In honor of Black History Month, below are highlights of some of the many distinguished African-Americans, past and present, who have made known their dissent from religion. For more information, see FFRF’s Freethought of the Day series.
Major 20th century author James Baldwin’s many great novels and essays were inspired by his experiences living as a disenfranchised, black, gay man in a country that largely shunned these characteristics. Baldwin was a leading voice for the civil rights movement.
“If the concept of God has any validity or use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of him.”
A lifelong champion of civil rights who chaired the NAACP and helped found both the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Poverty Law Institute, Julian Bond was a pioneering black state legislator in Georgia who became a cultural icon and national voice for social justice.
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Q. Are you a believer?
The “Maverick of Omaha” and “defender of the downtrodden” has served for decades in the Nebraska state Senate, where he has defended civil rights as well as the rights of women, LGBTQ, farmers and criminals in an overwhelmingly white, ultraconservative state. Sen. Ernie Chambers has been a leading state/church separation advocate in his state, and his case objecting to paid prayer in the Senate went all the way to the Supreme Court.
“As an elected official, I know the difference between theology and politics. My interest is in legislation, not salvation.”
— Ernie Chambers in his acceptance speech for the “Hero of the First Amendment” award at the 27th annual FFRF convention (Nov. 12, 2005). Photo by Brent Nicastro.
The son of a former Black Panther, Ta-Nehisi Coates would go on to relaunch the landmark Black Panther comic series featuring the first black superhero. Coates is senior editor at The Atlantic. His signature book is Between the World and Me, and in 2015, he was named a MacArthur “Genius.”
“I am an atheist. I don’t believe the arc of the universe bends towards justice. I don’t even believe in an arc.”
Born enslaved, Douglass escaped slavery at 20, lecturing at personal peril against slavery and founding the weekly publication, North Star. Douglass was the only man to speak in favor of women suffrage at the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848. He launched The National Era newspaper, became a D.C. U.S. marshal and later became consul-general to Haiti. He was not an atheist, but was highly unorthodox and a life-long civil libertarian and brave pathblazer.
“I prayed for 20 years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.”
— Frederick Douglass, Autobiography. Photo in the public domain.
Earning his doctorate from Harvard in 1894, Du Bois wrote The Souls of Black Folk in 1903, urging black Americans to stand up for their rights. He co-founded the NAACP and edited its journal, Crisis, for 24 years, turning it into a black literary journal. He has been dubbed the “father of Pan-Africanism.”
“We are still trained to believe a good deal that is simply childish in theology. The outward and visible punishment of every wrong deed that men do, the repeated declaration that anything can be gotten by anyone at any time by prayer.”
— “On Christianity” by W.E.B. Du Bios, a chapter in African-American Humanism: An Anthology, edited by Norm R. Allen Jr. Photo in the public domain.
NFL Houston Texan player Arian Foster (2009-15), who set franchise records for rushing yards and touchdowns, is a most unusual athlete, who wanted to convey to his fans that “I recognize the light in you.” He was the only member of the team who didn’t identify as either Christian or Catholic. He has dabbled in acting, has a podcast, “Now What? with Arian Foster” and founded the Arian Foster Family Foundation to fight childhood obesity, improve financial literacy and provide personal development to inner-city youth.
“Teammates ask me, ‘You worship the devil?’ ‘No, bro, I don’t believe there’s a God, why would I believe there’s a devil?”
— ESPN The Magazine, Aug. 6, 2015. AJ Guel photo (cropped); Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.
Candace Gorham, who went door to door as a Jehovah’s Witness as a child, then became an ordained evangelist as a Pentecostalist at 21, began suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other mood disturbances due to church teachings she came to see as psychological abuse. After earning a degree in secondary education and becoming a teacher, she completed her master’s degree focusing on black women’s mental health. Her religious beliefs crumbling, she began the Ebony Exodus Project, which is the title of her 2013 book, subtitled Why Some Black Women Are Walking Out on Religion — and Others Should Too.
“Through a long, slow, painful process, I moved through stages of being an unaffiliated believer, to being a non-Christian theist, to being an agnostic, to finally being an atheist.”
— “The Ebony Exodus Project” (Pitchstone Publishing, 2013). Photo submitted by Candace Gorham.
Somalian-born Hirsi Ali fled to the Netherlands in 1992 to avoid an arranged marriage, was elected to the Dutch Parliament in 2003 and became a prominent atheist and critic of Islam, particularly against abuse of women under the religion. She was forced to go into hiding when her colleague, Theo van Gogh, was viciously murdered after producing a film, “Submission,” with her. Her critically acclaimed memoir, Infidel, came out in 2005. She founded the AHA Foundation to end honor violence, forced marriage and female genital mutilation.
“I had left God behind years ago.. . . . From now on, I could step firmly on the ground that was under my feet and navigate based on my own reason and self-respect. My moral compass was within myself, not in the pages of a sacred book. . .”
— Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Infidel (2007). Photo by Brent Nicastro.
Known as the Black Socrates during the Harlem Renaissance, Harrison founded the Colored Socialist Club, then several black radical groups, including the Liberty League and the International Colored Unity League.
“It should seem that Negroes, of all Americans, would be found in the Freethought fold, since they have suffered more than any other class of Americans from the dubious blessings of Christianity.”
— Hubert Harrison, “The Negro Conservative,” 1914, quoted in Doubt: A History, by Jennifer Michael Hecht, 2003. Photo in the public domain.
Novelist, folklorist and short story writer Zora Neale Hurston attended Howard University, graduated from Barnard and did graduate study at Columbia at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. She wrote seven books, including her classic novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), although she was forced to take “day jobs,” including maid work, to support herself. A Zora Neale Hurston reader, I Love Myself When I am A Laughing . . . And Then Again When I am Looking Mean and Impressive, was published in 1979, after Alice Walker revived interest in her. Her oral history, Barracoon, based on interviews with the last survivor of the slave trade in the United States finally saw the light of day in 2018.
“Strong, self-determining men are notorious for their lack of reverence. . . Prayer seems to me a cry of weakness.”
— Zora Neale Hurston, “Religion,” from “Dust Tracks on a Road” (1942), anthologized in African-American Humanism: An Anthology, edited by Norm R. Allen Jr. (1991). Photo in the public domain.
Jaffree, an attorney, won the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38, 72 (1985), successfully challenging a period of silence for “meditation or voluntary prayer” and a law authorizing teachers to lead “willing students” in prescribed prayer. Jaffree’s children were ostracized, physically harassed and subjected to racial epithets.
“I brought the case because I wanted to encourage toleration among my children. I certainly did not want teachers who have control over my children for at least eight hours over the day to . . . program them into any religious philosophy.”
— Ishmael Jaffree, acceptance speech for “Freethinker of the Year 1985,” awarded by FFRF. Photo by Paul Gaylor.
The “King of Ragtime” propelled that style of music into national prominence when his 1899 “Maple Leaf Rag” became a huge hit. He struggled in his lifetime to support himself, while today he is a household name. He was married at home and buried without a church service, and wrote an opera, “Treemonisha,” where a secular woman is the leader against the town’s useless pastor.
“Ignorance is criminal.”
— Lyrics, “Treemonisha.” Photo in the public domain.
The singer-songwriter known as John Legend started off in a church choir, but began performing in nightclubs after graduating from college, and working with big name artists, such as Alicia Keys and Jay-Z. His first album, “Get Lifted,” went platinum and earned three Grammys. He played “Keith” in “La La Land” and co-write and performed the song “Start the Fire” for the soundtrack.
“I feel like religion in a lot of ways was intended to control and subdue people rather than to bring out the best in them.”
An aerospace engineer, Alton Lemon also worked as an Equal Opportunity Officer for HUD, served as president of the Philadelphia Ethical Society, was active in the ACLU and won the landmark Supreme Court case, Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), codifying existing precedent on the Establishment Clause into a test called the “Lemon Test.”
“If any of the three prongs of the Lemon Test are violated by an act of government, it is unconstitutional:
1) It must have a secular legislative purpose;
2) Its principal or primary effect must neither advance nor inhibit religion;
3) It must not foster excessive entanglement between government and religion.”
— The Lemon Test, promulgated in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 US 602 (1971). Photo donated by Alton Lemon.
American jazz composer and pianist Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” composition is the most recorded jazz standard by any musician. Monk’s idiosyncratic style used unexpected melodic twists, dissonant harmonies and erratic percussive phrases. His views on religion were also unorthodox. He rarely attended church, and a biographer noted he “did not speak about religion in the most flattering terms.”
Best known for her role as Prissy in “Gone With the Wind,” Butterfly McQueen was a near lifelong atheist. The role of Prissy, she would later say, was not pleasant to play, “But I did my best, my very best.” She quit movie acting in 1947 to avoid further typecasting, supporting herself as a real-life maid, Macy’s saleslady and seamstress, even working as a Macy’s Santa Claus. She earned her bachelor’s degree in political science in 1974 at age 64, and was one of FFRF’s first Lifetime Members.
“As my ancestors are free from slavery, I am free from the slavery of religion.”
— Atlanta Journal and Constitution, Oct. 8, 1989. Photo donated to FFRF.
The Kenyan father of President Barack Obama, Obama Senior earned a master’s from Harvard, becoming a senior economist in the Kenyan Ministry of Finance.
“ . . . although my father had been raised a Muslim, by the time he met my mother he was a confirmed atheist, thinking religion to be so much superstition.”
— President Barack Obama remarking about his father in “My Spiritual Journey,” Time magazine (Oct. 16, 2006). Photo in the public domain.
Although classically trained, American jazz soloist, saxophonist and composer Charlie Barker, known as “Bird,” was a virtuosic improviser, whose work was crucial to the development of bebop. After his death, Parker’s lifelong partner called him a longtime atheist.
Photo in the public domain.
Humanist scholar Anthony Pinn gave up the ministry in favor of humanism. Author, co-author or editor of 35 books, including Writing God’s Obituary: How a Good Methodist Became a Better Atheist, Pinn is a professor at Rice University and director of the Institute for Humanist Studies in Washington, D.C.
“Too many humanists and atheists believe disbelief, nontheism, is a prophylactic against nonsense. Because I don’t believe in religion, I cannot be guilty of racism, classism, sexism or homophobia. This is a problem because it doesn’t allow us to take these issues seriously.”
– FFRF’s 2015 Convention Speech. Photo by Anthony Pinn.
Labor organizer, civil rights activist and journal editor A. Philip Randolph read freethought authors such as Ingersoll and Paine while growing up, worked as an actor, studied political philosophy in college, founded The Messenger, protesting lynching, and organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925, the nation’s first all-black union. Branded one of “the most dangerous Negroes” by the U.S. government, he announced a march on Washington in 1941 to protest lynching, employment discrimination and segregation in the armed forces, causing President Roosevelt to issue an executive order resulting in the Fair Employment Act. His tactics later ended racial segregation in the military. He founded the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, and was chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, whose momentum led to passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. He was a secular humanist who signed the Humanist Manifesto in 1973.
“We consider prayer nothing more than a fervent wish.”
— Asa Philip Randolph, from the mission statement of his magazine, The Messenger. Photo in the public domain.
Comedian, actor and producer Chris Rock joined the cast of “Saturday Night Live” in 1990, has featured in several HBO specials, has won Grammys for comedy albums and has appeared in many movies, including “Dogma” and Netflix specials. Rock’s comedy is peppered with skepticism about religion.
“White people justified slavery and segregation through Christianity so a black Christian is like a black person with no f***king memory.”
Mandisa Thomas, who grew up in a nonreligious household, cofounded Black Nonbelievers of Atlanta in 2011, which soon dropped the “Atlanta” reference when the group went national. After a career at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Mandisa has become a full-time secular activist and is president of Black Nonbelievers.
“It once felt weird to identify as atheist, but I had to be honest with myself: At the end of the day I don’t believe in any gods at all.”
— Mandisa Thomas, interview, SecularWoman.org, July 19, 2013. Photo by Mandisa Thomas
Neil deGrasse Tyson, who earned a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Columbia, became staff scientist for the Hayden Planetarium, wrote the “Universe” essays for Natural History, hosted PBS’ “NOVA ScienceNOW,” and has served on NASA’s advisory council. He has directed the Hayden Planetarium since 2003. He has written many books and hosted the second “Cosmos” PBS series.
“Let there be no doubt that as they are currently practiced, there is no common ground between science and religion.”
Self-described “earthling” and “womanist” Alice Walker, novelist and poet, has written many novels, including “The Color Purple,” which won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize, a biography on Langston Hughes and other novels and many essays. Although raised Methodist, she has written against the bible’s sexism and asserts that Mother Nature deserves worship.
“What a burden to think one is conceived in sin rather than in pleasure; that one is born into evil rather than into joy.”
— Alice Walker, The Only Reason You Want to Go to Heaven Is That You Have Been Driven Out of Your Mind; Anything We Love Can Be Saved: A Writer’s Activism. Photo by Virginia DeBolt and OTRS under CC BY-SA 2.0.