She’s black; she’s a feminist; and she’s an atheist. Author and lecturer Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson makes no pretense about her progressive “non- beliefs.” In her book, Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars, Dr. Hutchinson reveals how atheists of color are challenging the whiteness of “New Atheism” and its singular emphasis on science at the expense of social and economic justice. The book also highlights the cultural influence of African American humanist and atheist social thought in America. Dr. Hutchinson spoke with us more about the foundation of her “non-beliefs” and how they influenced the writing of her book.
BM: Hello Sikivu, it is an honor to be able to speak with you today. Atheism is a term that is not usually acknowledged within the Black community. Can you tell us what it means (to you) to be an African American female atheist?
SH: It means being able to question the orthodoxies and conventions of mainstream African American experience, particularly when it comes to how black women are supposed to behave and what they are supposed to believe.
BM: When/how did atheism enter your life?
SH: I grew up in a secular household. My parents were progressive and politically conscious. They were both steeped in the radical activism and intellectual foment of the Sixties. My upbringing was very black-identified; black literature, black social history, black activism. There were no Bibles on our bookshelves or blue-eyed Jesuses on our walls. Prayer and God talk was never a part of the home culture of my immediate family. Because there was no indoctrination into God belief I had no authentic emotional connection to this idea of a supernatural omnipotent being manning the universe’s puppet strings. Naturally though most of my extended family and friends were religious so my limited church connections came through them. In retrospect however, my parents were no doubt mindful of the stigma black communities attach to non-believers and non-belief. So although there was never any explicit talk about atheism in our household I began to self-identify as one after enduring the hostile cultural backwater of my Catholic high school, where writing Beatle lyrics on your paper (as I did in 9th grade) got you branded a reprobate.
BM: How has being an atheist shaped your personal philosophies on life?
SH: I’ve always been mystified and frankly offended by the dominant cultural narrative that religious belief equals morality. As I mentioned, I grew up in an environment in which two of the most moral, ethical role models I had were secular people deeply committed to social change, yet mainstream American conventions held that Christian religiosity was the foundation of morality. I’ve always found that notion repugnant, particularly given the white supremacist colonialist history of American Christianity and the anti-human rights stance of the Bible vis-à-vis women’s self-determination, the disenfranchisement of gays and lesbians and the demonization of non-believers. As a feminist I believe its problematic to say that one can just cherry pick the Bible for the “good upstanding Kumbaya stuff” when both the Old and New Testaments are steeped in heterosexist swill about women’s bodies as the fount of original sin and human debasement. The fascistic reign of the Religious Right has made the public policy implications of these belief systems even more apparent. The continuing assault on family planning, abortion rights and the very foundation of social welfare is essentially an assault on women’s right to self-determination. Let’s be clear, this assault emerges from a fundamentalist evangelical attempt to rollback the basic human and civil rights that women of color fought and died for. There really is no secular ideological flank to this movement, which is why I think it’s important to highlight the intersection of theocratic control, patriarchy, and capitalism that these currents are based on. The radical fascistic right is essentially the bogeyman that white nationalists project onto the “backward” fundamentalist Middle East.
BM: What challenges have you faced in both the black and atheist communities?
SH: There is unfortunately a reactionary element within mainstream black culture that says that being religious is one of the most authentic means of black expressivity and of being black. Despite the long tradition of faith-based predators, shysters and charlatans you still have minstrels like Steve Harvey running around making ignorant declarations that atheists have no morals. As an out atheist I’ve been disinvited from speaking engagements and looked askance at when I refused to join prayer circles, cite the pledge of allegiance or corrected folks’ assumptions about observing certain holidays (Easter, etc.). On the other hand, atheist communities are predominantly white and insular. Although the number of real time black freethought, humanist and atheist groups is growing they are still few and far between. The same sense of white entitlement, racism, and white privilege obtains within atheist circles. But these issues are perhaps even more acute because many white folk have this delusional belief that rejecting God means they’ve magically stopped benefiting from institutional racism. Similarly, the good old white boy network of writers, speakers, and conference organizers still predominates, so writers of color who actively challenge racism and sexism get the usual pushback about colorblindness, post-racialism, and what I would call science-based exceptionalism, or the belief that “science and reason” are the West’s great antidotes to social inequality and if poor black folk just read a little more Darwin they wouldn’t be in the ghetto.
BM: Please tell us why you chose to write your book Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Value Wars?
SH: I was motivated by the vacuum in critical discourse on atheism, humanism, racial politics, gender, and power. The most celebrated atheist literature comes from white male superstar scientists and there is no moral investment in challenging white supremacy in the New Atheist movement and beyond. I wanted to provide a broader context for and critique of public morality in the U.S., a dynamic which has long been articulated through narratives of racial otherness and heterosexist/patriarchal power and control of women and gays and lesbians. In addition I wanted to contextualize black humanist perspectives within the rich tradition of liberation struggle around economic injustice, segregation, and racial/sexual terrorism. These histories explain why the Black Church has been such a dominant and, for better or for worse, resilient force within African American communities. Most white atheists are coming to the table fixating on science and the separation of church and state, without realizing how having the privilege to be a non-believer is actually buttressed by white supremacy. African Americans have always been constructed as outside of the very category of the human, and hence Christian belief has been a provisional “gateway” to being considered moral and thus worthy of being considered human. So the book highlights and pushes back on that paradox by identifying the very specific racial provenance of the notion that the U.S. is a “Christian Nation.” Further the book also goes beyond most traditional atheist/humanist work in examining how K-12 education, youth of color identities, and models of masculinity can be re-envisioned through the nexus of cultural relevance and radical humanism.
BM: What has been some of the feedback that you have received about your book? How did it make you feel?
SH: Thus far the response to the book has been largely positive. This is no doubt due to the fact that it has gained the biggest audience in the secular community. I expect that some pitchforks will come out when it becomes more widely disseminated in the faith communities!
BM: In your book you say and I quote, “Out atheist women of color are few and far between because of these stigmas. In many communities of color, relationships, professional connections, and social welfare resources often revolve around church ties (chap.2-p. 28).” With this being said, how and/or where can women of color find support for their atheist beliefs?
SH: There are growing networks on both the Web and in real time for women of color non-believers. Because of the anonymity and relatively stigma-free environment that the Web affords, greater numbers of non-believers feel comfortable coming out there. However, I’m an old school believer in the importance of organizing in person on the ground, so, last year, I started the L.A. Black Skeptics group with some like-minded folk to address the lack of in-person support and advocacy groups for non-believers of color. The Black Skeptics recently hosted a dialogue with a local black Baptist Church in South Los Angeles to raise consciousness about black atheist/humanist and freethought traditions, as well as explore “interfaith” collaboration. There are also real-time groups founded by black non-believers in Atlanta, Houston, D.C. and New York. In 2010 the group African Americans for Humanism sponsored the first national conference for black non-believers in D.C. Ultimately, the real test for black atheist/humanist groups will be developing sustainability through grassroots organizing and coalition building with other social justice organizations. These efforts will increase visibility about the concerns of African American non-believers in local and national media. Broadening our scope of influence into politics is also crucial. One of the reasons why this recent “abortion as black genocide” campaign has been so sweeping and effective is the absence (other than among powerful reproductive justice organizations like Sister Song) of an African American counter-voice and vision to stem the tide of black Religious Right propaganda.
BM: If there was something you could say to other atheist women of color who may not feel comfortable in “coming out” publicly with their views so to speak, what would you say to them and why?
SH: That it’s ok to be a skeptic, and it’s ok to question, challenge and resist received dogma. As I outline in the book, there is precedent and history for black feminist freethought, most notably in the work of groundbreaking writers like Nella Larsen, Zora Neale Hurston, and Alice Walker. Being tacitly religious is almost a litmus test for being black and female. If you think about the rituals of female caregiving in black communities—cooking, holidays, blessings, socializing kids, etc.—they invariably revolve around religiosity in some manner. Buck these conventions and you’re subversive, challenge them publicly and you’re a race traitor and gender apostate. However, the more you openly engage people with the fact that there are different belief systems in the black community (ones that go beyond being amorphously “spiritual”), the more they will be forced to accept that their way is not the standard for morality, for being black, being female or for how one should live one’s life. There obviously isn’t a lot of real time support/protection for black female non-believers. But fortunately these communities are emerging in larger urban areas. In the meantime there are loads of Facebook and social networking groups online such as groups like the Black Freethinkers, Black Rational and Godless group and Black Atheists of America.
BM: Please tell us about any other upcoming projects that you would like to share with us.
SH: The Black Skeptics will be doing a “Black Atheists in the Pulpit” series with local black churches that I hope to expand nationally. In January 2012 I will also be publishing a novel called Dealey that revisits some of the themes of my first book Imagining Transit: Race, Gender, and Transportation Politics in Los Angeles.