Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Coming out black and agnostic


The Devil is wearing mittens and I expect a ham to fly past my window any second now. Why? Salon has published a letter from an African American in its Cary Tennis advice column. To be fair, most writers to the column don't mention their race, so I could be wrong in guessing that most queries come from white, urban, highly-educated, highly-privileged liberals. One thing is clear, rarely does Tennis tackle issues unique to people of color.

Today's dilemma comes from a black man who is disaffected from the church. Unlike his conservative, Christian wife and family, he has come to know that he is agnostic--he believes that the truth about the afterlife, deities and ultimate reality is unknowable. While the writer wants to be true to himself, he is hesitant to come out to his family--afraid of the fractures his lack of faith might cause.

I feel that I am now at a point where I must make a declaration that will surely affect those who are close to me. My loved ones have long suspected that there was something "different" about my approach to spiritual subjects, but up until now I have successfully hidden my true thoughts, philosophical developments and feelings from them.
  • With every Sunday that I sit in a church that would likely condemn my kind, I feel like I am betraying my potential and misleading my spouse.
  • With every public prayer uttered "in Jesus' name" I feel like I am living a lie.
  • With every in-depth discussion about religious and social topics, I use evasive humor and agile commentary to distract my conversation partners -- fearing that a sustained encounter would lead to the exposure of my controversial religious and philosophical views.
But one can only do this for so long before wondering if such attempts to suppress one's true self for fear of offending the sensibilities of others is really worth it. One can only maintain a facade so long before wondering if doing so also erodes one's sense of integrity while also denying loved ones the opportunity to know, understand and accept the "true" you. Read more...

What to do?

Tennis gave one of his predictably lofty and meandering non-answers to "Churchgoing Agnostic"--advice that, I think, doesn't take into account the unique relationship the black community has with Christianity. The Black Church, as an institution, is about more than worship. It is about community, history, activism and more. For many, Christianity and churchgoing are part of the very fabric of African Americanness. For a people whose African ancestors practiced indigenous religions far removed from the Western view of worship, we have embraced Christianity as ours. A recent survey revealed that blacks are more religious in key ways - including frequency of church attendance, daily prayer life and certainty of belief - than the U.S. population as a whole. Quiet as it's kept, a whole lot of those presumably white, conservative, Evangelical Christians that get so much ink, look like me.

Atheism, agnosticism, even other world religions, such as Buddhism or Hinduism, are belief systems "those other folks" dabble in, not black folk--or so conventional wisdom says. Even Islam (a common modern-day religion in the lands of our ancestors, as well as the United States) and historically black religions, such as Yoruba and Rastafarianism get the side eye.

I am not arguing the merit of one path or another. I am wondering what happens when you know your religious path is not the one in which you and most other black Americans were raised? When Christianity (Protestant Christianity) is so engrained in your culture, when it has been a life preserver in the turbulent storm that is the history of blacks in America (although some might argue the opposite), how does one extract themselves from that (if that is what he or she wants to do)? It occurs to me that what the letter writer may face could be explosive.

One Salon commenter agrees. Assezmalicieuse says:

I wish the LW so much luck. I am already outside of the African American church community because I was raised Catholic and have been an atheist since the age of 15, but I know how gut-wrenching such a separation will be because the black Protestant community is not just a place one goes to worship, it literally can become the social center of one's life. Voluntarily cutting himself off from his religious community is like suffering a cherem. It's worse than excommunication; it's literally a social exclusion which could seriously damage his marriage and literally leave him isolated, but I believe one must always "to one's own heart, be true." Most of the truly devout black folks I know (and who I count as family, including my Roman Catholic parents) have been taught to "love the sinner and hate the sin." If his wife truly lives by Christian ideals, her love for the LW will not be diminished in the face of this challenge. However, if his marriage cannot weather the storm, it's better that the LW know there are certain limitations in his marriage which his wife cannot overcome, leaving them both free to find partners which share their belief systems. It's a hard risk to take, but I cannot imagine living my life differently for fear of losing someone who may not love and respect me for who I truly am, not what they wish me to be.

So, what advice would I give Churchgoing Agnostic? If he were a friend, I would suggest he not make any major pronouncements regarding his beliefs. After all, faith--or lack off--is very personal and needn't be a public affair. I don't care for proselytizing of any stripe--religious or secular. I would suggest he dialogue more with his wife about his beliefs on religion to ease her into understanding his views. The hard part will be shedding religious rituals that feel uncomfortable to him, especially ones that are part of his community and family. If he has been attending church every Sunday and prayer service every Wednesday, a sudden disappearance will guarantee some sort of prying confrontation. What then?

I feel a little icky about my advice. It feels like recommending that the letter writer lie to both himself and those he loves. But don't we do that sometimes, where other things are involved, to keep the peace? The key is striking the balance--keeping the peace without denying your essential being. Bah! I don't know. My way seems like the coward's way.

What about you, readers? Have you broken from the religion of your family and community? Are you an African American Buddhist; are you black and Jewish? Are you atheist or agnostic?

What is your advice to Churchgoing Agnostic?

UPDATE: The Hispanic Fanatic has a good post up about religion and the Hispanic community here.


Julia said...

It's so interesting that you wrote this post today because I've been thinking about this very subject a lot lately, albeit from a very different angle. As you know, I'm a white mother of a black son, and I would really like to join a black church so that my son can have that experience of being surrounded by a caring community that looks like him. And I'd like him to have the experience of going to a black church as a sort of common ground that he'll be able to have with black peers in the future. But here's the thing: I am SO not religious, and I feel like it's disrespectful--even if you're sitting there politely--to be pretending to believe something you don't believe. And then I worry that I'll get "caught" at some point and THEN what will I do? The thought makes me cringe.
I'll be curious to hear others' thoughts. Thanks, Tami, as always for your thoughtful posts.

Brown Man said...

He needs to believe what he believes.

I think black people are "overchurched" anyway - there are many irrational things that otherwise sane and rational black people have been known to do because they are relying too much on the wisdom of "the spirit" and not enough on themselves.

The greater irony is that a non-believer has to make a greater commitment as a contrarian than those who profess that they are believers - to think the way he does requires more in-depth intellectual scrutiny, to my way of thinking, than simply accepting the same belief system that everyone else seems to have adopted.

Anonymous said...

This is a tricky issue, because people in the black church I think are more dependent on that community. But to me, it seems weird that he wouldn't share his concerns with his wife. That kind of "deception" or "hiding" not sure what to call it really, will put a strain on the marriage.

I'd focus first on my own spouse. These conservative religious groups that are so all encompassing can be very hard on individual thinkers, and real searchers, which is what the agnostic man seems like.

The hardship of being black in a black church, is that if you don't go along with the program you lose a lot of your support network.

If you're white and middle class, this isn't such a big deal. You might not be as dependent on family or friends for support, assistance, community.

I believe honesty is best in your own family. My partner and I never really agree on church stuff.
But we respect our different spiritual needs. My family comes from a mixed Jewish/Catholic background, so we were used to diversity in the home to begin with.

To me, it would be unthinkable to hide my true philosophical or spiritual beliefs from my partner. But then again, I don't live in a black church context, nor am I heterosexual, and lesbians tend to love individuality in our relationships and not conformity "for appearances sake" because if we did that, we'd hide in the closet rather than face the world and change it.


Danny said...

It is tough being a black agnostic due to the strong connection between black people and the church. I'm very thankful that my parents only showed me the church and left it up to me to embrace it or not (I chose not to). Oddly enough the harshest critics of black agnostics (or at least myself) are black churchgoers. Almost as being black means that you must be an active churchgoer or something.

The closest thing I have to advice is to stand your ground. And in the event that someone does being to bother you about your religious beliefs don't be scared to counter with some questioning of your own.

Shady_Grady said...

If someone doesn't believe, they probably shouldn't be attending worship services at a church.

If the person's spouse can't accept that, then he or she should get another spouse. I also think that if anything, Black people are a tad bit over religious.

I don't believe in any God. But I respect those in my family who do. And they respect my POV. It all comes down to how each individual family handles differences.

Ultimately each person must be true to himself.

Kia said...

I don't enjoy reading Tenet's column so I would have missed this letter.

As a black American raised largely outside of the "black church" I can't really imagine the weight of the decision this person is facing.

But this article from The Root http://www.theroot.com/views/losing-our-religion
would suggest that he's not alone in his dilemma

Lady C said...

When I was 22 years old, I attempted to embrace Buddhism. At the time, I lived in Philly with my unmarried older sister. She was not a practicing Baptist (Southern Baptist), so I thought she would not mind my putting up a shrine in some small corner to practice my faith. She objected, stating there was no room in her apartment for such. However, the truly disturbing part of the whole incident was, I believed I would fry in hell if I chose Buddhism over Christianity. I gave up.

I would not come out of the closet just yet, if I were the Agnostic commenter. I find that those same bible thumpers who sit in church every Sunday morning are the harshest critics on the planet. The most Agnostic should do right now is try to sit down with his wife and have an as frank a conversation as possible about his feelings without coming out and admitting he no longer believes. Bible thumpers claim to hate the sin and not the sinner, but don't be on the receiving end of that no-hating the sinner jibberish.

Anonymous said...

Wow, Tami. Just wow. I'm actually going through this situation now. I'm a minister's daughter who is now on the path to Judaism. Church, for the first 25 years, was woven into my identity and existence. Gospel music, black activism, fried-fish dinners, all of it. That includes college, where I worshipped often and sang in the traveling gospel choir.

Fortunately, I don't live in my Midwestern hometown anymore, so I'm not forced to confront my parents' friends and acquaintances on the matter, though I'm not ashamed of it. However, I have found that in my big East Coast city, when I encounter "the folks," the reaction is mixed. One sister gave me the stink eye when I told her at a Friday night Shabbat service, where she had been asked to speak. Now, I didn't offer the information freely. She asked *me* why I was there. Outside of that, other people don't really know what to make of me once they find out.

Among my college friends, many of whom are black and churchgoing, I get deafening silence, like they don't think I'm really going through with it. I've also endured condemnations of those "white folks' treatment of the Palestinians," with the expectation that I'm going to condemn all things Israel -- and I mean all things. Um, no, just like I'm not going to condemn all things United States. Guilt-by-association arguments salted with anti-Semitic, apocalyptic sentiments leave me cold, and I've had to "check" some people on it. I've read Tim LaHaye's "Left Behind" series. :)

I expect some people may disappear from my life after my formal conversion. We'll see. In any case, I think the best advice for that "Salon" writer is to follow his heart. Ain't nobody going to "give" him approval.

Miriam said...

Hi Tami,

I'm Black and Jewish. It was very daunting to tell my family and former Church. Especially my father, the Deacon.(could that explain why I moved all the way to Israel?)

In fact, I only told my immediate family and the word sort of spread. Perhaps that was carwardly of me, perhaps not. But its certainly my life and I've got to live it in truth to myself.

For the Agnostic Churchgoer, i think he should continue going if he wants or not go if he doesn't want. Definitely, he should go because folks will talk.

He's not saying he doesn't believe, its just that he truly doesn't know. Right?

As for his family -wow, that's tricky. On the one hand truth is liberating. On the other hand, he ought not confuse his children.

For his family, i think he should......have much success in whatever he decides.

The Spartan said...

Danny- what you said. And it's not uniquely American. My parents, all their friends, and random blacks I meet (mostly people from Ghana, as well as Cameroon, Nigeria and various parts of the Caribbean) act like I've just punched them in the face when they find out I'm atheist. I don't open up with "I'm atheist" when I meet someone usually but when you ask me within 5 minutes of meeting me if I'm Christian or Muslim, I'm not going to lie about it. What right do you have to be offended by me choosing NOT to believe the same religion that you believe in? How does that make sense on any level?

Anonymous said...

We are the only people who live in hell right here on earth and are told that when we die we'll be in heaven. Why is it that some people have heaven right here on earth and we are suppose to be following the same religion?


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