Or Richard Dawkins, Other Africans Reveal Radical, Atheist Afro-genda at Howard University
BY IAN “WHITE PRIVILEGE” MURPHY
THE NORTH AMERICAN WILDERNESS—Used to be a time when a white man could put a black lawn jockey or Carl Paladino sign out front of his summer home, and feel a sense of pride, because race-hate was moral in God’s book. And black folks appreciated the white man’s sins because the same book taught them that to suffer on the oppressor’s cross was divine. Those were the “good old days,” as candy bars only cost 5¢ and the gays knew their place.
But no more. There’s a black POTUS. Black atheists meet out in the open. Even my girlfriend is black! What has happened to my country?
I know what you’re thinking: The phrase “black atheist” is an oxymoron—like “global warming” in winter, it makes no sense to the American brain. The contradictory words conjure urban leprechauns, brown unicorns and Afroed yetis but, despite the predictably unfunny claims of D.L. Hughley, black atheists are no myth. They walk among us, unreported. There are ten of them in Harlem. Seriously; I counted.
I went to this non-believer support group-type thing on Adam Clayton Powell Blvd &…Geordi La Forge Ave….I think. There were seven white people there, too, including myself. Every time one of them opened their iced-tea-hole, I sank a little in my chair. It may have been irrational, but I couldn’t help thinking, “Dude, we’ve had several hundred years to dominate the conversation, so, you know, maybe shut the fuck up!” It was cool, though; we got Caribbean after. Everyone was nice to me in Harlem and I left surprisingly unmurdered. But the guy with the “Mugabe was Right” poster on his van made me a little nervous.
Harlem was the second stop in what I shouldn’t call a safari into African American atheism. First stop: Philly to meet the girlfriend’s family and friends. Cunningly, I brought a few packs of menthols to blend in, which elicited a mysterious eye-roll from my “boo.” I’m allowed to say that now. During the car ride from Buffalo, we honed the finer points of interracial communication. “Colored people” is no good—except in the case of National Association for the Advancement of them. “People of color,” for some reason, is totally fine. “Negro” should never be used—unless you’re conducting the US census or donating to the college fund. And a “kitchen” is the area of short, unmanageable hair on the back of one’s neck. But that’s neither here nor there.
Anyway, as any incredibly charming and wickedly handsome boyfriend would insist, I wanted to greet the mother with a sappy gift in hand. Mothers—of every color—love that crap, and they usual have some sort of cutesy-poo obsession, like kittens in short pants or those creepy Anne Geddes baby photos. As it turns out, the mom owns a modest collection of stuffed monkeys. But because I am white, I was forbidden to give her one. Life can be so unfair.
The only moment which could be called racially tense, was when the mom offhandedly referred to P. Diddy as a “nigga.” She immediately apologized to me, specifically, which was weird.
After Harlem, we shot down to the D.C. swampland. There was this “Dialogue of Reason: Science and Faith in the Black Community” talk at the historically black Howard University. The only reporters at the press conference were myself and self-described BEAST Psychonaut Tyler Bass. And we hardly count.
World-renowned evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, intellectual and author Sikivu Hutchinson, Professor of Religious Studies at Rice University Anthony Pinn and President of the Stiefel Freethought Foundation Todd Stiefel sat on the Cramton Auditorium stage, looking down at us—the disappointing turnout.
I asked Dawkins about race.
“Race,” he explained, “is the beginnings of a geographic separation between a population, which given enough time may actually speciate to form separate species. What’s remarkable about the human race is despite the superficial racial differences, which may seem significant to our eyes, the human species is remarkably uniform genetically compared to species which look more similar to our eyes. If you take any two chimps from any forest in Africa they are actually genetically more different from each other than any two humans on earth. Genetically, the fact is that humans are very uniform can be attributed to a very narrow bottle neck around a hundred thousand years ago, which left us a very small number of ancestral survivors.”
Sporting a cool “We Are All Africans” t-shirt under his blazer (the A in Africans was the scarlet letter of atheism), Dawkins would reiterate this fact during the Dialogue proper, which drew a racially-mixed five or six-hundred. Earlier in the day, he and astrophysicist, and Director of the Hayden Planetarium, Neil deGrasse Tyson drew about a thousand—mostly old crackers—for an event dubbed “The Poetry of Science.” They basically geeked out on aliens and other science junk. A freshly bald Christopher Hitchens sat up front with a Gore Vidal doppelganger.
Despite some reports, Tyson was not present for the “Dialogue of Reason.” Word on the street is that he doesn’t like “black stuff.” He won’t do Black History Month gigs. He just won’t. I’d probably loathe the idea, too, if my phone rang off the hook every Irish History Month, which has been canceled this year due to there being no such thing. But I digress.
Bass asked the panel why the very religious African American community typically votes liberal-leaning democrat, while religious whites tend to vote republican, and is that an important question to ask?
“I think that it is a critical question,” responded Dr. Hutchinson. “This issue of African American hyper-religiosity—this paradox with blacks being more politically liberal—is an issue that also impinges on subcommunities and subcultures in the African American community.” My audio is a bit wonky here, but her general point was that the black church had, historically, been the backbone of the civil rights movement. But, she added, “African Americans are more socially conservative on so called wedge issues [like] same sex marriage,” illustrating the church’s modern limits toward social justice.
Dr. Pinn added that “homophobia [and] sexism [are] drawn from a fictional text. Religiosity is so entrenched because of a failure of a real social network that can play the traditional role of the black church, which has been that nexus of the community.”
Observing my mute inability to ask a decent question, Dr. Dawkins piped in and asked the other panelists if religion was forced on slaves to “curb [a] natural inclination toward rebellion?”
Pinn answered that “religion, being concerned with spiritual well-being rather than socioeconomic well-being,” offered delayed gratification and a “preoccupation with the afterlife” as a method of control. He added that “the blues spit in the face of [those] theological assumptions.”
Bass asked, “Didn’t the masters also hold these irrational beliefs?”
Clarifying Bass’s point, Dawkins pondered aloud, “It may be too cynical to suggest that religion was a way of keeping down the slaves because the masters believed it themselves?”
Pinn said it’s not important what they “did or did not believe theologically. Of importance here is what happens to one’s humanity.” Both slave and master “selectively picked from the bible…these fictitious stories,” he said. Religion helped to get “slaves to agree to the process of dehumanization” and helped the master to see the slave as an “object put here for [their] utility.”
“People who have less money tend to be more religious,” Bass stated. “Does poverty cause religion or religion cause poverty—who’s laying the egg here?”
Todd Stiefel spoke, “I’m no expert, but I would believe that poverty causes religiosity.” Stiefel is right; he’s no expert on poverty. As a white gazillionaire, his place on the panel was an odd choice. During the Dialogue Q&A, a young woman asked if atheism was a product of “white privilege” and his answer was unremarkable, save for the irony. But, he cool.
“Religion contributes to poverty in that it causes people to lose their grip on basic truths, science and the real world,” Stiefel continued. “We cannot compete with what religion offers…an afterlife. It doesn’t matter how bad things are today, because of this idea of eternal salvation. We need to do a much better job of developing and delivering a secular message of hope and optimism.”
Dawkins quipped, “I suppose religiosity could lead to poverty in religious people if they took their New Testament seriously.”
“One of the things that religion does is it’s a way of justifying poverty. It can turn this negative into a good,” added Pinn. “Impoverishment becomes a way of gauging one’s spiritual prowess—you are encountering these difficulties because you are so very close to God and the world is trying to damage that relationship. It’s that bizarre view of socioeconomic and political turmoil that really does profound harm.”
Dawkins chimed in, saying that both religiosity and poverty are caused by a lack of education.
Hutchinson reminded us that the black church is “the real anchor of the African American community.” She said, in addition to the “fictitious afterlife” and the spiritual “opiate of religion,” only the church “can deliver those [social] services to impoverished folk.” It fills a real role in people’s lives, which more affluent segments of society don’t need.
Who put this thing together? The President of the Secular Students of Howard University Mark Hatcher put this thing together. Who does he trust? Probably his family, friends and colleagues. That’s who. He did a great job of moderating the discussion, too. As of this writing, it is unclear whether or not he’s gotten the scant ten signatures needed to make the Secular Students an officially recognized campus group. On a recent NPR interview, he said that people at Howard nearly ran when they heard the word “secular.”
After the Dialogue, about six trolls from Ray Comfort’s Living Waters ministry were handing out free copies of Darwin’s On The Origin of Species. “I like the bible,” one woman named Debbie told me, “because the bible doesn’t change.” Bass & I suggested she be more open to new evidence as it becomes available. She scoffed and made us promise to read the first fifty pages of Darwin, which is Comfort’s moronic introduction/sad attempt to discredit evolution. I did. And I cried.
“Have you ever met Kirk Cameron?” I asked. “How tall is he?”
“Yeah,” she said, wincing. “Why does that matter?” It doesn’t.
Her partner in delusion Rob (the only black guy from New Hampshire) “argued” with Bass about how Noah’s flood made the Grand Canyon. It was tiring, so we got our drink on at a nearby pub. The bartender, a Howard student named Ariel (“like the Little Mermaid”) was a Christian, who oddly lost her appreciation for Kirk Cameron when he “got all into Jesus.” Curious.
“I hear he’s really short,” I told her. It was about time to leave The Chocolate City.
America is one nation under God’s boot. In a recent American Values Survey, 81% of the pathologically-racist Tea Partiers identified as Christian. The only demographic that can rival that level of hyper-religiosity is the African American community. According to an ’09 Pew Research Center survey, 83% of blacks identify as Christian. Tea Baggers comprise 11% of the population and, as of ’08, African Americans make up about 14%. So, generally speaking, here we have two comparably sized and delusional groups using the same religious text to justify two diametrically opposed worldviews. On one end, there’s heartless economic conservatism—Jesus with a sword—and on the other we see an economically progressive liberalism—Jesus on the mount. At least everyone can all get along in agreeing that the gays are going to burn in hell.
The pervasive irrationality we face in this nation—the racism, classism, religious idiocy, homophobia and climate science denial—is all of a piece, Hutchinson told us at the press conference. On one side there’s reason and science, on the other is stupidity. In the case of the media-saturated Tea Party, the stupid is propagated by the oligarchs who would keep these “libertarian” saps poor and dumb by pandering to their basest fear of the other. The other has its posterboy—man (sorry) in Barack Obama. The policies of this administration are beside the point; what’s exciting the Tea Party primates is an irrational siege mentality. They truly miss the “good old days.”
As for the black primates (get over yourself), their staunch religiosity is a dead end. Black liberation theology is the real oxymoron. Religion can only take a people so far. The black church gets all the credit for civil rights, but what becomes painfully obvious the more we explore ethics is that morality is something we inject into our religion rather than the other way around.
It’s fall, 2010; it should be easy to see that religion and science do not mix. Religion played its role in human history; it may have been of great use in maintaining cultural bonds and advancing our civilization when we knew very little about the natural world. But if we are to survive, as a species, it’s time to put away the childish myths and try to make rational sense of things.
It’s imperative at this point in history to heed the call of science. Jesus will not save you from global warming. Jesus will not send your child to school. Jesus will not end hunger and poverty. Jesus will not help you unless you intend to suffer. And when you surrender your reason to faith, you surely will.
Should we be the masters of our collective future, or should we continue to be slaves? It seems like a question that doesn’t need asking. I do, however, have one question left after my black atheist safari: What the hell is a “chumpy”?
Tyler Bass contributed to this report. Tyler Perry disapproves of this report.