Nontheism Is on the Rise in Minority Communities, but Coming Out Carries Risks and It’s Time We All Understood Why
For years it has been lamented that humanist groups and events lack adequate participation by racial minorities. “Our philosophy is inclusive,” goes the refrain. “Our doors are open. Anyone can come.” Nonetheless, the usual overwhelmingly white demographic remains substantially unchanged.
We imagine we understand why. African-American and Hispanic communities are without freethought traditions, we argue, and longstanding religious orientations are built into their cultures. Therefore it’s up to us to bring humanism to them and hopefully overcome a longstanding bias against it. But, it turns out, that would be like bringing cheese to Wisconsin.
There is already a robust freethought tradition in the black community, for example. We can go back at least as far as abolitionist Frederick Douglass. NAACP cofounder W. E. B. Du Bois is another prominent example. During the Civil Rights movement of the 1940s through the ’60s the leader of its well-established secular wing was journalist and union organizer Asa Philip Randolph. He organized the 1963 March on Washington at which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Randolph was later recognized in 1970 by the American Humanist Association with its Humanist of the Year Award. Another such activist was Freedom Ride organizer James L. Farmer Jr., founder of the Congress of Racial Equality and the 1976 AHA Humanist Pioneer. Beyond social justice advocacy, we find the arts overflowing with prominent black freethinkers. During the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s through the ’40s, writers such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larson, and Richard Wright could be counted among them. Emerging later were jazz saxophonist and composer Charlie “Bird” Parker, author James Baldwin, and novelist Alice Walker, who was named the 1997 Humanist of the Year.
Among Hispanics, far and away the most famous freethinker is Simón Bolívar, the great liberator of South America. Later, the humanistic Positivist Church had a strong social influence across the continent and left its mark on the Brazilian flag with the slogan, “Order and Progress.” Nonetheless, the Roman Catholic Church remains a ubiquitous presence in Hispanic communities, leading nontheistic Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes to note, “In Latin America, even atheists are Catholics.”
Still, the question remains: Why are minority communities so lacking in an overt humanist presence today? And what can be done about it? Norm Allen Jr., founder of African Americans for Humanism, has struggled with these questions. Writing in a forthcoming special issue of Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism, he acknowledges his inability to answer. “For twenty-one years I had been the only full-time African American humanist activist traveling the world to promote secular humanism. Yet I still cannot unravel the mystery.