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Questioning Black Religious Faith

It turns out that there is a small but increasingly visible African American discussion about disbelief in God, about the narrow sexual and cultural politics of Black churches, and about major moral problems facing us today that may not be suited to solutions from the pulpit.
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My family often observes familiar patterns on Easter Sunday: new floral dresses and clip-on ties for the kids, attendance at a church service, cooking and sharing a big meal, and joining in a community-organized Easter egg hunt in the park beneath a hoped-for sunny sky. But this Easter was different. My husband, children and I were not at home. Instead, we were far from my native Midwest and based in the "big sky" country of Montana's Rocky Mountains. Being in a new place disrupted our traditions. While I did assemble Easter baskets full of pastel fluffery, I made no plans to go to church or cook a special meal. On top of that, there was no sign of spring where we were. It snowed on Easter. It snowed a lot.

While I chatted on the phone with relatives back in Ohio who were just coming home from church or busy in their kitchens, I realized that I was observing the holiday in a different mode that was nudging me into a mood of reflection. I asked my children, as they opened their treasures from the egg hunt that I had thrown together in the frigid yard: what does Easter mean to you? Their excited answers to this serious question were probably fueled by Sweet-tarts and chocolate marshmallow chicks. "Jesus died and came back alive!" "The Easter Bunny brings candy!" "Jesus went to heaven, and everything starts like new!" "Sometimes rabbits can lay eggs!" (That last comment made by my six year old, the youngest of the bunch, was met by the long-suffering, raised eyebrows of his tween-aged sisters.)

Listening to my children's earnest thoughts, I found myself hesitating to repeat the traditional Easter story as if it were "true." I talked with my children about Jesus and his death and the belief that many people have that he rose from the grave to join God in heaven. But I also talked about the pre-Christian celebration of the spring equinox embedded in stories like the Easter Bunny's delivery of eggs, and about the Jewish Passover overlapping with the Christian Easter celebration. I described Easter as a spring holiday tied to a range of human traditions, not just Christian ones. And I defined these traditions as stories rather than facts, as cultural narratives told and retold because of their power to reflect basic needs of the human imagination and spirit. Jesus's ascension, the Israelites' protection, the happy, hoppy Easter Bunny -- these are stories about escape from the travails of our human condition, stories about miracles and wonder, stories about rebirth and the coming of the light - defined either literally or metaphorically.

The explanation of what Easter means that I strung together last Easter Sunday was not based in the orthodoxy of my Black Baptist upbringing. It was instead influenced by my promiscuous reading, public radio listening, and YouTube watching; by greater public discussion of religious pluralism and of atheistic and humanist ideas; and by my concern about links between traditional religious beliefs and the denial of equal rights for certain segments of our society such as LGBTQ communities (exemplified in the recently revised Indiana Religious Freedom Act). My impromptu lecture to my children was a little bit religious but a little bit not, which raised a question for me about the rise of the "nones" -- and whether I was becoming one.

Ever since the PEW Research Center released its finding that there is a large segment of the American population that can be defined as areligious, we have been hearing about "nones," that is, people who check "none" in response to survey questions about religious affiliation. This subset of the population had reached 1/5 of those surveyed by PEW in 2012 and 1/3 of those surveyed under the age of 30. "Nones" did not proclaim adherence to any organized religion, but this did not mean they dismissed moral issues or discounted spirituality. Instead, according to religious studies professor Robert Putnam, many "nones" are political liberals who came to their irreligious views because of concerns about the politicization of conservative religious tenets. "Nones" are also people who champion humanism and are often expressly open to spiritual experience in domains outside of the church, synagogue, or mosque. What is not so clear about the "nones" - and a question of import to me - is how African Americans feel about this identity category.

The PEW study puts the number of Black "nones" at 13% in 2007 and 15% in 2012. The statistically significant rise in the "none" category took place only for white Americans in the survey group. This is not surprising. African American experience is often yoked to Christian or Muslim beliefs, both historically and symbolically. When we think of Black freedom struggles, we think of slave spirituals, the strength of the Black church in the Civil Rights movement, and the role of the Nation of Islam in urban communities. But does a long tradition of religious affiliation mean that African Americans should refrain from asking open questions about the meaning of faith, the content of church teachings, and the place of religious doctrine in a modern society in which problems of human rights and climate change seem to loom larger than the applicable scope of our "holy" books?

It turns out that there is a small but increasingly visible African American discussion about disbelief in God, about the narrow sexual and cultural politics of Black churches, and about major moral problems facing us today that may not be suited to solutions from the pulpit. Am I a "Black None"? Not quite yet. I still check the box for "Christian" on most forms, and after choosing not to cook a big meal on Easter Sunday, I ran to the grocery store to remedy that decision. Still, I'm glad my children are growing up in a more open, questioning African American intellectual and spiritual environment in which freedom of thought and belief - including the freedom to not believe - is becoming more acceptable.

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