In honor of Black History Month, below are highlights of some of the many distinguished African Americans, past and present, who have made known their dissent from religion. To see more, go to ffrf.us/blackhistory.
A lifelong champion of civil rights who chaired the NAACP and helped found both the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Poverty Law Institute, Julian Bond was a pioneering black state legislator in Georgia who became a cultural icon and national voice for social justice.
Q. Are you a believer?
A. No. — Interview on “American Forum,” PBS, with Doug Blackmon, March 2015.
The “Maverick of Omaha” and “defender of the downtrodden” has served for decades in the Nebraska state Senate, where he has defended civil rights as well as the rights of women, LGBTQ, farmers and criminals in an overwhelmingly white, ultraconservative state. Former Sen. Chambers has been a leading state/church separation advocate, and his case objecting to paid prayer in his state Senate went all the way to the Supreme Court.
“As an elected official, I know the difference between theology and politics. My interest is in legislation, not salvation.” — Ernie Chambers in his acceptance speech for the “Hero of the First Amendment” award at the 27th annual FFRF convention, Nov. 12, 2005.
The son of a former Black Panther, Coates would go on to relaunch the landmark Black Panther comic series featuring the first black superhero. Coates is senior editor at The Atlantic. His signature book is Between the World and Me, and in 2015, he was named a MacArthur “Genius.”
“I am an atheist. I don’t believe the arc of the universe bends towards justice. I don’t even believe in an arc.” — Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Myth of Western Civilization,” The Atlantic, Dec. 12, 2013.
Born enslaved, Douglass escaped slavery at 20, lecturing at personal peril against slavery and founding the weekly publication, North Star. Douglass was the only man to speak in favor of woman suffrage at the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848. He launched The National Era newspaper, became a D.C. U.S. marshal and later became consul-general to Haiti. He was not an atheist, but was highly unorthodox and a life-long civil libertarian and brave pathblazer.
“I prayed for 20 years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” — Frederick Douglass, Autobiography.
W.E.B. Du Bois
Earning his doctorate from Harvard in 1894, Du Bois wrote The Souls of Black Folk in 1903, urging black Americans to stand up for their rights. He co-founded the NAACP and edited its journal, Crisis, for 24 years, turning it into a black literary journal. He has been dubbed the “father of Pan-Africanism.”
“We are still trained to believe a good deal that is simply childish in theology. The outward and visible punishment of every wrong deed that men do, the repeated declaration that anything can be gotten by anyone at any time by prayer.” — W.E.B. Du Bois “On Christianity,” a chapter in African-American Humanism: An Anthology, edited by Norm R. Allen Jr.
NFL Houston Texan player Arian Foster (2009-15), who set franchise records for rushing yards and touchdowns, is a most unusual athlete, who wanted to convey to his fans that “I recognize the light in you.” He was the only member of the team who didn’t identify as a Christian. He has dabbled in acting, has a podcast, “Now What? with Arian Foster” and founded the Arian Foster Family Foundation to fight childhood obesity, improve financial literacy and provide personal development to inner-city youth.
“Teammates ask me, ‘You worship the devil?’ ‘No, bro, I don’t believe there’s a God, why would I believe there’s a devil?‘” — Arian Foster, ESPN The Magazine, Aug. 6, 2015.
He graduated from New York University with a degree in dramatic writing in 2006, then began writing for the NBC comedy “30 Rock,” receiving a Writer’s Guild nomination in 2009. Glover is best known for playing Troy the “jock” in a community college study group on the comedy series “Community.” In addition to writing and acting, Glover performs stand-up and raps. His 2014 album “Because the Internet” was nominated for a Grammy. In the song “Won’t Stop,” Glover refers to himself as “an airport atheist.”
“I think everybody kind of hits that point where they say, ‘OK, am I doing this out of tradition? Do I actually believe this?’” — Donald Glover, interview, Zap2it, Feb. 3, 2011.
The daughter of civil rights activists and intellectuals, Lorraine Hansberry wrote the first drama by a black woman to be produced on Broadway and win the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award. “A Raisin in the Sun” (the title derived from a poem by Langston Hughes) was loosely based on her own experiences growing up in Chicago and also became a movie starring Sidney Poitier. Hansberry wrote The Drinking Gourd, commissioned by the National Broadcasting Co. in 1959, about the American slave trade, which was considered too hot for television and was never produced. Hansberry died of cancer at 34. “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” was posthumously adapted from her writings and produced off-Broadway in 1969, also appearing in book form.
“I get tired of God getting credit for all the things the human race achieves.” — Lorraine Hansberry, “Raisin in the Sun,” (words ascribed to Beneatha).
Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Somalian-born Hirsi Ali fled to the Netherlands in 1992 to avoid an arranged marriage, was elected to the Dutch Parliament in 2003 and became a prominent atheist and critic of Islam, particularly against abuse of women under the religion. She was forced to go into hiding when her colleague, Theo van Gogh, was viciously murdered after producing a film, “Submission,” with her. Her critically acclaimed memoir, Infidel, came out in 2005. She founded the AHA Foundation to end honor violence, forced marriage and female genital mutilation.
“I had left God behind years ago. . . . From now on, I could step firmly on the ground that was under my feet and navigate based on my own reason and self-respect. My moral compass was within myself, not in the pages of a sacred book. . .” — Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Infidel, 2007.
For four decades, he chronicled the black experience and perspective in powerful poetry, fiction, nonfiction and children’s books. The Nation magazine published his influential essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” (1926), in which Hughes advocated racial pride and independent artistry, giving the Harlem Renaissance its due.
Hughes’ satire on corruption in black storefront churches, “Tambourines to Glory” (1963), was not popular with black clergy. Biographer Wallace Best wrote that Hughes disagreed with characterizations of him as anti-religious or atheist while reserving the right to criticize dogma and the Christian church.
You did alright in your day, I reckon—
But that day’s gone now.
They ghosted you up a swell story, too,
Called it Bible—
But it’s dead now.
The popes and the preachers’ve
Made too much money from it.
They’ve sold you to too many.” — From Langston Hughes’ poem “Goodbye Christ,” 1932
Zora Neale Hurston
Novelist, folklorist and short story writer Zora Neale Hurston attended Howard University, graduated from Barnard and did graduate study at Columbia at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. She wrote seven books, including her classic novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), although she was forced to take “day jobs,” including maid work, to support herself. I Love Myself When I am A Laughing . . . And Then Again When I am Looking Mean and Impressive, was published in 1979, after Alice Walker revived interest in her. Her oral history, “Barracoon,” based on interviews with the last survivor of the slave trade in the United States, finally saw the light of day in 2018.
“Strong, self-determining men are notorious for their lack of reverence. Prayer seems to me a cry of weakness.” — Zora Neale Hurston, “Religion,” from “Dust Tracks on a Road,” 1942, anthologized in African-American Humanism: An Anthology, edited by Norm R. Allen Jr., 1991.
Hutchinson founded Black Skeptics Los Angeles (BSLA) in 2010 and is the founder of the Women’s Leadership Project. She has written and spoken extensively on the particular challenges of “coming out” as an atheist female of color. She was honored with FFRF’s Freethought Heroine Award at the 2021 national convention in Boston.
“The white fundamentalist Christian stranglehold on Southern and Midwestern legislatures has proven to be a national cancer that further exposes the dangerous lie of a God-based, biblical morality.” — Hutchinson, commenting on restrictive abortion bills, The Humanist magazine, July/August 2019.
Jaffree, an attorney, won the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Wallace v. Jaffree, (1985), successfully challenging a period of silence for “meditation or voluntary prayer” and a law authorizing teachers to lead “willing students” in prescribed prayer. Jaffree’s children were ostracized, physically harassed and subjected to racial epithets.
“I brought the case because I wanted to encourage toleration among my children. I certainly did not want teachers who have control over my children for at least eight hours over the day to . . . program them into any religious philosophy.” — Ishmael Jaffree, acceptance speech for “Freethinker of the Year 1985,” awarded by FFRF.
The “King of Ragtime” propelled that style of music into national prominence when his 1899 “Maple Leaf Rag” became a huge hit. He struggled in his lifetime to support himself, while today he is a household name. He was married at home and buried without a church service, and wrote an opera, “Treemonisha,” where a secular woman is the leader against the town’s useless pastor.
“Ignorance is criminal.” — Scott Joplin, lyrics from “Treemonisha.”
The lawyer, activist, civil-rights advocate and feminist became the first black woman to graduate from Columbia Law School. She ran her own law practice, representing the estates of jazz greats Billy Holiday and Charlie Parker. She co-founded the National Organization for Women, in 1966, and the Media Workshop to better represent black people in journalism and advertising. She started the Feminist Party in 1971, nominating Shirley Chisholm for president, and helped establish the National Women’s Political Caucus and the National Black Feminist Organization.
“If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” — Flo Kennedy, coined while on a speaking tour with Gloria Steinem.
Larsen, born in 1891, was a well-known Harlem Renaissance writer. Her first book, a 1928 novel titled Quicksand, has a young protagonist with resemblances to Larsen, who pointedly disdains the religion she encounters at a fictional Black school. In 1933, Larsen became the first Black woman to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship.
“With the obscuring curtain of religion rent, she was able to look about her and see with shocked eyes this thing she had done to herself. She couldn’t, she thought ironically, even blame God for it, now that she knew he didn’t exist.” — Larsen, writing in Quicksand about her character Helga Crane (1928).
The singer-songwriter started off in a church choir, but began performing in nightclubs after graduating from college and working with big name artists, such as Alicia Keys and Jay-Z. His first album, “Get Lifted,” went platinum and earned three Grammys. He played “Keith” in “La La Land” and co-wrote and performed the song “Start the Fire” for the soundtrack.
“I feel like religion in a lot of ways was intended to control and subdue people rather than to bring out the best in them.” — John Legend on BigThink.com, 2008.
An aerospace engineer, Alton Lemon also worked as an Equal Opportunity Officer for HUD, served as president of the Philadelphia Ethical Society, was active in the ACLU and won the landmark Supreme Court case, Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), codifying existing precedent on the Establishment Clause into a test called the “Lemon Test.”
“If any of the three prongs of the Lemon Test are violated by an act of government, it is unconstitutional:
1) It must have a secular legislative purpose;
2) Its principal or primary effect must neither advance nor inhibit religion;
3) It must not foster excessive entanglement between government and religion.” — The Lemon Test, promulgated in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971).
Best known for her thankless role as Prissy in “Gone With the Wind,” Butterfly McQueen was a near-lifelong atheist. The role of Prissy, she would later say, was not pleasant to play, “But I did my best, my very best.” She quit movie acting in 1947 to avoid further typecasting, supporting herself as a real-life maid, Macy’s saleslady and seamstress, even working as a Macy’s Santa Claus. She earned her bachelor’s degree in political science in 1974 at age 64, and was one of FFRF’s first Lifetime Members.
“As my ancestors are free from slavery, I am free from the slavery of religion.” — Butterfly McQueen, Atlanta Journal and Constitution, Oct. 8, 1989.
American jazz composer and pianist’s “Round Midnight” composition is the most recorded jazz standard by any musician. Monk’s idiosyncratic style used unexpected melodic twists, dissonant harmonies and erratic percussive phrases. His views on religion were also unorthodox. He rarely attended church, and a biographer noted he “did not speak about religion in the most flattering terms.”
Although classically trained, American jazz soloist, saxophonist and composer Parker, known as “Bird,” was a virtuosic improviser, whose work was crucial to the development of bebop. After his death, Parker’s lifelong partner called him a longtime atheist.
Anthony B. Pinn
Humanist scholar Pinn gave up the ministry in favor of humanism. Author, co-author or editor of 35 books, including Writing God’s Obituary: How a Good Methodist Became a Better Atheist, Pinn is a professor at Rice University and director of the Institute for Humanist Studies in Washington, D.C.
“Too many humanists and atheists believe disbelief, nontheism, is a prophylactic against nonsense. Because I don’t believe in religion, I cannot be guilty of racism, classism, sexism or homophobia. This is a problem because it doesn’t allow us to take these issues seriously.” — Anthony Pinn, FFRF’s 2015 convention speech.
The comedian, actor and producer joined the cast of “Saturday Night Live” in 1990, has been featured in several HBO specials, has won Grammys for comedy albums and has appeared in many movies, including “Dogma” and Netflix specials. Rock’s comedy is peppered with skepticism about religion.
“White people justified slavery and segregation through Christianity, so a black Christian is like a black person with no f***king memory.” — Chris Rock, outtake from the documentary short “Who Is Chris Rock?”
Born to a composer-producer father and an African-American singer-songwriter mother who died when Maya was 7, Rudolph calls her parents “hippies” and her agnostic dad a “pretty adorable Jew.” A New York Times Magazine profile reported, “The family was committedly unreligious.” She earned a B.A. in photographer from Porter College, and became a recurring cast member of “Saturday Night Live” from 2000-2007. She was the fourth black woman to join the cast. She has performed in many movies and TV series, including “Bridesmaids (2011) and “Forever” (2018).
“I remember my mom not even saying ‘God bless you.’ She’d say, ‘Guhbless you’ because she didn’t want us to say ‘God.’” — Maya Rudolph, New York Times Magazine, Sept. 14, 2018.
Square is an outspoken atheist whose clever lyrics focus on atheism, science and other philosophical topics. He also raps about his experiences growing up in Compton, Calif., in a series of group homes, and serving in the Iraq War. Square began studying physics at Arizona State University, but later changed to computer science. He has released many albums, starting with “Absolute” in 2004.
“After a lot of reading and research, I realized I didn’t have any secret channel picking up secret messages from God or anyone else. That voice in my head was my own.” — Greydon Square, 2010 interview with Martin Pribble for his blog “Attempting to Make Sense.”
Thomas, who grew up in a nonreligious household, co-founded Black Nonbelievers of Atlanta in 2011, which soon dropped the “Atlanta” reference when the group went national. After a career at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Thomas has become a full-time secular activist and is president of Black Nonbelievers.
“It once felt weird to identify as atheist, but I had to be honest with myself: At the end of the day, I don’t believe in any gods at all.” — Mandisa Thomas, interview, SecularWoman.org, July 19, 2013.
Neil deGrasse Tyson
Tyson, who earned a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Columbia, became staff scientist for the Hayden Planetarium, wrote the “Universe” essays for Natural History, hosted PBS’ “NOVA ScienceNOW,” and has served on NASA’s advisory council. He has directed the Hayden Planetarium since 2003. He has written many books and hosted the second “Cosmos” PBS series.
“Let there be no doubt that as they are currently practiced, there is no common ground between science and religion.” — Neil deGrasse Tyson, “Holy Wars,” published in Natural History, October 1999.
Self-described “Earthling” and “womanist,” Walker has written many novels, including The Color Purple, which won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize, a biography on Langston Hughes and other novels and many essays. Although raised Methodist, she has written against the bible’s sexism and asserts that Mother Nature deserves worship
“What a burden to think one is conceived in sin rather than in pleasure; that one is born into evil rather than into joy.” — Alice Walker, “The Only Reason You Want to Go to Heaven Is That You Have Been Driven Out of Your Mind,” from Anything We Love Can Be Saved: A Writer’s Activism.
Reproductive rights activist Alyce Faye Wattleton, who holds a nursing degree, was named executive director of Planned Parenthood in Dayton, Ohio, in 1971 and then in 1978 was named president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America — its youngest and first African American president. In 1993, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
“If I was to be a nurse, [people with beliefs different from mine] needed my care and not my judgment. They needed my compassion and understanding and not my moral values. So, I began to really think in a broader context than the narrow religious upbringing of my parents.” — Wattleton, speaking at a St. Louis bookstore about Life on the Line (C-SPAN, Oct. 22, 1996)