Dr. Herb Silverman is the Founder of the Secular Coalition for America, the Founder of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, and the Founder of the Atheist/Humanist Alliance student group at the College of Charleston. He authored Complex variables (1975), Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt (2012) and An Atheist Stranger in a Strange Religious Land: Selected Writings from the Bible Belt (2017). He co-authored The Fundamentals of Extremism: The Christian Right in America (2003) with Kimberley Blaker and Edward S. Buckner, Complex Variables with Applications (2007) with Saminathan Ponnusamy, and Short Reflections on Secularism (2019).
Here we talk about African-American and American History.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: African-American history, akin to the creation of Native American history after the creation of The United States of America, is American history. Certainly, as far as I can tell, it is a distinct facet of American history, making American history a pluralistic affair. Nonetheless, as we covered some of the Native American pre-American and American history in the US, let’s cover some African-American secular history.
Certainly, we can see several prominent and respected black freethinkers in the United States tackling on-the-grounds issues and others now. They did not emerge out of the aether. What is the history of freethought in America? How did some of this link to other freethought movements in America? Who were the important players? How did these individuals provide a context in which the African-American community could free themselves from the shackles of fundamentalist ideologies? At the same time, how did the church give some refuge for them?
Dr. Herb Silverman: I should first acknowledge some positives for African-American churches. Aside from giving people hope, they have often been a center for civil rights activism and a place that blacks could gather in large numbers without being harassed. I live in Charleston, South Carolina, just three blocks from Mother Emmanuel AME church, now internationally known because nine African Americans were murdered there by white nationalist Dylann Roof. This church was once a secret meeting place for African-Americans who wanted to end slavery at a time when laws in Charleston banned all-black church gatherings.
Some slaveowners and white Christian ministers in the nineteenth century read biblical verses to slaves as part of the worship services they allowed them to attend. They wanted to show that the Bible condones and supports slavery. The biblical curse of Ham (Genesis 9:25), one of the sons of Noah, was for Ham to be a servant to his brothers. This curse was used to justify slavery of black Americans on the ground that black Americans were descendants of Ham.
Other biblical justifications for slavery and why slaves should obey their masters include:
(1 Peter 2:18) Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.
(Ephesians 6:5) Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and sincerity of heart, just as you would Christ.
(Colossians 3:22) Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.
(Titus 2:9) Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them.
And here’s how they thought they were showing mercy to slaves, because of possible punishment to the slave owner: (Exodus 21:20-21) When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property.
The experience of slavery and the degradations of proslavery Christians led some enslaved blacks to varieties of unbelief. The most influential African American at that time was Frederick Douglass, who devoted his time, talent, and boundless energy to ending slavery and gaining equal rights for African Americans. After escaping from slavery in Maryland, he became a national leader of the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and New York, noted for his oratoryand incisive antislavery writings. He was described by abolitionists as a living counter-example to arguments of slaveholders that slaves lacked the intellectual capacity to function as independent American citizens.
Of his escape from slavery, Douglass said, “I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” He said of pro-slavery Christian clergymen: “Welcome infidelity! Welcome atheism! Welcome anything! In preference to the gospel as preached by those divines! They convert the very name of religion into a barbarous cruelty.”
Frederick Douglass was a good friend of the agnostic orator Robert Green Ingersoll. Douglass once remarked that Ingersoll and Abraham Lincoln were the only white men in whose company “he could be without feeling he was regarded as inferior to them.”
Believing that all people are equal, Douglass supported the women’s suffrage movement in addition to black emancipation. In 1848, he spoke at the Woman’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, which sparked the nineteenth-century woman’s suffrage movement. Douglass was the only male to speak at the convention, drawing parallels between black men and American women as equally disenfranchised.
Here are a few other African American leaders who were also freethinkers:
W. E. B. Du Bois was a historian, civil rights activist, and a founder of the NAACP. His books include The Souls of Black Folk and Black Reconstruction in America. When he became head of the department at historically black Atlanta University in Georgia, the engagement was held up because he refused to lead a prayer. He also said, “I refused to join any church or sign any church creed.”
James Baldwin was an American novelist, playwright, and activist. He described himself as not religious. Baldwin accused Christianity of “reinforcing the system of American slavery by palliating the pangs of oppression and delaying salvation until a promised afterlife.” He wrote, “If the concept of God has any use, it is to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God can’t do that, it’s time we got rid of him.”
Yosef Ben-Jochannan was an American writer and historian, author of 49 books. He said, “The churches can’t help the people when the chips are down because their interest is with the power structure.” He added, “The black man has called upon Jesus Christ for so many years in America, and now he starts calling on Mohammed, and there are many who are calling on Moses, and in no time within this period has the black man’s situation changed, nor has the black man any freedom. It is obvious that someone didn’t hear his call or isn’t interested in that call, either Jesus, Mohammad, or Moses.”
Alice Walker, civil rights activist and author of The Color Purple, said, “The only reason you want to go to heaven is that you have been driven out of your mind and off your land.” She also said, “All people deserve to worship a God who also worships them. A God that made them, and likes them. That is why Nature, Mother Earth, is such a good choice. Never will Nature require that you cut off some part of your body to please It; never will Mother Earth find anything wrong with your natural way.”
Actress Butterfly McQueen, who played an enslaved maidservant in Gone with the Wind, was an atheist, saying in 1989, “As my ancestors are free from slavery, I am free from the slavery of religion.”
Though Martin Luther King, Jr. was religious, he advocated for the separation of religion and government, and supported the Supreme Court’s decision to prohibit government-sponsored prayer in public schools. He also said, “I would be the last to condemn the thousands of sincere and dedicated people outside the churches who have labored unselfishly through various humanitarian movements to cure the world of social evils, for I would rather a man be a committed humanist than an uncommitted Christian.”
Bayard Rustin, who helped organize freedom rides, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and King’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, was an atheist. So was A. Philip Randolph, who also helped organize the March on Washington, where King gave his “I have a dream” speech. Randolph said, “We consider prayer as nothing more than a fervent wish; consequently, the merit and worth of a prayer depend upon what the fervent wish is.”
Other black freethinkers who also played significant roles in the Civil Rights movement include leaders James Forman, Eldridge Cleaver, and Stokely Carmichael, all of whom rejected Christianity.
Anthony Pinn is the author/editor of over 30 books, including numerous volumes related to African American humanism. He received the 1999 African American Humanist Award from the Council for Secular Humanism and the 2006 award for Harvard University Humanist Chaplaincy Humanist of the Year.
And, of course, there is Neal deGrasse Tyson, well-known astrophysicist and science popularizer. He calls himself an agnostic, and said, “There is no common ground between science and religion. Religion only starts where scientific knowledge ends.”.
In 1989, Norm Allen Jr. founded African Americans for Humanism, the first explicitly secular organization for blacks. Then came Black Atheists of America and Black Nonbelievers Inc., as well as local groups such as Black Skeptics of Los Angeles. Black atheists today are not content to personally reject religion, but instead have a goal of spreading freethought to the broader black community. For example, author Sikivu Hutchinson and Mandisa Thomas, founder of Black Nonbelievers, argue that religion hurts the black community by promoting sexism, patriarchy, and homophobia.
In addition to denying the existence of God, encouraging the teaching of evolution in schools and fighting for the separation of church and state, black atheists want to find solutions to practical problems. Many have embraced Black Lives Matter, a secular movement unaffiliated with black religious institutions and ideology. They look for ways to improve the situation for blacks, and also to promote a more just, democratic, and less racist American society.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr. Silverman.