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The Crisis of the Religious Black Intellectual

by Norm R. Allen, Jr.


Today the theologically oriented Black intellectual is enjoying tremendous popularity. Such thinkers as Cornel West and Stephen L. Carter have been featured in major media throughout the U.S.

What Black religious intellectuals have in common is the belief that faith in God is imperative if society is to survive and improve. These intellectuals have made important and profound observations on modern culture, society and history. But, paradoxically, while their deeply held religious convictions help them to examine many of the important questions in modern life, these very convictions severely hamper their intellectual depth.

Perhaps the major problem stifling the Black religious intellectual is the idea that his or her religious text is absolutely perfect and not to be held to the same standards of scholarly analysis as other texts. Though the believer might be willing to acknowledge that his or her sacred text is open to various interpretations, the text itself is never questioned.

Cornel West has written and spoken against xenophobia, sexism, homophobia and various other crimes against humanity. But one has to question the seriousness and courage of any thinker who professes to fight against such problems without acknowledging that the problems have been condoned and encouraged in the Bible. (Contrarily, Black religious intellectuals do not hesitate to point out the positive ways in which culture and society have been influenced by the teachings of various religious texts.)

The dilemma faced by Black religious intellectuals is that they advocate solutions to problems which were largely created or exacerbated by religion. These thinkers cannot be sufficiently critical of religion because they are very dependent upon it. They are therefore condemned to be limited in their perception and understanding of the problems they seek to solve. Furthermore, they are convinced that they will alienate the masses of Black people by becoming too critical of religion.

Cornel West and Bell Hooks are strong advocates of "Black critical thinking." In their book Breaking Bread, Hooks says she was upset because she did not believe that West had attacked sexism with enough force. But neither West nor Hooks acknowledge the fact that sexism is consistently supported in the bible that, ironically, inspires their feminist views. While both thinkers acknowledge the sexism that exists within the Black church, they do not accept the fact that the Black church is acting consistently with biblical teachings regarding the treatment of women. And while both thinkers are critical of the misogynistic lyrics and images in the popular media, they do not acknowledge that centuries of biblical teachings helped to mold such hatred and disrespect for women. (Books such as Annie Laurie Gaylor's Woe to the Women - The Bible Tells Me So adequately prove the sexist mentality of biblical writers.)

Most Black intellectuals have denounced slavery as a moral evil. They have also acknowledged the church's role in supporting the institution. But the leading Black religious intellectuals will not admit that slavery is condoned in the bible. (Forrest G. Wood's The Arrogance of Faith brilliantly demonstrates how the bible was used, misused and abused to perpetuate slavery and segregation.) How can serious scholars be critical of Christians for having practiced slavery without being critical of the book that gave the institution moral respectability?

Stephen L. Carter, author of The Culture of Disbelief and an Episcopalian, discusses the many differences of opinion among members of his religion. It does not seem to strike him as strange that though the bible teaches that "God is not the author of confusion," the members of his religion seem to be thoroughly confused on many subjects. Furthermore, Carter believes that one can have a dogmatic belief in the bible and still engage in public discourse without reason being the arbiter in disputes. He even argues that creation scientists are as logical as scientists.

Carter is a self-proclaimed liberal who opposes sexism, xenophobia, slavery, etc. And like West, he prefers to ignore the fact that such "sins" are condoned in the bible. But while the anti-slavery opponent might argue that the bible never condones slavery, the advocate of slavery knows better. The same holds true for sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, genocide and many other undesirable forms of behavior condoned in the bible.

Those who are well-read in the areas of history, philosophy, freethought, science and comparative religion wonder whether such Black religious intellectuals sincerely believe what they profess to believe regarding religion. Some probably do. But others believe that the masses will not accept leadership that is not religious. West believes that the church is the only "organic institution" in the Black community, and the only institution with historical roots strong enough to liberate Black people.

Black religious intellectuals who embrace this view will always be unable and/or unwilling to understand the profoundly negative impact that religious texts have had upon Black people, culture, history and society unless they are willing to examine those texts in an uncompromising manner. And this is most easily done if such theists embrace a religion like that practiced by the Unitarian-Universalists, i.e., a humanistic religion.

A humanistic religion enables many to remain spiritual while still being sufficiently critical of religious texts which have been largely responsible for encouraging negative behavior. At the same time, these religionists might embrace the positive teachings of religious texts. The point is that many religious humanists realize that all religious texts are at least partially the product of human beings and must be examined in the same manner as all other books. Any intellectual who does not realize this will necessarily be severely limited in his or her ability to understand culture, history and society. Moreover, reluctance to critically examine religious texts unwittingly contributes to the oppression of the groups that Black religious intellectuals seek to liberate. The Black religious intellectual must be committed, not to defending the faith, but to finding solutions to the problems confronting his or her people. If such solutions conflict with the teachings of religious texts, the solutions are to be chiefly valued.

There is no reason why Black religion cannot or should not become more humanistic. Though religion has existed for millennia, it has not always existed in its present form. As Karen Armstrong, the author of A History of God, says in the September 27, 1993 issue of Time: "All religions change and develop. If they do not, they will become obsolete." The same might be said of people who blindly embrace religious texts.


Norm Allen is the executive director of African Americans for Humanism.


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