African American Studies Atheism and Agnosticism
by
Christopher Cameron
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 December 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 November 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0102

Introduction

Atheism and agnosticism among African Americans is a topic few scholars have explored and even fewer have explored in depth. The fact that roughly 90 percent of African Americans identify as believers, the role of religion in the Civil Rights Movement, and the ubiquity of religion in Black popular culture have made many scholars ignore a vital tradition of Black freethought, which includes atheism and agnosticism as well as nontraditional religious beliefs such as paganism and deism. Despite this scholarly neglect, freethought has been an important component of Black religious, political, and intellectual life from the 19th century to the present. Atheism was present among southern slaves and northern free Blacks as early as 1800 and grew more prominent during the late 19th century, which saw a greatly enhanced freethought movement more generally throughout American society. Key writers of the New Negro Renaissance, including Nella Larsen, Zora Neale Hurston, Alain Locke, and Claude McKay, were atheists or agnostics, as were African American socialists and communists such as Hubert Harrison and Harry Heywood during the period between World War I and World War II. For these individuals, urban life helped to foster religious skepticism and their artistic, intellectual, and political commitments provided a sense of community with other skeptics that was lacking in rural southern communities or in regions such as the Caribbean, from where many Black migrants came to the United States. Contrary to popular and scholarly portrayals, atheism and agnosticism were likewise important components of the Civil Rights Movement, helping to shape the political thought and literary production of figures such as James Forman, Lorraine Hansberry, and James Baldwin. The end of the civil rights era would see the beginning of a new era for Black atheists and agnostics, especially with the institutionalization of Black freethought and the creation of organizations such as African Americans for Humanism, founded in 1989. While the number of Black atheists and agnostics remains a small proportion of the Black population in 2019, that number has doubled since the turn of the 21st century and more and more African Americans feel comfortable identifying as freethinkers.

General Overviews

Before 2019, there was no history dedicated specifically to African American atheists and agnostics. Susan Jacoby’s groundbreaking work explores secularism in the United States from the revolutionary era to the 1960s. Jacoby 2004 notes there was a great diversity in the secularist ranks but what united them was an approach to questions of public concern grounded in reason rather than religious dogma. While Jacoby’s book is sweeping in nature, the only Black freethinker she discusses is W. E. B. Du Bois. Other general overviews of freethought replicate this pattern. Both Christopher Grasso and Leigh Eric Schmidt have written wide-ranging studies of American freethought during the 19th century, yet both devote scant attention to Black atheists and agnostics. They nevertheless have laid an important foundation for understanding African American freethought. Grasso 2018 notes that debates over the role of religion in everyday life were prevalent not just among intellectuals, ministers, and politicians, but among everyday people, an observation that opens the door for an exploration of debates about religion among African Americans. This latter exploration is exactly what Christopher Cameron has undertaken, as his work explores the origins of Black atheism among 19th-century slaves and free Blacks and further examines the growth of freethought during the 1900s. Covering nearly 200 years, Cameron 2019 is the first comprehensive history of Black secular thought in the United States.

  • Alexander, Nathan. Race in a Godless World: Atheism, Race, and Civilization, 1850–1914. New York: NYU Press, 2019.

    DOI: 10.7765/9781526142382

    Alexander offers a broad history of racial thought among leading atheists in Great Britain and the United States from the mid-19th century to World War I. He shows that while many atheists were progressive on religious issues, they still subscribed to and helped reinforce white supremacist notions of race, especially with regards to Black and indigenous peoples.

  • Cameron, Christopher. Black Freethinkers: A History of African American Secularism. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2019.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctvkwnqd1

    In the first history of African American secularism, Cameron explores the rise of nonbelief among 19th-century slaves, the growth of atheism and agnosticism among writers of the Harlem Renaissance and radical political activists in the interwar era, and the influence of secularism among participants in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s. Cameron argues that freethought has been a vital component of Black political and intellectual life.

  • Grasso, Christopher. Skepticism and American Faith: From the Revolution to the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

    Grasso argues that there was a vibrant dialogue between believers and freethinkers in the years between the American Revolution and the Civil War that influenced the course of independence, views on the Enlightenment, and political thought in the antebellum period. Skepticism was not just the preserve of an educated elite but rather was much more widespread throughout American society than previous scholars have realized.

  • Jacoby, Susan. Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. New York: Owl Books, 2004.

    Jacoby traces the history of American freethought from the revolutionary era to the late 20th century. While she does not deal extensively with Black atheists and agnostics, she does briefly discuss W. E. B. Du Bois, and the broader context she provides on American freethought is useful for an understanding of African American secularism.

  • Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctvc779hv

    Focusing on the late 19th century, Schmidt examines the legal, social, and cultural challenges freethinkers faced as well as the way their ideas were sometimes welcomed in the public square. He also provides important information on Black atheists such as David Cincore, Lord A. Nelson, and R. S. King, all of whom were active in varying degrees in the broader freethought movement of the day.

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