A State of Nonbelief

Courtesy of Kimberly Veal

For a bunch of atheists, the conversation was in some ways unsurprising. Gathered in a Bronzeville Starbucks, the group broached all the major talking points–evolution, the Bible, zealots. The inaugural meeting of the Black Nonbelievers of Chicago (BNOC) also brushed with more intimate topics, such as the members’ personal trajectories towards atheism and issues with faith. But perhaps the most unusual thing about this meeting of black nonbelievers–a designation meant to cover atheists, agnostics and freethinkers–is simply that it happened.

Less than 0.5 percent of blacks in America self-identified as atheists in 2008, according to the U.S. Religious Landscapes Survey by Pew Forum. African Americans are the country’s “most religiously committed racial or ethnic group in the nation”: according to the Pew survey, 85 percent identify as Christian (more than any other racial or ethnic group) and only 12 percent are religiously unaffiliated. Kimberly Veal, the group’s organizer, says that because of these numbers, “There seems to be this misconception that we’re an anomaly, that there’s no such thing as a black atheist or a minority atheist.”

She and others across both the city and the country have been working to dispel that idea. Veal, who hosts a weekly Internet radio program called Black Free Thinkers, has tried to raise the visibility of black and other minority nonbelievers and to encourage more to come forward. Social media have made it easier for nonbelievers to find each other online, and translating these connections into real life has been important to getting the movement off the ground. The approach seems to be gaining traction–several of those at the meeting were introducing themselves for the first time.

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In a highly religious community, where a lot of social activity revolves around the church, nonbelievers can feel alone and uncomfortable sharing their questions, even with those closest to them. Veal, who grew up in Auburn-Gresham, explained, “There are quite a few of us that have these thoughts and feelings but we have no one to share them with.”

But that is all changing. On that late January afternoon, the group of nine crowded itself around a big table and Veal, who wears her hair in dreads, spoke a bit about the goals she has for the organization before the conversation flowed smoothly into a lively, open exchange that touched on a multitude of topics.

Although there was no paved path from believer to nonbeliever within the group, questioning the foundations of their belief allowed each of the nine to consider the value of a new way of life. Cheryl, a compact woman in her late fifties, recounted that her atheism grew out of a long and thoughtful examination of her faith, a process that took somewhere between five and ten years. Ultimately, it led her to discover a “really basic dishonesty about being a believer.”

Most of the nonbelievers at the meeting were raised in religious families where church played a central role. Jason spoke about growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness and recounted how he was “disfellowshipped”–a process of formal expulsion from the sect that essentially cut him off from his family. Although going from a Jehovah’s Witness to atheist is perhaps an extreme experience, coming out as a nonbeliever in the black community and statistically becoming a double minority did not seem to have been an easy process for anyone.

Engaging in critical conversations about faith with others seemed to be a key catalyst in the move toward nonbelief for many at the meeting. Jason, Jerry, and Matthew are co-workers at the Social Service Administration, and pointed to the support and friendship they provided each other as crucial to their development as atheists. Jason says he “attribute[s] Jerry to helping me come out. He did question me on a lot of things. I would talk to him about some stuff and he would ask me questions. And I knew that I couldn’t in my heart explain it.”

As the meeting slowly broke down into smaller groups, people relaxed and started opening up. Cheryl asked how they dealt with having to “basically rebuild [their] whole social network.” She explained, “I find that I’m in the process of doing that.” Reggie, Jerry and Frank all suggested that if she could make clear that her nonbelief didn’t mean relinquishing her morals, she would likely keep many of her friends, even those who were very religious. But not everyone got such a positive response. Matthew told the group that he lost his two best high school friends after he told them that he was an atheist.

The stakes also moved beyond just friends and family. Frank, who had kept fairly quiet for the first half of the meeting, recounted a story from his involvement in a predominantly black, non-faith-based organization whose focus was completely non-religious. While at a meeting of the organization’s board, he chose to step out of the room while a prayer was said. For some other members of the board, his decision was discomforting. After someone voiced concerns directly to Frank in the meeting, he realized that his time on the board was likely coming to a close. Although he is still actively involved in the organization, he was not invited to return to the board.

It was evident from the ties that developed over the course of the meeting that they relished the opportunity to join a community where faith didn’t go unquestioned. Their experiences revealed that being a minority nonbeliever carried social and professional repercussions, and Veal commended everyone for “the courage to come out and tell everyone I’m a nonbeliever and this is why.”

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The numbers in surveys may not tell the whole story about this group of nonbelievers. Reggie suggested that there are far more atheists in the black community than the statistics indicate. “The community actually has more of us than most people think,” he said. “A lot of the guys who go [to church] are going just for the women. They’re supporting the wife, the girlfriend.” However, some women, Veal conjectured, “may not necessarily believe but [go for] the services, daycare, food.” Veal emphasized the need to provide those services to people in need without proselytizing them.

This is intimately connected to the organization’s purpose. One of Veal’s core goals for BNOC is providing “community-based solutions.” It is already incorporated as a non-profit in Illinois, and they hope to attain 501(c)3 status by the summer. She aims to build up the group’s capacity for providing social services that are often mediated by religious institutions.

Although specific plans and collaborations are still being worked out, Veal hopes to focus on health and education initiatives in underserved communities on the South Side. Ultimately, she hopes that BNOC will open a “resource center that will focus on educational advancement and career training.” Given that several members of the group have a background in technology–Veal works in IT–a likely component will involve providing computer literacy training. By pushing science and reason, BNOC hopes to benefit South Siders professionally as well.

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The first nationwide collaboration BNOC is participating in is the “We are Humanists” billboard campaign. Coinciding with Black History Month, the advertisements, which appear in Chicago and six additional cities nationwide, all read: “Doubts about religion? You’re one of many.” The ads juxtapose images of a historical black, freethinking figure with someone currently involved in the black nonbeliever movement. Zora Neale Hurston, Frederick Douglass, and Langston Hughes have all been co-opted for the campaign. In Chicago, the billboards greet South Side ‘L’ riders along the Red and Green Lines.

The effort is coordinated by African Americans for Humanism (AAH), an affiliate of the Center for Inquiry, both of which promote secularism and are based in Amherst, New York. Although AAH came into existence in 1989, it has recently revamped its programs under a new director, Debbie Goddard, and coordinated with African-American atheist organizations across the country. After a successful AAH conference in the spring of 2010, Goddard helped shift AAH’s focus to supporting local organizations of nonbelievers by providing resources and encouraging collaboration between groups. The ads were a “pie-in-the-sky idea” at first, Goddard says, but the project moved forward with funding from the Stiefel Freethought Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to advocating secularism.

The AAH billboards are more an invitation to join other African Americans in questioning their faith than an assault on religion as such. BNOC seems to take a similar inclusive, non-combative approach. An oft-repeated word at the meeting was “community.”

The goals of both BNOC and the AAH campaign are significant in the ways they differ from the methods of other atheists, in particular the New Atheists. The most prominent members of this group, known as the Four Horsemen, are Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens. New Atheism aims to counter and criticize religion by rational argument and, in doing so, has often drawn criticism itself for being too heavy-handed. BNOC instead aims to establish networks of nonbelievers

The immediate, short-term culmination of the “We are Humanists” campaign will come on February 26, which has been designated as a National Day of Solidarity for Black Nonbelievers and will be marked by events across the country. In Chicago, BNOC is organizing a meet-up at the DuSable Museum of History. At the museum they will hear about Lorraine Hansberry, a nonbeliever, Chicagoan, and playwright most famous for “A Raisin in the Sun,” which was inspired by her family’s attempt to move into the Washington Park neighborhood in 1938 when racially restrictive covenants still existed.

The event aligns with another one of Veal’s missions, which is to promote the historical contributions of black and minority nonbelievers to society. One poignant example is that of Bayard Rustin, a foundational member of the civil rights movement, chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington and adviser to Martin Luther King, Jr. However, being gay and a nonbeliever kept him from playing a more publicly prominent role in the movement. Veal believes that recognizing the important contributions made by secular communities can have a profound impact on shaping public opinion of nonbelievers.

The hope is that the outreach campaign, the day of solidarity, and increasing presence of black atheist groups at a local level will help the movement keep its momentum. AAH is currently organizing a series of events at historically black colleges and universities in coordination with local groups. In Chicago, Goddard is working on organizing a national conference on the University of Chicago campus in May with the UChicago Secular Alliance.

This kind of outreach–the kind that brings people together–seems to be the most effective. Reggie recalled how he once spoke to a woman about atheism and explaining to her what nonbelief entailed. When he was done talking, she replied, “I’ve always thought that, but I heard no one else say it.”

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