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Critical Theory for Political Theology 2.0

The Politics of Black Atheism in the United States

From the mid-19th century, African American atheists have been central figures in the Black Freedom Struggle. Their political activism was oftentimes explicitly motivated by their atheism and has provided an important example to contemporary Black atheists and humanists.

From its inception in the 19th century, African American atheism has been motivated by the politics of race in the United States and has explicitly embraced political activity as a core component of its identity. Enslaved and free Black people in the United States began to embrace atheism during the antebellum period, in large part as a response to the continuing strength of the institution of slavery and the rise of systemic racism in the nation.

Evidence of this embrace in clear in the narratives of former slaves, including individuals such as Austin Steward, Henry Bibb, Harriet Jacobs, Peter Randolph, William Wells Brown, and Frederick Douglass. These narratives were published for an explicitly political purpose—helping to forward to abolition of slavery in the United States—and they used the prevalence of atheism in slave communities as a key argument against the institution.

The politics of Black atheism would shift in the early twentieth century, with opposition to religion no longer being a negative outcome of an oppressive institution. Instead, atheism was closely intertwined with the political goals of Black thinkers and activists and served as a key motivating factor for engaging in political activism. Such was the case with Hubert Harrison, who was born in St. Croix and migrated to Harlem in 1900. The following year, Harrison had left Christianity and he did so for many of the same reasons as his white counterparts, namely engagement and agreement with the writings of secularists such as Thomas Paine, Voltaire, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

But while Harrison came to his secularism through growing disbelief in the idea of God, it would not be theological concerns alone, or even primarily, that would motivate his secular activism. Instead, Harrison aimed to convince African Americans to leave Christianity because he argued “they have suffered more than any other class of Americans from the dubious blessings of Christianity” in an article entitled “The Negro a Conservative” (43).

For Harrison, Christian churches in the United States were key supporters of the institution of slavery in the nineteenth century and they were also supporters of segregation in the twentieth century. He also argued in an essay entitled “The White War and the Colored Races” that imperialist wars, both within the United States and abroad, were the “natural and inevitable effect of the capitalist system, of what (for want of a worse name) we call ‘Christendom” (206). Anything that would weaken the power of Christianity in the United States and abroad, then, would be advantageous to Black people in the nation and throughout the African Diaspora.

Black atheists during the civil rights and Black Power eras also explicitly tied their atheism to their political commitments. James Forman, executive secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and one of the earliest proponents of Black Power, started to move away from religion at twelve years old. In 1947, while enrolled at Wilson Junior College in Chicago, Forman began to develop questions about God’s existence and his relationship to Black

America. “How could he exist?” Forman asked in his autobiography The Making of Black Revolutionaries. “What type of God was he that would allow all the injustices in the world…Hell was here on earth, man, for black people” (55).

Like the slave narrators of the nineteenth century, Forman had serious doubts about the existence of a deity that would allow Black people to experience all the injustices prevalent under American apartheid. His second stint at Roosevelt College in Chicago completed his journey toward atheism and in his autobiography, Forman made it clear that his atheism was closely tied to his political philosophy and budding interest in civil rights activism in the early 1960s. “As a Negro who has grown up in the United States,” he posited, “I believe that the belief in God has hurt my people. We have put off doing something about our condition on this earth because we have believed that God was going to take care of business in heaven” (Making of Black Revolutionaries, 83). For Forman, his lack of belief in God meant that he was responsible for bringing about a better future, both for himself and for the broader African American community. Atheism thus constituted for him a sort of secular social gospel that motivated his career as an activist and a leading Black intellectual.

Other advocates of Black Power in the 1960s similarly combined their atheism with radical politics. This was especially true of leading figures in the Black Panther Party, organized in Oakland, California in 1966. Huey Newton, one of the party’s founders along with Bobby Seale, began to question his belief in God after reading existentialist thinkers such as Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Soren Kierkegaard at Oakland City College in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He eventually embraced atheism and rejected the need for organized religion. “As man approaches his development and becomes larger and larger,” he claimed in To Die for the People, “the church therefore becomes smaller and smaller because it is not needed any longer” (65).

Newton’s newfound lack of belief in God did not lead him to join any explicitly secular organizations or participate in the freethought movement. Instead, like most other Black atheists before the 1980s, he channeled his atheist and humanist beliefs into his political commitments. Newton and other leaders of the Black Panther Party developed one of the central slogans of the Black Panthers, “All Power to the People,” on the notion that human beings were divine. As Newton stated in his autobiography Revolutionary Suicide, “I have no other God but man, and I firmly believe that man is the highest or chief good” (178).

Like James Forman, Newton came to see belief in God as a central factor inhibiting political engagement and he brought this perspective to the Black Panther Party, fashioning a humanist politics that resulted in initiatives such as the creation of medical clinics, job training programs, ambulance services, freedom schools, and a nationwide free breakfast program for children. Additionally, the organ of the party, The Black Panther, served the function of a secular publication. Poems and essays critiquing Christianity and highlighting the need for a Black humanist approach to politics were published in its pages by writers such as Sarah Webster Fabio and Evette Pearson, further highlighting the key role the party played in advancing the politics of Black atheism.

Contemporary Black atheists are just as concerned with and involved in efforts to achieve political liberation as their forebears in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Sikivu Hutchinson

is a prime example. She is both a Black woman atheist and the leading scholar of Black women’s secularism in the United States. Hutchinson founded the Black Skeptics of Los Angeles in 2010 to provide resources and education for other atheists, humanists, and nonbelievers of color. This organization and her numerous publications are also an outlet for her political work. As she notes in her book Moral Combat, “making black secular community relevant to African Americans will require more than an emphasis on science literacy and critical thinking” (251).

If atheism and secularism are going to gain a foothold among Black people or other people of color, she argues, then atheists must address political questions including the lack of affordable housing and healthcare, the school-to-prison pipeline, racial bias in policing, and diminished employment opportunities in minority communities. Atheist and secular organizations must also take on some of the functions that religious institutions currently serve, including offering scholarships to entering college students (which BSLA currently does), organizing tutoring programs for school children, and setting up job training and reentry programs for formerly incarcerated individuals. It is only by addressing the everyday political concerns of people of color that atheists will gain traction in these communities and help push African Americans away from their historical allegiance to the Black Church.

From its inception in the mid-19th century, African American atheism has always been a political movement in addition to a critique against religious doctrines. Indeed, for Black atheists, religion cannot be separated from politics, as the former has been used to great effect to deny African Americans voting rights, job opportunities, and freedom more broadly. Black atheists ranging from former slaves such as Frederick Douglass to Caribbean migrants such as Hubert Harrison to women in the Black Panther Party such as Sarah Webster Fabio have explicitly stated that their nonbelief motivated them to participate in the Black Freedom Struggle. Their example continues to inspire contemporary Black atheists and gives the lie to notions that atheism should only concern itself with political issues such as the separation of church and state. African American atheists show us that a robust and diverse atheist movement can and should support both freedom of thought and bodily freedom and autonomy for all peoples.

The Politics of Atheism

Symposium Essays

The Politics of Black Atheism in the United States

From the mid-19th century, African American atheists have been central figures in the Black Freedom Struggle. Their political activism was oftentimes explicitly motivated by their atheism and has provided an important example to contemporary Black atheists and humanists.

Performing Indifference: On Atheism and Political Theology

This essay outlines an ontological form of atheism to suggest novel ways to conceptualize political theology and forms of socio-political praxis. An atheism of indifference is offered as a means to resist the theological framing of socio-political issues.

Atheism and the Critique of Sovereignty

By disrupting pernicious claims to transcendence, atheist political theologies can help us redress suffering in particular places while keeping hope for radical transformation.

Coming

Jesus as a Political Atheist

To think of this empire as anything other than wrapped up in mimesis is to think otherwise. This essay explores how mimesis has captured us all and conscripted us into its political ontology. This essay offers another way to consider being; another way to find ourselves with the introduction of Jesus as a Political Atheist.

Remembering immanence: a short appeal for a good atheism in troubled times

What is the role of atheism in bringing hope to troubled times? Controversially, I/Stacey stress(es) that atheism too often reproduces the transcendence it claims to reject. Instead, bringing insights from my/his time among activists, I/he argue(s) that a good atheism must be in touch with immanence.

Tearing Down the Heavens: Marx’ Critique of Religion, Atheism, and Political Economy

For Marx, religion is more than “the opium of the people,” it is the mirror of society turned upside down. This essay examines Marx’s critique of religion as well as his critique of other contemporary critiques of religion. This critique of religion became the starting point of his critique of political theology and, later, political economy.

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