Like most Black kids with southern parents, I spent most of my childhood stewing in a hot church I didn’t want to be in. From week to week, I hopped between the kids’ Bible study and the regular sermon upstairs with all the older folks in a large room, which felt to me as much like a funeral service as a celebration of the divine. Even on cheerful summer days, the light would come in through high windows only to be filtered through thick clouds of dust swirling around the fans and fall onto the stale wooden benches with a sickly yellow-beige tint. Every time a young me squirmed in my seat, the bench complained loudly: “Be still, for this is the house of the Lord.”
I never quite felt like I was in the right place. In the church basement with the other kids, I was the awkward one whose already-developing social anxiety prevented me from being outgoing and making friends as we discussed giving our young lives to Jesus. Upstairs with the adults, my mother would complain, only whenever I could hear, I suspected, about my desire to stay home instead of coming to worship. It became evident to me only years later that I was there more because I feared going to hell than because I found any comfort in God. My departure from Black Christianity started early.
My teenage years were a constant battle between wanting the solace I saw my family get from religion and being honest with myself—like many people in my generation, God was becoming less of an anchor and more of an anachronism. I simply could not reconcile the teachings of the Bible—issues of slavery, marriage, violence, and many others—with any conception of reality that was reasonable to me. How could a benevolent God love us and leave us in this state? How could an omnipotent God let us—Black people, women, queer people, the poor for crying out loud—become a perpetual casualty of free will?
By the time I got to college, my distaste for church had turned into a polite agnosticism, and as I realized that organized Blackness at my school was intimately tied with Christianity, it turned into a spiteful atheism. In much the same way that I would turn my seething sarcasm at racists, sexists, and homoantagonists, I found myself frequently and ruthlessly making fun of Christians and their normative behaviors. I was often told to pray about something only to demand combatively, “To who?” There was a sense of community I realized I could not find with those around me, whose belief in God was so natural that it casually permeated every late-night study session, every discussion of the future, every greeting and goodbye. It wasn’t long before I realized that in being honest with myself about my belief in God, I’d lost something in my community that I would probably never get back.
The day I lost my religion was the scariest day of my life. Everything I thought God could save me from—death, sickness, depression, anxiety, violence, persecution, dehumanization—became a thing that I would have to face in the word alone. Suddenly, the universe felt too big to exist in; did I really exist, in any substantial way? Did it matter? Did I matter? Atheism did not bring me comfort; it brought me a deeply personal sense of truth, and it brought me peace where I had been pretending for most of my life. But with that peace came an unresolvable unrest that I would have to learn to live with. After years of wrestling with the question of my faith, I realized that not believing in God was something that I could not help, and that not believing in God was something that hurt. Death stuck comfortably to my depression and cloaked my every moment in unease. As many reasons as I had compiled for disliking the institution of Christianity, the real reason that I did not believe in God was that, try as I might, I couldn’t. There was no time nor energy to be smug.
In much the same way that my Christianity was inherently Black, my atheism, too, has been framed by my race. As White voices have dominated the conversation about atheism and thoroughly othered Black atheists, it has become difficult for us to share our own experiences and connect with those who have different beliefs or backgrounds. Associated with atheism is a sense of superiority that makes us seem unapproachable and brash, and associated with Blackness is a sense of superstition and violence that far exceeds any of our realities.
Between our theistic choices and our race, Black atheists have been put cleanly into a strange “uppity” pile, too insignificant to share narratives in a White-dominated conversation, but too arrogant and disconnected to be able to relate to Black Christians. With the way science and atheism have been put in opposition with faith and Christianity, with the way White voices like Richard Dawkins have taken atheism to the idealistic extremes that we often deride theistic religion for, it seems like atheists have it all figured out and want everyone else to feel silly for not figuring it out too, whatever “it” is.
I sure as hell haven’t figured it out. Atheism, for me, has been an ongoing and often losing battle to reframe the concept of time so that my day-to-day does not freeze me in place. Rather than God and the divine, I have set myself toward finding a balance between morality and the cosmic, and sometimes the scope of the question becomes so huge that I lose track of everything. Being an atheist has been an exercise in romanticizing ants. Being black is an exercise is romanticizing flies, honey, and vinegar. Being me is an exercise in surviving myself. But maybe I’ll be God, one day. Maybe I’ll write myself into eternity.