Black atheists matter: how women freethinkers take on religion

Who are the new black atheists and what is behind their recent growth?

Black atheists matter: how women freethinkers take on religion
A demonstrator shouts while participating in protests September 21, 2016 in downtown Charlotte, NC. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

Christianity has played a central role in African-American life from the late 18th century to the present. Black churches raised funds for fugitive slaves, served as schoolhouses, and provided space for political meetings and activities, among other functions. Leaders of black congregations such as Richard Allen or Daniel Payne were often leaders of the broader black community. The spiritual messages of redemption and justice appealed to a people who experienced the brutality of slavery and the indignities of Jim Crow segregation laws. However, while many black churches were radical advocates for political and economic equality, others remained conservative institutions that failed to challenge the status quo. This conservatism helped give rise to an increasingly vocal and influential group of African Americans ­– the new black atheists.


Who are the new black atheists and what is behind their recent growth? First, let’s briefly look at the ‘old’ black atheists.

As long as people have proclaimed the existence of God, others have rejected the idea of a deity. Among African Americans, the earliest evidence of atheism and agnosticism comes from 19th-century slave narratives. Peter Randolph’s Sketches of Slave Life (1855) and Austin Steward’s Twenty-Two Years a Slave (1857), for example, posit that the brutality of slavery drove many blacks to become atheists. Likewise, prevalent proslavery religion turned many enslaved blacks away from Christianity and religion in general.

The Union victory in the Civil War and passage of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution abolishing slavery convinced many skeptical blacks that perhaps a just God was indeed looking out for their interests. But the nation’s retreat from reconstruction, from protecting the rights of its black citizens, and the onset of Jim Crow, gave new life to black atheism, which grew sharply in the early 20th century.

This growth coincided with the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and ’30s. Urbanisation, technological advancements and growing opportunities for education promoted secularism among black intellectuals such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen and Richard Wright. This secularism included atheism but also a commitment to improving human life through reason rather than faith. The Renaissance did not precipitate black atheism so much as foster the rise of an increasingly self-conscious secular community. Rather than attend church on Sunday mornings, black freethinkers gathered in A Philip Randolph’s parlour in Harlem to discuss socialism, labour politics, anti-imperialism and solutions to the race problem.

This early secular community differs from the new black atheists of today in their acceptance of Christianity and their lack of evangelical zeal to promote atheism. Black freethinkers such as Hurston and Hughes did not wish to disabuse black Christians of their religious ideals. They simply felt that religion was not for them. Hubert Harrison, a black socialist freethinker in Harlem during the 1910s and ’20s was an exception. He saw it as his duty to bring freethought to African Americans, whom he believed should be most desirous of jettisoning Christianity because the religion had historically strengthened both slavery and Jim Crow.

Black freethinkers also played significant roles in the Civil Rights movement. Its leaders such as James Forman, Eldridge Cleaver and Stokely Carmichael rejected Christianity, which they associated with Martin Luther King, Jr’s strategies of nonviolent resistance. Notably, however, the 1960s generation saw themselves as political activists first and freethinkers second.

It was only in the 1990s that black freethinkers began to build their own institutions. For decades, many had participated in the Ethical Culture movement, in Unitarian Universalism, or other organisations hospitable to freethought. The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and the American Humanist Association were also notably not Christian. But it wasn’t until 1989, when Norm Allen, Jr founded African Americans for Humanism, that there was an explicitly secular organisation for blacks. Black Atheists of America and, more recently, Black Nonbelievers Inc, as well as local groups such as Black Skeptics Los Angeles, soon followed.

New black atheists are not content to personally reject religion but instead have a goal of spreading freethought to the broader black community. For example, the author Sikivu Hutchinson and the founder of Black Nonbelievers, Mandisa Thomas, argue that religion hurts the black community by promoting sexism, patriarchy and homophobia. They claim that black churches have failed to address drug addiction, housing inequities, health disparities, lack of employment opportunities and other pressing social problems facing black Americans. Rather than adopting religious solutions such as abstinence-only education to a problem such as teenage pregnancies, black atheists call for more sex education and access to birth control.

Today, new black atheists are more likely than ever to be women. While there have been prominent black women freethinkers such as Hurston, Larsen and Alice Walker, until recently it had been much more likely for men to openly embrace skepticism, rather than women. New black atheists reject the politics of respectability that have held sway in the black community since the early 1900s. These politics demand that black women must be chaste, temperate, industrious and socially conservative. Above all, they must be religious. They must always portray the race in the best light.

With women leading the contemporary freethought movement, the politics of respectability and its sometimes anti-feminist tendencies are being undermined. As Hutchinson notes in her book Moral Combat (2011), ‘for many black atheist women, atheism’s appeal lies in its deconstruction of the bankrupt mores, values and ideologies that prop up patriarchy, sexism, heterosexism, racism, white supremacy, imperialism and economic injustice’.

Feminism is an essential part of the new black atheists’ humanism. New black atheists think that it is not enough to deny the existence of God, teach evolution in schools or fight for the separation of church and state. They want to bring worldly solutions to practical problems. Many have embraced Black Lives Matter (BLM), a secular movement that is notably unaffiliated with black religious institutions and ideology. In doing so, they believe they will improve the lot of blacks in particular but also promote a more just, democratic and less racist American society.

As the black atheist Sincere Kirabo posits of BLM: ‘There’s a social activist movement underway continuing the unfinished business of the Civil Rights movement era. Want to make a difference? What we need is grit and involvement in the struggle, not a tribe satisfied with the empty promises of scriptural white noise. Please, for the sake and love of our own futures: abandon your fabled white messiah. Wake up. We are our own salvation.’

Christopher Cameron

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

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7 most notorious and excessive Roman Emperors

These Roman Emperors were infamous for their debauchery and cruelty.

Nero's Torches. A group of early Christian martyrs about to be burned alive during the reign of emperor Nero in 64 AD.

1876. Painted by Henryk Siemiradzki.
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  • Roman Emperors were known for their excesses and violent behavior.
  • From Caligula to Elagabalus, the emperors exercised total power in the service of their often-strange desires.
  • Most of these emperors met violent ends themselves.

We rightfully complain about many of our politicians and leaders today, but historically speaking, humanity has seen much worse. Arguably no set of rulers has been as debauched, ingenious in their cruelty, and prone to excess as the Roman Emperors.

While this list is certainly not exhaustive, here are seven Roman rulers who were perhaps the worst of the worst in what was one of the largest empires that ever existed, lasting for over a thousand years.

1. Caligula

Officially known as Gaius (Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), Caligula was the third Roman Emperor, ruling from 37 to 41 AD. He acquired the nickname "Caligula" (meaning "little [soldier's] boot") from his father's soldiers during a campaign.

While recognized for some positive measures in the early days of his rule, he became famous throughout the ages as an absolutely insane emperor, who killed anyone when it pleased him, spent exorbitantly, was obsessed with perverse sex, and proclaimed himself to be a living god.

Caligula gives his horse Incitatus a drink during a banquet. Credit: An engraving by Persichini from a drawing by Pinelli, from "The History of the Roman Emperors" from Augustus to Constantine, by Jean Baptiste Louis Crevier. 1836.

Among his litany of misdeeds, according to the accounts of Caligula's contemporaries Philo of Alexandria and Seneca the Younger, he slept with whomever he wanted, brazenly taking other men's wives (even on their wedding nights) and publicly talking about it.

He also had an insatiable blood thirst, killing for mere amusement. Once, as reports historian Suetonius, when the bridge across the sea at Puteoli was being blessed, he had a number of spectators who were there to inspect it thrown off into the water. When some tried to cling to the ships' rudders, Caligula had them dislodged with hooks and oars so they would drown. On another occasion, he got so bored that he had his guards throw a whole section of the audience into the arena during the intermission so they would be eaten by wild beasts. He also allegedly executed two consuls who forgot his birthday.

Suetonius relayed further atrocities of the mad emperor's character, writing that Caligula "frequently had trials by torture held in his presence while he was eating or otherwise enjoying himself; and kept an expert headsman in readiness to decapitate the prisoners brought in from gaol." One particular form of torture associated with Caligula involved having people sawed in half.

He caused mass starvation and purposefully wasted money and resources, like making his troops stage fake battles just for theater. If that wasn't enough, he turned his palace into a brothel and was accused of incest with his sisters, Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla, and Livilla, whom he also prostituted to other men. Perhaps most famously, he was planning to appoint his favorite horse Incitatus a consul and went as far as making the horse into a priest.

In early 41 AD, Caligula was assassinated by a conspiracy of Praetorian Guard officers, senators, and other members of the court.

2. Nero

Fully named Nero Claudius Caesar, Nero ruled from 54 to 68 AD and was arguably an even worse madman than his uncle Caligula. He had his step-brother Britannicus killed, his wife Octavia executed, and his mother Agrippina stabbed and murdered. He personally kicked to death his lover Poppeaea while she was pregnant with his child — a horrific action the Roman historian Tacitus depicted as "a casual outburst of rage."

He spent exorbitantly and built a 100-foot-tall bronze statue of himself called the Colossus Neronis.

He is also remembered for being strangely obsessed with music. He sang and played the lyre, although it's not likely he really fiddled as Rome burned in what is a popular myth about this crazed tyrant. As misplaced retribution for the fire which burned down a sizable portion of Rome in the year 64, he executed scores of early Christians, some of them outfitted in animal skins and brutalized by dogs, with others burned at the stake.

He died by suicide.

Roman Emperor Nero in the burning ruins of Rome. July 64 AD.Credit: From an original painting by S.J. Ferris. (Photo by Kean Collection / Getty Images)

3. Commodus

Like some of his counterparts, Commodus (a.k.a. Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus) thought he was a god — in his case, a reincarnation of the Greek demigod Hercules. Ruling from 176 to 192 AD, he was also known for his debauched ways and strange stunts that seemed designed to affirm his divine status. Numerous statues around the empire showed him as Hercules, a warrior who fought both men and beasts. He fought hundreds of exotic animals in an arena like a gladiator, confusing and terrifying his subjects. Once, he killed 100 lions in a single day.

Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) questions the loyalty of his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) In Dreamworks Pictures' and Universal Pictures' Oscar-winning drama "Gladiator," directed by Ridley Scott.Credit: Photo By Getty Images

The burning desire to kill living creatures as a gladiator for the New Year's Day celebrations in 193 AD brought about his demise. After Commodus shot hundreds of animals with arrows and javelins every morning as part of the Plebeian Games leading up to New Year's, his fitness coach (aptly named Narcissus), choked the emperor to death in his bath.

4. Elagabalus

Officially named Marcus Aurelius Antoninus II, Elagabalus's nickname comes from his priesthood in the cult of the Syrian god Elagabal. Ruling as emperor from 218 to 222 AD, he was so devoted to the cult, which he tried to spread in Rome, that he had himself circumcised to prove his dedication. He further offended the religious sensitivities of his compatriots by essentially replacing the main Roman god Jupiter with Elagabal as the chief deity. In another nod to his convictions, he installed on Palatine Hill a cone-like fetish made of black stone as a symbol of the Syrian sun god Sol Invictus Elagabalus.

His sexual proclivities were also not well received at the time. He was likely transgender (wearing makeup and wigs), had five marriages, and was quite open about his male lovers. According to the Roman historian (and the emperor's contemporary) Cassius Dio, Elagabalus prostituted himself in brothels and taverns and was one of the first historical figures on record to be looking for sex reassignment surgery.

He was eventually murdered in 222 in an assassination plot engineered by his own grandmother Julia Maesa.

5. Vitellius

Emperor for just eight months, from April 19th to December 20th of the year 69 AD, Vitellius made some key administrative contributions to the empire but is ultimately remembered as a cruel glutton. He was described by Suetonius as overly fond of eating and drinking, to the point where he would eat at banquets four times a day while sending out the Roman navy to get him rare foods. He also had little social grace, inviting himself over to the houses of different noblemen to eat at their banquets, too.

Vitellius dragged through the streets of Rome.Credit: Georges Rochegrosse. 1883.

He was also quite vicious and reportedly either had his own mother starved to death or approved a poison with which she committed suicide.

Vitellius was ultimately murdered in brutal fashion by supporters of the rival emperor Vespasian, who dragged him through Rome's streets, then likely beheaded him and threw his body into the Tiber river. "Yet I was once your emperor," were supposedly his last words, wrote historian Cassius Dio.

6. Caracalla

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus I ruled Rome from 211 to 217 AD on his own (while previously co-ruling with his father Septimius Severus from 198). "Caracalla"' was his nickname, referencing a hooded coat from Gaul that he brought into Roman fashion.

He started off his rise to individual power by murdering his younger brother Geta, who was named co-heir by their father. Caracalla's bloodthirsty tyranny didn't stop there. He wiped out Geta's supporters and was known to execute any opponents to his or Roman rule. For instance, he slaughtered up to 20,000 citizens of Alexandria after a local theatrical satire dared to mock him.

Geta Dying in His Mother's Arms.Credit: Jacques Pajou (1766-1828)

One of the positive outcomes of his rule was the Edict of Caracalla, which gave Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire. He was also known for building gigantic baths.

Like others on this list, Caracalla met a brutal end, being assassinated by army officers, including the Praetorian prefect Opellius Macrinus, who installed himself as the next emperor.

7. Tiberius

As the second emperor, Tiberius (ruling from 42 BC to 16 AD) is known for a number of accomplishments, especially his military exploits. He was one of the Roman Empire's most successful generals, conquering Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia, and parts of Germania.

He was also remembered by his contemporaries as a rather sullen, perverse, and angry man. In the chapter on his life from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by the historian Suetonius, Tiberius is said to have been disliked from an early age for his personality by even his family. Suetonius wrote that his mother Antonia often called him "an abortion of a man, that had been only begun, but never finished, by nature."

"Orgy of the Times of Tiberius on Capri".Painting by Henryk Siemiradzki. 1881.

Suetonius also paints a damning picture of Tiberius after he retreated from public life to the island of Capri. His years on the island would put Jeffrey Epstein to shame. A horrendous pedophile, Tiberius had a reputation for "depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe," Suetonius wrote, describing how "in Capri's woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this 'the old goat's garden,' punning on the island's name."

There's much, much more — far too salacious and, frankly, disgusting to repeat here. For the intrepid or morbidly curious reader, here's a link for more information.

After he died, Tiberius was fittingly succeeded in emperorship by his grandnephew and adopted grandson Caligula.

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