December 8th, 2011
01:56 PM ET
By Kim Chakanetsa, CNN
Editor's note: Listen to the CNN Radio broadcast about black atheists in the South:
(CNN) - Benjamin Burchall first realized how different his experience in the South was going to be while looking for something to watch on television on a Sunday night.
"I couldn't find anything on television but religious programming,” says Burchall, 38, a former Christian minister and agricultural consultant who moved from Long Beach, California, to Atlanta for work in 2010, “And I thought, 'Oh my God, where am I? Is this all that is on television here?'"
And he quickly found other differences from West Coast living.
"I was not used to meeting someone for the first time and having their first question be ‘what church do you go to?’"
Burchall’s proud response to such queries was, “None.” He is part of an increasingly visible minority – black atheists living in the Bible Belt.
Mandisa Thomas, a mother of three, has lived in Atlanta for more than 13 years. An atheist since her early 20s, Thomas has a two-pronged strategy when it comes to dealing with the religion question. The first is simply not talking about it unless someone else brings it up.
The second is a kind of warning: “I will ask, ‘Are you sure you want to hear this?’” she says. The goal, Thomas says, is to avoid unnecessary confrontations.
But there are other situations that are simply a part of living down South.
Take the Walmart employee who suggested Thomas come back for gospel singer Yolanda Adams’ book signing, or the stranger who approached her and asked if she was born again and implored her to turn her life to Jesus when she said she wasn’t.
“There is an assumption that black woman in particular are religious,” says Thomas.
Statistics suggest that is a fair assumption to make. A much-cited study published in 2008 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that of all the major racial and ethnic groups in the United States, black Americans are most likely to report a formal religious affiliation. Less than 1.5% of blacks identify themselves as atheist or agnostic, compared with 5% of whites and 7% of Asians.
The same study notes that nearly four of five African-Americans (79%) say religion is very important in their lives, compared with 56% among all U.S.adults.
However, the trend among black Americans is toward greater levels of nonbelief. The number of blacks reporting no religion in American Religious Identification Survey almost doubled between 1990 and 2008.
In the South, this trend is witnessed by the emergence of groups such as the Black Nonbelievers of Atlanta (BNOA), and the Humanist Congregation of Greater Atlanta. The proliferation of YouTube videos and forum postings by Southern atheists also suggest a growing desire to build a community for the religiously unaffiliated.
Burchall says it’s not necessarily the case that there are more black atheists these days, “but there is an increase in the number of people coming out and saying they are black atheists.”
And there are more organizations looking to decouple black culture from religion. In January, Burchall and Thomas co-founded BNOA with the aim of bringing together black atheists who might otherwise be shunned by family and friends. Burchall and Thomas had initially joined an atheist group in Atlanta, but they wanted an organization that spoke directly to their experiences as African-Americans.
For most of American history, meaning in the African-American community has been tied to religion.
“The church has always been at the forefront of providing meaning, identity, mission and purpose for the lives of African-American people,” says Gregory Eason, the senior pastor at the historic Big Bethel AME Church in downtown Atlanta.
Many black atheists argue that Christianity was imposed on African slaves in the United States and are uneasy with how fully African-Americans have embraced it.
“It was forced on our ancestors; now their descendants have fallen for it hook, line and sinker and it has been such a part of our culture,” says Burchall.
“Oftentimes blacks believe that Christianity is black culture, and if you are not Christian you are not part of the community,” he says. “After all, it was Christianity that helped us through slavery times and the civil rights movement.”
For Mario Dorsey, an Atlanta native, Black Nonbelievers of Atlanta helped him feel comfortable with moving away from that tradition.
“I joined because I felt that in the black community religion was much more of a social movement, almost like a mass hypnotism,” Dorsey says. “It felt pretty cool to be part of a group that actually thought like I do.”
Like many black atheists, Dorsey does not announce his atheism loudly.
“For the most part I don’t walk around with atheist on my shoulder," he says. "Most people won’t know unless they ask me, but when I am asked I get this really weird reaction as if I’d said I torture monkeys for a living or something. It’s really weird.”
Dorsey acts as the organization’s lead online administrator. The role is particularly important as the Internet has played a significant role in recruiting members. Thomas, the current president, estimates they have about 30 people who regularly attend meetings. The community online is even larger, with up to 150 members.
Burchall, who left Black Nonbelievers of Atlanta in June this year to pursue other opportunities, has since founded another organization, the Humanist Congregation of Greater Atlanta.
Dominique Huff, another lifelong Atlantan, the son of a preacher, first heard about Black Nonbelievers of Atlanta on Facebook. He says he became a nonbeliever in high school.
It hasn't been particularly easy living in a city where “it’s always, ‘Have a blessed day,’ and you see churches on every street corner,” he says. But since 2000, Huff has slowly chosen to embrace his nonbelief, a decision that has not been easy for his minister mother.
“She is kind of in denial about it,” Huff says. “It is not a conversation we have. She still tries to pray with me. I pray along with her. I am like, ‘That’s where you at; that’s not for me.' There is like an invisible line we just never talk about.”
The online conversation is particularly vibrant, with numerous YouTube postings and blogs addressing the cultural taboo. A posting dated February 24, 2011, found on the Atheist Nexus, an umbrella networking organization, spoke of the difficulty of being black, atheist and homosexual in Mississippi. The member has since started a ‘secret’ Facebook group targeting other atheists and in April 2011 noted that of the 85 atheists who had joined, 10 were black.
The impetus for starting the group was made clear in a posting that read: “given how obsessed people in Mississippi are with Christianity, being an atheist here is very isolating and difficult. Add to that the fact that I'm Black and non-heterosexual, and we're talking social suicide.”
On ExChristian.net, a posting by a member identified as ‘kclark’ details the struggles of growing up in a religious household as a gay atheist in a small town in central Louisiana.
YouTube has become an especially popular outlet for African-Americans to declare their atheism. Jeremiah, a 20-year-old ‘living somewhere in the heart of the bible belt’ in April last year uploaded a video arguing that faith and the Bible are not evidence that God exists and affirming that he is proud to be an atheist. In a video uploaded in September 2009, Marquell Garrett, who is based in North Augusta, South Carolina, addresses the oft-asked question: where are the black atheists?
Garrett concludes that the consequences of declaring oneself an atheist in the black community have resulted in many nonbelievers remaining closeted.
Garrett also runs a blog titled Atheist Fighting Back Keeping Strong and Speaking Out‘ where he writes of his experiences of coming out as an atheist at age 14 in South Carolina.
Not all postings are related to a rejection of Christianity, however. A YouTube video by a member based in Birmingham, Alabama, who identifies himself as Bilal3700 details why he left Islam to become an atheist.
Unlike other parts of the South where activities by black atheists remain online, Atlanta appears to be spearheading the momentum with the creation of nonbeliever organizations such as the Humanist Congregation of Greater Atlanta, which allow a previously marginalized minority a voice and a community that goes beyond anonymous avatars.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.