Sean Austin said his family’s relationship changed when he told them he did not believe in God.
Austin is a black man. Until college, Austin said he had never met another black person who also identified as an atheist.
Austin told his family that he was an atheist last Christmas, two years after he stopped believing in God. “They were extremely disappointed,” Austin said, who described his family as very religious. “All through Christmas Eve, Christmas day … the entire break we were having arguments constantly.”
“They were disappointed that I had given up faith so easily,” Austin said. “They assumed I was being weak. They thought they had raised me wrong.”
Austin is a junior at DePaul University where he is a member of the DePaul Alliance for Freethought, a group of students who do not believe in or question God’s existence. Austin said he had never met another black atheist before he came to college.
“My father blamed himself for not taking us to the Baptist church where I had been baptized,” Austin said. “My mom was afraid to tell other relatives in case they thought differently of me.”
“The most upsetting thing was that they told me to pretend to have faith, that even if you are Jewish or Muslim, you can have some moral compass. But they assumed I don’t have a moral compass,” he paused and said, “just because I don’t have a book telling me what to do.”
“It really hurt me,” Austin said. “It was bad enough that they didn’t accept me for what I was, but then they wanted me to live a lie. They weren’t willing to accept that I was my own person with my own ideas and thoughts.”
Atheists are the most hated minority in America, making it even more so difficult for this minority within a minority. Former U.S. President George Bush once said, “I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.”
“I told my cousin and you could see the little puppy dog look in his eyes and he said ‘you have to believe in God, you have to. I get the feeling that me not believing in God was a letdown.”
“My parents asked me, ‘how are you going to live your life?’ and I said ‘scientific logic and evidence,’” Austin said. “They tried to convince me that people don’t know how the universe came about, that you can’t trust science,” Austin said.
Austin said he has tried to offer his parents “different points of view” as a way to open dialogue. “I try showing them Buddhist or Jewish readings but they don’t want to hear it,” he said. “It’s really a one-sided discussion.”
African-Americans are the most religious racial and ethnic group in the nation. According to PRC, 87 percent of African-Americans say they belong to a religious group. According to the 2008 study, eight-in-ten African-Americans say religion is very important in their lives, compared with 56 percent among the overall public. Nearly ten African-Americans say they are absolutely certain that God exists.
“Everything happens at church, so to step away from the church is basically like stepping away from the African-American community; it’s like stepping away from our American heritage,” Austin said. “The church is always the staple of every African-American community; it’s a cultural icon, it’s like our Mecca,” Austin said.
Last February, advertisements reading “Doubt’s about religion? You’re one of many,” were posted across Chicago and other select U.S. cities that featured a historical skeptic and a modern-day freethinker.
Debbie Goddard, said “For many people that are calling religion into question their race seems to be called into question,” said Debbie Goddard, director of African-Americans for Humanism (AAH), the group responsible for the signs. “So our campaign says, ‘here are people who were nonreligious or had doubts’,” she said. “It says, ‘you are not alone,’ in other words, ‘you are one of many out there’.”
AAH strategically markets their advertisements to the young, black community because, according to Goddard, “white attracts white.” The advertisements’ precise location varies by city, depending on the region’s transportation of choice.
“Many will say ‘I’ve never met another black atheist out there’,” Goddard said.
Miciaah “Isaiah” Handy said he only has one friend that is comfortable with him not believing in God. Handy has never met another black atheist.
“There are probably quite a few number of African-Americans who are atheists but they probably stay in the closet because they don’t want to be ostracized,” Handy said.
Last November a PRC survey found that 53 percent of Americans say it is necessary to believe in God to be moral. Former U.S. President George Bush once said, “I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.”
According to a 2011 Gallup poll, 49 percent of Americans would refuse to support an atheist for president, compared to the 32 percent said they would not support a gay or lesbian candidate.
Last January, the Black Nonbelievers of Chicago formed for people questioning their faith. The group has gained more than 60 members, whose ages range from 19 to late-60s.
“Sometimes it is a little harder for us to come out as non-believers,” Kimberly Veal, the group’s executive director said. “We provide support, encouragement and motivation.”
“It’s totally harder being in a minority community, especially the black community, because religion is one of the cornerstone foundation of our community,” Veal said. “Five years ago, it would have been hard to find a minority who professed their atheism or their secular views,” she said. “However, it has grown exponentially over the past five years. According to some of our forecasts, it will continue to grow and you are going to see more minorities starting to express their non-beliefs and doubts.”
African-Americans seem to be the group discriminated the most for being non-religious, said Todd Stiefel, the founder of the non-profit Stiefel Freethought Foundation (SFF), which donated $100,000 to the AAH’s campaign. “The black community can be really rough on someone that doesn’t have religious beliefs,” he added.
“I usually invest in ideas that will eliminate discrimination and help with the separation of church and state,” he said. Stiefel said SFF, which provides financial support to free-thought organizations, pitched the “We are AAH” campaign to the African-Americans for Humanism last year.
Even though their lack of belief has caused most black atheists to say they feel isolated from their families, they have quickly joined the growth of people who self-identify as atheists. Atheists have historically consisted of mostly white men. According to a 2007 PRC survey, 20 percent of 18-25-year-olds report no religious affiliation, up from 11 percent in the late 1980s.
Many of these black atheists attribute the Internet to the surge of atheists and agnostics. Blogs and forums such as Reddit enable people to safely express their beliefs without fear of repercussions. There are more than 600,000 “Godless Redditers” subscribed to /r/atheism, a subreddit, which breaks into more than 100 different branches, one of which being Black Atheism.
“The Internet was the best thing that ever could have happened,” Veal said. “The Internet has allowed us to grow. Because of the availability of information and knowledge and social media we can exchange information and share ideas,” she said.
“When I was young, I had questions that no one could answer,” Veal said. “As I grew up, I could find those answers. On the Internet you can find almost anything you want,” she added.
Jessica Kearney, 13, came out as an atheist one year ago and is an active /r/atheism commenter on Reddit. “My family is super religious. One time at a Thanksgiving dinner my Aunt Shirley decided to fight me over the snake theory. It was horrible and I have a problem when people try to take away the little freedom I do have at 13. I almost blew up.”
“I bit my tongue so hard it bled,” she said. “I couldn’t talk she just kept running over me and saying, ‘no, listen, ask Jesus to forgive you’ over and over until my grandma stopped her. I had to leave the room.”
Handy was 13 years old when he openly stepped away from his faith.
“My grandmother believed I was going to hell,” Handy said.
When Handy was asked how long he has been an atheist, without skipping a beat he said “five years, this April.” Coming to that realization was a cognitive process that had lasted for more than a year, he added.
Religious debates across the Internet pushed Handy away from God when he was 12 years old. “I just couldn’t morally agree with any of the religious arguments being made, especially on gay marriage.” “I was still Christian when I read it,” he said. “I didn’t really accept the idea that homosexuality was an abomination.” Handy said he began a path toward “theism,” or a “non-interaction towards God.”
Five years later, Handy is a complete atheist, as his non-interaction with God has evolved into a full-fledged disbelief.
“I just can’t worship a God that would send anyone to Hell just because they didn’t believe in him,” Handy said. “It didn’t really make sense to me … and that’s when I decided I was an atheist.”
“When I actually came out I was at summer camp. I was 13,” he said. “I told my cousin and you could see the little puppy dog look in his eyes and he said ‘you have to believe in God, you have to,” he said. “I get the feeling that me not believing in God was a letdown.”
To Handy, religion is part of “an assumed cultural identity” amongst blacks. “Christianity has been ingrained in African-American culture for so long that it is kind of hard to separate it,” he said.
“The thing with the black community is, the black community believes you are Christian and you believe in the Bible on some level. It’s almost a prerequisite for being black in some cases,” Handy said. “You can slide a little bit if you are Muslim or maybe Jewish, but any other … you are not getting any traction there.”
Although isolation runs rampant, however, it does not define the minority within a minority experience.
Hensley Akiboh, 23, has not experienced isolation as an atheist. His mother was not raised in a religious home, but his father, born and raised in Nigeria, was. As long as Akiboh can remember, his father “would occasionally mention something religious, but hardly ever embraced it.”
“My sister and I were always encouraged to think for ourselves and I highly doubt my parents would judge us if we chose to follow any religion,” Akiboh wrote in an e-mail.
“I think religion can definitely play a beneficial role in the family dynamic,” he said, “but I can speak for myself when I say that similar family values are taught and learned in a home whether God is present or not.”
Photo of Austin (top) by Rachel Metea.