Is it harder to "come out" as an atheist if you're black?

Liam McLaughlin speaks to members of the London Black Atheists group about the consequences of their decision to turn their backs on religion.

When Clive Aruede’s twelve-year-old daughter asked him “What is science?” he couldn’t have known quite how much it would change his life. But when I meet him in a gloomy bar in Borough, Clive pinpoints this innocent question as the beginning of a long and arduous journey towards atheism.

The phrase he uses is that he “came out”, which implies that he had been hiding ‘in the closet’ – that he felt the beliefs or lifestyle of an atheist would be seen as objectionable to wider society. But being an atheist in the UK is hardly controversial. In the 2011 Census around 14 million people – a quarter of the UK’s population – claimed to have ‘no religion’. But for Clive this didn’t matter, because Clive is black.

According to figures from Christian Research in their 2005 English Church Census, black people are much more likely to be religious than most other demographic groups. The census showed that though black people only made up around 2 per cent of the population at the time, they nonetheless accounted for 7 per cent of churchgoers nationwide, and 44 per cent of churchgoers in London. In fact, at the time his daughter asked him about science, Clive was included in these figures because he, too, was a practicing Christian – a Eucharistic Minister, no less.

Lola Tinubu also fell into this demographic, though she had already been questioning God and religion since she was young. “It started with the tribal culture,” she tells me. “I asked my father about his relationship with my mother because I didn’t understand the inequality, and he said ‘That’s what God wants’, so that bothered me.” But despite her growing doubts throughout her teenage years, she went along with the tide of belief. When she came from Nigeria to the UK, she even joined an Evangelical church and preached in public. She laughs about this, and supposes she did it mostly because she needed to feel a part of a community.

For both Clive and Lola, like many millions of other black people, belief in God was never a matter of choice – it was just a fact, like the sun or the sky. The Bible held all the answers to any question they could possibly ask, and church formed the backbone of their social life. They grew up attending church every Sunday – filling the rest of their time with Bible studies and prayer meetings. Neither ever had the space to ask why.

For Clive though, the moment came when his daughter asked him about science. As he researched a response for her, he discovered a world of fascinating information he hadn’t known about before, which began to make him wonder if the Bible really did have all the answers. He was determined to find out more, so he read up on science regularly, and the tensions between what he was learning and the received wisdom of religion only got more strained.

Eventually he felt he had to make a choice. He could either continue believing in the supernatural power of God or instead embrace all he had been reading, and accept that science, not God, is responsible for the natural world. It was an extremely difficult process, but he settled on accepting atheism. For someone of Clive’s background, the social ramifications of such a decision are huge, but as a part of his “coming out”, he sent an e-mail to all his contacts, designed to explain himself. He was immediately inundated with outraged messages and attempts to prove he was wrong. Two people even flew over from Nigeria to talk with him in person.

For Lola, the final straw for God and religion came when her religious father visited from Nigeria. It turned out he enjoyed watching popular science TV shows. “That’s the irony of it!” says Lola. “He loves science!” But when he saw how genuinely interested in science she was, he told her “Facts are not the same as truth.” Lola realised that this absurd statement was “cognitive dissonance – he couldn’t reconcile his own beliefs with the facts.”

That was it. First she began asking difficult questions in Bible study. Then she stopped going to church altogether. She also stopped going to other social functions where prayer would form an inevitable part of the program. Her friends would often call, asking where she was, imploring her to come to the next event. But she couldn’t. Her self-imposed absence from a primary social hub of Nigerian culture – church – left her with no friends or social life, and this warm, vivacious woman ended up spending a year in treatment for clinical depression. It is often “a very long journey” for black people to become atheists, she says.

It was the same for Clive: “It’s been a very uncomfortable experience.” As far as his friends and family were concerned, “It was like claiming I was a demon or a devil.” He says it is still causing problems within his family, and this shows how difficult it is to become an atheist from a background where religion is everything. He stresses that for many black people, “Religion is woven into the whole texture of your life. It’s everything. It’s reality…part of your identity.” 

One nation under God

One of the most important revelations Clive and Lola had upon accepting atheism was seeing in full the corrosive effect religion has on their homeland, as well as many other countries in Africa.

Nigeria is a complex mesh of ethnicity, language, and religion, with much diversity and mixing amongst its people. Broadly speaking though, according to the CIA World Factbook, Nigeria’s religious make-up is 50 per cent Muslim, 40 per cent Christian, and 10 per cent indigenous beliefs, such as the Yoruba religion. Non-belief doesn’t even figure in the statistics. Islam is predominant in the twelve northern states, to the extent that they are all under partial or full Sharia law, where blasphemy can be punished by execution. The central and southern regions can be thought of – with many caveats – as majority Christian.

The prevalence of religion in Nigeria has only entrenched it as an unquestionable absolute – a law of nature as real as the second law of thermodynamics – such that even the most intelligent Nigerians often fail to identify the causes of Nigeria’s problems, and instead believe that the supernatural is their cause and solution. As Lola puts it, “Rationality is not allowed to supersede belief.” This invariably creates an environment where democracy is sidelined and despotism can flourish. With the divine as the final judge, accountability is seen as pointless. And since various supernatural forces are held responsible for problems, politicians can often get away with no punishment. In fact, Lola tells me that when a politician is confronted with a particular problem the best response – the one which will be lauded most by the media – is that he will pray. Thanks to the central importance of religion in Nigeria and many other African countries, elites are freed of the necessary checks on power and are able to do whatever they wish. Perhaps the best example Clive and Lola can find of this attitude is under the rule of Nigeria’s dictator General Sani Abacha, when people simply said of his brutality, “God will deal with him.”

The catch-22 in Nigeria is that because religion prevents the state from properly functioning, it leads to a lack of effective institutions – most importantly a welfare state. Perversely, religion then fills this vacuum, thereby forcing millions of people into reliance on churches or mosques for their very survival – compounding the political breakdown through the social dominance of religion. Tithes and donations (normally around 10 per cent of income) effectively constitute taxes, and Christians in particular have turned this into a business where the top religious leaders can become billionaires. Indeed, Pastor E A Adeboye, founder of the Redeemed Christian Church of God – a Pentecostal church with branches across the world – is one of many top pastors in proud possession of a private jet.

Wider Nigerian culture reflects this overbearing focus on religion, with TV networks broadcasting hours of sermons and religious talk shows, and some universities requiring prayers at the beginning of lectures. In short, Nigeria is stuck. “There’s no progress,” says Clive. “All you see is more and more churches and mosques…all the effort and ingenuity of the people goes into religious activities. It’s holding us back.” Lola goes further: “In Nigeria religion is a force for evil.” She believes that if nothing changes soon, religious fundamentalism – in the form of the Islamist group Boko Haram – could cause a civil war. Then they speculate as to how many Nigerians have had great ideas but no way of realizing them due to the amount of time and space religion takes up in their lives. “If Einstein was born in Nigeria. . .” Lola says, “. . .he’d be a pastor!” finishes Clive.

One world under reason

Regardless of the rise in arguments highlighting the dogma of atheism, it has been an overwhelmingly positive experience for Clive and Lola.

While Lola’s first feeling upon becoming an atheist was sadness for everything she hadn’t known, Clive’s was anger - anger at being deceived by religion since childhood. Anger at all the wasted years and the wasted efforts stuck in the confines of religious belief. But after this wore off, the wonder and excitement of gaining knowledge took over. “I was motivated to catch up with everything I didn’t know which I thought I should know,” says Clive. Lola admits learning still makes her feel “like a kid in a candy shop.” She attends lectures regularly, loves Brian Cox, and recently went to a recording of Dara Ò’Briain’s Science Club. “It was so exciting!” she enthuses.

Her newfound happiness hasn’t stopped some Nigerians accusing Lola of thinking she is white. “They think if you’re an atheist you’re rejecting the culture and the society – that you’re a traitor, that you’ve allowed the West to take over your mind. But rationalism isn’t the property of the West. It’s universal!” In fact, “Atheism has freed me to love the world…I can go to any part of the world and belong. My tribe is the world.” She describes a recent incident where she made friends with a Chinese woman at a humanist event. She says she would never have had the opportunity to share that experience had she not become an atheist. “It was so beautiful, so amazing. . . but religion is so divisive. Everybody else is wrong. If you mix with them, you’re mixing with evil.” Clive agrees, and adds, “We’re all part of the same human society.”

Late last year Clive, Lola, and two other friends organized the inaugural meeting of the London Black Atheists. Lola says of it, “Apart from having my child, it’s one of the best things that’s happened to me. It’s given me a new lease of life.” Clive explains how important it is to have a forum where black people can come if they are experiencing doubts about their belief. Through their focus on discussing science and philosophy, it acts as a support network for black people who are already atheists, or who are grappling with the possibility of “coming out”.

Listening to Clive and Lola converse during the few hours I spend with them, I get an insight into how the London Black Atheists operates – allowing space for joint learning and sharing stories. They have already held a number of events, and are going from strength to strength. “We just got our hundredth member today,” Clive tells us. “Guess what his name is. . . Christian!”

For more information about leaving religion, visit The Apostasy Project, which provided aid to some people mentioned in the article.

For many, having a religion is an important part of belonging to a community. Photo: Getty

Liam McLaughlin is a freelance journalist who has also written for Prospect and the Huffington Post. He tweets irregularly @LiamMc108.

Photo: Getty
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I'm not going to be General Secretary, but the real fight to change Labour is only just beginning

If Labour gets serious about a new politics, imagine the possibilities.

For a second time, I was longlisted for the role of General Secretary of the Labour Party this week. For a second time, just as in 2011, I was eliminated in the first round. The final shortlist now consists of two veteran trade unionist women leaders, Jennie Formby of the Unite union and Christine Blower - formerly of the National Union of Teachers and the Socialist Party. I met them both yesterday at the interviews; I congratulate them, and look forward to hearing more about their ideas for Labour party renewal.

Last week in both the New Statesman and LabourList, I explained why I thought we needed a General Secretary “for the many”. I set out a manifesto of ideas to turn Labour into a twenty-first century campaigning movement, building on my experience with the Bernie Sanders campaign, Momentum, Crowdpac, 38 Degrees and other networked movements and platforms.

I called for a million-member recruitment drive, and the adoption of the new “big organising” techniques which combine digital and face-to-face campaigns, and have been pioneered by the Sanders movement, Momentum, Macron and the National Nurses Union in America. I set out the case for opening up the party machine in a radical but even-handed way, and shared ideas for building a deeper party democracy.

I noted innovations like the Taiwanese government’s use of online deliberation systems for surfacing differences, building consensus and finding practical policy solutions. Finally, I emphasised the importance of keeping Labour as a broad church, fostering more constructive internal discussions, and turning to face outward to the country. I gladly offer these renewing ideas to the next General Secretary of the party, and would be more than happy to team up with them.

Today I am launching, a new digital democracy platform for the Labour movement. It is inspired by experience from Taiwan, from Barcelona and beyond. The platform invites anyone to respond to others’ views and to add their own; then it starts to paint a visual picture of the different groupings within the movement and the relationships between them.

We have begun by asking a couple of simple questions: “What do we feel about the Labour party and movement? What’s good, and what’s more difficult?” Try it for yourself: the process is swift, fun and fascinating. Within a few days, we should have identified which viewpoints command the greatest support in the movement. We will report back regularly on this to the media.

The Labour movement is over 570,000 members, thousands of elected representatives, a dozen affiliated unions and millions of Labour voters. We may disagree on some things; but hopefully, we agree on far more. Labour Democracy is a new, independent and trustworthy platform for all of us to explore our differences more constructively, build common ground, and share ideas for the future. I believe Labour should be the political wing of the British people, as close to the 99 per cent as possible – and it will ultimately only be what we make of it together.

Yesterday I spoke over Skype with Audrey Tang, the hacker and Sunflower Movement leader who is now Digital Minister of Taiwan. Audrey is a transparent politician, so she has since posted a video of our conversation on YouTube. I recommend watching it if you are at all interested in the future of politics. It concludes with her reflections on my favourite Daoist principle, that true leadership leaves the people knowing that they have made change themselves.  

This General Secretary recruitment process has been troubled by significant irregularities, which I hope the party learns from. The story is considerably more complex and difficult than is generally understood. I have spent considerable time in the last week trying to shine greater light on the process in the media and social media, and encouraging the national executive committee, unions and politicians to run a more open and transparent process. I even started a petition to the NEC Officers group, calling for live-streamed debates among the candidates for this crucial and controversial party management role. I very much hope that there is no legal challenge.

Most importantly, the last week has exposed a significant fault line in Labour between the new left and the old left. When Jon Lansman of Momentum entered the contest against the “coronation candidate” Jennie Formby, many people read this as a fight between two factions of the old left. But Jon’s intent was always to open up a more genuine contest, and to encourage other candidates – particularly women – to come forward. Having played the role only he could play, he eventually withdrew with dignity. His public statements through this process have been reflective of the best of the new politics. And despite our very different political journeys, he kindly agreed to be one of my referees.

There has been plenty of the old transactional machine politics going on behind closed doors in the last couple of weeks. But out in the open, the new left movements and platforms have shown their strength and relevance. Momentum emailed all its members encouraging them to apply for the role. On Facebook Live, YouTube and podcasts like All The Best, the Novara Media network has been thoughtfully anatomising the contest and what it means for the future of the left. Even the controversial Skwawkbox blog finally agreed to cover my candidacy, and we had a constructive row about the leaked memo I wrote for Corbyn’s office back in December about how to win the next election using data, organising and every new tool in the box.

I am worried about the old left, because I feel it is stuck in a bunker, trapped in a paradigm of hierarchical power and control. The new left by contrast understands the power of networks to transform conversations and win hearts and minds.

The old left yanks at levers, and brokers influence through a politics of fear and incentives. But this tired game is of decreasing relevance in this day and age. The new left has the energy, the reach, the culture and the ideas to build a new common sense in this country, and to win decisive victory for Labour and progressives in the next general election – if the old left will partner with it. 

I am keen to help. So are many others. I hope we can start to have a more constructive and equal conversation in Labour soon. Otherwise an exodus may begin before long; and no-one wants that.

Paul Hilder is an expert on new politics and social change. He is a co-founder of Crowdpac, 38 Degrees and openDemocracy. He has played leadership roles at, Avaaz and Oxfam, and was a candidate for general secretary of Labour in 2011.