Black Freethinkers: Secularism Among African Americans

Interview with the author of a new book on African American secularism.

Posted Jun 17, 2020

Millions of Americans are walking away from religion; over the past few decades, we have witnessed the largest increase of secularism in American history.

Although generally more religious, on average, than other racial or ethnic groups, African Americans have also experienced a notable rise of irreligion during this time: while 12 percent of African Americans were nonreligious (atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular”) back in 2007, that had risen to 18 percent in 2014, and is probably around 20 percent today.

In fact, there has always been a strong, vibrant river of African American secularism, going all the way back to the days of enslavement. And many of the most prominent leaders within the Black community have been secularists of varying degrees, including such beacons as Frederick Douglass, Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, David S. Cincore, Hubert Harrison, W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, A. Philip Randolph, Grace P. Campbell, Louise Thompson Patterson, James Forman, Lorraine Hansberry, Huey Newton, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, among so many others.

These Black atheists, agnostics, skeptics, and related secularists (often referred to as "freethinkers") have often offered poignant criticisms of religion, bold calls for secular activism in the face of racist oppression and systemic injustice, and insightful wisdom regarding the natural state of the human condition.

In his latest book Black Freethinkers, Dr. Christopher Cameron, Associate Professor of History at UNC Charlotte, offers an extremely engaging and timely exploration of African American secularism. Below are excerpts from our recent interview.             

Phil Z: Can you tell me a little bit about what prompted you to write this book?

Dr. Cameron: There were probably two key developments that led me to write Black Freethinkers. In 2012, I had been an atheist for a couple of years and was getting more active on social media. I began connecting with other black nonbelievers on Twitter and started to run across blog posts on historical black freethinkers such as Hubert Harrison. I’d been a history professor for 2 years at that point and was looking for another project, so these posts whetted my appetite to start learning more about the history of black nonbelief.

Around the same time, while finishing up the bibliography for my first book To Plead Our Own Cause, I reread Al Raboteau’s classic book Slave Religion. Most of the book deals with African religions and the evolution of a syncretistic form of Black Christianity from the colonial era to the antebellum period.

Toward the end of the work, however, Raboteau mentions that not all slaves “took solace in religion” and some could not believe in a just and all-powerful God who would allow his people to suffer under slavery. Raboteau’s discussion of atheism and agnosticism occupies just a couple pages yet was incredibly intriguing to me, as I’d encountered no other historians who explored religious skepticism in nineteenth-century slave communities. This discovery likewise fueled my search for examples of black freethinkers, both in the era of slavery and in the twentieth century, and what I found convinced me that black freethought was much more prevalent and important than scholars have realized.

Phil Z: Of all the prominent African American freethinkers that you profile, was there one in particular that you felt personally drawn to, or that spoke to you, or that you felt was particularly special or noteworthy?

Dr. Cameron: Yes, Stokely Carmichael—largely because he grew up in the Bronx and lived less than a mile away from my old apartment on Tremont and Crotona Ave. Carmichael became a freethinker while studying at the prestigious Bronx High School of Science, a school that I was admitted to 40 years after him. He was particularly interesting to me because he represented something of a bridge between an old and new generation of freethinkers.

As a teenager in the mid-1950s, he traveled to Harlem where he would listen to black freethinkers from the 1920s like Richard B. Moore, but he would also influence and work with black atheists and agnostics such as Huey Newton and David Hilliard, leaders of the Black Panther Party. Carmichael was one of the architects of Black Power as a political philosophy and represents well the influence of secularism on African American political thought.

Phil Z: So many people have downplayed or ignored the freethought tradition within African American history. Why do you think this is so?

Dr. Cameron: I think the primary reason that black freethinkers have been ignored is the politics of respectability prevalent among scholars of African American history. This field began in the mid-19th century as a way to highlight the achievements, patriotism, and contributions of African Americans to the nation.

Black history was, and sometimes still is, a political project aimed at making an argument for racial equality. If African Americans could be presented in a positive light, so the thinking went, they would be given equal rights. Thus, many scholars tended to dismiss, downplay, or ignore anything that presented the race negatively.

But along with this is the very real fact that African Americans constitute the most religious racial group in the United States, and thus many people may have simply not thought there was a tradition of black freethought to explore.

Phil Z: In the current face of ongoing racist oppression, economic inequality, educational disparity, and police brutality, is there anything within the corpus of African American freethought that can teach us, help us, or inspire us?

Dr. Cameron: Black freethinkers in the United States have consistently emphasized the importance of political engagement and civic activism. This was true of black freethinkers like Hubert Harrison in the early 20th century, Lorraine Hansberry and Stokely Carmichael in the civil rights era, and Sikivu Hutchinson today.

Hutchinson is especially prominent among contemporary black freethinkers in advancing an intersectional critique of American capitalism, religion, and racism. By embracing the values of secular humanism rather than what she would call the bankrupt ethics of Christianity, Hutchinson argues we can actually begin to alleviate problems such as health disparities, housing inequities, and the prison-industrial complex, problems that both the Black Church and American Christianity more broadly have failed to solve.