Black Non-Theists: Coming Out
by Norm R. Allen Jr.
AAH executive director Norm R. Allen, Jr. delivered the following
speech at the Godless Americans March on Washington on November 2, 2002.
non-theists face special challenges. No group has been more dependent upon
religion than have African Americans. There’s no denying that. On the
other hand, we cannot ignore the fact that African Americans have suffered
greatly because of religion. Religion has given us great leaders such as
Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Religious leaders played an important
role in the abolition of slavery and in other human rights struggles. But
religionists also opposed the abolition of slavery. Religionists also
opposed Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. So the first
thing we have to realize is that religion—like the people that embrace
it—is not perfect. We also have to realize and appreciate the fact that
religion is not for everybody, and that we all have the right to reject it
if we so desire.
Most Black people seem to believe that religion must
play a central role in every Black movement. When we go to NAACP meetings,
they often begin with prayers. If we go to reparations rallies, we are led
in prayer. If we go to political gatherings, religious leaders demand that
we pray. If we go to public gatherings in government buildings, we are
told to pray. If we go to listen to speeches by charismatic Black leaders,
they exhort us to pray.
Of course, we Black non-theists feel alienated in
these settings. Don’t we count? Don’t our ideas count? Don’t we have
much to contribute to human rights struggles? How would religionists feel
if non-theists started every meeting by coercing everyone into denying the
existence of God? Would they stand for it? And more importantly, would it
be fair? Would it build the unity we are striving for?
You don’t have to be an atheist or agnostic to
embrace a secular worldview. After all, Malcolm X came to endorse a
secular worldview. He taught that religion did far more to divide us than
to unite us. And he was right. He taught that religion is personal, and
that it should be kept out of our meetings. He formed a secular
group—the Organization of Afro-American Unity—and formed a separate
religious entity known as the Muslim Mosque, Inc. And this devout Muslim
once told an audience, “If your religion hasn’t done any more for you
than it has, you need to forget it anyway.” Amen to that!
After all is said and done, there is no good reason
to believe that our success depends upon God. Whether God exists or not,
as we continue into the 21st century, it should be clear that human
thought and human action must be at the center of our movements. All of
our accomplishments can be explained in terms that are clearly and
strictly human. There were no credible reports of angels on hand during
the Battle of Gettysburg or Sherman’s March on Atlanta. There was no
burning bush that spoke to Martin Luther King during the 1963 March on
Washington. No one turned into a pillar of salt at the Million Man March.
All of these events came to pass as a result of human thought and human
action. And there is no good reason to assume that God has been
responsible for any of our incredible achievements.
Black humanists and freethinkers have long been
involved in Black intellectualism and activism. Hubert Henry Harrison was
one of the greatest orators of the early part of the 20th century. He was
a leading thinker and editor of the newspaper, the Negro World, of Marcus
Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. Under Harrison’s
leadership, the paper became the largest selling Black paper in the world.
A. Philip Randolph founded and led the Brotherhood of
Sleeping Car Porters and called for the first March on Washington. He was
the “grandfather” of the Civil Rights Movement. He became one of the
“Big Six” major civil rights leaders, and signed Humanist Manifesto II
Joel Augustus Rogers was an influential Black
anthropologist. He wrote such books as From Superman to Man, As Nature
Leads, 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro, three volumes of Sex and Race,
two volumes of World’s Great Men of Color, and Africa’s Gift to
America. He challenged the racist scholarship of his day and spent 50
years researching Black history.
The Black Panthers practiced what Huey Newton called
“revolutionary humanism.” Their 10-point program was completely
secular and they wisely heeded Malcolm’s call to keep religion out of
their organization. Their program was human-centered and they were
primarily concerned with concrete problems such as eliminating police
brutality and feeding the hungry.
Maulana Karenga is a leading Black studies scholar.
He is a former leader of the activist organization United Slaves, and he
spoke at the Million Man March. Karenga established Kwanzaa—a major
secular celebration of Black life and culture. He has shown that one can
contribute to Black uplift without making a belief in God central to Black
Black humanists, freethinkers, atheists,
rationalists, and agnostics will continue to contribute to human
advancement. But now is the time for us to come out of the closet. We
Blacks are a diverse people, and this is nothing to be ashamed of. We have
many religions, and some of us have none at all. We should be no more
ashamed of our non-theism than we are of our African ancestry. It is time
once and for all to stand up and be counted. We have a very proud past,
and if we courageously defend our worldview, we will be in an even better
position to forge a glorious future.
Norm R. Allen Jr. is the executive director of African Americans for