Black Atheists: Civil Rights Was More Than Black Churches

The last issue of American Atheists featured several articles written by black people who looked into a world unseen by most of us.  It is the world of the American black citizen who is an atheist.

I had not thought about how religion tends to define the civil rights movement.  Its gigantic figure, Martin Luther King, was a minister.  Imagines of him are often in a clerical robe.  Much of the early civil rights organizing took place in churches.

The black authors I read took issue with the view that churches were the only force that led to justice.  There were secular participants in the movement from the start.   The reason rallies took place in black churches was that these churches were the only place black people could hold political gatherings.

Martin Luther King used the Bible as justification for the civil rights movement.  No doubt, he found his voice in the scriptures and used it effectively.  The fact is, however, he had to use the Bible as a defense strategy.  The offense, segregationists, started using it against blacks going all  the way back to slavery.

The black nonbelievers say it is time to move on from the characterization of civil rights and black churches being one and the same.  When  civil rights are celebrated, they would like to see the secular part of it given its proper recognition.

While churces played an important role, they say,  the secular part of the black community did as well.

57 Responses

  1. It sounds like his article is in need of an addendum so I’ve decided to submit one for him. These are, of course, not my views as my worldview is one of Christian theism. These are simply to help him (as he is an atheist) flesh out his ideas. Here we go:

    “Of course this whole discussion leaves me torn. Truly, I personally gain from this societal change in attitude toward people of my own ethnicity/race. Further, it feels good and right. Yet, to embrace the notion of rights — civil or otherwise — seems profoundly difficult. From whence woudld such rights derive? Rights imply moral obligation. But, human beings are only accidental biochemical machines — that is, things. And how can I have a moral obligation to a thing?

    Further, what could morals be? They are metaphysical notions that cannot be tasted, touched, heard or otherwise detected with the five senses. Yet, humanity holds to them with passion and ferver as if they are of utmost significance. In fact, as I describe them presently it occurs to me that they are, in many, many respects, much like the notion of God, a notion I dsavow. But if I disdain the metaphysical in the case of God, why should I accept it in the case of morals? Are they any more tangible? Shall I give up my naturalism simply because I do not like where it leads me?

    But if there are no rights, no moral obligations, I find myself shagrined that we secularists played a part in defending and advocating for such matters. Why not advocate for the existence of that other (and disdainful) metaphysical concept– namely God?

    And I consider this: Of what value would biochemical machines be in an impersonal universe — that is, a universe of the type for which I advocate? Per my comments above, they are simply things. How does their being animate or sentient make them significantly more valuable? If they are not valuable, why should I treat them as if they are? Certainly, if the Christian doctrine of the image of God were so — indeed, if they were lovingly fashioned by a great moral being — it would be reasonable to respect them as something to be treasured. This, however, is not my view. My view does not allow this.

    Hence, civil are intellectually irrational upon my worldview — shameful even — so that I hate them. Of course, I do hope society continues to uphold them. But I hope for this because I like it (much like one may like strawberry ice cream better than vanilla), not because it is rational to do so.”

    Again, these aren’t my views. I’m just helping him stay more consistent with his naturalism. I’m pretty sure he would have added this if he’d thought of it. 🙂

    1. JSM is under the impression the humans derive morality from religion, while Jon labors under the assumption that religion derives its morality from humans.

      So which is it? The chicken or the egg?

      1. Wanna B Sure

        I think that we all know how to fry a chicken or an egg.
        Man does not have the recipe to make a chicken OR an egg.

          1. Wanna B Sure

            Sea; Ingredients–oats, corn, millet, oyster shells, water, misc. elements,
            Equipment needed; blender, Easy bake Oven.

          2. Wanna B Sure

            Sea; Oops– Forgot (in the equipment needed), one tazer (for the spark of life). You may have to throw in a couple Peeps so it can “peep”.
            Cloning does not qualify. (The operative word here is” make”, not reproduce.)

          3. Wanna B Sure

            Sea; Or you could method # 2. Ex Nihilo. Now there is something worth writing a book about. Hmmmmm.

          4. doubtful

            We humans did write the Bible, of course. That does not decrease it’s value or validity. This book review from The Chronicle of Higher Education gives a good description of why that is true. Hope I got the link right. 🙂

          5. Wanna B Sure

            Sea; Thanks . Read the article/s . I didn’t see anything about conscious. Even chickens are conscious.

          6. Wanna B Sure

            Doubtfull; Interesting article. Although I haven’t yet read all of it, I will. Already I ran into “polyvocal”.? Good term. Those of whom are of the “hyper-literalism” crowd do miss much of the written word. Both in content, and context. By doing so, much of the “Hebraisms” are lost, along with the poetry, and allegory. Also lost is much of the true spirituality. They have reduced the Bible to an operational manual.

          7. SOS, Venter didn’t really “create” life. He disassembled bacteria DNA, then reassembled it and injected it into a cell with no DNA. Quite a feat, but it’s incredibly far from creating a chicken or even a bacteria. The only thing we can do, and ever be able to do, is manipulate what God has already created. Venter can have fun playing god. The only thing these mad scientists are going to do is create a pandemic, not life.

          8. Wanna B Sure

            PK; Good ! That thought did cross my mind, but I didn’t include it because I thought that the “cloning”, and the first recipe implied that, and Ex-nihilo would obviously prevent the use of it. Thanks.

        1. entech

          Which of the many, many recipes is the best? And why is one so obviously true? And, what makes people that adopt a particular recipe, above all others that produce the same result, so superior?


          1. Wanna B Sure

            David; Sorry–I don’t get your point. Are we making cakes, chickens, or people? For cakes, I’d see Martha Stewart. For Chickens, I’d see Tyson. For people, I’d have to cautiously talk to my wife. Smilie face. (Here in the States, Tyson is the largest chicken producer.)

          2. entech

            “Man does not have the recipe to make a chicken OR an egg.” In your post at 8:58 sorry if I misread that but I did think you were talking about the making or creation of life. To rephrase the question.
            There are many creation stories in the world. How do you justify the opinion that yours is the correct one? More than opinion, that it is fact and all the others are false: very few are compatible and many are mutually exclusive. And what makes the people that have faith so much better than those that don’t? Why should they have respect simple as an adjunct to having faith?

          3. entech

            As a very good friend of mine from the original version of your belief system might say,”you should live so long” 🙂

          4. Wanna B Sure

            David; I see what you ask for. I guess there will always be a difference in understanding and belief. I can’t help that. I can understand what their beliefs are, or their lack of belief . (believe me, ) They don’t have to agree with me, nor do I have to agree with them. In the meantime, I will wait for someone to make a chicken out of a sack of “starter mash” and a pail of water.

          5. From entech: “Which of the many, many recipes is the best? And why is one so obviously true? And, what makes people that adopt a particular recipe, above all others that produce the same result, so superior?”

            Depends on your palate (an individual and cultural development). They’re all more or less equally true. They’re metaphorically challenged.

      2. I was hoping that the digression triggered by my metaphorical chicken reference would make it’s way back to the point, but I think I’m going to have to nudge it along.

        If we’re going to talk about making life (which I never said we were capable of, just getting closer) what are the moral implications of such a development, in which old dusty book do you find the answer (if any), and who’s the author?

        1. Wanna B Sure

          The Moral implications? Stay away from violins and cigars.
          The book; Young Frankenstein
          The author ; Mary Shelly (as reconstructed by Gene Wilder).
          Famous quote; It’s alive, it’s alive ! ! !

        2. Sea 2:26 Since the beginning of time, people have lamented that the “younger generation” doesn’t have values and qualities of “our” generation.” Now, if the “our generation” designs and produces this next generation in test tubes, will it behave properly? If it doesn’t, it seems like the burden of guilt on the designers will be unbearable.

          1. Wanna B Sure

            I expect that in a few short years, we will be seeing a new round of Japanese horror movies on the result of the radiation on sea life in the ocean. Consider the tribble (Star Treck), and the sea urchin. Coming up out of the sea to take over the islands. Only to be stopped by rubber lipped , one eyed chickens that sit on them, hoping to incubate them into something beneficial that does not taste like chicken.

      3. Sea, that’s not really my position. I’m not arguing that humans get morality from religion, per se, but that it’s only on a theistic worldview that real, objective, obligating morals are logically possible. So my position is not, “We have religion, therefore we have morals.” It is more something like, “There is a God, therefore there is a moral order.”

  2. And then there are those of us who are pretty sure that God didn’t make any mistakes in human creation, and the whole idea of civil rights is a natural interpretation of scripture.

    Well, except for brown people, homos and Muslims.

    1. Mac 3:36 Yes, would’ve been nice if God would have made it easier for “brown people, homos and Muslims.” Like maybe he could have made discrimination end after a week or so, instead of centuries. Poor planning if you ask me.

      1. On the contrary, one could argue that allowing for the possibility of genuine evil (such as racism) so that genuine freedom is possible and therefore genuine moral choices are possible is a great good and, therefore, creating a universe in which there is the real possibility of evil demonstrates incredible foresight.

        1. entech

          I could never quite accept the line of reasoning that says,”we need devils so that we cane recognize angels”

          1. Wanna B Sure

            Angelology 101- Da devil/demons is/are angels. The rejection was theirs, as is ours. So now we have both kinds of angels, (the goodn’ns & da bad’ns. Now we can start to see the results of rejecting. Sooo, are we rejecting, or accepting? And don’t ask what/who. You know.

          2. Wanna B Sure

            I can understand your frustration. However, with a little patience and an open mind, it could become clear for you.

          3. Wanna B Sure

            “Seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand”. Augustine.
            “I believe so that I may understand” Anselem.

          4. entech

            “Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”
            “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
            Alice in Wonderland.

            Repeated but relevant

        2. Wanna B Sure

          Yes, Alice in Wonderland is authoritative. (huh)? And under the influence of mushrooms. cocaine? Whatever.

          1. entech

            Actually I believe that Dodgson ate a lot of lettuce thinking that it contained some kind of alkaloid.
            As for mushrooms, why do you think all the sages of the ages keep going up mountains and into caves if not for the fabulous fungi?

          2. entech

            Not so tasty. Very poisonous in fact. Wouldn’t get too many good ideas when you are dead. But then you wouldn’t be able to tell people how to run their lives either.

          3. Wanna B Sure

            Oh, I saw a news clip of a guy with one tooth declaring the benefits of them. As for the telling how to run their lives, (or not ), and denegrating others, there are those who judge on both sides of the argument.

          4. entech

            Well it is mid morning here and the gym is calling. Guess a body is like faith if you don’t use it you lose it. 🙂
            Catch up on another thread.

    2. Brad Campbell

      It doesn’t matter at what time or where….there will always be discrimination in this world.

      In a perfect world there would be no discrimination of any kind but this is not a perfect world.

      Maybe if more people read scripture there would be less discrimination….

      1. Brad 1:39 Gosh, the scripture I’m familiar with was used by slave holders and later segregationalists to justify their views. The stoning of children and women is a part that does not seem to promote tolerance.

  3. entech

    I am a great admirer of Neil deGrasse Tyson one of the top astrophysicists in the world. I would be happy to have half of his intellect and ability to communicate scientific knowledge. When asked about the fact that 85% of the top physicists disavow a personal God he says we look at the statistics in the wrong way: look at the 15% and ask why it is so high.
    Christopher Hitchens is very good on Martin Luther King and points out that many of his fellow organisers were not in any way religious, and, that it was good that King did not take “let my people go” as a literal model to follow because the original led to massive blood loss and genocide.
    To my shame as an outsider looking in, a foreigner looking at the American scene, I still find at the back of my mind the stereotype of hand clapping and gospel singing. This is part of what they must struggle against.


    1. David 8:45 “…hand clapping and gospel singing.” You hit it exactly right. The three or four men who wrote mentioned just that, black preachers pleading with their people to get on their knees and “consider yourselves unworthy sinners, ask forgiveness for your unworthiness…” Black people have been told all their lives by white people they are worthless, they wrote. “Why should we hear it from black people themselves?” Beside that, there was a large portion of the black evangelical community that told Martin Luther King to stop what he was doing because God had given them their lowly status and all should accept it. To say the black churches were a force in the movement was only partly true.

      Then, a wonderful young writer, a black female professor, wrote about black ministers and their role in holding back women. When white people forced the Christian faith on their slaves they also introduced the white Christian model of gender roles. White men had much higher status than white women. This gender role was forced onto the black community and remains today. It is preached by black preachers and is a souce of much anger by younger members of the community.

      One writer made the observation that church attendance and membership in black Christian churches seems to be declining just as it is in white ones. Young black people are deciding to go another direction.

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