Norm Allen - African American Religiosity, Humanism, and Politics

March 14, 2008

Norm Allen is executive director of African Americans for Humanism, an educational organization primarily concerned with fostering critical thinking, ethical conduct, church-state separation, and skepticism toward untested claims to knowledge among African Americans.  He is the editor of the ground-breaking book African-American Humanism: An Anthology, AAH Examiner, and Deputy Editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He has traveled and lectured widely throughout North America, Europe, and Africa and his writings have been published in scores of newspapers throughout the U.S. He has spoken on numerous radio and television programs and his writings have appeared in such books as Culture Wars and the National Center for Science Education’s Voices for Evolution.

In this wide-ranging discussion with D.J. Grothe, Norm Allen explores some of the challenges advancing science and secularism within the African American community. He examines the pressure to conform to the religious ideal among various black skeptics and atheists, including many historical African American figures such as Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Nella Larsen, and Faye Wattleton, former president of Planned Parenthood of America. He debates whether religion is a liberating or oppressive force for African Americans. He also details many anti-science trends in the Black community, including those coming from Black entertainment outlets promoting anti-science such as psychic 900 lines, televangelists and belief in prophecy. He ties all of this discussion to an exploration of religion and secularism as they relate to political activism, including the influence of such high-profile Black preachers such as Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Senator Barack Obama's spiritual advisor.

Books Mentioned in This Episode:


Related Episodes

Norm Allen - Science, Humanism, and the Black Community
November 23, 2006

Comments from the CFI Forums

If you would like to leave a comment about this episode of Point of Inquiry please visit the related thread on the CFI discussion forums

Norm Allen often spoke of “the African-American community” and the social pressures to join a church but he left unspoken that - however irrational, deluded, or oppressive - churches offer community. We all need community (some grouches on this forum less so), and that becomes even more important for a marginal population like the blacks in America.

If you’ve seen the movie “Jesus Camp” you may remember a scene where the 11 year old proselytizing girl claims that God would be more likely to pay attention to prayers delivered exuberantly rather what you see in the bloodless mainstream churches. I have no idea whether the Pentacostals also succeed with African Americans but they share the emotional intensity that makes the church experience feel “true” and central to one’s life.

I’m an atheist who is a paying member of a thriving Unitarian Universalist church, we dumped much of the theological crap and hot air and focus on search for meaning in a social context. But: despite over 700 members we have but a single African American. Part of it is location (Golden, and Arvada west of Denver) but I’m sure the different atmospere would be a culture shock for someone used to gospel choirs and verbal affirmations during the sermons.
Let’s face it: as long as humanism (and UUs are in essence a humanist crowd) can not provide a warm, caring community, people will always flock to those congregations who do, regardless of the garbage that’s told from the pulpit.

Posted on Mar 14, 2008 at 7:08pm by moreover Comment #1

When I saw that Norm Allen was this week’s guest I was, like, YES!  Seems that POI is one of the few places I ever get to hear about him. Thanks, POI!

Posted on Mar 15, 2008 at 8:25am by T. Ruth Comment #2

I am well aware that “churches offer community,” and that “emotional intensity” is important to large numbers of African Americans in particular.

Years ago,  a friend of mine talked about the time he attended an African American church. He talked about the deep emotional intensity of the music. He did not seem to believe that there is anything in humanism that could possibly match the emotion that buttressed that music. Unitl someone proves him wrong, I am inclined to agree with him. This just might be a battle that we humanists will never be able to win. Perhaps we simply cannot offer alternatives to EVERYTHING that religion has to offer. However, I am always open to good suggestions as to how we can match this deep “emotional intensity.”

Norm R. Allen Jr.

Posted on Mar 19, 2008 at 6:32am by Norm R. Allen Jr. Comment #3

This was a great podcast. I have been concerned about the African American communities strong attachment to religion. This is the first time I have heard anyone address the issue.

Posted on Mar 19, 2008 at 6:53am by morgantj Comment #4

All 9/11 discussion has been moved to the General Forum thread.

http://www.centerforinquiry.net/forums/viewthread/3464/

You can continue discussion of the Norm Allen interview here.

Posted on Mar 20, 2008 at 7:33pm by Thomas Donnelly Comment #5

We all need community (some grouches on this forum less so), and that becomes even more important for a marginal population like the blacks in America.

I’m an atheist who is a paying member of a thriving Unitarian Universalist church, we dumped much of the theological crap and hot air and focus on search for meaning in a social context.

Let’s face it: as long as humanism (and UUs are in essence a humanist crowd) can not provide a warm, caring community, people will always flock to those congregations who do, regardless of the garbage that’s told from the pulpit.

moreover,
I first began to take note of your posts on the now-defunct Julia Sweeney forum, and was very happy to see that you chime in here, too, because I really appreciate your erudite and well-written thoughts.

I couldn’t agree more about the binding effects of community for most human beings.  And when it comes to religion, it’s truly the glue that holds the whole shebang together.  Like many of us, I could go on for pages about this, but in short, I think the power of community is the fundamental reason why people “believe in belief” as Daniel Dennett says.

In any event, I have a question for you about UU.  I’ve attended three UU churches, all on the east coast, hoping to find one in which a large majority of members had dumped the “theological crap,” as you put it.  However, I found one congregation leaned strongly toward Judaism, another had a decidedly Christian undertone, and the third entertained a lot of sort of new-agey spiritualism.  In each case, I was disappointed, and felt out of place.
Is there any good way to determine the general outlook of a UU congregation before attending?

(I just downloaded the Norm Allen interview, and am really looking forward to hearing Mr. Allen.  The interview is certainly timely, given the political events of the last week!)

Posted on Mar 21, 2008 at 5:39am by Trail Rider Comment #6

Although I disagree that this was a “great” podcast, I’m surprised it hasn’t prompted more postings given the very topical nature (Obama and Wright, etc.) of it’s subject.  Is it the reluctance of non-AAs to comment on aspects of AA culture?

Posted on Mar 24, 2008 at 1:49pm by mclark01 Comment #7

There are fewer active participants on the CFI forums overall than I’d hoped, especially recently.  But I doubt if those who do keep an eye out here are reluctant to discuss any subject pertaining to humanism or secularism.  Isn’t part of our secular DNA, so to speak, a willingness to broach subjects others don’t want to talk about?

Of course, the wonderful fact is that a high percentage of secularists are too intelligent to speak in generalities about so large and diverse a group of people as African-Americans.  So maybe that would account partially for a scarcity of posts here, too.  Race issues are very complex - that, IMHO, is why the most thoughtful people I know were highly impressed with Obama’s recent speech.

For my part, stipulating first that my complexion is plain vanilla, I’m happy to discuss with any reasonable person the African-American sub-culture or anything else to the extent of my knowledge and experience.

Is there something particular you want to discuss?  Of course, if you wanted to correspond in particular with a black person, I’m unqualified.

Posted on Mar 24, 2008 at 2:57pm by Trail Rider Comment #8

My point was that the local papers are full of articles everyday on the role of “Fiery Sermons” and “prophesy” in Black Churches (an explanation of the Wright affair), Norm Allen just talked to DJ on POI, yet posters here are remarkably circumspect- or maybe just not very interested in the topic.
My feeling is that the cultural imperative to embrace and participate in religiosity is exceedingly strong in certain groups (this was one of Norm’s points too), that this to a great extent explains how a man with black skin but who had essentially a secular, rationalist upbringing nevertheless finds himself sitting in a pew every week listening to Jeremiads from a man he describes as a good friend, and that this is something we as secularists need to understand if we hope to further our program (whatever that is).
Agree this is very complex issue FWIW- and not one in which I have any particular expertise.  Where are our sociologists?

Posted on Mar 26, 2008 at 1:03pm by mclark01 Comment #9