Nadia Duncan – Out of the Closet Atheist Award

Nadia Duncan’s speech was delivered on Oct. 8, 2016, at FFRF’s 39th annual convention in Pittsburgh. She was introduced by FFRF Director of Operations Lisa Strand:


Our student awardee this year is Nadia Duncan. Nadia won first place in FFRF’s Michael Hakeem Memorial College Student Essay Contest for freethinkers of color. I’m pleased to announce that the Executive Board of FFRF has now created a new award — endowed by a bequest by David Hudak — to begin in 2017, making permanent an essay contest geared to students of color.

Nadia’s memorable essay, “Why I am an unapologetic black atheist,” was printed in the September issue of Freethought Today.

Nadia is from Vienna, Va., and is a sophomore at SUNY Purchase College. Her interests include singing, acting, dance, creative writing and reading.

Given the title of your essay, Nadia, FFRF has a plaque for you recognizing you as an “Out of the Closet Atheist.”

By Nadia Duncan

I would like to first and foremost formally thank you all for this honor. Thank you to the current co-presidents of FFRF, Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor, for your tireless efforts in the courtroom, in your community and across the country to defend freethought and the constitutional edict of the separation of church and state. Because of your work, we are able to live in a more just and freethinking America. And thank you to my mother, Thembi Duncan, who is here with me today. Without her constantly prodding me to write and submit my essay to the competition, I wouldn’t be standing here.

I used to call myself a “soft agnostic.” It was a term that I coined to try and be as inoffensive as possible in my hometown of Vienna 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; therefore, I have claimed a new title: Unapologetic Black Atheist.

I am so grateful that FFRF recognizes the specific challenges that come with being a freethinking person of color. Some think that we cannot live a life free of religion due to our ethnic heritage, but this is narrow-minded and uninformed. It is a myth, in the words of Annie Laurie. The belief that people of color have to take shelter in the arms of organized religion because of the plight of racial oppression is one that stems from fear and a desire to assimilate.

In my research for this speech, I stumbled upon a quote from a book called Christianity in Africa and the African Diaspora: The Appropriation of a Scattered Heritage. It reads: “The rapid development of African Christianity and its offshoots in the diaspora is rooted in colonial history and resistance to oppression, exploitation and slavery.” This notion gave me pause. How could the very religion that was forced upon a people, whose native traditions were stripped away from them, be used as resistance to that very same oppressor?

Promise of salvation

As it turns out, the writers’ answer was that the enslaved Africans “embraced” whichever of the various denominations of Christianity that their slaveholders belonged to. They found solace in the promise of heavenly salvation after the horrors of their Earthly existence were over. Although I only have the experience of a black American woman in the 21st century, that explanation doesn’t sit right with me at all.

I believe that when the enslaved were faced with some of the most horrible treatment that has ever befallen a group of people in human history, they were forced to cling to any idea that allowed them to retain hope and a sense of community. They did the best that they could with unimaginable hardship and strife. The survivors of enslavement passed their newly adopted beliefs down to their progeny, hoping to pass with these beliefs the strength that would allow them, in turn, to face any of the tribulations of their own lives.

Ironically, through to the Reconstruction era, primarily white Christian spaces were still hostile toward black people, forcing black worshippers to establish their own churches, particularly below the Mason-Dixon Line, because worshipping the right way still didn’t mean acceptance into white spaces. Black people were resilient enough to continue on, and the original civil rights movement was housed within the walls of the churches because those were the only socially acceptable places for the black community to congregate.

At that time, it was necessary for survival as a black American to be a member of the Christian community. I don’t condemn the adoption of religion through necessity. However, as the tides have rapidly changed through the turn of the millennium, I believe that the time of necessity has passed. I understand the roots of Christianity within the culture of descendants of the African diaspora, but I choose to reject it.

I wonder what would’ve happened if the enslaved had been presented with a humanist doctrine after the terrors of middle passage into the New World? Would it have made a difference in how they organized and ultimately fought to end chattel slavery?

With the creation of social media and the growing political climate regarding the U.S government and its relationship with Christianity, I think that not only is it no longer necessary, but it is no longer possible for black people to utilize the church as a center for political activism. Some leaders of the black religious community are becoming exactly what their predecessors moved to the churches to escape: discriminatory and spiteful to those whom they do not understand.

Education and respect

I grew up with a second degree of separation from religious belief and Christianity. I was born in Greenbelt, Md., my mother’s only child, and the fourth of my father’s, who had been previously married to my siblings’ devout mother before their separation. I spent most of my adolescence in northern Virginia, a unique place that prides itself on being too suburban and affluent to be considered the rural South, but too historically conservative to call itself the North.

During my youth, Christianity was always on the periphery of my experience. My mother and father both, in their own ways, seemed apathetic to the idea, but tiptoed around it and went through the motions when other, more devout family members were present.

What my parents gave me instead of religion was a moral compass anchored in self-confidence. They taught me to respect other people and myself. They taught me that becoming educated would be the most important endeavor of my entire life, and they taught me to stand up for myself in the face of adversity and discrimination. My parents provided the foundation for me to flourish and to have the strength to enter the adult world with poise and confidence — and they were able to do it without any added religious pressures.

I was only ever in church services a few times, and always at the suggestion of a second-degree relative. I was given the choice to attend services when I was around 9 years old, and I, obviously, opted out. What could be more boring to a child than sitting still and listening to someone monotonously drone on about things that don’t make any sense?

There were a few biblical passages in aging, cracked frames strewn about the house that I grew up in, remnants of my late stepmother, and I would glance at them from time to time. They always put me on edge, but I could never determine exactly why. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized what made it so off-putting to me when I saw these seemingly inoffensive messages of love, divinity and acceptance — they didn’t align with what I was seeing in real life.

The Christianity that I saw was in the vindictive stares from the devout relatives of my half-siblings during my youth and the careful way they spoke to me, as if “bastard child” was stamped on my forehead. It is in the news, Fox News. It is in the evangelical protesters who came to my college campus in Westchester, N.Y., holding spiteful, grammatically incorrect signs on our Great Lawn and insisting that our liberal, LGBTQ-friendly student body had earned a collective one-way ticket to hell.

Even some members of my own family are guilty of this holier-than-thou attitude that leaves my blood boiling. They act as if their devotion to Christianity somehow makes them incapable of fault. Not only that, but they act as if the faults of others have some sort of direct connection to their spirituality, or lack thereof. It’s as if the steps to becoming a good black person can sometimes appear to be hopelessly intertwined with devout Baptist, Methodist, Protestant or Catholic beliefs.

Religion a tool of control

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. In the December 1992 issue of Freethought Today, the late Dr. Michael Hakeem, for whom my honor is named, wrote: “Christianity provided a system of thought, a climate of opinion, that made possible the dehumanization of whole categories of people.”

Religious oppression has caused the deaths of millions of people throughout all of human history, all in the name of a faceless, chameleon God whose will aligns with the will of those men who wish to control others.

I understand that people need comfort when the worst comes into their life. We all want to feel accepted in communities of like-minded people. Religious centers can be places of healing and support for some. But I believe that secular spaces of gathering, just like this one, can be just as supportive and just as rewarding.

Human beings are naturally curious, and we seek solace from the fear of an inevitable death. But to dwell on the possibility of the end of our individual existence is to ignore the plights that exist in the world around us.

We all want to ascribe 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, nor do I altogether vilify organized religious practice. But I do believe that morality comes from within, and not from a devotion to a series of antiquated religious practices, regardless of their origin.

I believe that true purpose can be established here, during our time on Earth. We each hold the means to our own destinies. 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.

Freedom From Religion Foundation