By Michael Harriot
I know you think you’re about to read either:
1. Some Hotep #StayWoke shit about The European church stealing African Gods and adapting them, the Dead Sea Scrolls and Black people adopting the “God of the oppressor…” or
2. A diatribe about how religion is used to control the masses and generate a specific way of thinking.
This is neither of those.
Lately I have noticed a lot of my intelligent, critically thinking peers have stepped away from religion and its surrounds. They have quietly extricated themselves from the church scene and forayed down a path towards a spectrum that ranges from individual enlightenment to atheism. I spotted this because, even when I was a believer, I have always liked talking about religion and faith from an objective philosophical point. I’m sure I haven’t noticed a lot of the friends who have become disenchanted with their faith, because there is another thing I’ve recognized:
They’re all scared to say it out loud.
Walking away from traditional religion or faith is still a very taboo thing for Black people. There probably won’t be pitchforks and torches, but it still teeters between unacceptable and downright traitorous for one to turn their back on Jesus. Not just the blue-eyed one. Even the dreadlocked, Rasta Jesus. A lack of faith is perceived as a lack of ethics and spiritual grounding. It is as though — if one is not tethered to the Holy Ghost, then they must be blowing in the winds of moral havoc, flustering willy-nilly to the whims of Satan. If you want Black people to stop fucking with you, either tell them you don’t like Frankie Beverly and Maze or tell them you don’t believe in God. You might as well retire your spades skills because you’ll never be invited to a cookout again.
I was raised in a very religious home. I know you probably think you were, too, but take your religious upbringing and multiply it by 10. Then square that. Now you’re getting close. I’m talking 4-days-a-week-and-all-day-Saturdays, church. I’m talking long-skirts-because-women-wearing-pants-are-forbidden upbringing. I’m talking movies-and-football-games-are-the-devil’s-tools religious. Yes, I was one of the strange, too-holy, Pentecostal kids you sometimes ran into at school. I won’t go into the specifics of how I broke away (you don’t want to read all of that) but after breaking away I realized that I had been shackled to someone else’s 2000-year-old belief system all my life. I don’t believe it was malice or even some form of a universally nefarious mind control plot, I just think that it was counterproductive to one of the things I hold dearest: mental growth and intellectual freedom.
It is only after one walks away from it all does one realize how much religion is ingrained into the culture of Black folks. The notion of prayer, being led by the spirit and looking for all answers in an unseen God is a default setting for most of us.I understand it, because, for most of our history, who could rescue us from this morass if not Jesus? I hear outspoken atheists talk about it often, but it is not oppressive. It is curious. Curious in the way that I can’t understand why people like ranch dressing, Young Thug’s music or any hot sauce other that Texas Pete. I find it curious how lavish churches sit in poor neighborhoods with terrible schools collecting ten percent of parishioners earnings to put gold leafing on pulpits. I find it curious how single women take dating advice from preachers telling them to only select mates who have wrapped themselves in the same archaic belief system. How people give money to ministers with Rolls Royces and helicopters. I don’t think it is wrong. It is just curious.
I also don’t hold the opinion that following and adhering to religious teachings is backwards. For most people it is a comfort and a moral compass. I simply think there are some people for whom it will never fit, like the people who can’t wear shoes or panties. I recognized that I am one of those people. I am not too smart, too unique or too open-minded for religion. The Jesus paradigm just doesn’t fit me well. I realized that I always silently questioned it. I tried to make it fit. I wanted it to fit. I wondered what was wrong with me. Why God wasn’t fucking with my heart like he did everyone else’s. I closed my eyes and said “Jesus. Jesus.”
I know there is someone reading this who is thinking that I just didn’t have enough faith. You’re probably right.
Imagine living your entire life in a house and the only music you were allowed to hear was Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew.” Imagine that you know other albums exist, but every time you bring up other music, you’re told “Bitches Brew is the only true music.” It is a great album. One of the greatest albums of all time. But so is “Ready To Die.” So is “Thriller.” Jay-Z’s first album is my favorite. What if I wanted to make up my own music? What if I didn’t need any music at all? Ever. I know what you’re thinking: “How can anyone dance without music? Don’t you need music to dance?”
Most people do.
But not everyone.
The process of walking away from it all is amusing to me. It usually involves 3 steps
- Step 1. They become very militant. It usually manifests itself as very pro-Black and very condemning. They start seeing the parallels in Horus and Jesus, and seeing biblical fallacies, and they “wake up.” I have a friend who referred to herself as “Evangelist Tracy” (not her real name). She would mention God and his mercy in every conversation, and I usually responded with silence. Two days later she was a “sistar” screaming to everyone how stupid it was to believe in Jesus and the white version of Judeo-Christian thinking. That’s the “newly woke” syndrome, and it’s so cute.
- Step 2. They join another religion. They usually become Muslim, or Hebrew Israelite or begin seeing the ways of Moorish Science. I swear, if I hear another friend explain to me that mishmash of logic about Black’s Law, why my name is capitalized on my Birth certificate, and why I don’t need ID, I’m gonna kag (a term I recently learned was only used in Birmingham, AL) somebody. They got Mos Def hemmed up in Africa with that bullshit. I won’t let them get me.
- Step 3. They calm the fuck down. They reach the realization that all belief systems are a personal choice, and most of us grab hold to something.
I am not one of the people who think that those who depend on and believe in religion aren’t as smart or discerning. We all have faith in something, whether it is Jesus, our mamas, ourselves or the Alabama Crimson Tide (Some people say Nick Saban answers prayers far more consistently). Even the lack of a belief system is actually a belief system.
I like religion. I really do. I recognize that it fulfills the cavity in our psyche that craves for meaning to the universe and a purpose in life. I think it can be a guide, a moral compass, and a tool for understanding and compassion. Among Black people it is even more. It has been our sanctuary and our refuge. it is the pool from which we pulled Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. It is where we hid on Juneteenth. The Black Church is second only to Black skin as the identifying markers of Black people, but some of us never really belonged.
Bitches Brew is beautiful.
But I like Reasonable Doubt.
That’s why I left.