Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A Race Towards Humanism?


Race and religion in America is something that fascinates me and there never seems to be an end to its complexities. The Religion News Service has a story about something you may not hear much about: African American humanists. Check it out:

WASHINGTON (RNS) Standing before a room full of fellow African-Americans, Jamila Bey took a deep breath and announced she's come out of the closet. Her soul-bearing declaration is nearly taboo, she says. "It's the A-word," said Bey, 33, feigning a whisper. "You commit social suicide as a black person when you say you're an atheist." Bey and other black atheists, agnostics and secularists are struggling to openly affirm their secular viewpoints in a community that's historically heralded as one of America's most religious. At the first African Americans for Humanism conference recently hosted by the non-profit Center for Inquiry, about 50 people gathered to discuss the ins and outs of navigating their dual identities as blacks and followers of the non-religious philosophy known as humanism. "We need black non-theists to gather in one place and say, `Look at her or look at him: he looks like me and they're atheists. And that's OK,"' said Norm Allen, a former Baptist and now the executive director of African Americans for Humanism. A 2009 study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that African-Americans were more religious on a variety of measures than the U.S. population as a whole, with 87 percent of African-Americans describing themselves as belonging to one religious group or another. Nearly eight in 10 African-Americans said religion is very important in their lives, compared with 56 percent of the general U.S. adult population. "You renounce your blackness," said Bey. "You almost denigrate your heritage and history of the people if you claim atheism." (Read the whole thing here)

Here is a bit of information from the African Americans for Humanism website:

African Americans for Humanism is engaged in developing humanism in the African American community. We exist for those who are unchurched or free from religion and who are looking for a rational and ethical approach to life. Our organization believes that the solving of problems and attainment of happiness are rooted in reason, free inquiry, and critical thinking. We do not embrace ESP, astrology, numerology, or any other paranormal belief. We strive to deal with the problems of the world by fully developing our minds and properly analyzing ethical ideas. (Read more here)

While the modest numbers who attended the conference mentioned in this article hardly represent a "trend", the article provokes some interesting questions to ponder. Can African Americans be "Good without God"? Is being religious (in this case, an African American Christian) inseparable from being "Black"? If African Americans are (as studies suggest) among the most religious people in America, what factors are associated with African Americans who aren't? Is the emergence of groups like African Americans for Humanism evidence supporting the assertion that the Black Church is Dead?

As a Baha'i who is African American, I know what it's like to be considered outside of the mainstream of African American religiosity and to some degree the African American community in general. I sympathize with African American humanists who may face ostracism or hostility for choosing a different approach to life than the majority. My prayer is that the African American community can free itself from limited notions of identity based on uniformity and embrace the concept of unity in diversity. There is no one correct way to be an African American.

"The diversity in the human family should be the cause of love and harmony, as it is in music where many different notes blend together in the making of a perfect chord." (Abdu'l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 53)

I can also see why humanism may be attractive to African Americans, especially those who value the power of reason. As I have said before, theists have done more to discredit religion than humanists or atheists could ever do.

"To this accounting must be added a betrayal of the life of the mind which, more than any other factor, has robbed religion of the capacity it inherently possesses to play a decisive role in the shaping of world affairs. Locked into preoccupation with agendas that disperse and vitiate human energies, religious institutions have too often been the chief agents in discouraging exploration of reality and the exercise of those intellectual faculties that distinguish humankind." (The Universal House of Justice, 2002 April, To the World's Religious Leaders)

However, as a Baha'i I do not agree with the notion that religion and reason are incompatible.

"true science is reason and reality, and religion is essentially reality and pure reason; therefore, the two must correspond...If we say religion is opposed to science, we lack knowledge of either true science or true religion, for both are founded upon the premises and conclusions of reason, and both must bear its test." (Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 107)

Ultimately, rejection of religion is not the only response available to its problems. An alternative response is to work for its renewal.

"Such reflections, however painful, are less an indictment of organized religion than a reminder of the unique power it represents. Religion, as we are all aware, reaches to the roots of motivation. When it has been faithful to the spirit and example of the transcendent Figures who gave the world its great belief systems, it has awakened in whole populations capacities to love, to forgive, to create, to dare greatly, to overcome prejudice, to sacrifice for the common good and to discipline the impulses of animal instinct. Unquestionably, the seminal force in the civilizing of human nature has been the influence of the succession of these Manifestations of the Divine that extends back to the dawn of recorded history. This same force, that operated with such effect in ages past, remains an inextinguishable feature of human consciousness. Against all odds, and with little in the way of meaningful encouragement, it continues to sustain the struggle for survival of uncounted millions, and to raise up in all lands heroes and saints whose lives are the most persuasive vindication of the principles contained in the scriptures of their respective faiths. As the course of civilization demonstrates, religion is also capable of profoundly influencing the structure of social relationships. Indeed, it would be difficult to think of any fundamental advance in civilization that did not derive its moral thrust from this perennial source. Is it conceivable, then, that passage to the culminating stage in the millennia-long process of the organization of the planet can be accomplished in a spiritual vacuum? If the perverse ideologies let loose on our world during the century just past contributed nothing else, they demonstrated conclusively that the need cannot be met by alternatives that lie within the power of human invention." (The Universal House of Justice, 2002 April, To the World's Religious Leaders)