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This Far By Faith? Race Traitors, Gender Apostates and the Atheism Question

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this far by faithby Sikivu Hutchinson
To some, the Black Church is a fountain of liberation. But what of women's liberation? “Although black women are far more likely than men to attend church more than once a week, the officialdom of black religious establishments, and certainly the political face of the black church, is steadfastly male.” Does the African American brand of religiosity buttress the hierarchical status quo?
This Far By Faith? Race Traitors, Gender Apostates and the Atheism Question
by Sikivu Hutchinson
Mainstream Protestantism is still, of course, a Jim Crow throwback and a man’s man’s world.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. once dubbed Sunday at 11:00 a.m. the most segregated hour in America, a microcosm of the titanic divide that specifically separates black and white America. Yet racial divisions are not the only prominent schism in the Sunday churchgoing ritual that encompasses much of the social and cultural life experience of one of the most God-obsessed nations on the planet. Despite all the “liberal” revisions to biblical language and claims to progressivism among some Christian denominations, mainstream Protestantism is still, of course, a Jim Crow throwback and a man’s man’s world. As Mark Galli, editor of the Evangelical magazine Christianity Today once remarked, “It’s a cliché now to call institutional religion 'oppressive, patriarchal, out of date and out of touch.' So what else is new? I feel sorry for those people who don't think there's anything greater than themselves…It leaves out the communal dimension of faith.”
From the Deep South to South Los Angeles, this “communal dimension of faith” is one of the most compelling and problematic aspects of women’s investment in organized religion. When it comes to accounting for the disproportionate male to female ratio for self-identified atheists, there has been much wrongheaded conjecture about the supposed emotionalism of women versus the rationality of men. Bloggers muse about women’s intuitive sensitivity to the warm and fuzzy “verities” of religious dogma. Women are portrayed as naturally timorous and thus less inclined to question or suspend belief about the inconsistencies of organized religion. For the most part, there has been no serious evaluation of the perceived gendered social benefits of religious observance versus the social costs of espousing such a gender non-conforming “individualist” ideology as atheism, particularly with respect to American born women of color. Indeed, in many communities of color the very structure of organized religion offers a foundation for the articulation of female gendered identity that has been a source of agency and an antidote to marginalization. On the other hand, patriarchy entitles men to reject organized religion with few implications for their gender-defined roles as family breadwinners or purveyors of cultural values to children. Men simply have greater cultural license to come out as atheists or agnostics because of the gender hierarchies that ascribe rationalism, individualism, intellectualism and secular or scientific inquiry to masculinity. So women in traditionally religious communities who come out in real time (as opposed to online) risk greater ostracism because women don’t have the cultural and authorial privilege to publicly express their opposition to organized religion as men.
Women remain a minority among deacons, pastors and senior pastors of most black congregations.”
African American women provide an illustrative case in point. Imagery such as filmmaker Tyler Perry’s bible thumping malapropism spewing Madea, stereotypically heavyset black women in brightly colored choir robes belting out gospel music and sweat-drenched revelers cataleptic from getting the holy ghost are some of the most common mainstream representations of black femininity. These caricatures are buttressed by the unwavering financial and social support of the black church, which is predominantly Christian-based, by African American communities of all income brackets. According to blackdemographics.com African Americans remain the most solidly religious racial group in the United States, outstripping whites in their churchgoing fervor by a nearly 20% margin.Sunday in and Sunday out, between the hours of 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., a familiar scene emerges in both working and middle class black communities across the nation. Black women shuttle dutifully to church in their sartorial best, backbone of a dubious institution that still accords them only second class citizen standing. The gender dynamics in the breakdown of regular churchgoers reflect an utterly predictable disparity in power and access. While more black women have been allowed to assume leadership roles in black churches in recent years, they remain a minority among deacons, pastors and senior pastors of most black congregations. So although black women are far more likely than men to attend church more than once a week, the officialdom of black religious establishments, and certainly the political face of the black church, is steadfastly male.
Christian religiosity pervades the slang of misogynist black hip hop artists and sports figures.”
What is the relationship between these gendered religious hierarchies and cultural politics in African American communities? Christian religiosity pervades the slang of misogynist black hip hop artists and sports figures and worms its way into their Jesus touting boilerplate award acceptance speeches. Christian religiosity engorges multi-million dollar faith-based empires in poor urban black communities where “prime” real estate is often a triad of storefront churches, liquor stores and checking cashing places. Sex scandals and financial improprieties fester amongst the leadership of black churches yet sexist and homophobic rhetoric remain a mainstay. Blind faith speaks through bulging collection plates and special tithes to the latest charity, pastor’s pet cause or capital campaign, “blessing” donors with another chit to heaven and certitude that black apostates are also race traitors. If mainstream African American notions of black identity are defined by a certain degree of essentialism, then religious identity is certainly a key element. Alternative belief systems are viewed with suspicion because they are deemed to be inconsistent with authentic black identity.
Given this context it is unsurprising that comedian and self-appointed dating guru Steve Harvey’s diatribe against atheism this past spring went largely unchallenged by African American cultural critics. Doling out sage dating advice, Harvey condescendingly warned black women to avoid atheist “gentlemen callers” at all costs because they simply have no morals. Harvey’s swaggeringly ignorant declaration was not only a repudiation of atheism but a thinly veiled warning to black women that they should toe the religious line with their personal choices. Failure to do so would have serious consequences for racial solidarity and their ability to be good (black) women, compromising their heterosexual marketability and legitimacy as marriage partners and mothers. It is this brand of essentialism that makes stereotypes associating black identity politics with an anti-secularist stance and religious superstition so irritatingly persistent.
Steve Harvey condescendingly warned black women to avoid atheist 'gentlemen callers' at all costs because they simply have no morals.”
While the greater religiosity of women of color in comparison to men is no mystery, why has this peculiarly gendered regime gone relatively unquestioned? The gravity of the social and economic issues confronting black communities—and the tremendous cultural capital and social authority that organized religion exercises within them— compels further analysis. Just as women are socialized to identify with and internalize misogynistic and sexist paradigms, religious paradigms that emphasize domestication and obeisance to men are integral to mainstream American notions of femininity. For many observant women questioning or rejecting religion outright would be just as counterintuitive as rejecting their connection to their lived experiences. In this regard religious observance is as much a performance and reproduction of gender identity as it is an exercise of personal “morality.” Many of the rituals of black churchgoing forge this sense of gendered identity as community. Whether it be maintaining ties with peers within the context of a church meeting, ensuring impressionable children have some “moral” mooring by sending them to Sunday School or even invoking sage bits of scripture to chasten malcontents, enlighten casual acquaintances or infuse one’s quotidian doings with purpose—all carefully delineate enactments of kin and community that have been compulsorily drilled into women as the proper fulfillment of a gendered social contract. And if this gendered social contract were violated en masse patriarchy and heterosexism would have less of a firmament.
What, then, are the lessons for promoting secular humanist, agnostic or atheist belief systems? First, that there must be more clearly defined alternatives to supernaturalism which speak to the cultural context of diverse populations of women and people of color. Second, that moral secular values should provide the basis for robust critique of the serious cultural and socioeconomic problems that have been allowed to thrive in communities of color under the regime of organized religion. Finally, in an intellectual universe where rock star white men with publishing contracts are the most prominent atheists and atheism is perceived in some quarters as a “white” thing, it is also critical that acceptance and embrace of non-supernatural belief systems be modeled in communities of color “on the ground.” Only then can secularism defang the seductions of the communal dimension of faith that defines our most segregated hour.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of blackfemlens.org and a speaker at the Atheist Alliance International Conference in October. This article is an excerpt from Scarlet Letters a forthcoming book of essays on race/gender politics, atheism and secular belief. 

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The Momens and the Mens

"Many of the rituals of black churchgoing forge this sense of gendered identity as community. Whether it be maintaining ties with peers within the context of a church meeting, ensuring impressionable children have some “moral” mooring by sending them to Sunday School or even invoking sage bits of scripture to chasten malcontents, enlighten casual acquaintances or infuse one’s quotidian doings with purpose—all carefully delineate enactments of kin and community that have been compulsorily drilled into women as the proper fulfillment of a gendered social contract. And if this gendered social contract were violated en masse patriarchy and heterosexism would have less of a firmament."

This is a very interesting and provocative article and It is my opinion that the above statement answers quite satisfactory the question of dichotomy among African American men and women and their respective, differences with regards to embracing the church with all of bells and whistles. I think we are all aware of the detrimental effects that slavery had on black peoples concept of family and the transience with which that institution placed upon it.

And so, with this in mind,( this is my personal theory!) at the outset of the end of slavery (and most likely for those freed before its end), African Americans took with them into the so called free world this conceptual impostion with them while attempting to earn their own way. And given the fact that women were far more so than men socialized as care takers of white families as well as their own(when allowed); well the women found work closer to where they lived, whether they migrated or not as domestic workers doing what they were trained for hundreds of years to do, along with goin' to camp meetin's and back woods churches in secret. Black men on the other hand, had to keep movin' findin' work as field hands, dock workers, or industrial labor jobs that sepperated them from their folk until the great migration; and a man who could'nt find work to feed his family; then as now, did'nt feel much like a man, so one finds other ways in which to feel impowered; like men of so called races do and have done.

But with black men with the tremendous limited options as were then, the diversions of the mind and soul from feeling like complete loser and a chump often found and still find themselves asauged with other men of the same station in pool halls, and street corners and and women who don't go to church. And old habbits die hard, especially in a country that has been sooooo slow to equal the social and economic playing field.

More over, I think that women and men have, by nature(gender biology or hormonial if you consider homosexual social behaviours)different inclinations that determine how we socialize with one another and/or the opposite sex.

Also, I don't know if I agree with your assertion that only secular moral values should a bases from whitch to conduct, what you call a robust critique of cultural and socioeconomic problems in the communities of people of color. Simply because some one morals values are informed in part (hopefully) by their religious beliefes does'nt neccessarily imply that such people would lack the ability to engage in a robust critique of said social issues. And pure rationalism, even in the days of the Enlightment, found and finds itself lacking in social reforms overflowing with equality and freedom. I think it is good to have a balance carton of eggs, that way it wont want to tip heavy in one direction.

Interested in interviewing you

Greetings  Dr. Hutchinson, I hope this message finds you well. Our names are Kalisha Daniel and Brian J. Murphy of KB Productions. We are currently in the pre-production stage of a documentary on African-American atheist and/or non-theist. We are interested in interviewing anyone that falls into the category of not believing in any deity/god. We are looking for solid and very sound/analytical reasons why people of color have chosen to have these beliefs. Since many African-Americans are Christians by default, we feel that this documentary will be a great platform for opposing points of view.

Based on our research , we feel that you would be a strong fit for what we are looking for. According to your expertise, research or just strong opinion on your beliefs, we would like to interview you for our project. Your qualifications are quite impressive and we would be most honored to have you be a part of our project. Thanks for your time and consideration, it is very appreciated. We look forward to hearing back from you and developing a working relationship.

Sincerely

Kalisha Daniel & Brian J. Murphy

Willfull Ignorance cuts a lot of ways

Fascinating and well-written piece.  I'll offer my take:
 
While more black women have been allowed to assume leadership roles in black churches in recent years, they remain a minority among deacons, pastors and senior pastors of most black congregations. So although black women are far more likely than men to attend church more than once a week, the officialdom of black religious establishments, and certainly the political face of the black church, is steadfastly male.
 
I don't think sexism is the only reason black women are less empowered to promote atheism.  I think a lot of it has to do with the hierarchical nature of Protestant (and Muslim?) religions and the degree to which a congregation or mosque believes in a literal point of view versus something more relative.  Some, (the majority?) of Black churches are too ideologically driven, too "literalist" to believe that a woman can lead a congregation; this notion is of course, ridiculous, but it's a concept that (arguably) black women buy into, accept, and promote, just as equally if not moreso than Black men.  Afterall they are the ones using their volition to stand in front of male, sexist pulpits, as manifested by their dominance in church attendance.  In short, Black Women CHOOSE to negate their empowerment as much as Black men work to subjugate them. (This is akin to Black People CHOOSING TO support versus criticize Obama).  The "literalism" of the Bible won't allow them to question this as much as the "literalism of identity politics" won't allow the majority of Blacks to question Obama.  (That, and frankly, being terribly uninformed and unread)  Given the phenomena of "called ministry" Black women can do as they please.  The number of female pastors (and their acceptance) in my community grows every year.
 
The reasons why Black women gravitate to church are varied and complex, but due in no small part to the fact that as heads of households (in a majority of instances) Black women have more stress and pressures in their life and thus more inclined to seek religion as a salve, outlet, or support system.  (And yes, societal values tend to make men of all races more individualistic).  
 
Arguably it's quite nuanced because it says we as African Americans tend to believe that spiritual and material redemption lies in the strength and values of Black women, does it not?  In fact, isn't this the overriding theme (and success) of Tyler Perry Productions and what makes him immensely popular among Black women?  (I could give a shit about his movies or plays, their redundancy bores me to tears, though 2 thumbs up for employing Black thespians).
 
As far as Steve Harvey goes, he needs to get a life or grip.  Today he's "saved", next year when revenues are in the crapper he might become "unsaved."  While "the new Steve Harvey" is eschewing four letter words, the "N" word, and sexual connotations in his new "act" (because of newfound religiosity) HBO or is it BET is doing reruns of his 2008 standup act where he uses M.F., bitch, and sexual references in a manner that would make Richard Pryor proud.  LOL  I wonder if he's declining the residuals earned by the "dirty" Steve Harvey?  LOL
 
I would take your premise one step further and submit that the African American brand of religiosity buttresses the White Status quo (a virulent form of it) as much as it buttresses the gender disparities.  Presently, this is the primary reason I don't attend church, the absence of relevancy in terms of uplifting Black society vs. the "otherwordliness" that for too long was the lynchpin of the Black religious experience (that, and football vs. fake Christians, easy choice).  But that's perhaps a debate for another time.

whewww! you sho' is funcky Bobby, and you need to comb yo' hair!

........Black religious experience (that, and football vs. fake Christians, easy choice).  But that's perhaps a debate for another time. And an interesting debate that would surely be.
 
I think it interesting that you end your comment on the note that is the very crux of the articles dilemma. I would argue that faithfully watching football and /or any other professional sports butresses the white status quo more than African American religious practices do.
 
In my opinion, substituting the ritual of deriving vicaruious pleasure and/or impowerment from watching millionares chase, catch or hit balls for the one of seeking spiritual atonement or uplift and social/communal engagement; similarly results in gender separation on maybe the only day( for many) of the week that offers an opportunity for uninterupted union, is similar in that it represents a division and disperity in what African American men and women value as a meaningful ontological experience.
Respectively: excercise of physical prowess, surpression of complex emotions and obtaing immediate results as apposed to emotional recognition, vulnerability and patience. Now if  a man was out on the field in the park actually playing while his woman  woman was in church then one could argue (although still sepparated) that their experiences have much more in common in that they were both equally and  actively participating in serving their respective diety than. At least the conversation at dinner might  be more spirited. Would it not?



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