7 Personal Rights That I – A Black Atheist – Deserve

A person wearing a dress shirt, tie, and blue coat stands on a sunny road.

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My disbelief in god-beliefs doesn’t make me an abomination.

My complexion isn’t the curse of Cain.

I’m nobody’s nigger.

No, I’m not possessed by demons.

Yes, morality is possible without faith.

I’m not a thug or savage.

My life matters.

To me, Black is beautiful and atheism is freedom.

These affirmations may rub some the wrong way for a variety of reasons. But when I look myself in the mirror, it’s important I recognize and value the image staring back at me. I can’t allow the constant blitz of prejudices and social stigma to chisel away at my self-worth or mental health.

This is easier said than done.

In addition to the specific ways anti-black ideas inform many aspects of our culture, as an atheist, Christian hegemony tacks on a more uncommon layer of discrimination and erasure that I endure from both the Black community and society as a whole.

Sometimes it’s difficult to not feel like a motherless child, forsaken and unloved, like my every breath is both alien and an act of defiance.

For example, nominated officials, like Colorado House of Representative Gordon Klingenschmitt, openly make horrific comments such as atheists should undergo exorcisms so they’ll be okay with graduation ceremonies in church and believe only people who are going to the biblical conception of heaven are entitled to equal treatment by the government.

In certain parts of this country I’m asked “What church do you go to?” in routine conversation because it’s automatically assumed all Black folk indulge in Christian beliefs.

Those groomed in certain religious traditions interpret conflicting beliefs as “outlandish” or “mistaken.” Because many are brought up in environments that constantly encourage and reinforce a Christian worldview, this perspective becomes typical, routine – normal. And for those who take these beliefs for granted, they view normative Christian values as being identical to truth.

It’s incredibly difficult for Blacks to divorce our centuries-old struggle with white supremacist legislation from an assumption that our oppression is the result of some imagined, divine reason – or that some invisible entity is responsible for redeeming or saving us.

From being living tools to having three-fifths citizenship, Jim Crow to mass incarceration, blatant segregation to housing discrimination and educational apartheid, lynching to public executions by law enforcement — many wish to believe there’s a holy end goal to this suffering, rather than fully coming to grips with the reality of continued systemic and systematic racial injustice.

Instead of considering the violently coercive ways Christianity was impressed onto slaves, it remains deeply lodged into the very collective identity of Black America.

I represent a flagrant rift in this custom.

We live in a country where Black lives – from that of Barack Obama to Eric Garner to Renisha McBride and Marissa Alexander – are and have been actively devalued.

Anti-blackness is reflected in every comment that victim-blames and rejoices in unarmed Black individuals being murdered by those sworn to protect the public. Anti-blackness, like Christianity in the Black community, is the echo of slavery. It exists as a stasis of disgust and hostility towards those considered to be a deviation from the “norm.”

This norm — the standard of whiteness — is the lens through which the benchmark of our society’s social, economic, and political institutions are imagined and calibrated.

Whiteness defines itself by establishing a separation from “others” and is both a systemic and systematic ideology based on beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors that create in an unequal distribution of power and privilege. This system of thought places greater significance for the intellectual, behavioral, and inherent value of those defined as white.

And while others wait on a heavenly reprieve from these disparities, I eventually outgrew a belief in the idea of a god years ago. Due to this, I must withstand a barrage of microaggressions, like assumptions that something traumatic must have happened to me, or that I must hate god (which is misotheism, not atheism), or that there must be something wrong with me mentally — because no sane individual can reject the idea of secret mental communications with an ever-absent supernatural being you’ve only been told about but never shown.

The disrespect I encounter comes from family and friends, as well as complete strangers. This is sad but shouldn’t be surprising. During our upbringing, we’re thoroughly programmed to uncritically accept certain beliefs. Religious conviction is something instilled in many of us.

Because so many simply don’t carefully evaluate what they believe and why, it makes sense that the US public generally views atheists negatively, associates atheism with being unpatriotic and immoral, and believes atheists are untrustworthy.

And it is especially painful when these beliefs come from other Black people. The degradation of anti-blackness and the disregard for godlessness intersect through countless facets of reality.

As a way to illustrate my hurt and frustration regarding this habitual mistreatment, I put together a list of basic rights that I, as a Black atheist, am denied but deserve. These are things that many take for granted.

I’m not asking for much. I simply want to exist without being demeaned or torn down for what I am.

This is my protest. I refuse to compromise on these principles. And I shouldn’t have to.

1. I Have the Right to Evolve My Thinking

I was raised to believe white supremacy was white cloaks, skinheads, and swastikas. The only reality I ever knew was the biblical version of gods, proverbs, and morals. From childhood to early adulthood, I embraced these views as The Truth – as I was taught to.

Since then, I had changed my beliefs and my values. I no longer fit the frame society groomed someone like me to occupy.

Being born into and molded by these dominating expectations many imagine to be “common sense,” I used to struggle with internalized racism and was generally oblivious to any other way of thinking beyond the margin of white Jesus and Black Church propaganda.

But people grow. Resistance isn’t futile. Knowledge isn’t a dirty word.

I really wanted to believe in the messages I was taught, but I’m a curious person. My fascination with church history progressed to examining historian commentary, mythology, and diverse religious belief systems.

In the end, curiosity slayed blind faith.

Social awareness is possible through self-determination and a desire to challenge an assembly of indoctrinated beliefs. When this process begins, it can be transformational.

I’m allowed to upgrade my perspective. There is no noose that binds me to my past.

Looking past the apparition of divine intervention requires me to actively vie for a better world rather than just hoping or praying that these things magically come to pass.

Humanism is empowering. It demands validation and respect for all life, advocates for wholesale equality, yearns for compassionate activism, and embraces human reason and ethics – no gods required.

Nowhere is it written that I’m not allowed to change or otherwise grow as a person.

2. I Have the Right To Experience the Fullness of Human Emotions, Whether Positive or Negative

Terms like “normal” are attached to everyday events and conditions that reinforce social inequality based on race and religion.

It’s vexing to be viewed and treated differently for no other reason than the skin I’m in or because I don’t pay homage to Anu, Yahweh, Janus, Allah or the cornucopia of other deities humans have and continue to revere.

I’m not always able to just “grin and bear it” when it comes to microaggressions and marginalization.

It’s absurd to expect a warm bedside manner when it comes to discrimination targeting my very existence. I don’t have the social luxury of examining these intimate matters in a detached manner.

Of course opposing a deluge of anti-black and anti-atheist contempt will produce passion – the only people not passionate about fighting for freedom from misrepresentation and oppression are the oblivious, the deceased or those who benefit from these social imbalances.

As long as these deprivations impact my mental health and life circumstances, I insist on the right to confront them with all the rage, frustration and anxiety to be expected from enduring life in a land where your very humanity is questioned, disregarded and despised.

3. I Have the Right to Live Unapologetically Black

All the bleach in the world couldn’t change the fact that I’m Black. But being unapologetically Black means I openly support and promote Black pride and empowerment void any regrets in a world that prefers whiteness, whitewashing and white-tuning.

Unapologetic Blackness is me saying I won’t be satiated by the crumbs of assimilation and integration into a white-majority society.

It’s me flagrantly declaring Black Lives Matter to the chagrin of a culture partial to racial comfort.

It’s me refusing to forfeit the distinct je ne sais quoi that blackface enthusiast Rachel Dolezal and her ilk wish to misappropriate or co-opt from Black culture.

I embrace every morsel of my blackness with every fiber of my being. I won’t shun or dilute this way of being to placate the many who fail to appreciate its substance and value.

4. I Have the Right to Live Unapologetically Godless

Why should I feel ashamed because I’ve exhaustively studied history, mythology, diverse cultures and religious doctrines?

How is it my fault I know that many of the existing god beliefs and associated religious traditions are recycled or repurposed ideas, derivatives of fantastical tales either assimilated or amended through conflict, acculturation, or political committee?

Curiosity, skepticism and critical thinking are virtues that arm rational thought – equipped with these principles, I have investigated and ultimately discarded extraordinary claims that lack extraordinary proof.

I won’t allow the anti-intellectualism that pervades our culture to convince me that there’s any difference between an invisible, intangible, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and a dragon that doesn’t exist at all.

There’s no reason for me be embarrassed by my nonbelief. I won’t apologize for educating myself. I’m a proud atheist.

5. I Have the Right to Be Black and Atheist Simultaneously

The crushing cultural influence of Christian hegemony and white supremacy demand allegiance or kowtowing from any person viewed as “inferior” or “anathema” within these prevalent value systems.

Because I’ll never do that, I’m subject to micro and macro oppression.

I suffer family estrangement as well as ire and confusion from peers within Black America, many of whom don’t even believe Black atheism exists.

At the same time, I’m othered by society at large because I won’t bend the knee at the throne of white supremacy nor kiss the ring of respectability.

Just like I don’t exist to console white fragility, I won’t “tone down” the nature of my apostasy to soothe religious egos.

That doesn’t mean I’m an obnoxious, firebrand heathen. It just means I don’t deny my deconverted state to cater to faith-based sensibilities.

Take me as I am.

I deserve to be recognized for who I am and what I do and not how I’m perceived based on worldviews distilled through bigoted anti-black and anti-atheist lenses that devalue my identity and personhood.

6. I Have the Right to Expose and Call Out Bullshit

We are all allotted multiple sources of social and cultural capital based on our collection of identities. The limited real estate appointed to a Black atheist can be difficult, but I occupy it without a margin of regret.

The presence of Christian and white privilege is a feature of daily life. Despite this, I won’t be silent in the face of ignorance and insults. If you misrepresent or mistreat me, I’m justified in speaking up.

I’m not beholden to any hollowed idea of respect that requires me to hold my tongue or transform into a doormat just so you can rest in your comfort.

No, I won’t standby idle as you rationalize the obscene into the palatable.

Keep your “tolerance.” Keep your veneer of acceptance that hides culturally-inspired grudges. I know my existence unsettles preferences – and I don’t care.

I demand to be treated with dignity and will highlight every oversight or transgression that denies me this.

7. I Have the Right to Not Be Held Responsible For the Attitude and Behavior of Others

The law of cause and effect doesn’t work in reverse. Yet, society wishes to view my oppression as a sign of personal failing rather than acknowledge there’s a surplus of value granted to some and withheld from others.

I am the other.

Many want to believe we live in a “just world.” Those with privilege want to believe they don’t benefit from the oppression of others and that they aren’t participants in a rigged, biased system.

Victim-blaming exists because it’s easier to see a victim of marginalization as being blameworthy than to forfeit a belief in a fair society where people get what they deserve based purely on merit.

Rather than recognize the numerous ways someone like me is disadvantaged due to culturally reinforced views, there’s a tendency for people to seek ways to establish a moral high ground. This mentality willfully shifts the blame onto any other cause other than discrimination.

How about this: Ask yourself why you’re so invested in searching for alternative explanations for my othering that doesn’t involve accepting some are shown favoritism while others are offered contempt.

It’s easier to relate to the perpetrator or system that preserves oppression when situations involve members of a minority group.

Merely being a Black atheist says nothing about my personality and ethical code. For anyone who thinks otherwise says far more about them than me.

This is why empathy is important. Consciously focusing on empathy helps reduce bias and increase attentiveness to oversight, bigotry and unearned disregard for others.

***

I’m a Black atheist: I’ll never satisfy standards the white gaze favors, nor will I ever worship idols or ideas of supernatural beings – but that doesn’t make me any less deserving of equality and basic decorum.

I want to reclaim what I’ve never had – I demand to be judged based on the content of my character and not negative stereotypes, hearsay, or appearance.

Sincere Kirabo is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism and is a writer, activist, and the Social Justice Coordinator with the American Humanist Association. He’s a self-described philosophile with a high regard for Sikivu Hutchinson, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Shirley Chisholm, and James Baldwin. When he isn’t writing, Sincere enjoys road trips, trying to beat Super Mario Bros with his son, and learning about history. Sincere’s work can also be found on The Humanist and Patheos. Follow him on Twitter @sinkirabo.