Existence of Black Atheists Blows Everyone’s Minds, Again

Hi everyone! Since the beginning of the summer I’ve been busy traveling all over, but Skepticon IV was my last trip for the year. (What fun that was!) Now that I’m not going to be on the road for a while, I look forward to unpacking the rest of the boxes from my last move and to contributing more to this wonderful community.

It seems that every few months, a media outlet discovers that black nonbelievers actually exist out there—and that some of us even meet and organize! Then there’s a surge of attention, and curiosity, and occasionally even more colorful reactions. As the director of African Americans for Humanism (AAH), I often get phone calls and e-mails from journalists looking for real live black atheists to talk to.

The latest round of media attention began on Saturday when The New York Times ran an article called “The Unbelievers” in the Style section. Journalist Emily Brennan attended the African Americans for Humanism DC One Year Anniversary Celebration in early October. There she spoke with Ronnelle Adams, a CFI–DC volunteer and author of the children’s book Aching and Praying, who says that his mother was more distressed when he came out as an atheist than when he told her he’s gay. AAH advisory committee members Jamila Bey and Mark Hatcher are also featured in the article.

  Ernest Parker  Debbie Goddard  Mark Hatcher
Presenters at AAH–DC event: Melody Hensley, Jamila Bey, Ernest Parker, me, & Mark Hatcher (Photos by Brian Engler)

Following the NYT piece was a slew of articles in black media outlets including BET.com (“The Rise of Black Atheists”), The Root (“The ‘Unbelievers’: African-American Atheists Speak”), The Grio (“Black atheism represented through social media”), Electronic Urban Report (“Ronnelle Adams: Black, Gay and Atheist…There’s a Connection”), The Blaze (“Black Atheists Fight Notion That ‘Not Believing In God’ Is ‘A Thing For White People'”), Urban Faith (“Black Atheists: Sign of the Times?”), and News One (“Black Atheists: ‘We Don’t Need God!'”). Secular bloggers like the Friendly Atheist also wrote about the article.

On Tuesday I received a phone invitation to talk about AAH and black nonbelievers on Wednesday’s episode of the “JLP Radio Show”. Since I’d never heard of the show,  I asked the caller a few standard questions—what time, how long, what markets the show is in—before agreeing. Then I researched the show.


I don’t generally listen to talking people on the radio, and I don’t own a TV, so I was unfamiliar with the Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson (the “JLP” in the radio show name). Quick sum: he’s a black Republican conservative. Slightly more info:

  • Founder of the South Central L.A. Tea Party
  • Anti-“Abortionist”
  • Anti-LGBT
  • Pro-Israel
  • Engaged in “Stop Obama’s Socialist Change” tour/campaign
  • Says “I don’t have an Afro; I have an Ameri-fro.”

Wikipedia has this: “Peterson has also thanked ‘God and white people’ for slavery and described slave ships as akin to ‘being on a crowded airplane’.” There’s so much more that could be said about this guy, but you get the point.

So how did the interview go? It was confusing but worthwhile. I’ll hold back on editorializing and instead share a snippet of Rev. Peterson’s dialogue during the interview, which you can listen to on iTunes. (The segment starts at 44:30.)

At 58:35, he says the following: [emphasis mine]

In reading this story last night preparing for the show, reading about this recruiting around, you know, black universities and black colleges, it reminded me of the homosexuals, who are very insecure and hateful people. What they did, they went around and recruited people too to “come out of the closet” because they thought that that would make them feel good about being a homosexual. And they now found out that it doesn’t work — it doesn’t make them feel good about it.

It also reminded me of the abortion people who are killing unborn children.

It seem as though people who are on the side of evil, and that’s what atheism is all about, they are uncomfortable not having everybody in their camp, so they go around and recruit people so that they can feel good about being wrong.

Wow, right? I don’t even want to think about how many minutes he spent talking about Chaz Bono. Oh, and I should mention: Tuesday’s episode was titled “Is Obama An Atheist?” And yesterday a HuffPo article asked, “Truth or Dare: Would Black America Support President Obama If He Were Atheist?” This is the kind of thinking we’re up against.

The bad news is that we have a lot of work to do. The good news is that we’re growing. The media coverage shows that the interest is out there, and this is just the beginning.

Houston AAH    Black Skeptics AAH
The network of AAH local affiliates is growing, with the Freethought Discussion Group in Houston, the Black Skeptics in LA, and others in Dallas, Chicago, DC, Atlanta, & NYC

One quick note before I close: We have some very exciting plans for African Americans for Humanism next year! I’ll write more about them as they come up, but here’s a sneak peek at a few of our projects:

  • Billboard/bus ad campaign for Black History Month. It’s gonna be huge!
  • National AAH conference in Chicago in late spring.
  • Campus tour of 4–10 HBCUs (historically black colleges & universities) in Fall 2012, with the goal of starting campus freethought groups at each school.  There is currently one recognized group at an HBCU, the Secular Students at Howard University. (In the interview, Rev. Peterson referred to this kind of outreach as “recruiting”. Guess he was right!)

If you agree that this is important, if you can help us expand our reach and “recruit” new people to our movement, please make a donation to AAH, or get in touch with me to get involved. Thank you!


Debbie is keenly interested in secularism, skepticism, magic and deception, LGBTQ issues, language and perception, and general geekery. She works at the Center for Inquiry as director of outreach, director of African Americans for Humanism, and intro-doer for Point of Inquiry. You can find her on Twitter: @debgod.

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  1. While I’m happy and I think it’s awesome you’re so involved in the community, I really don’t understand where race comes in to being an atheist. I don’t get why being a black atheist is so different from being a white atheist. I don’t understand why it’s so important what someone’s race is. Colour me confused?

    1. DebGod explained it very well below, but being African American in this country is a much different experience than being white. The cultural and societal pressures are far different than what I, a white person, experiences.

    2. There’s so much that could be said about this! I’ll be brief now, but I promise I’ll come on late tonight to respond.

      Is it important what someone’s gender is? When gender influences how people get treated and shapes their experience, then yes. What’s the difference between being an atheist woman and being an atheist man? It used to be the case that if a woman joined a local atheist group or an online atheist forum, almost everyone else would be men. Does that matter? Should she care? Might there be issues she’s interested in or facing that a group of men might not know about or consider important?

      What’s the difference between being an atheist in Philadelphia and an atheist in Huntsville, AL? Or in Toronto? Or in Stockholm? Or in Nigeria?

      Is there a difference between being a high school atheist and being a financially-independent atheist adult? Or a former Mormon nonbeliever compared to a nonbeliever who was raised as a secular Jew in NYC? Are there certain common experiences these groups might share? Etc.

      Experiences and culture shape us. And on that note, I have to run to a meeting. Be back later!

  2. I find the whole thing about being surprised that blacks can be atheists very puzzling … What exactly makes black people different? Is it the image of southern black churches?

    Anyway, always enjoy reading your posts Debbie. Even if they’re less nerdy than the in-person conversations I’ve had with you :p

    1. Quick response at the moment: African Americans are more religious, and more religiously conservative, than the general U.S. population:


      http://commons.trincoll.edu/aris/files/2011/08/ARIS_Report_2008.pdf, p. 14

      http://www.gc.cuny.edu/CUNY_GC/media/CUNY-Graduate-Center/PDF/ARIS/ARIS-PDF-version.pdf?ext=.pdf , p. 22

      And there are significant community pressures to be religious. Looking at the “big four” ethnic groups in the U.S. (white, black, Hispanic, Asian, excluding native Americans here because they’re a relatively small population), atheists are a much smaller percentage of the black population than of the other populations.

      1. Also is the fact that it tends to be more difficult for African American atheists to speak out, for numerous reasons. I feel like you’d be better able to expand on this, so I’ll make my points quick, but: Being African American in our culture and society already has its problems, without tacking on Atheism. Add on Atheism and you have yet ANOTHER hurdle to jump over. It’s not always worth it to be open about your atheism, when you already have to deal with so much other crap.

        The same argument can be said about women in general (and has been).

      2. I expected that it was more of a stereotype like I mentioned above. A bit like the case with women as marilove mentioned.

        So no doubt these organisations are important. Not just for rational thinking and atheism in general, but more so for black people who are under an added social pressure. Maybe I should donate some money to AAH for xmas then. Us humanists need to stick together :)

  3. Oh. My. God. I haven’t had time to listen to the interview yet, but Jesse Lee Peterson??? I always thought Uncle Ruckus was a comic exaggeration, not a feeble imitation of reality. Your courage for going on his show astounds and gratifies me.

    1. Oh yeah, big props for that. More for not grabbing him by the throat until he stopped breathing.

  4. One of the issues that I think about a lot in regards to this issue is sort of the threat that a minority culture can be under in terms of being assimilated or subsumed into a larger culture.

    That grants a greater need for community, and communal interaction.

    The atheist community, as a whole, has modeled itself as a community connected primarily through the internet and media (books and such). That causes a degree of anonymity and impersonality.

    Minority cultures need things like churches, clubs, support groups, open mic nights, pride parades, and other avenues from unity to maintain their sense of communal identity.

    When the atheist community isn’t offering any replacement for that, is just saying “abandon your black churches, abandon your black communities, and join us in this impersonal internet community that is primarily white”, that’s a failure to reach out to atheists of certain backgrounds. It’s a failure to consider other cultural needs.

    This is a HUGE problem in the atheist / skeptical community, that goes beyond only the issue of people of colour. The atheist/skeptical community / movement has presented itself as a “one size fits all” community (a size that just happens to be most comfortable for straight, white, cisgender, middle-class men), and are extremely reluctant to attempt to address any issues that are unique or of particular importance to certain minority groups. They also have a tendency to get very defensive when these issues are raised. “It’s not MY problem if skepticism / atheism is lacking in diversity. WE shouldn’t have to do anything differently. Obviously people of colour, women, LGBT people and people with disabilities should adapt THEIR needs and issues to OUR way of doing things. If THEY don’t like atheism and skepticism as it is, that’s THEIR problem.”

    So… yeah. I think at the very least we can try to be a bit more respectful of cultural differences and remember that, yes, the experience of being black is different than being white. That’s not “reverse racism”, it’s just acknowledment of social inequity. We can try to take those differences into account and try to create a movement that is willing to address specific issues and needs that are relevant to the black community (and other identities that are underrepresented in our movement).

    I remember when I went to my first Skeptics In The Pub night. There were a good three dozen people there. All white, except for one south asian. That is NOT representative of Vancouver’s demographics. We’re not Bangor, Maine. So yeah… this is something worth talking about.

    1. That is a good point. The skeptic community is too uniform. When you mention this, I recall that our Skeptics in the Pub meetings are exactly the same. We do have a good number of women there, but no one so far that isn’t white. I need to invite some of my non-white friends!

      One would think that skeptics are more open minded and inclusive, but recent events, like one that we should not mention, has demonstrated that many aren’t. It has been a topic on some of our pub-meetings and I have heard some very irrational arguments in that debate.

      Being non-American I wasn’t aware of the issue Debbie talks about. I just see people like Neil deGrasse Tyson, not the average American. So I learned something new, which is always useful.

  5. Happy to see that AAH is here and growing.

    It’s vital because as you say “Experiences and culture shape us” and I think it’s valuable to have a healthy support group for the unique shared experience that African-Descended Skeptics have.

    Look forward to more of your blogs.

    1. It did. Also, reports show anglo-america (US/Canada) getting more racially diverse in general.

  6. Ah Rev Peterson.

    I saw him on C-Span once and between him defending Former Pres. Bush’s response to Katrina by saying it was faster and more competent than the government’s response to disasters back during the Great Depression and his insistence that the liberal media was keeping blacks from voting for the the true party my brain died.

    It came back (mostly) but that even in my reverse racism is the true racism days I could spot the man for what he was says something.

  7. Man, the racism on that The Blaze article… I quitely hoped I wouldn’t find it. I did instantly.

    From The Blaze:
    “Elisiam, your correct on cannibalism, it’s still rampant in the no Arab African countries.”

    “Hey, no truth allowed. It seems to me that Africa also leads the world in cannibalism. Yep, they sure are God fearing people.”

    “Funny how 71% of Whites believe in god and 88% of Blacks believe in god and 44+% of all crimes in the USA are committed by Blacks who are only 12.4% of the US population. In fact these god fearing Blacks statistically are the majority of thieves and murderers in our country according to the US Dept of Justice.”

    “Yeah…and that’s why their own people in Africa sold them into slavery…just to get rid of them!!
    just sayin….”

  8. As a black atheist in San Antonio whose black population is 11% of the total population, finding other black atheists like myself is RARE. If fact, the only other black atheist I’ve known from san antonio was at the university and he left shortly after graduating. I know other atheists here including one who is hispanic (in a majority-minority hispanic city with a long catholic history and large catholic population) and one who is a feminist. As you can imagine, I don’t let on that I’m an atheist in black organizations that I’m in. If you know of other black atheist groups in south texas or other black atheists in san antonio, please let me know.

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