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The High Price Of Being A Black Atheist


Now, I have another conversation touching on matters of faith and spirituality or, in this case, the cost of questioning faith. On this program, we've spoken before about African-Americans who do not embrace organized religion and this is interesting because religion and spirituality have played such an important role in the history, life and culture of African-Americans.

Well, this month, for Black History Month, a group called African-Americans For Humanism have launched a national advertising campaign. The group hopes to inform people that, although a majority of African-Americans are religious, not all African-Americans are.

Now, you might have seen the ads. They've been placed on public transportation and billboards in major cities around the country and they feature historical figures like Zora Neale Hurston and Frederick Douglass, well as people who belong to local chapters of the group.

One ad features a picture of the poet Langston Hughes alongside Alix Jules of the Dallas-Fort Worth Coalition of Reason, and he's with us now to talk more about the campaign and his views.

Alix, thanks so much for joining us.

ALIX JULES: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: What is humanism, by the way? Why not just say atheist?

JULES: There's a little bit of a difference. Atheism only tells you that we don't believe in a particular deity. Humanism, however, is a world view that's concerned with humanity and the human condition and that typically doesn't have a mandate of belief of a deity. So atheism just says, I don't believe in God. Humanism tells you what you do believe in.

MARTIN: What is the intention of the campaign? What do you and the others who are participating in it hope to accomplish with it?

JULES: It's about promoting discourse within the African-American community about black free thinkers, to inform them that we have always been here and we are still here. You know, what you see in the media or what's portrayed in general African-American culture, there is an alternate state.

MARTIN: I was interested to know how you came to your embrace of humanism. What's your story?

JULES: I grew up, for the most part, Catholic, going to church, Mass two, sometimes three times a week. I didn't question. When I did have questions, I was told by the priest, don't question. Just take it on faith. And as I got older, that particular line of thinking got harder and harder to justify.

I would go to church and I would see people speaking in tongues, catching the spirit and I would never be moved in that sense, which also made me feel somewhat broken, which actually drove me deeper in trying to justify my faith and connect with God, etc., and it never really happened, which is interesting because it's - you know, I'm partnered with Langston Hughes and his story is very similar.

He talks about going to a religious revival and seeing all this and not being able to really experience it and so that level of aloneness that we felt really drove us to question and find an alternative.

MARTIN: And where did that search lead you?

JULES: My search led me to eventually being an atheist and I don't have an issue calling myself an atheist. A lot of black people do.

MARTIN: I understand that - I hope you don't mind my mentioning this - that you personally have paid a bit of a price for your embrace of humanism and your rejection of the religion with which you were raised. I understand that you really don't even have a relationship with your mother anymore as a result of this.

Do you think that that's common that people who are open about not embracing organized religion are ostracized within the African-American community?

JULES: Yes. Especially in the African-American community because of the cultural importance of Christianity in the African-American community. You're typically seen as a race traitor or you're seen as someone who just will not have any type of morality.

For me, I don't have a relationship with my mother or my cousins. My extended family has turned their back on me and that's a lot of the fear that some of the people that we know that are out there have and...

MARTIN: OK. Can I just ask, though, how you know that that's common? Because African-Americans are also known for being very tolerant of a diverse range of views and just saying, well, that's him.

JULES: Well, people have been reaching out to several of us across the U.S. electronically and the common notion or common theme or question is, how do I come out to my family? I don't know if I can do this. You know, I can doubt. I can doubt, but as soon as I use the term "atheist," it becomes very difficult. You become an apostate. Why would you want to come out as an atheist because of the social cost?

MARTIN: I understand. So, finally, before we let you go, I just want to mention again that the ads are running in New York City, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Washington, D.C. and Durham, North Carolina.

What reaction have you gotten to the ads?

JULES: It's been mixed. A lot of the preachers don't like the ads going up. You know, several of them have come out and said, we have holes in our souls and we're crying out and we want to come back to religion and this is our way of finding our way back.

But on the other side, we're seeing a swell of people that are connecting and saying, thank you for doing this because, until now, I felt alone. And that's really the purpose of the ads, at least in Dallas, is to make sure that, if you feel alone, you know that you're not alone. There are people out there.

MARTIN: Alix Jules is the chair of the Dallas-Fort Worth Coalition of Reason's Diversity Council and he was kind enough to join us from Dallas. Alix, thanks so much for speaking with us.

JULES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.