When you’re a little black girl growing up in the South, you have to believe in something, because very few people will believe in you. I believed in God. For the first 14 years of my life, I believed in a Heavenly Father who would smite my enemies, make me thirty pounds thinner overnight, and compel my mother to buy me a puppy for Christmas. Of course the first thing they tell in you in Sunday school is God doesn’t grant wishes or favors, which didn’t stop me from begging for them.
The second thing they, and by they I mean Black church industrial complex, tell you is that everything that happens in life is part of God’s plan. In sixth grade, I distinctly remember thinking, “Why isn’t it God’s plan for me to be skinny and light-skinned and pretty and popular?” Nevertheless, I still went to church every Sunday, an exclusively Christian Girl Scout troupe every Wednesday, and meetings for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes every Monday after school.
Thinking back on this I am both amused and embarrassed by my naïveté, but for the sake of clarity, I did not stop believing in God because he wasn’t doing his part as my own personal genie. Conversely, there was no grand eye-opening moment that caused me to realize that God, at least the God my family and I grew up believing in, probably doesn’t exist. I’m partial to equating my experience to a child who finds out that Santa Claus doesn’t exist from the kids at school.
At first, there was defensiveness. “Of course God is real. Who’s the source of all the good things in the world if God isn’t real?” The existential crisis followed quickly thereafter. “If there is no God, what was all that praying for? Has my family just been lying to me this whole time?” My faith in the entity that is often a unifying figure in the African-American community began to wane with age. I researched and learned. I discovered that science, which I loved wholeheartedly, and religion, which I was beginning to find more than a little oppressive, were too disparate for me to choose both. When I turned 14, I voted in favor of science and, by extension, secularism and never looked back.
When my friends went to their church youth group activities without me, I didn’t look back. When I was the only girl in my grade that didn’t take a stand against premarital sex, I didn’t look back. I still don’t look back, even when my family blesses their food or tells me to put God first. Nevertheless, being an atheist in the Black community can be very isolating. Christianity has been an inseparable aspect of the Black cultural narrative for the past 300 years. One of our most powerful and influential civil rights leaders was a reverend. God is a safe-haven and a protector for the majority of African-Americans, and separating myself from God felt like I was separating myself from my people.
It still feels like that sometimes, especially because I have yet to tell the rest of my family. My aunt is a pastor with a flare for melodrama, so I’d hate to think how she would handle this information. In spite of that, I’m coming to terms with the fact that it doesn’t entirely matter what they think of my atheism or if they get the chance to know about it. It only matters what I think about it, and I think it’s wonderful.