I may as well be a unicorn
As an African-American atheist woman Jamila Bey wonders if she even exists
Life as an African-American atheist looks much like the lives of my religious brethren. I love my family. I perform my job. I rant about my government. The only distinction for me is that instead of going to prayer service and Bible study during the week, capped off with a Sunday church meeting filled with song and ceremony, I spend my time at libraries and museums. I enjoy rooting for my favourite football team, the Pittsburgh Steelers – I just don’t worry about missing the start of the game because church ran long.
But to hear it told by most other people, African-Americans especially, I don’t exist at all. An African-American atheist woman? I may as well be a unicorn!
From the cultural stereotypes of the media to the assurances of those who argue with me that I simply don’t have strong enough faith, my identity as an African-American is assumed to carry with it an impenetrable religious component, strengthened by the tribulations of my people. I’m not surprised when they say to me, “You can’t be an atheist. You’re black!”; rather I scoff at such ignorance.
Since I was a little girl I was never considered to be “black enough”. From my love of Billy Joel to my insistence on using only proper English speech, I always felt a bit of an outsider.
I rejected as many roles and expectations as I felt I should. Why should I be considered first a girl? Or first black? Or first a Catholic? I’m Jamila! I decide for myself. I played chess while the other girls jumped rope. I revelled in religion classes, until my questions became too pointed for my instructors and I would be sent to the principal’s office. At the age of 14, I joined the debate team, and I thrived.
Debate was a perfect fit for me. The girl who at four compared handwriting on the presents and confronted Daddy who had identical handwriting to “Santa”, and who refused to accept that Martin Luther King’s non-violent strategy and the violent slave rebellion led by the preacher Nat Turner were the sum total of applied Black theology, loved learning the methodology of argumentation. I was, above all, the girl who loved church and religion class, because I thought I could figure out how to believe and to have faith like everyone else. Then I would fit in.
As an African-American girl I was taught that it was my lot to pray through all of my suffering. That only fools believed they had control of their own destiny – such matters were in the hands of God. Yet I was also taught that I had to resist sin and to do well in school. I found that incongruous. How did this loving God permit such injustice? Why does this loving God not act when police shoot unarmed black boys in the streets? How could God let my own physical and emotional abuse continue unchecked? I had an abundance of proof that the black people I knew were truly devoted! And I was desperately trying to be so.
I envy people who can point to an awakening. Those who are able to say, “My faith requires no evidence,” are so much more fortunate than I! I realised that the stories I was told didn’t really make sense, and the more I questioned, the more it seemed that those tasked with instructing me either didn’t know the answers, made them up, insisted that I let faith be my guide or simply sent me away.
I realised that my parents didn’t want me figuring out the Santa thing, because it would make me harder to control. I likewise realised that placing the rationale for any statement or action upon the will of God served the same purpose.
In the US African-Americans have the highest rates of incarceration, highest infant mortality rates and traditionally have held the highest unemployment rates. Yet we outrank every other group where piety and religiosity are concerned.
Unlike others who may say, “My ethnicity is X, and our religious tradition is Y, but I personally choose to not adhere to those beliefs”, when I declare my non-belief my group identity is impugned. I am asked if I believe myself to be “better than”, or merely told that I wish I were white.
I hold wishing and prayer in equal esteem. Being an atheist in America is hard. But having so labelled myself, I have come to know my truest friends. I need not be happy to pray and wait! I don’t take pride in my victimhood and knowing that I patiently await any saviour.
I love reason and logic, and I search for truth. I define myself and my “blackness”.
God is an idea that has failed to liberate anyone. I only wish more people of African descent would admit as much.