First Place College Essay Contest for Students of Color winner: By Nadia Duncan

I am an Unapologetic Black Atheist

FFRF awarded Nadia $3,000.

By Nadia Duncan

I used to call myself a “soft agnostic.” It was a term I coined to try to be as inoffensive as possible in my hometown of Vienna, Va., while still remaining honest about my unenthusiastic attitude toward organized religious practice. People hear the word “atheist” and they recoil, as if it describes some sort of violent, dangerous iconoclast. But “agnostic” sounds tame. People hear “agnostic” and think, “Oh, there’s still some hope for her.” There isn’t.

I’ve grown tired of being inoffensive. I can no longer pretend to subscribe to the rampant ignorance I see in my community. Therefore, I have claimed a new title: Unapologetic Black Atheist.

The church is a huge part of culture in the South, especially among black people. My grandparents’ generation was raised in devout Christianity, and, through them, the teachings were passed down to me. As dubious as I was about their validity, I couldn’t escape them. How ironic, considering Christianity came to many African tribes on the continent through the work of white Christian missionaries throughout the 19th century, people who considered African peoples to be no more than savages. Enslaved people of African descent in America were stripped of their native religions and forced to adopt the Christianity of their white oppressors, or risk punishment that could be as grave as death.

The same black Americans who understand and detest what white supremacy has done to their lives are worshipping in a practice that was forced upon their ancestors centuries earlier. In turn, they force it upon their children. People in my community give their money and their time to the church, and in return receive an indoctrination that compels them to hate other marginalized groups, such as the LGBT community. How can people who have experienced marginalization themselves be able to project it onto others so easily? The answer is painfully simple. Across cultures, religion is a tool of control.

The three major Abrahamic religions have all been used on many different occasions as tools to rally the masses and convince people to follow the will of God. Yet somehow, the word of God always seems to come from groups of men who have derived status and authority and intend to keep it. From the Crusades to the Westboro Baptist Church, to the conflicts over Palestine and the Holy Land that have lasted centuries, to Islamic extremism and violence across the Middle East, religious indoctrination has caused the death of millions of people throughout human history, all in the name of a faceless, chameleon God whose will aligns with the will of those who wish to control others.

I understand. People need comfort when the worst comes into their life. We want to feel accepted in communities of like-minded people. Religious centers can be places of healing and support for some. I get it. Human beings are naturally curious, and we seek solace from the fear of an inevitable death. We want to ascribe a meaning to our lives, to find a purpose; we want to be able to name the source from which we came. I don’t condemn spirituality or the belief in greater forces outside of ourselves. But I do believe that morality comes from within, and not from a devotion to a series of religious practices, regardless of their origin. I believe that I can be a good person, a person of value, a black person, without claiming a religious affiliation. I am, and always will be, an Unapologetic Black Atheist.

Nadia, 18, from Vienna, Va., is a student of theatre and classical voice at SUNY Purchase College and will be a sophomore in the fall. Her interests include singing, acting, dance, creative writing and historical and not-so-historical reading.

Freedom From Religion Foundation