Leaving Jesus: Women of Color Beyond Faith – The Feminist Wire

Leaving Jesus: Women of Color Beyond Faith

Margaret Downey

Mandisa Thomas

Mandisa Thomas

By Sikivu Hutchinson

The 24-hour prayer sessions are the true test of a warrior for Jesus.  They require Herculean stamina, the patience of Job, the rigor of elite marathon runners hitting the wall in a fiery sweat pit at high altitude, primed for God’s finish line. In many small storefront Pentecostal churches these “pray-a-thons” are women’s spaces; hubs of music, food, caregiving, and intense witnessing.  My student Stacy Castro* is a bass player in her Pentecostal church’s band.  She is also the pastor’s daughter and a regular participant in the pray-a-thons, a mainstay in some evangelical congregations. Much of her weekends are focused on church activities. And though she is an intelligent gifted speaker, up until her participation in the Women’s Leadership Project she thought little about pursuing college and wanted to go to cosmetology school.  Stacy’s aspirations are not atypical of students at Washington Prep High School in South Los Angeles.  In a community that is dominated by churches of every stripe only a small minority go on to four year colleges and universities.

Over the past decade, Pentecostal congregations have burgeoned in urban communities nationwide, as Pentecostalism has exploded amongst American Latinos disgruntled by rigid Catholic hierarchies, alienating racial politics, and sexual abuse scandals.  The gendered appeal of Pentecostalism is highlighted in a 2008 American Religious Identification Survey which concludes that, “Latino religious polarization may be influenced by a gender effect, as in the general U.S. population, with men moving toward no religion and women toward more conservative religious traditions and practices. Two traditions at opposite poles of the religious spectrum exhibit the largest gender imbalance: the None population is heavily male (61%) while the Pentecostal is heavily female (58%). Italics added.”[i]

In my book, Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars, I argued that the literature on secularism and gender does not capture the experiences of women of color negotiating racism, sexism, and poverty in historically religious communities.  The relative dearth of secular humanist and freethought traditions amongst women of color cannot be separated from the broader context of white supremacy, gender politics, and racial segregation.  Harlem Renaissance-era writers Nella Larsen and Zora Neale Hurston are generally acknowledged as pioneering twentieth century black women freethinkers.  Yet what few women’s freethought histories there are celebrate the political influence of prominent nineteenth century white women non-believers, many of whom were suffragists and abolitionists.  None contextualize these women’s influence vis-à-vis the race and gender politics that shaped both the feminist and freethought movements.  For example, I have yet to see an appraisal that seriously addresses the racism and xenophobia of forerunning 19th century freethinker Elizabeth Cady Stanton (who touted the cultural and intellectual superiority of white women over immigrants and people of color in her vehement opposition to the 15th amendment granting black men the vote) or the “curious” absence of women of color from freethought movements.

Historically African American women did not have the luxury to be freethinkers because they were constructed as the racialized sexual other. Their bodies were the backdrop to European American notions of individual liberty, humanity, and natural rights.  Their labor was the raw material for European American intellectualism.  European American freethought traditions were predicated on the enslavement of the racialized sexual other.  Within the context of slavery and, later, Jim Crow, women like Stanton, Ernestine Rose, and other first and second wave white feminist freethinkers would not have had the license to be secular were it not for the dialectic between the civilized white Western subject and the degraded amoral racialized sexual other.  Alice Walker powerfully evokes this theme in her essay In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, which contemplates the contradictions of black female creativity and “genius” within the holocaust conditions of slavery.  She asks:

Did you have a genius of a great-great-grandmother who died under some ignorant and depraved white overseer’s lash?  Or was she required to bake biscuits for a lazy backwater tramp, when she cried out in her soul to paint watercolors of sunsets, or the rain falling on the green and peaceful pasturelands?  Or was her body broken and forced to bear children (who were more often than not sold away from her)—eight, ten, fifteen, twenty children—when her one joy was the thought of modeling heroic figures of rebellion, in stone or clay?

Black working women were not supposed to be geniuses.  In the West, genius and Godliness are intimately bound to each other.  Black women’s lives were too “cluttered” with the debris of the everyday—the cooking, cleaning, minding, managing, and tending that comes with the earthly terrain of caregiving—to soar to the heavens with geniuses.  Small wonder then that the spaces they did find themselves in, that were available to them, became wellsprings for expressions of Godliness, both subversive and conforming. That the vast majority of black women were only afforded access to the worlds of work, the family, and church meant that their “genius” would by necessity be a reflection of those worlds.  In the turbulence of antebellum America “God” became ordinary black women’s medium for expressing genius, creativity, artistry, mastery, and invention.  Hence, secularism was a dangerous and untenable position because of the way black dehumanization was institutionalized.  Where would black women go to be affirmed as persons?  The courts, where their rights were not recognized?  The Constitution, where their bodies were vessels? The education system, where their culture was demeaned as savage, primitive, and un-Christian?  Government, where their bodies were deep profit for some of the nation’s most esteemed legislators and moral philosophers? White churches, where they were debased as Jezebels and amoral Children of Ham?

For Latinas coming from Catholic traditions, the ubiquitous image of the pure as the driven snow self-sacrificing Virgin Mary is the traditional model for femininity.  But the Virgin’s white purity is only validated by the fallen dark whore; the black, Asian, Latina or Native American woman whose body, in the words of bell hooks, is “the sign of sexual experience.”  As writer Yasmin Davidds Garrido notes, “It often seemed to me that unless I behaved just like the Virgin Mary I wouldn’t be good enough to win God’s approval.  In order to be considered a good girl, I had to be quiet, submissive, and obedient…This is one way Catholicism coerces young girls to mute their voices.”

This is the backdrop against which women of color struggle with religious and secular belief systems. Even as the moral weight of their communities—reinforced by the dominant culture—is placed on them, many continue to seek refuge in faith and faith traditions because they provide a sense of purpose, direction, and meaning.  Responding to a survey I conducted on high school aged young women and faith, twelfth grader Vanessa Linares* agreed that African American and Latina women are packing the pews because many of them “believe that women of color need faith/religion to be moral.”  Thus, popular reality shows like the Bad Girls Club and platinum-selling pop artists like wannabe Barbie doll rapper Nicki Minaj show young women of color that hyper-sexuality is a quick and dirty form of “validation” for a select few.  These women may appear to be flouting conventional sexual mores with “fuck you” alpha female sexuality but they are still rigidly bound by them.  And by the same token the goddess cult that so many women of color flock to is also a cul-de-sac.  Goddesses, queens, princesses, and other icons of so-called spiritual authority are by definition floating above the “sorry” muck of mere mortals.  As Women’s Leadership Project program coordinator Diane Arellano comments:

Somewhere in college, I felt the need to proactively counter the general assumption that as a Mexican woman, I must be a Catholic or Christian. This conscious shift in my identity was informed by my interests and participation in activism. When I searched for models of Latino activists, I was very disappointed to see or read about “seeking strength” from ‘La Virgen’ or claiming their work is the work of ‘God.’ I thought about how oppression functions in communities of color and asked myself, isn’t there a good argument that can be made about the Church’s role in institutionalizing the oppressive gender, race, class, and sexuality paradigms that these activists are fighting so hard against?

As a multicultural woman of Puerto-Rican and Irish descent, freethought activist Margaret Downey grappled with many of these sexist religious prescriptions.  Growing up in a devout Catholic Latino family in the 1950s and 1960s, her passion for freethought was sparked by the deep divide between a Catholic religious morality based on bowing down to good patriarchs and the bitter reality of her upbringing.  Her own absentee father was a virtual stranger who never provided for his family:

My father’s abandonment of the family actually brought about some deep thinking concerning belief in a god.  My father-figure could not be counted on to help in any way.  My father-figure would not respond to any type of communication…Why would I honor such a man?  If we wanted or needed something it was up to us to make it happen.  From an early age I decided to give honor and respect to those who earned it!  I was sitting in church when I realized that the people around me might as well have been praying to my father figure.  Their  “heavenly father” was not responding to their prayers and pleas either.[ii] 

Downey is part of a generation of freethought activists whose transition to non-belief coincided with second-wave feminism and the waning years of Jim Crow.  In 1993 she founded the Freethought Society after a high profile anti-discrimination battle with the Boy Scouts of America over her son’s rejection by a local troop.  The Boy Scout suit spanned nearly a decade and garnered Downey national recognition.  Nonetheless, she has not had the same kind of visibility as male leaders with doctorates and academic “cred.”  Struggling to get her AA degree as a seventeen year old single mother also made her acutely aware of the double standard for male success in the insular world of freethought/secular/atheist activism.  She notes that “A lot of men were in control of the non-theist community when I first started and (they) made it hard for women to get into leadership positions such as (on the) board of directors or as officers.”  Although atheist activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair had long been a polarizing high profile national figure, Downey’s grassroots local leadership was the norm for many secular women organizers.  Simply transitioning from faith to secularist activism was no guarantee that women would achieve parity in traditionally white male-dominated secular contexts. Male issues and priorities were still privileged as the gender and race “neutral” universal norm.  National leadership and political platforms were still oriented around traditional themes of church/state separation and the creationism versus evolution divide.

Thus, as a former teen mother, Downey’s experiences were radically different from that of the average white middle class male atheist who represents the most visible demographic within atheism.  She describes being condemned as a sinner by the local priest at her boyfriend’s church.  Pregnant and scared, she recalls “being told that the priest might concede to allow us to marry…if we proved that we were worthy of his blessing.”  After the priest told her that both she and the baby inside her were sinners he advised her to take marriage classes with her boyfriend.  When she accused the priest of hypocrisy because he’d never been married, he ordered her to leave.

Downey’s encounters vividly underscore how the sexism of Catholicism has motivated some Latinas to become non-believers.  Schoolteacher and atheist Marialupe Duarte argues that most Latinos are seen as dogmatic devout Catholics, which leads to “condescending attitudes, abuse and deprivation of (our) voice in political and social environments.”  In mainstream American media, older Latinas are seldom portrayed as anything more than rosary-bead clutching caregiver maids who shuttle from spicy tortilla factory kitchens to Catholic mass. With rare exception, older Latina film and TV characters dispense sage advice to all comers and meddle in their children’s lives.  The late Latina actress Lupe Ontiveros once commented that she’d played over one-hundred and fifty maids throughout her career in Hollywood.  Clearly, Ontiveros’ willingness to work made her the industry’s most prolific Latina actress because what contemporary white actress has been offered a maid role over one hundred and fifty times? None.  “Sexy” nannies notwithstanding, white character actresses rarely appear as maids or domestics in mainstream TV and film.  While white women increasingly enjoy a wider range of roles that fall outside of the traditional mother-wife-girlfriend troika, the range of possibility for women of color is still grossly limited.[iii]  Ontiveros’ experiences, and that of scores of Latina actresses, highlight how deeply entrenched racist sexist stereotypes and low cultural expectations impact professional opportunities.  If, as Duarte believes, Latinos are seen as rosary-bead clutching religionists then there is little in mainstream media to counter this view.

Nonetheless, over the past few years more women of color have stepped up to assume leadership roles in secular, atheist, and humanist organizations. They have done so in a movement that is blithely ignorant of, if not explicitly hostile to, the lived experiences, cultural capital, community context, and social history of people of color in the U.S.  In 2011, Kim Veal, president of the Black Non-Believers of Chicago, founded her group after being exasperated with participating in predominantly white groups where she was treated like an “enigma.”  Echoing the sentiments of other non-believers of color who have been turned off by the vibe of all-white groups, she says, “this was disenchanting; you don’t know if they are truly interested in getting to know you or are trying to pick the brain of their new token.”  Mandisa Thomas started the Black Non-Believers of Atlanta as a safe space for non-believers in the heavily evangelical South. BNOA of Chicago, Atlanta, and my group Black Skeptics Los Angeles have prioritized social justice issues like homophobia in the Black Church, HIV/AIDS prevention, reproductive justice, and homelessness. Veal and Thomas, along with Ayanna Watson of Black Atheists of America, Debbie Goddard and Jamila Bey of African Americans for Humanism, and Bridgette Gaudette of Secular Woman, are part of a new wave of women of color who head atheist organizations.

While national leadership amongst non-believers of color is still marginal, women of color have stepped up in greater numbers than men. Thomas attributes this to “our dominance in the community and our natural leadership roles.  We’re mothers and career oriented; a lot of us are very dominant and…passionate about helping non-believers.  We’re coming out of these sexist/misogynist roles and asserting ourselves a lot more.” Thomas’ comment underscores the paradox of atheist organizing amongst African Americans.  Black women are among the most steadfastly religious groups in the nation, yet it is precisely because they receive the brunt of sexualized racist stereotyping and objectification that they have become more vocal in atheist organizing.  In addition, black women non-believers are continuing a long tradition (ironically fostered in the Black Church and other religious civic and charitable organizations) of community organizing and outreach. And, like their religious foremothers, they are encountering some of the same sexist opposition and resistance to women’s leadership:

I believe women are at the forefront…because we’re willing to stand up and take the hit.  There are quite a few men out there that could stand up but they’re not.  I often detect some anti-feminist resentment that won’t respect what I have to say.  One of the gentlemen in my group will say the same thing I have to say and he will be respected and I won’t.  We still have the same patriarchal mindset as those in the religious community.

This patriarchal mindset is not exclusive to the religious community but is embedded within the dominant culture as a whole.  Non-believers are not magically exempt from sexism, patriarchy, and white supremacy. And in the absence of anti-racist redress there will always be a deep divide between an overwhelmingly white secular movement with social power and economic privilege and people of color who must navigate racial segregation daily in white America.  For non-believers of color, the argument about whether or not secularist organizations should address social justice is an absurd luxury that only white people have.  American Humanist Association (AHA) development director Maggie Ardiente challenges humanist organizations to address social inequality directly.  Ardiente contends that just as progressive faith-based organizations try to meet their communities’ social welfare, education, and political needs so should humanist organizations.  Despite being a native-born Filipina-American she has gotten asked “where are you (originally) from?” throughout much of her life; echoing the experiences of many Asian and Latino Americans who are automatically assumed to be foreign-born.  In the eyes of mainstream America and much of the world, American citizenship is still defined as white.  Racial others with non-European names are non-citizens until they can produce papers to prove otherwise.

Writing about this brand of racial politics in her article “Next Wave Atheist Leaders and White Privilege,” Diane Arellano said:

Over the past several years, we’ve (the Women’s Leadership Project) worked at schools where students who aren’t considered gifted or “college material” aren’t encouraged to prepare for college. For example, African American students are disproportionately shut out of college prep Advanced Placement and Honors classes. And undocumented students are often told straight up by racist teachers that “my taxes shouldn’t pay for you to go to college.” Black and Latino students are searched, profiled, and basically considered guilty until proven innocent.

Despite the high octane racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia of this year’s presidential campaign, some atheist white folk want to claim that simply being an atheist gives them the ultimate outsider/despised “minority” status.  Responding to her article one reader wrote that “it’s just not true that being white is a salient feature of any atheist’s identity (being an atheist in a very religious country pretty much crowds everything else out).”  Given the continuing decline of black and Latino wealth, this belief that whiteness is an unraced identity, and that religion is the fount of all evil, reflects white entitlement.  Atheist, Christian, Satanist, Wiccan—if you’re a person of color in Christian fascist America you’re subject to a racist educational system that dehumanizes you as a non-achieving violent potential dropout, a racist criminal justice system that automatically criminalizes you as a dysfunctional crack-snorting, gang banging scourge, and a white supremacist media that promotes white beauty ideals, white heroism, white leadership, and white humanity as the universal norm.

So the paradox of worshipping what Nella Larsen termed the “white man’s god” remains.  Interviewed by the Los Angeles Times days before the election, an elderly African American woman quipped, “I say I sleep with three men.  God the father.  God the son. And Barack Obama.”[iv]  Her faith in this alpha male “trinity” is perhaps the ultimate challenge to freethought in communities where storefront churches and prayer warriors run deep.

*Name changed

Sikivu Hutchinson is the founder of the Women’s Leadership Project and the author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars.  This is an excerpt from her book, Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels, due in 2013.

[i]Juhem Navarro-Rivera, Barry Kosmin, et al. “U.S. Latino Religious Identification 1990-2008: Growth, Diversity, and Transformation,” (Trinity College, Hartford, 2010), p. 3.  The report also concludes that “women are 5% less likely than men to identify with the Nones category (agnostic, atheist, humanist, none or secular).” p. 10.

[ii] Margaret Downey, “Journey Presentation,” March 12, 2012, unpublished speech.

[iii] In the 2011-2012 box office season alone mainstream media trumpeted the rise of “strong” heroines in films such as “The Hunger Games”, “Bridesmaids”, “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” and even the animated film “Brave.”  All of these films starred white female protagonists.

[iv] Maria La Ganga, “Where Obama Pride Abides,” Los Angeles Times, November 8, 2012, p. AA5.