Shawn Maxam speaks about his experiences as an atheist in a community whose identity is primarily built around religion.
The belief that there is only one truth, and that oneself is in possession of it, is the root of all evil in the world.
It is quite difficult to be a member of a self-selected minority group (in this case atheists). Especially when one is already a member of several other minority groups that one never had a choice about. Before I define myself as an atheist, or even a Black man, I have a bunch of other traits I feel are better descriptors of who I am. Unfortunately we live in our society where belonging to and being defined by group labels is important. Even I wanted to remain anonymous, I really cannot.
Because of my ethnicity, people often assume certain things about me. They assume I am probably Christian. I am not. I identify as a secular humanist. I also have a mood disorder. Mental illness is also not considered a common identifying trait within my ethnic group. The “bipolar black man” isn’t a common stereotype on film or television.
The best analogy I can give regarding my experience as an atheist who happens to also be a Black man is this:
Inviting an atheist to church/synagogue/temple is akin to to inviting a vegan to dinner at Outback Steakhouse. The sentiment of the invite is nice but the experience for the invited party will be awkward, uncomfortable and often not enjoyable.
I grew up going to an Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Brooklyn. I was an altar boy for nearly two years until, at the age of fifteen, I pierced my ears. The pastor of the church told me that I couldn’t wear earrings. I said I didn’t think God really cared if I wore earrings. It seemed like a rather trivial thing for an omnipotent being to be concerned about. But the pastor who said he was speaking on God’s behalf was very concerned about it. For the next three years I would read about and explore other religions.
After reading everything from the story of Gilgamesh to the Egyptian god Amon-Ra, I found aspects of every religion interesting, but my skepticism about everything began to deepen. Eventually I realized at the age of eighteen that I no longer believed in a god or gods. Immediately, my family began a campaign to reconvert me to Christianity. This really intensified when I was initially diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. My grandmother said if I accepted Jesus Christ into my life again I would be cured of my disease. The devil and demons were blamed for my affliction, along with my rejection of God, of course. It was very disheartening to have my own family tell me I had been afflicted with a crippling disorder simply because I didn’t share their beliefs and behaviors.
I am always looked at with bewilderment when I say I am an atheist. I often don’t disclose the fact I am an atheist or secular humanist until people know me, lest they judge me too quickly. Even when I spoke to my psychiatrist, who happens to be a Jamaican woman, the validity of my belief system was questioned. She proclaimed “you think you’re an atheist” as if I didn’t have the intelligence to know what I really believed. This condescending statement is reflective of how many Black people treat me just because my belief system is different. Which is ironic since Black people have suffered discrimination and prejudice over our “perceived” difference.
Throughout American history the Black community has used religion to organize and survive systems of oppression . Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X are considered two of our greatest heroes. We often fail to acknowledge the irreligious activism of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters or the Black Panthers. Today the center of much of Black people’s social life is centered around the church. It is where many people establish friendships, hang-out with family, meet other Black singles and connect with others who share cultural norms. To not be an active member in a religious setting is very difficult for atheists like me.
Thus, my blackness is always questioned by others, just because I am not a Christian or even a Muslim. As if blackness is defined by an ideology or belief system. I was still harassed by the cops in Brooklyn when I was a teenager. My brother was still murdered. I still have a difficult time hailing a cab. By whatever metric you want to measure, not believing in any god doesn’t get me treated any less Black by the world.
There are many places and spaces for individuals with differences to meet and congregate in our world, so it behooves all of us to take into consideration the comfort of every person involved. The atheist philosopher and author Aldous Huxley said, late in his life, “It is a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one’s life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than ‘Try to be a little kinder.’” In other words, whether you share my beliefs or not, I would remind my community that a little bit of respect goes a long way.
Please share this with friends, enemies and temporary allies alike.
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