Norm Allen – African American Religiosity, Humanism, and Politics

March 14, 2008

Norm Allen is executive director of African Americans for Humanism, an educational organization primarily concerned with fostering critical thinking, ethical conduct, church-state separation, and skepticism toward untested claims to knowledge among African Americans.  He is the editor of the ground-breaking book African-American Humanism: An Anthology, AAH Examiner, and Deputy Editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He has traveled and lectured widely throughout North America, Europe, and Africa and his writings have been published in scores of newspapers throughout the U.S. He has spoken on numerous radio and television programs and his writings have appeared in such books as Culture Wars and the National Center for Science Education’s Voices for Evolution.

In this wide-ranging discussion with D.J. Grothe, Norm Allen explores some of the challenges advancing science and secularism within the African American community. He examines the pressure to conform to the religious ideal among various black skeptics and atheists, including many historical African American figures such as Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Nella Larsen, and Faye Wattleton, former president of Planned Parenthood of America. He debates whether religion is a liberating or oppressive force for African Americans. He also details many anti-science trends in the Black community, including those coming from Black entertainment outlets promoting anti-science such as psychic 900 lines, televangelists and belief in prophecy. He ties all of this discussion to an exploration of religion and secularism as they relate to political activism, including the influence of such high-profile Black preachers such as Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Senator Barack Obama’s spiritual advisor.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, March 14th, 2008. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiries, the radio show, the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reasons, science and secular values in public affairs. Before we get to this week’s guest, I want to invite all of our listeners to get involved with our growing online community at Center for Inquiry dot net slash forums. Join us on the forums. Get involved with conversation about today’s show or any of the other shows or many other topics. You’ll meet interesting people who share your values who might agree or disagree. But in any case, we want you there. You’ll have a lot of fun. And now here’s a word from Free Inquiry magazine. 

The world is under assault today by religious extremists to invoke their particular notion of God to try and control what others think can do. One magazine is dedicated to keeping you up to date with analysis that cuts through the noise and the surprising courage to appear politically incorrect. That magazine is Free Inquiry, the world’s leading journal of secular humanist opinion and commentary. Subscribe to free inquiry today. One year, six controversial issues for nineteen, 1995. Call one 800 four five eight one three six six. Or visit us on the web at Secular Humanism, Dawg. 

I’m happy to have Norm Allen back on point of inquiry. He’s executive director of African-Americans for Humanism, which is an educational organization headquartered here at CFI, primarily concerned with fostering critical thinking and ethical conduct. Church, state, separation, skepticism, science, all the things we care about. But within the African-American community, he’s the editor of the groundbreaking book African-American Humanism, an anthology, The A.H. Examiner, the newsletter of that organization. And he’s traveled and lectured widely throughout North America, Europe, Africa. His writings having appeared in scores of newspapers, especially in the black press, on our issues. He’s appeared on a number of radio and television programs, and he’s on the show today to talk with me about science and secularism in the black community in America normal. And welcome back to a point of inquiry. 

Thanks, T.J.. I’m glad to be here, Norm. 

I invited you on the show to talk about African-American humanism, really actually about African-American religiosity and why advancing humanism, Athie ism, skepticism, secularism, all of this in the African-American community is so hard. 

Well, it’s been difficult, largely because we niche in has been a traditional foundation for African-Americans going way back to slavery. And even prior to slavery, Africans themselves have been known to be extremely spiritual and to some degree very superstitious as well. And we’re going up against so many years, so many centuries, even so many millennia of religion, that it’s really difficult to make inroads. Now, if you look at other communities, such as the white community, they’ve been able to make a far greater inroads than we have. And even if you look at other parts of the world in Latin America, Africa, Asia and other parts of the world, they’ve also been able to make inroads. 

Indeed, there’s incredible explosive growth of the Center for Inquiry movement in the continent of Africa under your leadership. 

Right. In fact, we have over 60 different groups there now in about 27 different countries. And it’s really taking off there. 

They kind of use free inquiry or skeptical Inquirer magazine holding it up at airports and at meetings, kind of as a passport to identify each other. 

Right. And so our publications are symbols of freedom, symbols of democracy, symbols of secularism as symbols of skepticism. And so our publications are very well known and widely respected by humanist skeptics there. However, in the United States that we we’ve had difficulty in breaking into the African-American community with our message. Now, we haven’t had difficulty in getting in the black media as far as newspapers and radio programs. We’ve been well received in those areas. But as far as getting in mainstream publications, as far as being able to bring our message to some of the bigger talk show hosts and what have you. It’s really been difficult. We continue to try. But for some reason, we just haven’t been able to make those inroads. 

Let’s start off by talking about the religiosity of the African-American community. It’s not just Christianity, although I’d be interested in exploring the influence of the Christian church on the black community. But it’s also Islam. Is it just that? Regardless what religion it is, that there’s something in the black community that cries out for religion, that the absence of religion and superstition is anathema to that community? 

There very well could be. If you look at not only what happened during slavery, but during the civil rights movement, there was this notion that a belief in God was central to our existence, central to our struggle for freedom, justice and equality, a central to who we are as human beings. So it’s been there for quite a while. 

And it’s not just Islam and it’s not just Christianity, but there are even other religions. There are efforts sampled indigenous African religions that people are embracing. There’s a.. There’s voodoo. There’s Buddhism. In fact, one of our colleagues, Anthony Pinn, out of Rice University, he’s written quite a bit on African-American religiosity at one of his books was titled Why Lord? That was his first book. But he also wrote a book on African-American humanism. And he also wrote quite a few books, not just on that topic, but on a topic of African-American humanist principles of how African-Americans can embrace humanist principles in order to better their lives. And he has pointed out that there have been quite a few blacks attracted to even Buddhism, which I didn’t know until recently. He wrote a book entitled Varieties of African-American Religious Experience, you know, kind of borrowing from William James. And he he republished that book later for the University Press of Florida. And it was a very good book. And that he didn’t deal with the exact same topics all the way. He did introduce some other topics into it. But there are large numbers of Buddhists all over the you know. 

The state’s African-American Buddhist, Anthony Penns, gonna love you being on the show, plugging all his books, but it’s apropos to the discussion that you’re you’re making the point that African-American religiosity is diverse. It’s not just the black Christian church. Right. But the underlying point you’re making is that it’s religious nonetheless. There’s not a lot of diversity of secular opinion within the black community. 

Right. And, you know, that’s been difficult and it’s been difficult for a lot of secularists in the past who were trying to put forth a secular program in order to uplift the African-American community. So often they weren’t able to do so. They had to cave in to the pressures of the religious community around them. So it’s been extremely difficult. But we have African-Americans for humanism have been at it for a while. We started way back in 1989. We issued at an African-American humanist declaration, which was very well received by the black press, by the black media. And we’ve also been trying to do what we could to promote humanism by way of literature, by way of our quarterly newsletter, The A.H. Examiner, and buy books that we’ve written. I’ve edited a couple of books myself, and I’m working on another one now. And so while we’ve been doing what we can and we have made some inroads, but we still have a very long way to go. 

Do you think that the current popularity of the new way theism, of the new criticism of religion, that seems almost kind of a cultural phenomena, this cultural moment where everyone finally decides it’s all right to talk about these things and it’s not as controversial as it was at one time. You have books like The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. The New Atheists are out there in abundance now. There’s not a lot of representation by nonwhites in that discussion. 

Right. And that’s been especially frustrating for me because there are nonwhites out there who do have a lot to add to the discussion. We have a whole history of great African-American thinkers who have been atheist. And we also have some today who would like to have the opportunity to discuss where we’re coming from and discuss some of our unique problems. And, you know, we like to discuss things philosophically and talk about the importance of bringing this to the African-American community. 

Do you think the current discussion, the current skepticism of religion, discussion by Dawkins and others, is it being heard by the black community or are they completely tuning it out? Is that a white guy thing? 

Well, that’s the irony. A lot of blacks are in tune with it. In fact, we’ve had quite a few people who have written letters and sent emails and Cardus wanting to learn more about the information because we were mentioned and Dawkins book The God. 

I love hearing that. We were talking earlier about the pressures that African-Americans face to maintain their religiosity or to become religious, even the current presidential candidate, Barack Obama. He talks about his mother being an avowed secular humanist and he was raised by her in that tradition. Yet he turned to religion in Chicago. He became very closely affiliated with a church in Chicago, which is emphatically old school religion, even if it has a nice social gospel component. 

Right. And I can give you a few examples of great African-Americans who felt pressure to do so. Langston Hughes is one of the greatest poets in African-American history, is widely regarded as the poet laureate of black America. And throughout most of his career, he was an atheist. In fact, he first abandoned religion way back when he was only going on 13 years old. He had an experience in church in which he asked God or Jesus to come to his life. And it never happened for him. He felt extremely depressed. And he was crying. And it was a very deeply emotional experience for him. But he rejected the belief in God altogether. Later on, he became a great poet and he even wrote some poems that that they would be considered very blasphemous. 

It’s not not only because of his criticism of religion, but he’s also kind of a gay icon in the history of the gay rights movement. 

Right. And so when he was younger, he would write poems such as Christ in Alabama, Goodbye, Christ. No criticizing the whole notion that we as African-Americans need to embrace a belief in Jesus to free ourselves. But later, he got a lot of criticism from the black community for those particular poems. And he actually became religious later on in life. He got older and his health started to fail and he got desperate and he didn’t really know where else to turn. So he became religious in his later years, largely as a result of pressure coming from the black community. There was another great poet, Clyde McKay, who also was very influential, especially drawing the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. He, as a teenager, become a rationalist and was even involved with a rationalist association in Great Britain. He formed agnostic’s groups around to make. Where he was from interests. And he eventually went to the United States and he wrote quite a few poems. His most famous poem was If We Must Die. And in that poem, he was calling for African-Americans to defend themselves against the onslaught of white supremacists. At that time, lynching was a major problem. A well-known phenomenon in the United States. And he did what he could to try to combat that. Later on, though, he embraced Catholicism because his mother was a Catholic and his mother always wanted him to come back to the church and he wanted to honor her request. So in his later days, he also became a Catholic. He started to write poetry with Catholic themes and he, you know, just turned his back on his rational this past again because of the pressure there. And there are just so many examples of people having to deal with that pressure. 

Would you say there’s more pressure in the black community to be religious than there is in the the rest of America? 

I would say so. And if you look at any poll, I could be a Pew poll. It could be any type of poll. Gallup, what have you. They all show that African-Americans are the most religious segment of the United States population. And you always have people who take advantage of that, who exploit that fact. In fact, there is another African-American humanists from the Harlem Renaissance, a woman, Nella Larsen. And she wrote a couple of novellas, one called Quick Say, and the other caught passing in quicksand. She used a metaphorical rape of the black community by religion. She felt that religion just had that type of impact upon the African-American community. Well, in this particular novella, Quicksand, she showed how the African-American community with the church has worked so hard to see to it that no one can escape this psychological grip and this this this whole notion that religion is essential to who we are as human beings. But in the end, the novella, at the end, she breaks away. She frees herself. She sees religion as being nothing but an oppressive force, especially among African-Americans. And her message is that we need to break away from this. And so I think that that’s one of the pieces of writing that so eloquently express this suffocating religiosity that has engulfed African-Americans for centuries. 

The social science research bears out the point you just made about there being such an overwhelming pressure to be religious in the African-American community, according to the American Religious Identification Survey. What was it, a three, four years ago? Zero point zero percent of African-American respondents identified as atheistic Gnostic or secular humanist. That doesn’t mean none. But it was so statistically insignificant a number. Do you think that there are closet secularists or humanists or freethinkers in the African-American community who just don’t speak up because of this pressure to conform to the religious identity? 

Yes, I know there are quite a few, in fact, that can give some examples. The first one coming to mind would be Faye Wattleton. She was the past president of Planned Parenthood of America and she received a humanist award. Way back in the 1980s. But she really didn’t want to get involved with our organization, African-Americans for Humanism, because she felt by doing so, she would bring even more pressure upon herself. She had already had over 100 death threats from people who were opposed to abortion. She felt that by getting involved with humanism in an organized way would be difficult for her to do our work. As someone who was trying to promote Planned Parenthood so she couldn’t get involved because of that pressure, and there were just so many who would like to come out of the closet but who can’t. And most of the polls I’ve seen off also saying those very low numbers of atheist, most of them are saying they’ll stay up between three percent to four percent of African-Americans identify as atheist. And that’s been my personal experience as well. 

I want to touch on something you just said regarding Nella Larsen and, you know, her novella about religion being an oppressive force. It’s argued and I can get the argument, I can be persuaded by that religion has been a liberating force in the history of African-American experience in the United States. It’s said that without the liberating force, the organizing power of the African church, there would have been no civil rights movement. 

Right. I can make the similar argument. In fact, I’ve made it myself plenty of times. And my point has never been that there have been no positive aspects from black religion. My point is that there have also been negative aspects. For example, he just talked about the liberating force of the church and the civil rights movement. But if not for white supremacist Christianity, there would have been no need for civil rights movement. There would have been no need for slave rebellions because it would have been no slavery as a result of Christian and ordained and biblically backed slavery. So, yes, I’ll be the first to say there have been plenty of positive aspects of religion, but we can’t ignore those negative aspects. It’s like if someone is going to burn down your home intentionally as an arsonist, you don’t want to thank him for calling the fire department. He shouldn’t have burned that down to begin with. Likewise. Yes, religion has its positive aspects, but we can’t ignore those negative aspects. And I just think we need to have a very objective analysis of religion, its implications and its impact upon the African-American community in particular. 

Norm, I want to finish up by talking about science and the African-American community. There seems to be I don’t want to be misunderstood, but there seems to be almost an anti intellectual element in the African-American community. You listen to people like Susan Jacoby and other cultural critics. There’s anti intellectual wisdom in American public life. So we’re not singling out the African American community exclusively, but blacks aren’t as well represented in the sciences as they are in other career tracks. The scientific world view is certainly not widely adopted in the black community. Do you think that there are public education measures that we could adopt to change that? Or is this really a cultural movement type thing that needs to happen for that to change? 

Well, I think there are cultural measures that we can take. I don’t think that the black community and the United States is necessarily any less interested in science. We have people, science educators. We have people in the schools. We have our parents. We’re always teaching us the importance of education and the importance of science. But are we, on the other hand, do tend to be attracted to some forms of unscientific thinking? In fact, if you look at more so than society at large, that seems to be my experience. I really don’t have the data to back that up. But from what I’ve been able to read that there seem to be the case. For example, if you look at a lot of black black publications, you will see a lot of emphasis upon not only religion, but in many cases, astrology. And a lot of people are buying in to these unscientific ideas and making it difficult. Back in the 1990s. I was working with the National Center for Science Education and we put out a book titled Voices for Revolution, and that A.H. issued a statement in defense of Evolution and in criticizing creationism and intelligent design. And we pointed out that as long as intelligent design is going to have a foothold in the public schools, most African-American students on public schools, and it’s going to be difficult to attract more African-Americans to the sciences. So we need to keep ah ah ah eyes and ears open in that regard. And as far as I know, we’re the only organization to have issues such a state and not just in that particular book, but throughout the United States period. 

I think the industry of black entertainment also deserves some of the blame for the current anti science posture that the black community sometimes has. You look at the ad BGT, the Black Entertainment Television network. It’s the only place on TV, on cable television where you see such a wide array of anti science. Call it propaganda. It’s the only place on TV that I regularly see. Peter Popoff, that televangelists who sells, you know, The Huckster for God, who was debunked years ago by James Randi, Paul Kurtz and others, I think it was. And Beatty, of course, was the big proponent of psychic 900 lines that were marketed directly to the black community. 

Right. That has been a very serious problem. In fact, I wrote a couple of articles on the phenomenon of psychic hotlines, and African-Americans were largely representative as far as the psychic hotlines were concerned. You’ve had a lot of entertainers who were promoting these hotlines, not only on Beattie, but in various black publications. And it’s been difficult. You know, there are people who have embraced these psychic hotlines and and they’ve been abused. And it is clear that they’re dealing with hucksters. But for some reason, people have been very interested in these psychic hotlines. And and this whole notion of prophecy seems to me that a belief in prophecy seems to be more prevalent among African-Americans, be they Christians or Muslims, than among the other population. And a lot of people prey upon the. 

In fact, are they a more vulnerable population than the general population at large? 

I would say probably, and you’ll see a lot of ministers. You’ll see. Nation of Islam ministers. You’ll see Christian ministers who talk about the importance of prophecy. And they make all types of fantastic claims, such as nine one one was predicted and I will privacy. They know it when it comes to prophecy. Of course, you can take any type of passage and mold or retrofit the various actions that occurred after the passage was written in order to make it seem as though you have some profound insight or that you had some power in order to determine the future. And a lot of people prey upon this or that, or they will use this as a way of helping to bolster their popularity. And Louis Farrakhan will be the most popular person in that regard. He uses prophecy on a continual basis in order to argue that while we are in prophecy and that he is supposed to be the great leader to, you know, come in and rescue us from our plight. 

Norm, I said I wanted to finish up. I lied. I guess you just made me think of something else I want your opinion about your comment on before we say goodbye. And that is the recent news about Senator Obama’s minister. I mentioned him earlier in the discussion in Chicago. Jeremiah White, one of the most influential black preachers in North America, and his comments about how black Americans should not sing God Bless America. They should sing God damn America. That sounds really reminiscent of someone like Jerry Falwell, which secularists universally decried when he said similar comments. 

Right. He also has made other comments regarding the attacks of nine 11 and how they were a direct response to American aggression against people such as the Palestinians or in support of Israel. 

How we are to blame for nine. 

Right. Right. And while you there there is some truth in what he’s saying. I mean, I don’t agree that, as George Bush says, we were attacked on nine 11 simply because our enemies are jealous of our freedom. I think that usually when those types of attacks occur, there are some very real grievances. There are people who are upset at the treatment of the Palestinians and there are people who are upset at the many Iraqi civilians dying and what have you. But at the same time, I think he really went overboard in his remarks to say God damn America as opposed to God bless America. I don’t think that’s going to be helpful in any way. 

But, you know, he’s coming out of that whole hard core religious leader mentality, such as Louis Farrakhan. As I mentioned before, Farrakhan says the same things continually. And so do various others. But I think that, you know, these types of messages. 

Do you think that kind of message from the pulpit? Does it harm civil discourse? Is it anti-American? Is it bad for. Is it bad for the black community or are you just chalking it up to the circumstance of, you know, being part of this racial minority and the plight that blacks have had to deal with? Is it just explainable in that way? 

Well, I think you can explain it in both ways. I believe that there is a great deal of frustration. But at the same time, I think that you have to be very responsible with your message because there are a lot of very irresponsible people out there. 

Lot of people who make irresponsible messages, which encourages violence against Americans, violence against installations or attacks against installations. 

Reverend Wright’s comments seemed almost to excuse the religiously motivated acts of 9/11. I consider it religious terrorism. I think a lot of seculars might agree. Course, that’s not the consensus view among most Americans. But the issue is so complex. Obviously, there are grievances. Obviously, our in quotes, imperialism around the world led to a lot of ill will. But also, if the jihadists who committed the horrendous acts of 9/11 didn’t hold to their supernatural world views, they wouldn’t have been motivated just by those grievances to self-sacrifice. If that’s the word for it, they wouldn’t have been motivated to kill themselves in service of a law. 

Right. And that’s why I agree so much with Sam Harris. 

I think he’s one of the best proponents of the new way. He is on to articulate exactly what motivates religious extremists to do what they do. A lot of times are apologists will say, well, it wasn’t the religion that was responsible, it was the culture or was was something else. But those religious beliefs are clear and. 

Or it was America that was responsible because we did bad things around the world and it’s our fault that this stuff has happened. That’s that seems to be Jeremiah Wright’s argument. 

Well, he used Malcolm X’s line that the chickens came home to roost. And, of course, when Malcolm argues that all hell broke loose for him, this kicked up the nation of Islam. And that’s when his life really started spiraling out of control. But as I said earlier, there is some truth in that. But it doesn’t justify the killing of thousands of innocent people because this wasn’t even an attack on nine 11 against a military installation against soldiers. It was against civilians. And I imagine many of those civilians might have been progressive’s or quite sure some of them had to have been Muslim. Some of them had to have been in favor of us, a state for the Palestinians and what have you. What they were just more numb to this one mass. And it was, you know, one of the most horrific acts of terrorism I’ve ever witnessed in my lifetime. And I don’t think there’s any way to justify it by religion or anything else, for that matter. 

Nor are we really covered all kinds of topics in our conversation today. I appreciate it. Thanks for being back on the show. Thanks for having me. 

You’ve seen the headlines, Bill seeks to protect students from liberal bias. The right time for an Islamic reformation. Kansas School Board redefined science. These stories sum up the immense challenge facing those of us who defend rational thinking, science and secular values. What one adviser to the Bush administration dismissed as the reality based community. Who could have imagined that reality would need defenders? The educational and advocacy work of the Center for Inquiry is more essential than ever. And your support is more essential than ever. Show your commitment to science, reason and secular values. By becoming a friend of the center today, whether you are interested in the work of psychology and skeptical Inquirer magazine, the Council for Secular Humanism and Free Inquiry Magazine, the Commission for Scientific Medicine or Center for Inquiry on Campus. By becoming a friend of the center, you’ll help strengthen our impact. If you’re just learning about CFI, take a look at our Web site. W w w dot center for inquiry dot net. We hosted regional and international conferences, college courses and nationwide campus outreach. You’ll also find out about our new representation at the United Nations, an important national media appearances. We cannot pursue these projects without your help. Please become a friend of the center today by calling one 800 eight one eight seven zero seven one or visiting w w w dot center for inquiry dot net. We look forward to working with you to enlarge the reality based community. 

Thanks for listening to this episode of Points of Inquiry to get involved with an online conversation about today’s episode. Go to our online discussion forums at Center for Inquiry dot net slash forums. Views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily CFI his views nor the views of its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org or by visiting our Web site. Point of inquiry dot org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer Paul Cook’s point of inquiry’s music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael. 

Contributors to today’s show included Debbie Goddard and Sarah Jordan. And I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.