Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and the Values Wars

Forthcoming By Sikivu Hutchinson

As one of the most religious and racially segregated communities in the U.S., African Americans generally view atheism as a form of race betrayal. Socially conservative on abortion, same sex marriage and church/state separation, the Black Church has largely abandoned its historic emphasis on civil rights, making destructive alliances with the Religious Right while urban black communities flounder economically. Although black women are traditionally portrayed as the “backbone” of the Black Church, the “values wars” have further solidified institutional sexism and homophobia in black communities. Historically, visionary freethinkers such as Frederick Douglass, A. Philip Randolph, Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen and Alice Walker have questioned the role religiosity plays in black identity and black liberation struggle. Nonetheless, a majority in the African-American community believe that “real black folks,” particularly black women, should be in church on Sunday getting the Holy Ghost (or at least professing to). Yet, as the nation has become more religiously conservative, a growing number of progressive African American non-believers are challenging black religious and social orthodoxies online and in atheist advocacy groups. In this probing analysis, black feminist social commentator and author Sikivu Hutchinson examines the cultural and historical influence of African American humanist and atheist social thought. She situates this tradition within the broader context of public morality, exploring the dynamics of civil rights and Christian activism, feminism and social justice, the whiteness of “New Atheism” and the science debates, and the insidious backlash of Tea Party-style white nationalism against social welfare public policy.

ISBN: 978-0-578-07186-2


Sikivu slams Steve Harvey

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4 Responses to Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and the Values Wars

  1. Sikivu – I agree with everything on this post except discussion on the “whiteness” of New Atheism. I don’t care about “diversity” within atheism. I am more concerned about “individuals” coming to a point of clarity. Whites as whites have their own (white) reasons to think there is no god. And Blacks need to awaken to clarity in much greater numbers (for our own reasons). Maybe as white atheists proliferate and become more common and vocal – there may come a time (soon) that Blacks may ask questions, and get convincing answers. White folks that are in power and/or in the know – understand that Black people will never get it together until we let go of god. As long as we are building churches instead of businesses – whites will never have anything to worry about.

    One Black atheist is more dangerous to white supremacy than an army of maniacs with machine guns.

    • Sure, but the problem is that within atheist/humanist circles only elite whites have political and intellectual visibility. This means that atheist/humanists of color are marginalized as a political force and further ghettoized as a minority within a minority (and then some, depending on gender and sexual orientation), while elite whites are able to control the terms of humanist discourse. Humanism is then divorced from social, racial and gender justice and reduced to rational thinking, secular ethics and freedom from religious imposition. As a person of color I believe these are important concerns but not exclusive ones. Part of the charge of radical/progressive humanism is in developing an anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-heterosexist critical consciousness that deconstructs hierarchies both within organized religion and secular society.

  2. 1. “within atheist/humanist circles only elite whites have political and intellectual visibility.”

    For the present – that is just fine (at least they are not hostile). I am concerned with Black atheists being a minority within a minority (and then some) in our own community. I think we need to make more efforts to become a philosophical (and political) force there, rather than being overly concerned about our place within the white atheist community.

    2. “elite whites are able to control the terms of humanist discourse.”

    Yeah… Control the terms for white people. It does not have to stay that way. We Black folks did not change the terms of Christian discourse as it was coming out of the heads of white people. We did not bother with that. We built a new track, and set our own (Christian) terms upon it. I think we will (and must) do the same when it comes to humanist discourse.

    3. “Humanism is then divorced from social, racial and gender justice and reduced to rational thinking, secular ethics and freedom from religious imposition.”

    You talk to lots of Black people – just like I do. In our community, rational thinking, secular ethics and freedom from religious imposition must be established there before we can accomplish social, racial (inter and intra) and gender justice. The Proposition 8 affair is just one example that shows our folks don’t have a clue as to what justice is. A lack of belief is somehow considered “anti-Black.” White atheists are not considered “anti-white.” We can share our atheism with whites – and we can relate up to a point – but that’s where everything stops. I don’t think there is anything bad or good about that “point.” We simply have different issues to deal with.

    • Many of our points are not mutually exclusive, however my emphasis is on the broader context of atheist/humanist discourse and politics. Yes, AA adoption of Christianity occurred within the context of Holocaust conditions and enslaved Africans were able to utilize religious faith as a bulwark against white supremacy. That said, they were still beholden to the white supremacist, misogynist and heterosexist moral values of Christianity; and they were still dehumanized by Eurocentric imperialist notions of biological determinism and moral pathology, all of which were justified by Judeo Christian tenets of civilization and otherness. This didn’t stop black folk from using Christianity to deconstruct the savage contradictions of a regime based on enslaving humans while touting its government/Constitution as the shining Enlightenment model of individual liberty as an inalienable right. However it did ensure that this paradox would always be part of AA struggle to achieve citizenship and value as human beings.

      Hence, like any other social movement in the U.S., the atheist/humanist movement is governed by power hierarchies that are just the same as that of the dominant culture, i.e., an insular white hegemony wherein the scholarship, advocacy and critical consciousness of people of color is marginalized and the terms of high profile secular debate are shaped by those whose race/class and gender entitlements allow them to ignore or outright dismiss the intersections of racial, gender and economic justice. If the voices of people of color are not heard or valued in those contexts, in addition to communities of color, then it is highly unlikely that there will be systemic change.

      Here is my take on the way this works vis-a-vis “New Atheism”; I outline the parallels between this context and academia and highlight why challenging white supremacy, patriarchy and institutional racism matters:

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