Coming out Black and Agnostic

by Guest Contributor Tami, originally published at What Tami Said

The Devil is wearing mittens and I expect a ham to fly past my window any second now. Why? Salon has published a letter from an African American in its Cary Tennis advice column. To be fair, most writers to the column don’t mention their race, so I could be wrong in guessing that most queries come from white, urban, highly-educated, highly-privileged liberals. One thing is clear, rarely does Tennis tackle issues unique to people of color.

Today’s dilemma comes from a black man who is disaffected from the church. Unlike his conservative, Christian wife and family, he has come to know that he is agnostic–he believes that the truth about the afterlife, deities and ultimate reality is unknowable. While the writer wants to be true to himself, he is hesitant to come out to his family–afraid of the fractures his lack of faith might cause.

I feel that I am now at a point where I must make a declaration that will surely affect those who are close to me. My loved ones have long suspected that there was something “different” about my approach to spiritual subjects, but up until now I have successfully hidden my true thoughts, philosophical developments and feelings from them.

    * With every Sunday that I sit in a church that would likely condemn my kind, I feel like I am betraying my potential and misleading my spouse.
    * With every public prayer uttered “in Jesus’ name” I feel like I am living a lie.
    * With every in-depth discussion about religious and social topics, I use evasive humor and agile commentary to distract my conversation partners — fearing that a sustained encounter would lead to the exposure of my controversial religious and philosophical views.

But one can only do this for so long before wondering if such attempts to suppress one’s true self for fear of offending the sensibilities of others is really worth it. One can only maintain a facade so long before wondering if doing so also erodes one’s sense of integrity while also denying loved ones the opportunity to know, understand and accept the “true” you. Read more…

What to do?

Tennis gave one of his predictably lofty and meandering non-answers to “Churchgoing Agnostic”–advice that, I think, doesn’t take into account the unique relationship the black community has with Christianity. The Black Church, as an institution, is about more than worship. It is about community, history, activism and more. For many, Christianity and churchgoing are part of the very fabric of African Americanness. For a people whose African ancestors practiced indigenous religions far removed from the Western view of worship, we have embraced Christianity as ours. A recent survey revealed that blacks are more religious in key ways – including frequency of church attendance, daily prayer life and certainty of belief – than the U.S. population as a whole. Quiet as it’s kept, a whole lot of those presumably white, conservative, Evangelical Christians that get so much ink, look like me.

Atheism, agnosticism, even other world religions, such as Buddhism or Hinduism, are belief systems “those other folks” dabble in, not black folk–or so conventional wisdom says. Even Islam (a common modern-day religion in the lands of our ancestors, as well as the United States) and historically black religions, such as Yoruba and Rastafarianism get the side eye.

I am not arguing the merit of one path or another. I am wondering what happens when you know your religious path is not the one in which you and most other black Americans were raised? When Christianity (Protestant Christianity) is so engrained in your culture, when it has been a life preserver in the turbulent storm that is the history of blacks in America (although some might argue the opposite), how does one extract themselves from that (if that is what he or she wants to do)? It occurs to me that what the letter writer may face could be explosive.

One Salon commenter agrees. Assezmalicieuse says:

I wish the LW so much luck. I am already outside of the African American church community because I was raised Catholic and have been an atheist since the age of 15, but I know how gut-wrenching such a separation will be because the black Protestant community is not just a place one goes to worship, it literally can become the social center of one’s life. Voluntarily cutting himself off from his religious community is like suffering a cherem. It’s worse than excommunication; it’s literally a social exclusion which could seriously damage his marriage and literally leave him isolated, but I believe one must always “to one’s own heart, be true.” Most of the truly devout black folks I know (and who I count as family, including my Roman Catholic parents) have been taught to “love the sinner and hate the sin.” If his wife truly lives by Christian ideals, her love for the LW will not be diminished in the face of this challenge. However, if his marriage cannot weather the storm, it’s better that the LW know there are certain limitations in his marriage which his wife cannot overcome, leaving them both free to find partners which share their belief systems. It’s a hard risk to take, but I cannot imagine living my life differently for fear of losing someone who may not love and respect me for who I truly am, not what they wish me to be.

So, what advice would I give Churchgoing Agnostic? If he were a friend, I would suggest he not make any major pronouncements regarding his beliefs. After all, faith–or lack off–is very personal and needn’t be a public affair. I don’t care for proselytizing of any stripe–religious or secular. I would suggest he dialogue more with his wife about his beliefs on religion to ease her into understanding his views. The hard part will be shedding religious rituals that feel uncomfortable to him, especially ones that are part of his community and family. If he has been attending church every Sunday and prayer service every Wednesday, a sudden disappearance will guarantee some sort of prying confrontation. What then?

I feel a little icky about my advice. It feels like recommending that the letter writer lie to both himself and those he loves. But don’t we do that sometimes, where other things are involved, to keep the peace? The key is striking the balance–keeping the peace without denying your essential being. Bah! I don’t know. My way seems like the coward’s way.

What about you, readers? Have you broken from the religion of your family and community? Are you an African American Buddhist; are you black and Jewish? Are you atheist or agnostic?

What is your advice to Churchgoing Agnostic?

UPDATE: The Hispanic Fanatic has a good post up about religion and the Hispanic community here.

(Image Credit: “Black Church Face,” Gilbert and George, 1980)

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