‘DON’T TELL ME YOU’RE ONE OF THOSE!’ A QUALITATIVE PORTRAIT OF BLACK ATHEISTS
Collins, Patricia H
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Black Atheists are one of the least studied and understood populations in American society. Drawing on literature from the sociology of religion, social psychology, and critical race theory, my research focuses on the following questions: Is there a meaningful ‘Black Atheist’ identity? And if there is, how do people who claim a Black Atheist identity conceive of it? How does this identity relate to the way in which they live their lives? To explore these questions, this project aims to understand what it means to be a Black Atheist in America through in-depth open-ended qualitative interviews with 46 Black Atheists in the Washington DC/Baltimore area. This includes but is not limited to investigating and understanding Black Atheist identities, how Black Atheists conceive of themselves, how they perceive, internalize, and manage stigma, how they view in-group belonging, and how they understand their experiences as Atheists to be racialized. This project addresses the paucity of information on Black Atheists in America by investigating and centralizing their experiences, lives, and identities. The results suggest that Black Atheists do indeed perceive themselves as holding a unique ‘Black Atheist’ identity. That is, they believe their being Black, and their being Atheist, inform each other in meaningful ways that affect their beliefs, behaviors, and lived experiences. Additionally, respondents described both an identity and emerging social space informed by the particular sets of challenges and racialized cultural and social pressures they face. Namely, they perceived pervasive and intense racialized stigma against Atheists within Black communities and often their own families, and also feel social distance from Mainstream Atheists, whom they perceive to be inattentive to the particular challenges faced by Black Atheists. Respondents also linked being Black Atheists to the way that they navigated familial relationships, romantic relationships, and broader communal spaces, engaging in significant amounts of stigma management. Most commonly this was done through use of the closet, which proved to be a significant social space for respondents. Additionally, there were potentially significant gendered ways in which respondents made sense of their identities, and linked them to the external world. In essence, the way stigma in America interacts with identity seemingly produces distinctive identities at this particular intersection of race and religion. Because they reside at the bottom of two separate hierarchies, namely, Atheists are at the bottom of religious hierarchies, while Blacks are at the bottom of racial hierarchies, identity work and behavioral strategies in the face of stigma are likely to be particularly pronounced among Black Atheists.