There is a new closet to come out of in the Black community and on the door is a label that reads “non-religious,” or perhaps “non-believer.” Not to split hairs between those of us who are agnostic, atheist, or “spiritual,” my point is that there is a new population of mostly young Americans who reject the traditional standards of religious faith. According to Gallup polls, the number of religiously unaffiliated adults (“nones”) has doubled to 18 percent. This change is largely generational, as more than a third of those born after 1981 now say they have no religion. This marks an unprecedented shift in American culture and urges us to answer some difficult questions. What do we do with this information? What comes next?
While these shifting tides are not exclusive to the Black community, Black irreligion strikes a particular chord in consideration of how central the church has been to my people. Today, Black people identify as more religious than any other ethnic group. According to data published by the Pew Research Center, 87 percent of Black people believe in God. This makes sense in context of the journey. Black people continue to endure great adversity. Christianity has been an anchor through the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, Jim Crow before then, and the initial American chattel slavery. It is almost unpardonable to be a nonbeliever in the Black community, and so the irony of publishing this in a Black newspaper is not lost on me. But I recognize slavery to be the introduction of Christianity to Black people. History tells me our ancestors worshipped very different Gods before they were abducted and viscously forced into the servitude of American Whites. It antagonizes me, the fact that Jesus was originally given to Black people (and most all POCs) by White folk.
As stated before, research shows that young people are considerably less religious. The Pew Research Center says that, “one-in-four members of the Millennial generation […] are unaffiliated with any particular faith. […] More unaffiliated than members of Generation X were at a comparable point in their life cycle (20 percent in the late 1990s) and twice as unaffiliated as Baby Boomers were as young adults (13 percent in the late 1970s).” For the sake of this research, Millennial is defined as those ages 18 to 34 years old in 2015. Therefore, the oldest Millennial was born in 1981 and the youngest in 1997. Millennial Americans tend to attend religious services far less than older Americans, and when compared, fewer say that religion is very important in their lives. This is important because Millennials are also the largest generation of adults. The Washington Post reported last year on Pew Center Research findings that Millennials had surpassed baby boomers to become America’s largest living generation. The American Millennial generation is also far more progressive. As the country moves forward on critical social issues, this progressiveness will have political implications, including the forward-thinking idea of irreligion.
My question becomes, how do we take the form of organized religion and repurpose it? The idea that 200 or more people gather in a space weekly around like-minded ideas, group action, storytelling, art and song, in an effort to establish meaning — that doesn’t sound like a bad idea. In the Black community, I have seen an incredible textual analysis of the Bible. What would happen if we did the same with another text? I have read Shakespeare with stories as great as those found in the King James Version of the Bible. What would happen if we all read Toni Morrison and Ta-Nehisi Coates together? Or José Esteban Muñoz and “The Autobiography of Malcolm X?” What if we kept the form and removed the narrative of White Jesus? In an effort to establish meaning, that is a noble idea.
There is a brave new world out there, one that begs us to finally start unpacking what was left for us by generations of people who are no longer here. How we deal with religion, race, and gender have been irreparably defined by people who didn’t have the questions we have today, nor the technology, nor the access to information. The community of religion is a beautiful thing, but to establish new meaning, we must abandoned the literature of dead White men and redefine Faith.
Ian Martin is an artist and activist. His key interests are the arts and policy.