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Real Talk: Black Atheists on the Rise

The number of Black atheist is on the rise in America. Are you tolerant of non-believers?
Do you believe in God?

You probably just thought “duh.” A 2008 Pew Research Center survey found almost 88% of Blacks believe in God with absolute certainty, compared to 71% of the total population. The study also found 50% of Blacks attend church once a week, compared to 40% of Americans overall.

But there are Black folk who don’t believe in God. Yes, they exist, even if their numbers are minute — less than one-half of a percent of African-Americans identify themselves as atheists, compared with 1.6 percent of the total population, according to Pew. The New York Times ran a story by Emily Brennan, “The Unbelievers” about the rise of Black atheists — and the backlash they receive from other Blacks — earlier this week.

“To be Black and atheist, in a lot of circles, is to not be Black,” Jamila Bey, who is having trouble dating because of her lack of belief, told Brennan.

In 2008, John Branch, a fellow atheist, made a YouTube video, “Black Atheism,” which garnered 40,000 views. In the video, he asks, “What is an atheist? An atheist is simply someone who lacks a belief in God.” He added, “We’re not drinking blood. We’re not worshiping Satan.”

“I think [the topic] attracted so much attention because, in the Black community, not believing in God is seen as a thing for white people,” Branch said.

On his blog, another atheist, James White, chimed in, “In most African-American communities, it is more acceptable to be a criminal who goes to church on Sunday, while selling drugs to kids all week, than to be an atheist who … contributes to society and supports his family.”

Online news site The Root recently began a series exploring Black atheists. For the first in the series, The Root talked to Anthony B. Pinn, Ph.D., a professor of religious studies at Rice University.

“African Americans are worse off because of their allegiance to theism,” Pinn said in the interview. “It has resulted in a kind of bizarre understanding of suffering as a marker of closeness to God and a mark of divine favor. Nothing good can come out of that.”

He added, “this belief in God remains fairly strong within the African-American community because it provides a kind of safety mechanism. In a world that seems absurd, living in a community that continuously encounters death-dealing forces, the idea that there’s something out there that has your back, that’s ultimately looking out for you and wants the best for you, can be comforting… It’s a kind of cosmic security blanket.”

While many Black Christians might be alarmed at the growing number of atheists in their midst, rest assured: they’re not in danger of corrupting Black America at large. While we may cringe at the idea of non-believers, we should also remember that the Black community isn’t supposed be monolithic, but diverse. That diversity — gasp — includes atheists.

What do you think of Pinn’s reasoning? Would you be tolerant of an atheist in your family or friend circle?

Demetria L. Lucas is the author of “A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life” (Atria) in stores now. Follow her on Twitter @abelleinbk