to dismiss religion," said "C.J.," a 27-year New York-based club promoter who was raised by a Baptist mother and Catholic father, and decided to become an atheist in her teens . "If you don't have the luxury of living the good life, you may need to have that support system that religion and church provides for some people. For most people in black community, there is a need to have that. It also brings people comfort. The feeling of it would be nice, if it were actually true."
While black people are still going to church, it cannot be denied that the black church is taking some lumps and losing members.
Recent events such as Bishop Eddie Long's sex scandal; Pastor Thomas Weeks abusing his wife and fellow televangelist Juanita Bynum; the lavish lifestyle of Rev. Creflo Dollar, and a number of other very mortal mistakes made by men (and women) of the cloth, have hurt their image and scattered their flock, so to speak. Bishop Long's New Birth Missionary Baptist Church once boasted a membership as high as 20,000 has dwindled considerably. Morning services are now almost empty.
"The [black] church was a rock. It used to be a radical institution," said Donald Raven Barbara, the author of "Black and Not Baptist," who harkens back to days when the church was helping runaway slaves and giving a home to civil rights protests. "You can't discount the church, but today's church, I discount quite a bit."
Kimberly Veal, executive director of Black Nonbelievers of Chicago and president of Black Free Thinkers Media, agrees that the black church may finally be on its knees.
"Atheism is on the rise because the church is imploding," she said. "We're not standing in front of their churches protesting or attacking their ministries. They've done it to themselves. All of the scandals. People are starting to do their research on their conduct. It's been happening for centuries. It's just that with the Internet, information is more readily available. So now when believers don't believe what we're saying, we can show it to them."
While black atheists are very vocal about their non-belief, none of them envision a day where black atheists would ever outnumber the religious, but their numbers are growing.
In an interview with the New York Times, Adams said it took him nine years to find another black atheist in Washington, D.C. after he outed himself to his mother in 2000.
"My circle keeps getting bigger now," he said, "I'm meeting other people through work and mutual friends. More than ever in my life, I'm running into blacks who are atheists."
"C.J." agrees, "I have friends who are atheist as well and it's getting to where I can share with people that can be respectful of my stance."
But the reality remains that atheism isn't widely welcomed with the most open of arms in the black community. And that is one of the main reasons why "C.J." decided not to use her full name.
"A lot of my job involves being social," she said. "If people knew this about me...my job is one of reputation and it could get difficult. Plus the field I'm in is made up mostly of the urban, African American community. I don't want to be ostracized."
Barbara adds, "I can see 10 percent coming out openly and another 10 supporting them, but not saying it. Declaring atheism is a good way to lose your job and your friends. People lose family behind this. You don't want to do this casually."
One individual who did decide to risk his profession is R&B singer/songwriter Anthony David. Perhaps best known for penning songs on India.Arie's Grammy-winning debut, and touring off his own hits, he ruffled a few feathers last year with the video for his single "God Said" and his public declaration that he was a secular humanist or atheist in an interview with the Atlanta newsweekly Creative Loafing.
"I saw blogs saying I was in the Illuminati," laughs David. The term [atheist] scares people. It's a big crime, especially to black folks. Like 'Oh my God, you're pulling away from the community.'"
"C.J." echoed David's experience, "I've been told I hang around too many white people. But the funniest thing is, people who don't know this about me assume I'm Christian, saying I have an angelic spirit, when I'm not religious at all."
With atheism still being looked at suspiciously in the black community, there's no telling if the number of atheists will continue to grow. But with religious institutions far more concerned about the "war" against traditional marriage; fending off accusations of not serving the very poor communities that keep their lights on; and not allowing women to rise to leadership positions, who knows? Black people may actually get fed up and tuck their faith on the shelf.
In the meantime, black atheist are growing--surely, but slowly. While atheists may not go to churches to raise hell or travel door-to-door looking for new recruits, don't be surprised if you run into one in the last place you'd expect.
"I'm a musician and I still like good music," says Barbara, who describes himself as a "backsliding atheist." "If I find out that Kirk Franklin is going to be performing at the church down the street from my house, I'm going to church."