The Age of Reason
When I turned twenty years old, I had an epiphany. I had reached the age of reason and realized that I was an atheist.
It took me many years to get to the point of even writing something like this on a public forum. Being an atheist in America isn’t well received by many people – even in the non-religious circles where people claim to be ‘spiritual but not religious,’ or some black folks take the Talib Kweli route of “God is good, but religion is bad.”
It took a political awakening – in particular, Operation Iraqi Freedom 2003 – for me to start questioning my own religious beliefs. During a conversation Navy Chaplin who was a Protestant minister, he claimed, “those who do not accept Jesus as their lord and savior were damned to an eternity in hell.” I found it hard to believe that more than four billion people would endure fire and brimstone because they were not Christians. Hell, (pun intended) even Christians don’t all agree on these matters as we saw with the Reformation.
In my early twenties, I often claimed to be agnostic because that seemed to be less offensive to people. But Stephen Colbert’s assessment of agonistics as “Atheist[s] without balls” has stuck with me. So, I’m an atheist, and that’s okay. Deriving from the ancient Greek word ‘atheos,’ atheism just means ‘without-theism.’
The Black Community and Jeezus
“In reference to the Pew study, we know that African-Americans are far more likely to confidently believe in God when compared with whites and Hispanics. More than three-quarters of African Americans say they are absolutely certain there is a God, compared with less than two-thirds of whites and Hispanics who say the same.”
Countless polls have shown that black folks of all generations are still the most religious of all Americans. Eighty-seven percent of black womenclaim to be religious, according to polls. Growing up Pentecostal in the Midwest and now living in the South, I know that many black folks wear their religion like a badge of honor. Old heads claim that Dr. King and Malcolm X were both men of faith, and thus the black church or mosques are the backbone of the community. (I’m looking at you, Tavis Smiley).
Throughout my career, I’ve been asked what church I attend or even brought into prayer sessions when in all black professional settings. It is just assumed that I am Christian, or a Muslim since I’m a brotha with a beard (My lady calls me a hipster, and I deny that claim despite my love of craft beer and beard oil.) One black woman I dated asked me out on a first date and suggested that for our first date we should go to church. We did date, and I never stepped foot inside a church with her. Another young black woman I dated had been receiving counseling from her pastor. Her male pastor seemed to have an obsession with the fact she was fornicating with a ‘heathen’ like myself. I told her, “It just looks like your pastor is jealous and wants you for himself.”
This same young woman was going through an ugly custody battle with an ex and had recently lost her corporate job. She was struggling to pay the bills like many young black professionals not from an upper-middle-class background. She should have been seeking mental health servicesfrom a licensed and trained mental health professional, not from a pastor trying to lay his hands on her.
It’s Okay to be an Atheist
People often joke about Sunday mornings in America being the most segregated morning of the week. Every race of people goes to their respective houses of worship. Black folks collectively know that Christianity wasn’t spread peacefully throughout the continent of Africa and among our slave ancestors. But the atheist movement also looks white and no less oppressive from an optics standpoint. The most visible atheist figures are white men. The atheist movement needs to move beyond just old white guys like Bill Maher, and Richard Dawkins. The Atheist movement needs to engage and embrace diversity.
They’re plenty of notable non-religious and dare I say, atheist black folks. And there are many black atheist organizations out there where you can find black men and women who aren’t trying to drag you to church on Sundays. Anyway, I have to watch the Chicago Bears lose their games on Sundays. In the end, if you’re black and an atheist you’re not alone, and you’re not a “minority within a minority.” We’re out there, and we’re legion. Nevertheless, I do miss the gospel music and fish fry’s, though…sorry Grandma.
Lornett Vestal was born and raised in Chicago, IL. He served four years honorably as a crew member aboard the USS Cleveland LPD-7. He deployed during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 to 2004. He’s traveled the world. He studied at Northern Illinois University and The University of Chicago. He lives in Atlanta, GA with his wife and two dogs.