Live From The American Atheist Conference – Day 2, Part 1

The speaker this morning was Jamila Bey, a reporter for NPR.  Her talk was entitled, We’re Not Unicorns — People of Color in the Atheist Movement.  Jamila has an interesting background, being raised by a Souther Baptist mother who converted to Catholicism when Jamila was 5.  Her father was a Black Muslim and she is married to an ethnic jew.

She said that black atheists are hiding for fear of social ostracization.  She call them the low hanging fruit surrounded by thorns.  We learned that 30% of blacks under the age of 30 identify themselves as non-religious.

Nest she talked about the how history of the black youth culture, back to the Harlem Renaissance, has been driven by heathens and homosexuals.  

She talked about the history of black churches and how they have historically been a place of sanctuary going back to the time of slavery, since they were the only places where more than two blacks could gather.  This has made black churches the only real social outlet that most African Americans have that are not gang or street related.  

There is an interesting dynamic going on in these churches in that the congregations are made up mostly of women and their children, but are lead by men.  She tells us that only 13% of black children are born into two parent families so that the women are the dominant force in the community, except when it comes to the churches.  The children see these strong, outspoken black women being submissive in the presence of the pastors and other male leaders of the church, and most of them can see the inequality in this.  This oppressiveness of the male dominated churches in the lives of black women leads to huge inequalities.

The average net worth of a black woman in America is $5.00.  These women, most of who do not have savings or retirement funds, are told that the must give at least 10% of their earnings to the church, and they do.  She cites the bible passage about the widow who gives all that she has as tithe to the temple and Jesus tells his disciples that she will be blessed because she gave out of her need.  This glorifying of giving our of their need has been hammered into black women for generations and keeps them from becoming financially secure and independent. 

She spoke about the image of the shepherd and the sheep and describes how this image is keeping black men out of the churches because they do not want to identify with being helpless followers.  She said that the only reason the shepherd has you in his flock is because he wants to sell your meat and wool.  

Jamila tells us of a county in Maryland that has the wealthiest black community in the country, but also has the worse school in the state.  She told us how one of the major churches there is lavish, with a pastor who drives a car worth more that many of his flock’s homes, and yet their schools are crumbling because people give their money to the church instead of the schools.

She said that the story of the civil rights movement as being something that happened in the churches is a lie.  These churches were the only place where people of color could gather in any number.  Many of the leaders of the civil rights movement were atheists, including Bayard Rustin, a counselor of Martin Luther King, Jr. and one of the main organizers of the Freedom Rides who was gay and and atheist. 

Jamila tells us that we need to reach out to black men who are alienated from Christian churches where they can never meet the standard of being like their blue-eyed, light-skinned savior. 

She urged use to proudly wear our atheist buttons and shirts so that people can see us and start to learn who we are.  When people ask us questions about what we are wearing, we can engage them in discussion and they can see us as just regular people, rather than someone to be feared.

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