Black Secular Teen Activists: Unchurched and “Un-bossed”

Lydia Mason of New York University: “If I had not chosen to embrace humanism and take responsibility for my morality rather than leaving it up to religion then I likely never would have become the activist I am today.”

Black secular teens and millennials are a largely invisible community of activist young people. They are not passively churched, they are not “fallback” spiritual, nor are they bowing down to ‘God(s)’ to give the appearance of cultural solidarity with mainstream blackness. What they are is committed to an unapologetically intersectional vision of social justice that challenges faith-based respectability. The difficulties of being a millennial non-believer, agnostic or skeptic is especially pronounced for queer, trans and gender non-conforming black youth who are most vulnerable to becoming homeless, placed in abusive foster care conditions or incarcerated. In the fall of 2017, Black Skeptics Los Angeles in partnership with the Freedom from Religion Foundation awarded four African American secular youth college scholarships as part of its annual First in the Family Humanist Scholarship awards. These youth are contributing to their communities as organizers, artists, activists, and scholars who join the growing numbers of millennials who are not just rejecting faith-based belief but are forging progressive humanist change.

Dia Brown, University of Vermont

We are the ones that change the world. In recognizing that this responsibility is ours, not gods, people begin to feel more accountable for affecting positive change in the world around us.

There is a sort of recipe involved when it comes to solving problems, and religion is an optional ingredient. For me, I have always been passionate about the environment. I have worked for many local churches who are doing splendid work for the environment by planting trees and sustainable gardens as well as picking up litter, but for them, part of the recipe to care is that “God” created earth and that we must protect. My mindset for caring is that there is an aesthetic value to keeping the earth clean. It is also a concern for public health and I concern myself with the well-being of the people and animals on this planet. When passion is mixed in with action, a healthy serving of effective change is made. I started my organization Crochet for the Bay at 14, I volunteer at every earth related event I can, and in my spare time I work to educate the youth about the environment. Many say that I am a blessing to have and that I am doing God’s good work, but it’s just who I am. When I do tell people I am atheist they commonly ask how I got that way. It started when I was five years old. I was sitting in a local Baptist church with my family. People in the church were dancing and shaking as they “felt the Lord.” My sister exclaimed, ‘I feel him; I feel the Lord,’ and in that moment, I realized I didn’t. I waited for him to come, then waiting turned to wondering. I questioned whether their reactions were real, whether it was real, whether He was real. In that moment of isolation, I decided. I never went to church unless I had to, I stopped reading the books, and when I prayed, I prayed for people. As a young mixed girl in a conservative county, I kept this hidden from everyone, and when I was called rude names for the color of my skin, I just thought of the good in people because in my eyes, ‘everyone means well,’ as my late grandfather would always say so many years ago. I had faith in humanity, but I had no faith in God. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was atheist. This past year I helped to start an interfaith group and made sure that my voice as an atheist was heard.

Lydia Mason, New York University

There came a day when I got tired of waiting for a god to fix the world for me. I realized that I had the ability to set my own standards for the kind of person I wanted to be, and that I had the responsibility for upholding those standards. As I entered high school, I embraced humanism wholeheartedly, and began fighting for justice for all people on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation and disability status. I decided to stop waiting for someone or something to change the world, and instead be that change myself. I started the first high school Black Student Union in my city, through which I organize numerous vigils, protests, and forums. I also started a mentoring program between my school and the Boys & Girls Club in my area. Additionally, I regularly advocate for comprehensive, standardized sex education curriculum that includes and empowers people of all genders, religions, races, sexualities, and cultures. I have done multiple speeches about the way that poor sex education disproportionately harms people of color, queer people, and people of lower incomes. Furthermore, I started a club devoted to the inclusion and empowerment of people with disabilities, and hosted a fundraiser at my school for it which raised over $40,000. Lastly, I started the first Girl Up chapter (a United Nations Organization dedicated to empowering women and girls globally) in my state and raised thousands of dollars for girls seeking education and healthcare in Guatemala. If I had not chosen to embrace humanism and take responsibility for my morality rather than leaving it up to religion, then I likely never would have become the activist I am today. Even for those who choose to be religious, I believe that humanism is an incredibly important principle in order to enact change. Any person who spends their entire lives waiting for a higher power to act upon them rather than using their gifts to improve the world themselves has truly wasted their purpose in life.

Sydney Steward, University of Pennsylvania

During my youth, I attended a church that often left me feeling empty inside. Sermons were boisterous, beautiful in the way that hymns captivated the broken souls sitting in the pews. Spirituals claiming to sew the pieces of a person back together put smiles on faces, brought tears to eyes, and moved people to rise on their feet. Reaching out with weary hands, they felt the ‘Holy Spirit’—but I didn’t. I sat and watched people pour their problems into a mysterious being. My mother always reminded me that the bible is simply a book of short stories. I could not fathom how adults lived according to folklore. The same god who claimed to love all his children hypocritically shunned those who did not align with his dicta. The same god who claimed to promote peace and love desecrated the lives of millions of people every day. Confusion and anger plagued my conscience. With every Sunday that passed, I realized a raw truth.

Blind trust is intoxicating.

When asked the question, “Do you believe in God?” I awkwardly reply, “I don’t know” or “I am trying to figure that out.” Rarely am I asked, “What do you believe in?” I was raised in a culture of binaries; either you subscribe to a religion or you repel any system of non-scientific belief. While I do dislike the cult-like, elitist nature of Christianity, I do not live without a moral compass. None of us do; the human propensity consists of the need to delineate good and evil. Why attach divisive religions to this natural phenomenon? Good and evil mingle inside each and every one of us. Virtue is not static; I love the liberation that comes with writing the rules as I go. My agnosticism is rooted in my introspective nature; I imbibe the world around me to produce thoughts and conclusions. My endless desire to pursue this world with a clear mind and open arms often streamlines the development of my social conscience. Around me, I see discrimination, pain, and suffering. Around me, I see souls striving to survive in a system designed to weed them out. Around me, I see an aching need for change. My religious freedom lends me the leeway to be that change. Although I will never know whether a higher being exists, I do know that the world exists; humans exist; most importantly, the power of individual choice exists. So, I make poignant choices every day to advocate for myself and those who are silenced. With empathy as my fuel and passion as my road map, I navigate life fiercely fighting for all that I think is right. What truly warms my soul—I get to define that. Not society, not a deity, not a century-old tome, and certainly not a little kid sitting across from me in art class. I am free. My morality isn’t based in blind trust; instead, my morality is simply, utterly, and beautifully, mine.

Elijah Willig, Middlebury College

My lived experiences as a gay, African American non-believer have shaped my views on social issues and the world. More so, they have taught me much about the work that humans must do to ensure equality for all. Working to ensure social justice for everyone, particularly those most vulnerable in our society, is of critical importance to me. As a result of my personal experiences, my family’s experiences, the realities of my friends’ lives, and my schoolwork, I have been exposed to the harms of bias and inequality based on race, gender, class, sexual orientation, immigrant status, religious beliefs, and other key identity characteristics. More importantly, I understand how none of us are truly free unless such inequalities are eliminated and how humans are solely responsible for making sure that such inequalities are overcome through deliberate planning, action, and education.

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