African-Americans are significantly more religious compared to the rest of the U.S. population, but a growing community of black atheists, like the Black Skeptics of Los Angeles, are steadily increasing each year.
The American Religious Identification Survey of 2008 found that from 1990 to 2008 the number of blacks without any religious affiliation nearly doubled from 6 to 11 percent. Among Americans, that number also jumped to 15 percent from 8 percent in 1990.
“There have always been African-American free thinkers, humanists, agnostics and atheists who have really foregrounded the connection between eschewing religion and the liberation struggle, particularly as it pertains to women and the LGBT community,” said Sikivu Hutchinson, founder of Black Skeptics of Los Angeles.
Hutchinson is part of a national advertising campaign that was launched this year by the African-Americans for Humanism. Her photo was featured next to writer Zora Neale Hurston on a roadside billboard in Los Angeles with the phrase, “Doubts about religion? You’re one of many.”
“If you have an ethos that says black women should be self-sacrificing, should not question male authority and patriarchy…those kinds of things need to be questioned. In my mind, it does emanate from this biblical context,” said Hutchinson.
Nicome Taylor, member of Black Skeptics of Los Angeles, joined the group in September and has seen its membership grow.
Taylor said she recently started a Meet Up group in January from the website meetup.com, and it has now blossomed into 30 members.
“I just feel good about meeting other people that thought like me. I mean kind of going through the whole process makes you feel a little crazy, a little bad after being indoctrinated with [religion] for a while,” said Taylor, who was raised in the church and believed God.
The Inglewood native said she always questioned her faith. It was after she came into contact with people who challenged her beliefs that she started on a quest for more knowledge.
“I had no idea, previously, who wrote the Bible. Even attending bible studies in church, they don’t teach you from a very objective standpoint,” said Taylor.
Through her research, she began to see falsities in the Bible and disagreed with passages on slavery and genocide.
“Without pointing the finger, [the church] is doing it indirectly by saying everyone else is wrong, and Jesus is the only way. There’s other people in the world that are brought up with their belief system as well so what makes us more right than them,” said Taylor.
Before coming out openly about her disbelief, Taylor discussed it with her family and friends. Growing up in a religious family, she said it was difficult for her family to accept the news. Some relatives even stopped talking to her.
“Leaving the faith can be difficult for anybody,” said Taylor. “In the black community, a lot of them don’t want to do that…it’s devastating for some people because it’s all they know,” said Taylor.
Life is a little bit easier for her now because she said her way of thinking has been freed. Yet, Taylor said she still faces challenges because atheists tend to be demonized within the church and among religious groups.
This can be attributed to the overwhelming number of blacks who claim to be religious.
According to figures from the Pew Research Center’s Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 87 percent of African-Americans belong to a religious group, and nearly eight in ten or 79 percent of African-Americans say religion is very important to them compared with 56 percent of adults in the United States.
Out of those figures, 59 percent of African-Americans attend historically black churches like the National Baptist Convention and the American Methodist Episcopal Church.
Pew’s research also found that historically black Protestant groups were among the most religiously observant based on several factors such as frequency of prayers and church attendance.
Jimmy Thompson said his first experience at church was as a child on Easter Sunday. He said he was in church for seven hours and after that day he never went back to church.
“I don’t talk about [religion] with people because I know people hold their beliefs very true to their heart, and it could turn into a vicious conversation because you challenge their belief,” said Thompson.
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He said religion was never discussed in his family and the only time they went to church was on holidays like Easter and Christmas.
For Daniel Myatt, a self-proclaimed skeptic who revealed he is one sermon away from being a minister had a very different upbringing.
“To say I embraced religion or the faith would be an understatement. It was just a part of me from my existence as far back as I remember,” said Myatt.
Myatt said he was raised in Chicago in a neighborhood where every corner had a Baptist church. His sisters are missionaries and their husbands are ministers.
Growing up, Myatt said his family would pray every Wednesday and teach them regular bible studies and lessons.
“I remember saying in my Sunday School class that I wanted to be a scientist so I can really prove God,” said Myatt.
He remembers that one of the first things he did after moving to California was watch Martin Scorsese’s film “The Last Temptation of Christ,” a film that his minister banned the congregation from watching. After the film, he worried God would carry out retribution on him.
“If I drive back to my city and my car stops my first thought would be God is punishing me for something I did wrong,” said Myatt.
Yet, living in California made him think in a different way. He said it was the first time he saw black people who did not go to church, which was unheard of in Chicago.
“My parents used to say Sunday morning you have to be in church, anybody’s church,” said Myatt.
He began to ask questions like why God’s word must be filtered through a pastor who is just a man, and why his marriage had to first be approved by a pastor who was divorced several times.
According to Myatt, it has been difficult for him to depart from his religious background and become comfortable with being a skeptic. The rest of his family knows he does not go to church or believe in God, but his father still does not know.
“It’s a revolutionary act to say I’m not going to church or I’m not a believer. I think a lot of people play the game and stay in it…because it’s socially safer to do so…culturally it’s expected,” said Myatt.
Religion and black churches play a pivotal role in the black community. Their prominence has become so well-known that it is even a frequent conversation piece in films like those by Tyler Perry. Even the preaching style of black pastors is caricatured in popular culture.
Javon Johnson, a postdoctoral teaching fellow at the University of Southern California’s Department of American Studies and Ethnicity, pointed out that the black church has played a historically vital role.
“On the one hand Christianity was certainly used to justify slavery, but on the other hand Christianity was also used to sort of move away…from slavery. It’s a double edge sword…but I also think it allowed political access that was denied by legitimate means,” said Johnson.
He attributes the possible growth of black skeptics to a changing political landscape. The way blacks were fighting for equality 100 years ago is drastically different than now, and it may also have something to do with the ebb and flow of history.
“Leaving the black church could be seen as deviant by many, but I think history has shown us that…what constitutes deviant changes over time depends on the cultural milieu at the particular moment,” said Johnson. “If history is indicating that it’s more and more OK for folks to speak out against the church, even in this god fearing country it’s safe to say that, it might become more pronounced over time.”
Pastor Seth Pickens of Zion Hill Baptist Church said he has noticed people moving away from the church but has seen more individuals claim that they are spiritual instead of religious.
“They’re very turned off by the church. Some of the politics and some of the scandals and everything that happens in the church, it turns people off,” said Pickens.
He said it should be a concern for pastors because it tells them what they are doing wrong. In order to remedy the situation, Pickens proposes that the core teachings of Christ, like love and self-control, should be taught.
In the three years he has been a pastor at Zion Hill, the congregation has grown from 87 members to over a couple hundred. He said the favorite part of his job is making the Bible more understandable to his congregation.
In February, Pickens and members of the Black Skeptics group held a roundtable at the church to discuss African-American humanism.
According to Pickens, many Christians are unwilling to engage with atheists in a civil way and have a dialogue, but the event revealed that many of them actually share one belief and that was building up the community.
“Whether you believe in God, whether you confess Christ or not if you see someone hungry you should feed them and many of the black atheists feel the same way. So, I don’t see why we can’t work together,” said Pickens.