Black Activist & Nonbelief Panel: ‘Everybody needs their own space’
A panel of Black activists and nonbelievers gathered on stage at FFRF’s national convention in San Antonio on Oct. 28, 2022, and discussed their journeys to atheism and the challenges of being a Black atheist in America.
Leading the panel was moderator Mandisa Thomas, founder of Black Nonbelievers. Joining Thomas on stage were Candace Gorham, author of The Ebony Exodus Project; Rogiérs Fibby, president of Black Nonbelievers of DC; Andre Forbes, music producer; Cynthia McDonald, activist with Freedmen of Chicago; and DeAngela Morant, singer and businesswoman.
To watch the panel discussion, to go ffrf.us/convention-2022.
A big part of becoming a nonbeliever was the result of just studying. I was going through a lot of things in my life and my life wasn’t matching up with what the promises were — you know, what God and the bible and my pastor and everybody was telling me my life should look like. I thought I must be doing something wrong, so I went into more studying, and I slowly but surely studied my way right out of Jesus. And now I’m here.
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I think that when you actually get into conversations with Black folks, you find a lot of people have a lot of skepticism. A lot of people have a lot of questions. So, it’s important for us to be out, to be visible, to wear sweatshirts so that people stare at us in the airport, to be visible, because there’s always going to be somebody who’s going to say, “Oh, I didn’t know,” or “I thought I was the only one” or something like that. The more that people see us, then the more it becomes just normalized. “Oh, I didn’t realize that this wonderful, amazing coworker of mine was an atheist.”
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I am a big proponent that everybody needs their own space. Men need men-only spaces and women need women-only spaces and queer people need queer-only spaces and Black people need Black spaces. I feel something like Black Nonbelievers is essential because as you hear all these stories, it’s a unique experience. There will be plenty of white people who say, “No, I identify with that, too.” I get it. That does happen. But it is still a unique experience to be Black and religious in America.
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I think it’s important that anybody who values humanism, anybody who values secularism, anybody who values any form of bettering ourselves by getting away from religion, should support an organization like Black Nonbelievers. This is a niche organization that addresses a niche population in a unique, special kind of way. I think it’s very important that people value that, and, if you say, “I value that,” if you say “I want to see better for all of these people,” then support those types of organizations. Give financially to help the organization, but then also give of your time and your heart and your spirit to the organization to help it grow and be stronger.
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The healthier the Black community is — guess what? — the healthier all the communities are gonna be!
I’ve just always been around church my whole life, so I really got to a point where it was not working for me, but I didn’t know who to talk to. It was a really hard place in my life because that was all I knew. Church was all I knew. Trying to believe in God was all I knew. I really wasn’t trying to become atheist, but I was really trying to seek God. I was praying, reading my bible, fasting, everything. I was going at it really hard and I kept hitting a brick wall. The very last prayer that I really prayed was like, “God, I need you to reveal yourself to me in a way that I can comprehend, because this is not working for me right now.” So, I kept on pushing that prayer, and nothing happened. Nothing happened.
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I’m sitting up here questioning everything that my parents taught me, everything that my family instilled into me and wondering, “Does this make sense? Why am I even still believing this?” I had to ask myself these questions without anybody else’s input. I came to the conclusion that I was only trying to make myself believe in this. I really don’t believe in this. When I had that epiphany, it was like my life fell apart. There’s just no other way to put it. My life just fell apart because my foundation had just left. So, now I’m in limbo, trying to figure out: Who am I? Where do I go? What community am I a part of? I didn’t know any atheists when I was a Christian. I can’t really stress how much I was really sheltered as a child until early college. It was just nothing but church.
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It was hard because everybody knew me for believing in God, being a musician and all that stuff, and I had to come out and say “No, I don’t.”
And all of this [Godless Gospel] just came together and I’m happy I could play my role in it because music was my whole life and I did all of this stuff in gospel music. I’m a great musician in gospel, but I don’t want to have anything to do with the [religious] lyrics anymore, so I think this was the perfect opportunity to keep the actual genre going as far as the music, but just put something I can relate to on top of it as far as secular lyrics.
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My life was good in the belief of Christianity, but coming out was so much more peaceful because I’m not worried about going to hell, [getting into] heaven. It doesn’t matter. I’ve learned to be a good person just for being a good person.
When I meet other nonbelievers, everybody talks about how, when they were children, they were asking questions, and how things like Noah’s ark just didn’t make sense. But I was happy to believe all of it. We were just in a bubble, and I was like “Yeah, that’s fine.” It was all presented as if it was true, so I didn’t even question until I was an adult, a wife, a mother.
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I wasn’t looking to leave religion. I wasn’t looking to leave my church, necessarily, but I just wanted to make sure that I was really following the scriptures. So, I started studying and finally got over the biggest hurdle, which was the fear of hell. That was what was keeping me from even really looking into it.
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To this day, 100 percent of my family and about 98 percent of my friends are all still very deeply religious. I definitely went through my firebrand evangelical atheism when I first deconverted, and I thought, “They just don’t know! If I just tell them, they’ll all deconvert with me or get the point!” That was a disaster, needless to say.
Now, I deal with different people in different ways. Your mileage may vary. It’s going to depend on the way your relationships are structured. I don’t go looking for debates with my friends and my family because it’s not productive. I don’t kowtow to their edicts and their craziness, but, at the same time, I don’t go looking for fights with them because some relationships are important to maintain. I do maintain a standard in terms of what they can and can’t say to me, how they can and can’t engage my children, and so on.
I try to live peaceably among my family and friends. But the internet and places like that are free game and we can debate endlessly there. That’s my approach. For you, it will depend on your personality, it will depend on how your relationships are structured and what works for you.
It is true that Blacks have the largest proportion of Christian folks out of all the racial and ethnic demographic backgrounds or breakdowns. But that’s not to say that we don’t have skepticism. It’s not to say that we don’t have a tradition of doubt. In the tradition of Black power, in the tradition of uplift and community along racial lines that are trying to break free from bondage of white supremacy and trying to reconnect with our lost histories, and trying to really organize, essentially, for political thrift, we have long-established traditions of skepticism.
There’s a fourth wall in this community where they say it’s OK to be skeptical about this, it’s OK to be skeptical about Republicans, it’s OK to be skeptical about patriarchy. We’re skeptical. But there’s that fourth wall of “Oh, you can’t be skeptical about God because God is real.” That is a huge barrier holding us back into our higher thinking and our liberation, which is one of the things that defines our experience.
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I grew up Moravian; I went to an Episcopalian school in St. Croix. I grew up praying and learning the Lord’s Prayer and all that kind of stuff. When I went to college, or even before that, when I started to sing and I was in show choirs and things, I’d meet other Black people from other churches, they would ask me, “What church do you go to,” and be like, “Oh, I go to St. Paul’s Moravian church.” And they’d be like, “What is that?” I’m like, “It’s a church. I just said I go to St. Paul’s.” And they said, “Well, is that Christian?” I was like, “So, you don’t even know how many denominations are in your own religion?”
So, they’d think that my salvation was not legitimate. My little Moravian church and our little pipe organ and my confirmation — that did not matter to them!
I started ministerial classes and that’s when we really got into the bare bones of the bible and we started to actually study the problematic stuff of the bible that I did not know was there. I started asking questions to my ministerial teachers. “Hey, how do we reconcile with this? Hey, how about that slavery stuff? Hey, how about that God killing everybody because he’s mad and stuff?” They would try to answer my questions, but then they would say to me, “Sister Cynthia, you just need to pray more and have more faith.”
By the time the ministerial classes ended, I did all of my tests and I did really well because I actually like studying and reading and doing research. Then I was told, “Everybody’s going to get their collar except for those two,” and it was myself and a doctor. They said that God said that we were not ready to get our collars. So, I said, “Was it God or was it you?”
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I started exploring other things — I started looking at ancestral worship, and crystals, and a little Wiccan here and there, and spells and schmells and things of that nature. Then I was like, “Yeah, this is bullshit, too.”
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A lot of us do question, but we are afraid to question or afraid to say anything, because being Christian and being Black is synonymous. And we don’t want to leave family, community, etc.
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There’s still an intersection of racism, white supremacy, and things of that nature that still exist, that really do affect us as a group of people.
Thinking about the dynamics of church, it’s very hierarchical and very patriarchal, and a lot of times, especially when you have women in the church, they’re worked to the bone in order to keep that ministry going. To even really be able to have space for them where they can talk about these things and not be demonized is so important.