Last fall, not long after I returned from a family trip to Jerusalem, we received word that my cousin in Alabama had passed away. For my mother, Natalie’s death was more like losing a sister. We gathered our still-unpacked bags and, like migrants returning to the old country, we made our way to Bessemer to pay respects to our departed kin.
On the day of the service, my mother sat near the first row wearing a stricken expression that I had never seen before. The church itself seemed to sway as the pastor sang my cousin’s praises, exhorted us past our grief and assured the bereaved that God had greeted this virtuous woman with open arms saying, “Well done my good and faithful servant.”
The pastor spoke of an eternal day, not far off, when we would be reconciled with her cherished sweet soul.
I broke down at that point.
It was not solely because of the sermon, but because something at the core of me had been shaken by what the sermon represented.
Inside that small church, filled on an Indian summer day in Alabama where generations of my forebears were born, toiled, struggled and died, I recognized those words as a birthright -- the purest product of their battered hope for a promised land. I was struck by the sweep of it all, by the recalcitrant beauty of preached words and ritual binding generations of the dead to we, the living heirs to their legacy.
This was beauty and sustenance hewn from the quarry of grief and suffering that had been the lot of black people born in Alabama, people whose capacity to survive was evidenced by the simple existence of me and my entire generation.
I understood two things as I sat in the church that morning -- that I witnessed something whose profound vastness lay beyond my capacity to describe. And that I did not believe any of it.
To be a black agnostic is almost akin to being a foreigner in your homeland. Agnostics, like bisexuals, political centrists and neutral countries, conform to the rule that by standing in the middle of the road you risk being hit by traffic from both directions.
So much of the history of black people in this country and in the broader diaspora is bound so much in religion that it is literally impossible to decipher our collective past without understanding the centrality of God within it. Our traditions, particularly the Christian ones, are the cornerstone upon which we forged not only spirituals and gospel music, but also where Nat Turner and Alexander Crummell found inspiration, and the cradle of black business and the black freedom movement were born. It is the laboratory where black preaching, which Zora Neale Hurston regarded as the first art form we created in the United States, was honed and perfected.
In my case, this is not a reckoning confined to grand sweep of history. Shortly before I was conceived, my mother’s doctor told her she would be unable to have any more children and if she did become pregnant, miscarriage was highly likely. Thus, for the next four decades, my mother would point to her smart, linebacker-sized youngest son and testify that it was the fervor and sincerity of her prayers that kept me secured in her womb those many months.
My sister is a Pentecostal pastor and my brother is an avowed believer that divine grace has allowed him to climb to semi-sobriety after twenty-plus years of drug abuse.
I live in Atlanta – a city where the default setting is Baptist and people pepper common conversation with “praise-the-lord”s and ask about your “church home” as readily as they ask your name. On that level, stepping outside of the faith is a little like dropping your surname, leaving something that anchors you to a particular time, place and people.
For me, the most profound element of our history has been a stunning certitude of our ancestors – unfailing despite all present hells -- that God was on their side, and that a better day would come. Yet, it was this idea of certainty that became most troubling to me about religion.
The most common misperception about non-believers is that this rejection of religion is anchored in anger or hubris or narrow-minded intellectualism. Not so. Some of the most brilliant people I know are believers. I’ve never believed there was some direct ratio between intellect and disbelief.
What few believers recognize, however, is that non-belief can be the result of sincere and open inquiry and that after years of spiritual searching the truest position may be that of doubt.
In my own case, that perspective was expedited by my explorations of history. My first real moment of adolescent conflict with my mother came when, as a fifteen year-old, I quit Catholicism after learning about its role in supporting the slave trade. In later years, I found it increasingly difficult to square the presence of a benign God with not only the existence of evil, but evil’s frequent triumph. As a professor, I could not speak of salvation and simultaneously teach about the Arowak, the Taino, or the aboriginal inhabitants of Tasmania, all of whom were not only wiped of the face of the Earth without the intervention of a savior, but killed off by those purported to represent Christian aims.
It seemed to suggest the salvation game was rigged. I was frequently reminded of the prayer written by the abolitionist David Walker which began “O Lord, please deliver us from the white Christians.”
Nor is this simply about the misdeeds of humans done in the name of God. In our current dialogue we generally recognize subscribing to one of the Abrahamic faiths as “believing in God.” But religion is culturally universal. There are literally tens of thousands of faiths, wildly divergent in their precepts, most of which died out with the civilizations and societies that authored them.
It’s hard to believe that the validity of a faith was anything more than a measure of the cultural, economic and military power of the people who subscribed to it. For those – and many other reasons – I couldn’t say I’d ever heard a convincing argument for the existence of God.
It also occurred to me that atheism was often no better. It was another kind of certainty, that the question of God’s existence could be resolved in the negative based upon equally shaky grounds. I pled no contest in the court of religion, my views summed up by the slogan “I don’t know and you don’t either.”
One irony of this situation is that despite my concerns about the contradictions and fallacies of religion I’ve generally found it easier to respect the beliefs of friends than those friends find it to respect my non-belief. (True story: one relative coaxed her pastor into laying hands on me when I least suspected it, presumably in the hope that I could be delivered from the demon of skepticism.) It occurred to me that attempts at “saving souls” are often less about the sinner than the saved, that at their core they’re about confirming that the logic of their faith was correct by demonstrating its appeal to others.
Thus my disbelief would always be taken as an implicit comment on the faith of others. In faith, as in democracy, strength lies in numbers.
There was another reason I was staggered by the weight of that moment in the Bessemer church. My family had traveled to Jerusalem shortly after my mother’s diagnosis with terminal cancer. We sat together at that funeral freighted by the knowledge that another funeral was in the offing. And I was alone among my kin was immune to the preacher’s balms that we were all bound for the great getting up morning, that we would all be reunited “on the other side.” "The reality was that what I considered most true -- my sincere disbelief -- was also what made that moment most difficult and indelible and honest.
Not long after the funeral a friend asked me the most common question I get from believers: What if you’re wrong? What if you must face a day of judgment after a life of rejection and skepticism. My answer to him was that if a divine creator endowed us with reason and intellect I would be guilty only of using them to the best of my ability. In short, I arrived at my disbelief honestly. And surely there is some virtue in that.