Humanism is the ideology based on a commitment to human beings as the molders of their own destinies. In contrast to theistic religions and belief systems, humanism is largely composed of non-religious individuals, many of whom reject the idea of a god and see theistic religions as placing too much focus on god rather than human life and experience. While a minuscule portion of the Black global population consider themselves non-religious and/or Humanist, those that have rejected religion have argued that, given the treatment that Blacks have endured for centuries, one would expect more Blacks to have rejected god, or at least religion. Humanism seems to the Black humanists, then, to be a more logical stance than believing in a god that allowed the oppression that Blacks and others have endured throughout the centuries. With the absence of religion, some non-religious have felt a type of void in their lives without the church and the social settings that revolve around it. This has led some Black humanists to foster outreach campaigns to the Black population in attempts to get them to reject religion, as well as god. Ultimately, they hope that most Black people will find different means of social gatherings outside religious institutions. But is this the route the Black community should be taking in present-day? In this paper, I will be discussing the limitations of humanism as it applies to the lives of Black people and ways in which it can be resolved and broadened.
In discussions between Black Christians and Black non-religious humanists, Black Christians will often cite the affair between Black people and religion dating back to African antiquity to show the foreignness of being non-religious. Prior to Christianity and Islam, Black people have been deeply grounded in what might be called “religion”. Some Black Christians and Muslims have even suggested that they have been worshiping the same god our ancestors were worshiping They argue that labels such as atheism and agnosticism are not only incompatible with the lives of Black people but it also goes against our ancestral tradition (and thus, our ancestors) and practically an inherency of theism in Black people. Humanism, then, would also be as foreign as anything else originating in Europe. Similarly, this type of thinking is at the root of the feelings of claims that suggest atheism, agnosticism, and humanism are incompatible with “Blackness”.
Humanism, impartial to “race”, is an ideology rooted in Europe and European thinking. Many leading humanists, such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens and others have made it paramount in their lives to advance the acceptance of non-religious individuals, namely atheists. They all have written numerous books, hosted tours across various nations giving lectures at book stores and college campuses against “religion”, and have taken part in debates against Christians and Muslims on topics such as “Should Religion Be Taught in Public School?” They have come to represent a type of club that holds science, reason, and logic to a superior standard, while holding all else to that of an inferior status. These atheists have taken a type of aggressive and antagonistic approach to those that choose to believe in a god, specifically Christians. Correspondingly, Black humanists have taken an almost mirror example and applied it to the Black communities in hopes of provoking the same reaction that white humanists have received from the larger society.
However, something I think many Black humanists fail to consider when attempting to transfer this ideology into Black communities is that many of the white Humanists have no understanding of race, racism, race relations, and usually no concept of their place in society in contrast to those of people of color, specifically in the west. The hypocrisy of many of these white popular atheists is not one the Black humanists should be trying to emulate. For example, when white humanists speak about placing humans at the forefront of our discourses, one has to question how much of a priority these humanists put the human experience when they have done little to nothing for those suffering around the world. Hosting debates on whether or not Jesus Christ actually existed and spending thousands of dollars and pounds to get Fredrich Nietzsche quotes on the sides of buses does not place the human at the center of discourse. To date, I am unaware of any philanthropic endeavors or campaigns from any prominent atheists that haven’t been solely for the purpose of expanding anti-religious ideas. Furthermore, these white atheists, while purporting to be above social indoctrinations, still seem to be quite embedded within it.
Recently, it was shown that Richard Dawkins’ family estate was built by enslaved Africans in Jamaica. Like many whites who discover one of their ancestors owned enslaved humans, Dawkins disregarded and dismissed the issue as irrelevant to his life. While this would be expected of most white people, Dawkins has built up this image as that of a humanist who places humans, human interaction, and human experiences at the forefront of all discourse. It is not only hypocritical, but almost racist to dismiss such a horrible history that most definitely contributed to the fact that he was raised in a comfortable and safe environment, whose parents had the money (that had been, in part, passed down to them from slave labor) to send him to a prestigious college, enabling him to be who he is today – an upper-class Brit with a nice amount of wealth to his name. How the descendants of those his grandfather owned have fared in Jamaica and their feelings about this discovery is of no importance to him, thus showing the hypocrisy in this doctrine of humanism. Furthermore and generally speaking, one should note that none of these atheists have spoken out against any racist, capitalistic, imperialistic, or colonial endeavors that aid in killing and oppressing people of color, outside of making points for atheism. They may spend chapters in their books on showing the barbarity of Christianity in that it supported slavery, or ways in which churches have aided in wars, but speaking on racism and modern-day slave conditions of people all over the globe is something one is hard-pressed to find from them. Ultimately, Humanism has been used by upper/middle-class, cis, white, western males to place their issues of religious alienation at the top of the priority list for human advancement and progress, while disregarding the experiences of people of color, women, and those struggling financially.
When Black Humanists attempt to bring this ideology into Black communities, many are not considering that humanism cannot be applied in the same way to Black people as it has been to whites. Many do not realize or want to acknowledge that the criticisms of the aforementioned white atheists of indigenous forms of religious belief are racist. When ideas that many indigenous cultures partake in such as body modification, animal sacrifice, and fasting for spiritual reasons are looked at as backwards, maniacal, or simply “crazy”, those criticisms cross the line into being racist. Westerners have always regarded the religious beliefs of non-Europeans (and even pagan Europeans) as heathenish and barbaric in reference to their religious beliefs (amongst other things). The attitude of mainstream white (and many Black) atheists is no different from these colonial mindsets. Not only do few, if any, of white atheists understand or even care to know the complex multitude of reasonings behind these rituals and practices, but they also homogenize these practices and beliefs under the vague and ambiguous label of “religion”, thereby adding to the erasure and marginalization of these cultural practices as well as the overall cultures. So when Black Humanists try to spread Humanism or even atheism within the Black community, they have to understand the shortcomings of white Humanism.
I have argued previously that Christianity has been deleterious and detrimental to the Black communities worldwide. Not only is it foreign to Black people, but it has been used as an instrument of colonialism and has resulted in divisions between Black people and separated us from our tradition beliefs. Christianity has also kept the Black global communities in somewhat of a submissive mentality since its invasion into African cultures. However, it should be noted that my comments are not aimed at “religion” in broader definitions of the word (or spirituality), nor is it in reference to various indigenous theological concepts. I feel that monotheism and the religions that have aligned themselves under these religious labels (e.g. Christianity, Islam, and Judaism) have been detrimental to the Black communities, but I do not think that theological concepts overall have been problematic. In fact, I would argue that traditional concepts of god/deities/god-like entities such as Orishas, Ifa Divination, and the like, have been strengtheners in the lives of Black people. Black Humanists fall short when they do not make a distinction between beliefs such as theology and spirituality or belief systems and religion. And when speaking to Black people, one always has to take into account that of our ancestors and the traditions we originate from.
Recently, African-American Humanists posted billboards in separate cities across the nation that said things such as “Doubts about religion? You’re one of many – African-American for Humanism ” These quotes are accompanied by pictures of prominent Black figures that questioned Christianity like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston alongside present-day self-professed Black humanists. The point of the billboards was to get the Black religious to open up dialogues questioning, and probably ultimately rejecting religion. Many white humanists have done similar, posting billboards on the sides of public transportation vehicles and subway hallways. But again, Black humanists have taken from white humanists what is problematic even within their ilk. One in four Black people are living in poverty, many more are nearing it, and the largest group in prison is Black males, yet this is what Black Humanists choose to spend thousands of dollars on? Again, how can it be said that humans are at the center of this ideology when it seems to be much more of individual agendas and non-religion than human beings and the human experience?
Although I would agree that Black people should reject Abrahamic religions, and despite considering myself an atheist, I do not think Black people should give up religious beliefs altogether. The religious beliefs of Black people have added to our complex and multi-dimensional worldviews as well as our lives. Traditional belief systems can not only add to our perspectives today and aid in our daily lives, but they also tell us much needed knowledge about our past. And while I personally am not religious, I don’t think Black humanism gives room, like many religions (although I wouldn’t say that atheism is a “religion”, as some have argued), for Black people to be diverse and open about their spirituality. Interestingly enough, I think traditional beliefs give Black people the amplitude of choice and encourage creative and innovative thinking. Concepts like Vodoun, Santeria, and Obeah are newer beliefs that are slightly different from what our ancestors in West Africa were practicing thousands of years ago, but it is still accepted as being within the same spirit as those ancient beliefs. Questioning, self-expression and personal quests for knowledge are all accepted, if not fortified within these various traditional beliefs. I applaud Black humanists for at least bringing the inadequacies and inconsistencies within Christianity to the limelight, but we also have to recognize that Black people have a different history and current reality and have to be approached through alternative methods, with those approaches being sensitive and cognizant of our needs and future goals. We must take from new approaches, such as that of Wole Soyinka to present an ideology tailored to our needs.
"I take most of my metaphors from the Yoruba worldview. What separates that religion from the so-called universal world religion is that the human characteristics of the deities that belong in the Yoruba pantheon actually make that religion one of the most humanist types of religion you'll encounter anywhere in the world. The Yoruba philosophy drastically reduces the absolute authority of deities over the lives of human beings and therefore reduces the dependency of human beings on the interpreters of the extraterrestrial authority. And so when you ask the question "What are the prospects of a humanist worldview in Nigeria?", I point to this as an example of some kind of qualified humanism that predates any kind of codification of humanistic principles in European terms."
comment. think. criticize.