African American Studies Atheism and Agnosticism
by
Christopher Cameron
  • 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: 10.7765/9781526142382Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    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.

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

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    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.

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

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    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.

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

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    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.

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  • 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.ctvc779hvSave Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    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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Black Humanism

Pinn 2012 notes that atheism and agnosticism are often accompanied by humanism. Humanism has many components, including a reverence for nature, a belief in the primacy of reason over faith, skepticism regarding the existence of God, and a belief that it is more important to improve human life in this world rather than focus on salvation in the next world. Atheists and agnostics can just be skeptics but they often also become humanists, as this can replace adherence to traditional theistic religions and provide an outlet for social justice efforts. Some African American humanists, such as Egbert Ethelred Brown, remained theists but nevertheless provided important spaces—both physical and intellectual—for Black atheists and agnostics to grow morally and intellectually according to Floyd-Thomas 2008.

  • Floyd-Thomas, Juan M. The Origins of Black Humanism in America: Reverend Ethelred Brown and the Unitarian Church. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230615823Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Floyd-Thomas explores the emergence of Black humanism through a focus on Egbert Ethelred Brown, founder of the Harlem Unitarian Church. While Brown was a religious humanist who never discarded his belief in God, his church nevertheless provided an important intellectual and political space for Black atheists, especially those involved in the Socialist and Communist Parties during the 1920s.

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  • Pinn, Anthony B. By These Hands: A Documentary History of African American Humanism. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

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    This collection of primary sources explores atheism and agnosticism among some of the leading Black political figures and intellectuals in the United States, including Huey Newton, Alice Walker, and Frederick Douglass. Authors in the collection describe how they became freethinkers and how their secularism informed their political ideology and activism.

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  • Pinn, Anthony B. The End of God-Talk: An African American Humanist Theology. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195340822.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Pinn challenges the prevailing tendency among theologians to construct their theologies based on the assumption of God’s existence. He argues that theology need not be theistic and can instead have a secular foundation. Sources that provide this secular foundation for a Black humanist theology include literature, the visual arts, and material culture.

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Slavery

While the origins of freethought among whites might lay in Enlightenment philosophy or religious liberalism, African American freethought emerged out of the brutality of the institution of slavery. Steward 1857 demonstrates that beatings, starvation, social ostracism, and sexual assault drove some slaves to reject the idea that a just, loving, and benevolent God was looking out for their interests. Other slave narratives, including Brown 1999, decried the hypocrisy of their Christian masters making them attend religious services that claimed their souls would one day be free as long as they remained faithful slaves. Hutchins 2013 shows that atheist themes are present in some of the most well-known slave narratives, including that of Frederick Douglass. Douglass represents the presence of atheism among both slaves and free Blacks, as his bondage pushed him toward religious skepticism as a slave. Additionally, Diedrich 1999 examines how reading further fostered Douglass’s nonbelief as a free Black man living in the North. The same is true of Brown 2004, the first novel published by an African American, a novel that heavily criticizes the role religion played in sanctioning the institution of slavery.

  • Brown, William Wells. “Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave. Written by Himself.” In I Was Born a Slave: An Anthology of Classic Slave Narratives. Vol. 1, 1772–1849. Edited by Yuval Taylor, 673–717. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1999.

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    In this slave narrative (first published in Boston: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1847), William Wells Brown explores the reasoning behind his growing religious skepticism as a slave, namely the hypocrisy of his Christian master. He was one of the few slave narrators who remarked on his own irreligiosity rather than pointing it out among other enslaved people.

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  • Brown, William Wells. Clotel or, The President’s Daughter. New York: Penguin Books, 2004.

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    In the first novel published by an African American, Brown elaborates on his critiques of religion from his autobiography to note that religion provided one of the strongest justifications for slavery in the United States. The novel contains countless critiques of Christianity and the one individual who expresses opposition to slavery is a freethinker. First published 1853.

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  • Cameron, Christopher. “Slavery and African American Irreligion.” Journal of Southern Religion 18 (2016).

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    In this article, Cameron argues that there is an alternative origin to freethought in early America—the brutality of the institution of slavery. He notes that proslavery religion, suffering under slavery, and the hypocrisy of Christian slaveholders helped foster atheism among slaves in the antebellum South.

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  • Diedrich, Maria. Love across Color Lines: Ottilie Assing and Frederick Douglass. New York: Hill and Wang, 1999.

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    Diedrich’s work explores the long and complicated friendship between the German intellectual Ottilie Assing and Frederick Douglass. Diedrich notes that Assing introduced Douglass to the works of the prominent German skeptic Ludwig Feuerbach, works that shaped Douglass’s emerging humanist perspective.

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  • Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. Boston: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1845.

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    In addition to multiple attacks referencing the hypocrisy of southern Christians, Douglass’s first autobiography demonstrates his embrace of religious skepticism and rejection of Christianity through his violent encounter with Edward Covey.

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  • Fountain, Daniel L. Slavery, Civil War, and Salvation: African American Slaves and Christianity, 1830–1870. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010.

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    Despite decades of scholarship that suggests the contrary, Fountain argues that most slaves in the antebellum South were not Christians. Religious practice was the most ubiquitous form of public behavior, Fountain notes, leading to inaccurate perceptions of its importance in the slave community. Instead of being Christians, most slaves practiced some form of African spiritual traditions. His book leaves open the possibility that those slaves who rejected Christianity embraced atheism and agnosticism.

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  • Hutchins, Zachary McLeod. “Rejecting the Root: The Liberating, Anti-Christ Theology of Douglass’s Narrative.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 68 (December 2013): 292–322.

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    Many scholars argue that Frederick Douglass became less religious over the course of his life. Hutchins challenges this and argues that atheist themes are present in his earliest writings, including his 1845 autobiography.

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  • Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Written by Herself. Edited by Lydia Maria Child. Boston: Harriet Jacobs, 1861.

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    While Jacobs was not a skeptic herself, her autobiography is nevertheless useful for understanding why some slaves rejected religious adherence. Of particular interest is a discussion of her uncle, who discarded his belief in God after realizing that God would not help him escape slavery.

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  • Raboteau, Alfred J. Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

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    Most of this book is dedicated to the creative religiosity that Blacks forged under slavery. Toward the end of the book, however, Raboteau notes that not all slaves believed in religion and some could not reconcile the idea of a loving God with their lives in bondage. He provides a few examples of these slaves and notes that southern ministers and travelers dating back to the early 18th century commented on the irreligiosity of some slaves they encountered.

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  • Steward, Austin. Twenty-Two Years a Slave, and Forty Years a Freeman; Embracing a Correspondence of Several Years, while President of Wilberforce Colony, London, Canada West. Rochester, NY: William Alling, 1857.

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    Austin Steward, born enslaved in late-18th-century Virginia, provides further insight into why slaves embraced atheism in his narrative. In addition to the hypocrisy of southern Christians, both ministers and laypeople, Steward notes that many slaves came to believe there was no God because of the brutality of the institution. Whippings, torture, and sexual assaults all pushed slaves away from religious belief.

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The New Negro Renaissance

The New Negro Renaissance was a literary and intellectual movement that spanned the African Diaspora. Its iteration in Harlem is the most well-known but it was present in American cities such as Chicago and New Orleans as well as in Black communities in Europe and Latin America. Its origins lie in the Great Migration, which witnessed the move of approximately 1.5 million African Americans from the rural South to the urban North between 1914 and 1930. The Great Migration fostered an enormous amount of diversity in Black religious life, including opportunities to share skepticism regarding religion with others for perhaps the first time. While the era of slavery largely witnessed Black authors commenting on others’ lack of religiosity, the New Negro Renaissance witnessed Black writers more openly expressing their own religious skepticism and exploring atheist themes in their work. Larsen 2006 was a pioneering work in tying religion to patriarchy with its argument that Christianity serves to reinforce traditional gender roles. Cameron 2016 explores how Zora Neale Hurston likewise argued that religion served to constrain women’s opportunities in life in multiple works. Looking at the diasporic connections among Black atheists, James 2000 examines Claude McKay’s agnosticism in Jamaica and his eventual move to the United States. While Susan Jacoby labeled the period from 1875 to 1915 as the “Golden Age of Freethought,” the New Negro Renaissance might be seen as a golden age of Black freethought.

  • Blain, Keisha, Christopher Cameron, and Ashley D. Farmer, eds. New Perspectives on the Black Intellectual Tradition. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2018.

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    This collection of essays contains two chapters on freethought during the 1920s. Christopher Cameron’s chapter explores the secularism of Langston Hughes and Nella Larsen, while David Weinfeld’s chapter examines Alain Locke’s secular perspective. Whereas Cameron argues that Black secularism developed as a critique of religion, Weinfeld shows that for Locke, his secularism was compatible with his religious beliefs.

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  • Cameron, Christopher. “Zora Neale Hurston, Freethought, and African American Religion.” Journal of Africana Religions 4 (2016): 236–244.

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    This article explores the contributions of Zora Neale Hurston to African American freethought during the early to mid-20th century. Focusing on her personal (ir)religious development as well as her anthropological studies of Black religion, it demonstrates that she was a central figure in a burgeoning secular movement of this era, especially in the close ties she posits between Black feminism and Black freethought.

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  • Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea. New York: Hill and Wang, 1940.

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    Hughes’s autobiography explores his path toward becoming a religious skeptic, including the experience on the “mourner’s bench” that propelled him to nonbelief. The book also discusses his father’s atheism and hints at broader structural forces pushing other Blacks toward nonbelief.

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  • Hurston, Zora Neale. Folklore, Memoirs, and Other Writings. New York: Library of America, 1995.

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    Two sources in this collection provided the basis for Cameron’s article on Hurston. Her memoir discusses how she became a religious skeptic at a young age and demonstrates her complicated ties to religion throughout her life. The collection also contains two anthropological works that demonstrate her lack of belief in religious tenets even as she participated in religious rituals throughout her life.

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  • James, Winston. A Fierce Hatred of Injustice: Claude McKay’s Jamaica and His Poetry of Rebellion. London and New York: Verso, 2000.

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    Winston discusses Claude McKay’s early life in Jamaica and the burgeoning freethought movement on the island during the early 20th century. McKay became an agnostic as a teenager and was one of many Caribbean writers who were also prominent freethinkers during the Harlem Renaissance.

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  • Lackey, Michael. African American Atheists and Political Liberation: A Study of the Sociocultural Dynamics of Faith. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2007.

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    Drawing from queer theory, postcolonialism, feminism, and deconstruction, Lackey explores the literary and cultural aspects of Black atheism to argue that African American atheists were most concerned with the political uses to which the idea of God had been put throughout American history. For Black atheists, he notes, political liberation went hand in hand with rejecting the idea of God.

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  • Larsen, Nella. Quicksand. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2006.

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    In this novel, which is loosely based on the author’s own life, Nella Larsen explores the many reasons why African Americans came to reject the idea of God, including the close ties between religion and respectability in Black culture, as well as the way that religion served to keep Black women in a subordinate position in the United States. First published 1928.

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Radical Politics in the Interwar Era

Black radical politics emerged in the same era as the New Negro Renaissance. While writers and artists hoped to use their work to argue for Black equality, others would not eschew overt political organizing and even embraced more radical ideologies than many of their Black predecessors had done. Perry 2001 demonstrates that Hubert Harrison was a pioneering Black socialist who combined his critique of capitalism with a critique of religion. For Harrison, Christianity and capitalism were twin systems of oppression that worked together to sustain racism at home and imperialism abroad. Du Bois 1968 shows how the foremost Black intellectual of the 20th century was likewise an agnostic who came to believe that Christianity and capitalism worked together to stymie human progress. Caribbean political activists such as Harrison and Cyril Briggs, leader of the African Blood Brotherhood, were at the forefront of tying together radical religion and radical politics. McDuffie 2011 argues that socialism and communism also appealed to Black women freethinkers because they opened up opportunities for leadership and provided comfortable spaces in which they could critique religion.

  • Du Bois, W. E. B. The Autobiography of W.E.B. Du Bois: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century. New York: International Publishers, 1968.

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    In his autobiography, W. E. B. Du Bois discusses his path toward religious skepticism, a process that began in college at Wilberforce University. Du Bois also provides insight into the ties between socialism and freethought with his argument that the diminishing number of churches in the Soviet Union was directly responsible for its growing economic prosperity during the 20th century.

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  • Haywood, Harry. Black Bolshevik: Autobiography of an Afro-American Communist. Chicago: Liberator Press, 1979.

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    Haywood discusses his religious evolution from an indifferent believer to an agnostic and finally to an atheist during the early 20th century. Haywood became an agnostic while living in Nebraska after reading lectures of Robert Ingersoll, demonstrating the growing ties between white and Black freethought during this era. Like Du Bois, Haywood’s secularism informed his political thought and he emerged as one of the leading Black communists in the country during the 1930s.

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  • James, Winston. Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia: Caribbean Radicalism in Early Twentieth-Century America. London and New York: Verso, 1998.

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    James explores Caribbean immigration to the United States during the first three decades of the 20th century and the significance of this immigration to Black radical politics. He notes that many Caribbean political activists and intellectuals had embraced agnosticism back in their home countries due to weak institutional churches. Furthermore, some Black Caribbean activists became freethinkers in the United States after encountering a harsher racial climate than was prevalent in their home countries.

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  • Johnson, Brian L. W. E. B. Du Bois: Toward Agnosticism, 1868–1934. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008.

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    Johnson argues that most scholars have ignored Du Bois’s agnosticism and have thus missed out on a vital component of his thought and worldview. While Du Bois’s lack of religion was most often unstated, it nevertheless heavily informed his views on Black educational and political institutions and was an important part of conceptions such as the Talented Tenth.

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  • McDuffie, Erik S. Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism. Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1515/9780822394402Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    McDuffie chronicles the lives and political activity of Black women communists who also became freethinkers during the 1920s and 1930s. Women such as Louise Thompson Patterson and Elizabeth Hendrickson embraced communism because it provided leadership opportunities while countering the emphasis on respectability politics prevalent among Black clubwomen and Garveyites.

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  • Perry, Jeffrey B. Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883–1918. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

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    Perry chronicles the life and thought of one of the leading Black freethinkers of the 20th century from his birth in the West Indies to his move to New York City and his leading activism in the Socialist Party.

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  • Perry, Jeffrey B., ed. A Hubert Harrison Reader. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001.

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    This collection of documents from Harrison’s life includes important sources related to his secularism, including a letter on why he became an agnostic and an essay where he notes that Black people should be among the leading freethinkers due to the nature of their racial oppression. The documents highlight Harrison’s belief that it was his role to be a freethought evangelist to the Black community.

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  • Solomon, Mark. The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans, 1917–1936. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998.

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    Solomon explores both the political ideology and organizing of Black socialists and communists such as A. Philip Randolph, Cyril Briggs, Hubert Harrison, and Harry Heywood, all of whom were also atheists. While Solomon does not focus on religion, this work provides essential information on these freethinkers’ political beliefs and activity.

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  • Turner, Joyce Moore. Caribbean Crusaders and the Harlem Renaissance. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005.

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    Turner discusses Caribbean political activists such as Richard B. Moore and Cyril Briggs who combined religious and political radicalism. Through publications such as the Crusader, the organ of the African Blood Brotherhood, Moore and others critiqued Christianity, which they believed supported capitalist oppression and global imperialism.

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  • Wright, Richard. Black Boy (American Hunger). New York: HarperCollins, 1998.

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    Wright’s memoir is broken up into two parts, the first of which has as its major theme Wright’s rejection of religion. He details his battles with his very religious grandmother and aunt, the ways he was forced to fake religious belief, and the many reasons he rejected Christianity. The second part of the book discusses his move to the North during the 1920s, where he too would embrace communism for a time. First published 1945.

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  • Zuckerman, Phil, ed. Du Bois on Religion. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2000.

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    This collection of documents by W. E. B. Du Bois explores the many facets of his views on religion. At times, Du Bois saw the potential of religious thought and institutions and even celebrated religion’s place in Black life. Du Bois was also a religious skeptic who at other times offered biting critiques of Black ministers and Black religious institutions.

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The Civil Rights Era

The prominence of preachers such as Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement has made that movement seem more religious than it was and has likewise colored the way scholars have interpreted the ties between religion and politics throughout African American history. Despite popular portrayals, however, atheism and agnosticism were prominent among activists, artists, and intellectuals in the civil rights era. James Forman, Executive Director of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, for example, was an atheist who believed that religious adherence had hurt African Americans and that some of the best paths toward political freedom were embracing socialism and rejecting theistic religion. Foner 1995 shows that other members of the emerging Black Power movement in the 1960s, including Stokely Carmichael, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and Sarah Webster Fabio, were likewise freethinkers who strongly critiqued the role that religious belief had played in justifying segregation and racism. Prominent Black artists and intellectuals such as Hansberry 1959 and Baldwin 1962 used their plays, novels, and essays to critique Blacks’ adherence to Christianity and proffer a different vision for African Americans, one that could embrace atheism, agnosticism, and other forms of freethought. The prominence of these figures in both the Black Arts movement and the Black Power movement of the 1960s demonstrates the growing importance of secular thought in Black political and intellectual life.

  • Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. New York: Vintage, 1962.

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    James Baldwin discusses his religious evolution from being a teenage preacher to eventually becoming a religious skeptic. He notes that religious conversion did not seem to make people act better, nor did religion seem to motivate political action. His critique of the Black Church was a key theme in this source as well as multiple novels he wrote over the course of his career.

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  • Bloom, Joshua, and Waldo E. Martin Jr. Black against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2013.

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    In this comprehensive study of the Black Panther Party, Bloom and Martin explicate the political thought of leading Party members who were also atheists and agnostics, including Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver. They also explore the religious critiques of local Party leaders such as Lumumba Shakur.

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  • Carmichael, Stokely, with Ekwueme Michael Thelwell. Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture). New York: Scribner, 2003.

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    Stokely Carmichael notes that he became an agnostic during his time at the prestigious Bronx High School of Science during the 1950s. Unlike other civil rights activists, however, Carmichael was not open about his religious skepticism because he knew the importance of the Black Church and felt that being open about his agnosticism would hurt his political organizing activities.

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  • Cleaver, Eldridge. Soul on Ice. New York: Dell, 1968.

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    While serving time in prison pushed many young Black men to embrace either Christianity or the Nation of Islam, Eldridge Cleaver details how it pushed him and others to become atheists. He read prominent freethinkers such as Thomas Paine in prison but also became an atheist out of frustration with white ministers in jail who would, he said, only focus on the state of the inmates’ souls and not their needs in this world.

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  • Foner, Philip S., ed. The Black Panthers Speak. New York: Da Capo Press, 1995.

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    This collection of documents explores many different facets of the Black Panther Party’s political activism and religious skepticism. The collection includes articles from the Party’s newspaper The Black Panther, some of which are critical of Christianity in particular and religion more broadly. Among these is Sarah Webster Fabio’s poem “Free by Any Means Necessary” and Evette Pearson’s “In White America Today,” a poem that mocks The Lord’s Prayer.

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  • Forman, James. The Making of Black Revolutionaries. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1997.

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    James Forman’s path toward religious skepticism began after an experience on the mourner’s bench similar to that of Langston Hughes, where he had to fake a conversion to get off. After taking philosophy classes in college, Forman developed an intellectual foundation for his atheism, which would inform his political activity as a prominent member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the Black Power movement. First published 1972.

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  • Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. New York: Vintage Books, 1959.

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    One of the central characters in Hansberry’s play, Beneatha, is an atheist who reflects many of Hansberry’s own ideas on religion. Beneatha expresses a secular humanism when she notes her frustration that God gets all the credit for human achievement. And she displays the ties between freethought and feminism in a number of life choices, chief of which is her desire to put her career above marriage.

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  • Jones, William R. Is God a White Racist? A Preamble to Black Theology. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998.

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    William R. Jones was a Unitarian minister who moved away from traditional religious adherence while in college. In this book, he argues that Black theologians such as James Cone who argue God is on the side of the oppressed are wrong. In Jones’s view, a historical analysis shows that God either does not exist or is racist. Rather than adherence to traditional theistic ideas, Jones calls for a “humanocentric theism” that places human happiness as the chief aim of religion. First published 1973.

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  • Murch, Donna Jean. Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

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    Murch provides important context for the Black Panthers’ humanist efforts, including their free breakfast program for children and their educational philosophy.

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  • Newton, Huey P. Revolutionary Suicide. New York: Penguin, 2009.

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    In this memoir, Newton discusses his religious evolution toward atheism. Unlike many Black atheists, he did not have a contentious relationship with religion and even considered becoming a pastor. After reading existentialist philosophy in college, however, Newton came to reject theistic religion and posited that religious belief’s main function was to explain mysterious phenomena. The progress of science, he argued, would eventually undermine the need for religious belief. First published 1973.

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  • Walker, Alice. The Third Life of Grange Copeland. New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970.

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    Walker uses this novel to critique many aspects of Black Christianity, including the pretended piety on Sunday mornings of individuals like Grange Copeland who get drunk and beat their wives on Saturday night. Like James Forman and Langston Hughes, Copeland became an atheist as a teenager but pretended to be a born-again Christian for most of his life.

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Black Freethought after 1975

Two key developments characterize Black freethought after the civil rights era. First, Black freethinkers began to create institutions specifically geared toward the needs and concerns of African Americans. These included African Americans for Humanism and Black Skeptics of Los Angeles, founded by Sikivu Hutchinson. Hutchinson 2011 demonstrates how these organizations aimed to provide a social space for Black freethinkers who may have felt uncomfortable in primarily white organizations such as the American Humanist Association. The second major development in Black freethought during this era has been the rise of what may be called “evangelical atheists,” or atheists who are not content to doubt religion on their own but have it as their goal to convert others to their cause. Black atheist works such as Gorham 2013 and Pinn 2014 argue that religion has been harmful for African Americans and have made it a goal to spread the principles of the freethought movement as widely as possible. Their efforts have resulted in decreased stigma toward Black atheists and agnostics and a growing number of African Americans who identify as freethinkers.

  • Evans, D. K. Emancipation of a Black Atheist. Durham, NC: Pitchstone, 2017.

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    Evans discusses his path toward becoming a freethinker. A former Christian, Evans began to question why he believed in God shortly after his marriage. This questioning led him to interview numerous Black freethinkers and read works by historical Black atheists such as Hubert Harrison, all of which resulted in his becoming an atheist himself.

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  • Gorham, Candace R. M., LPC. The Ebony Exodus Project: Why Some Black Women Are Walking Out on Religion—and Others Should Too. Durham, NC: Pitchstone, 2013.

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    In this book, Candace Gorham, a former evangelical minister, argues that religion is directly responsible for the social and economic problems that Black women face. These issues include poverty, unequal access to good schools, and poor health outcomes. Through interviews conducted for the book, Gorham demonstrates the happiness and sense of relief some Black women have after leaving their religious institutions.

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  • Hutchinson, Sikivu. Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars. Los Angeles: Infidel Books, 2011.

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    Sikivu Hutchinson argues that while Black women’s adherence to Christianity is understandable, that loyalty has not resulted in positive benefits and has actually harmed African Americans. Rather than critiquing African American religiosity, freethought organizations should try and replicate the function of Black churches by offering job training, after-school programs, and other forms of support.

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  • Hutchinson, Sikivu. Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels. Los Angeles: Infidel Books, 2013.

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    Hutchinson argues that atheism among Latinos and African Americans is becoming more widespread due to the pernicious effects of the culture wars, whereby evangelicals have tried to limit women’s access of safe abortions, prevent LGBTQ-identified people from marrying, and resist the science behind climate change.

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  • Pinn, Anthony B. Writing God’s Obituary: How a Good Methodist Became a Better Atheist. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2014.

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    Anthony Pinn, the leading scholar on African American humanism in the United States, is also a freethinker in his own right. Here he details his journey from being a childhood evangelical preacher to an atheist. He began to question his faith even as a youth minister and would further revise his theology while a student at Columbia University and Harvard Divinity School. Eventually, Pinn embraced both atheism and humanism.

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  • Swann, Daniel. A Qualitative Study of Black Atheists. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2020.

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    In this sociological study based off qualitative interviews, Daniel Swann helps to explain the rise of irreligious African Americans as well as the ways in which they construct a particular identity as Black atheists. Swann shows how Black atheists experience marginalization and stigmatization, as well as how they respond to these in their secular activism and everyday life.

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  • Thomas, Sheree R., ed. Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora. New York: Warner Books, 2000.

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    This collection contains a short story and an essay by Octavia Butler, one of the most prominent Black writers of the 20th century, that discusses her belief that there is no God. Like Huey Newton, Butler argues in her essay “The Monophobic Response” that people believe in God because of fear of the unknown and that when human beings learn to work together, they will no longer need to believe in God.

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  • White, Carol Wayne. Black Lives and Sacred Humanity: Toward an African American Religious Naturalism. New York: Fordham University Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt1b67w3sSave Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Carol Wayne White, a philosopher of religion, offers both a history of Black religious naturalism and a philosophical contribution to contemporary Black secular thought. She explores the humanistic and naturalistic worldviews of thinkers such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Anna Julia Cooper and argues for the interconnection of human beings through her concept of sacred humanity, a concept that moves beyond traditional notions of a deity ruling the universe.

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