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Farthest Back in the Closet by Jamila Bey

This essay was originally posted on Skepchick back when we were a humble monthly e-zine. I’ll be periodically re-posting the articles that were on the original site so that they can find a new audience.

Farthest Back in the Closet

Jamila Bey
Originally posted February 2006

As I sat down to write this very article, the ring of my telephone interrupted me. A woman told me that she had been asked to call, as she was a perfect candidate to be a part of my story. But, within 30 seconds, I knew this woman was the farthest thing from my ideal. This person wasn’t a candidate, as she couldn’t even answer the first question, “Are you an African-American female who calls yourself an Atheist?”

“I call myself a non-deist,” she explained. I asked the woman why was the reaction of strangers important enough for her to change the way she identifies herself.

“‘Atheist’ is offensive to people. I belong to Doubters,” and she continued, “We’re thinking about changing the name to ‘Reasoners.’ It’s gentler.”

Ten and a half minutes later, I made an admittedly lame excuse to bid my caller goodnight. And I fumed.

Why is it impossible to find a woman who is African-American and willing to use the “A” word? I realized that the reason I was so angry wasn’t that this woman had wasted my time. Nor was it that she double talked her way around my simple question until even I didn’t recall what it was. (The question was, “Are you an African-American female who calls yourself an Atheist?”) I boiled because I know that as liberated as we are, as enlightened and tolerant of “diversity” this modern, Western culture claims itself to be, I am angry to know that I am wrong. I am only recently free, truly free, from my religious disillusion. I tore off the ill-fitting Roman Catholic dogma that was beaten into me, literally, as a child and as a skeptical and too-curious young adult. And while I burst forth from my hiding place deep inside that Atheistic closet, I had to fight my way through throngs still happy to remain inhabitants therein. And farthest to the back, (and dare I argue happiest to stay closeted) are other Black American women.

I have shaken the hands of Black women who admit themselves to be free of the belief in any supernatural higher power. Or freedom from all religious belief. But not one Black woman have I met in person, who believes as I do, would tell me that she claimed Atheism. I sadly admit, I’ve never shaken the hand of another African-American woman who openly calls herself, or identifies her religious affiliation when asked, Atheist.

So, for me, the next best thing to nationwide handshaking was to go onto the Internet and search for other women like me. And did I have a hard time! I bounced between e-mails of “God Will PUNISH you,” to “Good luck. I’ve never seen one myself,” and “If you find a Black woman who is Atheist and single, give her my number.” But through the clutter, I had the pleasure of speaking with a number of women who are doing their parts to spread reason, logic, and kindness as well, through the world. And I’ll share here, some of the things they wanted to say.

Talking about African-Americans, “…they’re so judgemental,” explained Marcella Lewis of Norcross, Georgia. “You must claim some sort of religious belief or you cannot belong to the Black race! It’s unheard of to be Black and not religious.” Yet, Lewis says that her Atheism isn’t something she will willingly share. Fearing “ruffled feathers,” she believes her friends and family would make it their lifelong endeavour to try to convert her, or reclaim her into the Christian flock.

Courtney Frasier is a twenty year old student from Cincinnati. She says she understands that very pressure. But she says it’s not something she bows to. Frasier lives her religious life out and proud. “During slavery, the Bible was used to keep my people down. Why would you choose the same religion that was used to justify the subjugation of your people?”

Frasier says too often, “Black folks haven’t even read the Bible they spew.” She says it’s laughable the amount ignorance masquerading as faith that is so prevalent. In fact, once at a hair salon, when discussing her Atheist beliefs with the stylist doing her hair, the owner of the salon came over and asked her to “…not talk about religion in her shop. It was of course because I believe as I do. If I had been talking about how I love Jesus, I’d have been able to go on all day.”

N’Jemile Zakiya lives in Albany, NY. She says she’s a former “angry Atheist” who relished the opportunity to give would be converters hell, by arguing with those Christians who questioned her and her beliefs. But today, she’s an ambassador of another way of thinking. “(Theists) think Atheist are cynical, dark, unhappy people. But Atheists tend to be people who say this planet is an amazing thing, and there’s such beauty in the universe. And we’re more inclined to enjoy these things in the now, because there’s no afterlife to wait for.”

Zakiya is publishing a book called “A Peek Inside the Goo,” that discusses her struggles with depression. Depression, that praying to God never cured. She says her Atheism came out of the cold hard facts she realized in her life. “My prayers weren’t being answered. But nobody’s prayers were being answered. But if you do things for yourself, than things can change.”

Crystal from the West Coast, asked that I not use her last name. She says that today the discipline she received during her upbringing would be labeled child abuse. Her grandfather who raised her was a Pentecostal minister and didn’t subscribe to sparing the rod. Crystal eventually went to college, married in the church, and was on her way to Lutheran seminary when a tragedy brought her to what she calls her turning point. Crystal lost one of her twins to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. This, after she did everything right according to what her church taught her to believe.

The passage Mark 5:41 tells of Jesus resurrecting a twelve year old girl. Jesus takes the child’s hand and commands her, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.” And the child’s spirit returned to her, she stood up and began walking around. When Crystal prayed over her child as Jesus did, but her little girl did not rise, Crystal says her eyes were opened. “These promises are not real. I knew. I need to stop living this lie,” she thought to herself. Crystal has decided to make every day the best she’s able, because it’s all she’s guaranteed. That’s the way, she says, her Atheism is directing her.

And while Crystal still has people praying for her and hoping she’ll return to her church, she paraphrases the Biblical Paul on the road to Damascus, when he is enlightened. She says she’s cannot unknow. This knowing, coupled with a ministerial education makes Crystal a scary Atheist to many folks who would question her. “A lot of people won’t talk about religion with me, though, because I can back everything up I say with scripture… In the South I’d get into debates where people would say, ‘I’ve read the Bible and scripture says this.’ And I’ll explain, ‘You’re misinterpreting that and you didn’t know the other part of the passage existed until I showed it to you just now!’ … And I was evil for showing them!”

In Philadelphia, 25 year old student, Debbie Goddard has paid heavy prices for coming out. In 8th grade, she was blackmailed to go to church each week in order to keep her scholarship to a Catholic high school. Once there, Goddard founded a philosophy club that asked questions like “Does God exist.” Such antics put the 10th grader with a history of being thrown out of religion class for asking questions, on a train straight to scholarship revocation station. So in her last year of high school at her new public school, the l’il hellion was up to her old antics. Goddard became a “raving atheist” and again started a philosophy club that also led to a few kids’ Atheist conversions.

In college, Goddard was a representative of Black Freethinkers, and says she thinks Black conformity needs to be retired. “Blacks identified with Christianity and it was an important part of Black identity. Atheism was seen as part of a Western paradigm because it’s blacker to be spiritual. But one true to Black liberation would throw off the white man’s shackles of (forced and then later accepted)Christianity.”

Laura Paris is the 37 year old mother of an 18 year old Born Again Christian daughter. Her eight and five year olds sing in church when they attend with their non-custodial father. And that’s just as well with Paris. “It’s fine for them to go to church, but they know that I don’t believe what they hear there. I teach my children to be critical. Ask questions. Don’t accept everything on the first go-round. Be critical and be tolerant of other people and their beliefs.”

Paris says she wants to raise her children to be good people who think. And that dedication to knowledge is why Paris says she doesn’t mind telling pushy people when they ask about her religious background that she is an Atheist. “It’s not a dirty word. We should take the time to learn something different from how the other thinks.”

Long after I hung up the phone from the college professor who is too afraid to say that she is an Atheist, I continued to get e-mails and phone calls from other women interested in being interviewed. And I’m not fuming anymore. I realize that as twice a day, a broken clock is right, a scripture passage can rightly be applied to make me feel better. Luke 6:37 “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”

Just because I would like an intelligent and educated advocate to inspire other women, particularly other women like me, to stand up and step forward into the light of reason, I can’t demand it of her. As my parents and parochial school teachers could not beat the devil out of me, nor the light of Jesus Christ into me, I can’t ask for conviction that isn’t true. I understand that the Atheist closet still has throngs of brown women in the back. Yet, I decided and so did the women I interviewed, to break free and come out. And we will be out here waiting for those others, free of judgement. Because truth doesn’t change. It will be here when she’s ready to accept it. And she will then acknowledge what she knows by answering, “Yes, I am an African-American female who calls myself an Atheist.”

Jamila Bey is a writer and reporter living reasonably in Washington, DC.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. Not to make light of the situation, but small things take me off track. When I saw the title, the first thing I thought of was a line from Family Guy some years ago – “You’re so deep in the closet you’re finding Christmas Presents.”

  2. I find it confusing that the author uses black, brown, and African American interchangeably. This is especially weird in an article the celebrates the importance of labels.

  3. I remember reading this the first time it came around. It was a great article then, as now. Hell even as a Privileged White Male (TM), I’m uncomfortable about being out. Pretty much, it’s my wife, my close personal friends, and my internet communities that know. My mother-in-law would throw a crying fit to end all crying fits, though she would finally have her (non) answer as to why her eldest daughter doesn’t attend church anymore (she’s not an atheist, but she sure as hell ain’t much of a Christian anymore).

    Sometimes it’s not worth fighting the guilt black-belts in your life. I was raised by a 3rd-degree master of blackmail, so I’m pretty much immune to whatever my M-I-L can throw, but my wife isn’t. If she didn’t live fifty feet away, it would matter less. But, to keep the damned peace, I keep my trap shut, and the kids go to Sunday School every once in a while. Neither of them pays any attention, and they think the stories are goofy, so I call it a win-win. My six-year-old son knows more about (and cares more about) the skeletal structure of bats than he does about Jesus; I’m happy with that. If anything, he’s more likely to convert to Norse ideas; they have giants and monsters and action. It’s at least interesting.

  4. I belong to a private online atheist community that is an offshoot of the great babycenter exodus. Out of about 100 current members we have one African-American. I don’t remember there being many on the public A/A board either. :(

  5. Really interesting read!
    For my part, I’m sort of out of the closet (using the agnostic appellation though instead of atheist on Facebook).

    I’ll come out of my closet entirely though once my grandmas are no longer of this world. Don’t want to be the one to kill them.

    I feel bad in a way. When I was a bible thumper, I worried sick about my parent’s soul. It’s sad. I can only imagine how my grannies feel. So I’m trying to spare them that. Fortunately, they don’t use the internet. lol!

  6. The atheist with the born again daughter is my worst fear realized. I can’t imagine how disappointing that would be. Come to think of it, maybe I understand now why my mother is so disappointed in me….

    I would love to hear some discussion as to why (or whether) fewer African Americans identify as atheist. I would guess that there’s a social component to it- church can definitely form a familial community. I imagine that for similar reasons the frequency of African American atheists is similar to the frequency of southern atheists. Obviously I have nothing to back this up besides my own anecdotal evidence, but that’s good enough, right?

  7. My son is Asian, raised an atheist. He’s not all that open about his beliefs because so many of his friends are black, Latino and Asian – and come from religious families for whom the church in an integral part of community. He’s told me that he doesn’t want his friends to worry about his soul or try to convert him, but I suspect he’s afraid that he’ll be rejected. [This is the kid who, despite the fact that his parental units have gay friends, are active in LBGT causes and are notoriously liberal, was afraid to come out of the closet to us re: his sexuality. My response? ‘That’s nice, dear – now please find a nice boy who wants to adopt children, so I can be a grandmother.’ ] I suspect anyone who comes from a religion-as-social-connection background is going to be reluctant to risk becoming an outcast and that some of their friends are also harbouring secrets.

  8. I’m privileged to be acquainted both with Jamila Bey and with Debbie Goddard through my activism with the Center For Inquiry office here in Washington, DC. I hadn’t seen this article the first time it was published so I thank you for re-publishing it. Whether or not atheism (or agnosticism, secular humanism, skepticism, or any of a number of related -isms) are under-represented within the African American population here in the nation’s capital is hard to say. Audiences of which I have been part have been quite mixed with respect to all readily discernible socioeconomic factors. Certainly spreading the word of science, reason & secularism across all populations and trying to transcend false differentiation such as that of “race” is what I think we need to do.

  9. I have a theory about this. White oppression of blacks united blacks against their common enemy (i.e. whitey). Black Christian churches were at the forefront and an integral part of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s.

    As a member of the white majority who was still watching cartoon during the 1960’s, I don’t identify strongly as a member of the “white community” because there is no real need for me to do that, whereas blacks (especially in the 1960’s when things came to a head) had good reason to identify as part of the greater “black community” (strength in numbers). With black churches being such an integral part of the black community united against white oppression, there was probably tremendous peer pressure not to rock the boat with internal strife (how can we fight whitey if we are fighting amongst ourselves).

    There is also probably an element of cultural reactionaryism (note: I am not sure if this is actual a word) in black antipathy towards atheism as it may be seen as a product of European intellectualism which despite its claims about “enlightment” couldn’t see its way clear to bring and end to slavery for an awefully long time.

    BTW, prop 8 (Gay Marriage ban) passed in California largely because it was on the ballot during the 2008 presidential election cycle which brought out extraordinarily large numbers of black voters who were energized by Obama’s candidacy. A large majority of these black voters were opposed to gay marriage on religous grounds and hence voted in favor of prop 8.

    OTOH, this preceeding may just be useless claptrap from a dumb redneck trying to sound like a college professor.


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