Frederick Sparks over at Black Skeptics penned a response to my article “Reason and Racism in the New Atheist Movement.” Here are a few of my comments on his analysis. His words are in bold.

Yet if he bothered to read the rest of the book besides the passages criticizing new atheism, he’d see that Hutchinson hardly argues for walling off god belief and African-American religious institutions from criticism.

I’ve never stated or even suggested that African American religion or religion at large should be walled off or shielded from criticism. What I am saying is that religion is incredibly complex and shouldn’t be reduced and dismissed with statements like it “poisons everything” or that it is “child abuse.” In order to resist this totalistic stance I highlighted some ways in which religion has played a positive role in the African American experience. Religion has been used for vast amounts of things – both transformative and destructive and thus we should avoid simplistic dismissals of it (or naive totalistic embraces of it). That’s it. Following Spark’s logic, because I’ve written about the positive role that the Catholic Church and Catholic social teaching has played in Dorothy Day’s life I must believe the Catholic church should be walled off and shielded from being criticized about the child sex abuse scandal. I simply don’t understand this kind of logic.

If religion poisons everything then examples like these must be negated: slaves meeting in secret behind bushes and in caves to hold religious worship which were sometimes done in whisper, the slave identification with the Biblical theme of exodus as early as the 19th century, the importance of spirituals and ring shouts in resisting defeat, Nat turner’s religion, the significance of the religious community of Denmark Vesey in Charleston, SC, the way that itinerant ministry allowed for African American women preachers like Isabella Bomefree aka Sojourner Truth to carve out a space in society (God and Religion were central to her resistance and to the Van Wageners – the Dutch Reformed couple who helped secure her freedom), the diversity of African American religious expressions in Islam, Moors Science Temple, Judaism, Catholics and spiritualists, the role Howard Thurman played in influencing a generation of leaders, the impact of Pauli Murray, Womanist theology…etc. I could go on and on.

There are contradictions within these movements as well. George Wilson, the person who turned in Denmark Vesey and spoiled what could have been the largest rebellion in the U.S. was also a slave but believed, like his master, that God was nonviolent and wouldn’t support it. There was of course sexism, classism and other forms of oppression found within these African American religious experiences as there are within all institutions. The maroons of Jamaica who had escaped the plantations to form their own communities owned slaves themselves as did many of the maroon societies. One of the most famous leaders, Queen Nanny also relied upon spirit visions and religious practices to resist colonialism. Do we discount the heroic efforts of the maroon legacy because they held slaves or used some religious practices? No, of course not. The point is that social and religious reality is extremely complex and filled with contradictions. We should be very careful not to dismiss an entire category like “religion” merely because there are negative things associated with it. Obviously Christianity was used both to support slavery and to resist it.

And yes, I have read Sikivu Hutchinson’s entire book and I always highly recommend it whenever I can.

In referring to Dr King and the civil rights movement, Scofield also falls into the trap of “the Civil Rights Movement, Brought To You By Black Church”…a bit of historical revisionism that ignores, as professor Anthony Pinn points out, the secular philosophical influences, and that King himself complained that most the black churches were not involved and were not supportive.

Here Sparks is claiming that if you merely refer to the positive influences that religion played in the life of King and the Civil Rights movement you are making the historical claim that the Civil Rights Movement was entirely a Black Church phenomenon and it deserves all the credit. These are two entirely separate issues: I’m merely mentioning that yes, the Church played a significant role in the Civil Rights movement. This is not a statement about what I believe to be the origins, causes and reasons for the birth of the modern Civil Rights movement. This is of course a complex subject which can be debated. Me pointing this positive expression of religion out doesn’t mean that I have a monolithic view of the Black Church or that it was always supportive of King’s work, or that there weren’t important secular leaders in the movement. It simply means what I said it does: African American religion (of all forms) played a significant role in resisting slavery, segregation and Jim Crow. Myopic and simplistic dismissals of religion as “poisonous,” “harmful” or a “virus” discount these realities.

King himself was a huge critic of the Church:

Since this is the case, we must admit that the church is far from Christ. What has happened is this: the church, while flowing through the stream of history has picked up the evils of little tributaries, and these tributaries have been so powerful that they have been able to overwhelm the mainstream. This is the tragedy of the church, for it has confused the vices of the church with the virtues of Christ. The church has been nothing but the slave of society; whenever the mores call for evil practices, society runs to the church to get its sanction.

I’m o.k. with the challenges, contradictions and questions that King’s position as an ordained Baptist minister raises. He was obviously able to avoid totalizing statements like “religion is poisonous” despite understanding the degree to which it has been used to support the evils of society.

Furthermore, one of King’s biggest opponents during the Chicago campaign was the Black Church. One example is Rev. Joseph Jackson who was a fervent public critic of King.

As a bit of an interesting side note, last semester I taught a graduate course called “Dr. King and Empire: How MLK Jr. Resisted War, Capitalism and Christian Fundamentalism.” The first part of the course I explored King’s religious, educational and philosophical influences. Readers might like this article I wrote, “King’s God: The Unknown Faith of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” In it I show how King actually rejected the literal interpretations of the divinity, virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus, thought the Bible was a myth and didn’t believe in a literal heaven/hell…etc. King and Coretta went to Unitarian churches (before Unitarianism and Universalism merged in 1961) in Boston and King had aspired to the Unitarian tradition before he realized that he couldn’t play as significant of a role in African American life and movements in a Northern liberal denomination. The point is that King was trained in historical and Biblical criticism and he himself was critical of traditional theology in addition to the Church. I think it’s wise to allow these sorts of contradictions to exist without simplistically reducing them into a neat narrative. (I’ve also recently published a lengthy article called “Dr. King on Black Power, White Supremacy and a Revolutionized State.” I point out how King became more radical in his views on white people.)

One can also look at the tensions between the work of Charles H. Long and James Cone. Long, who was influential in supporting Cone to publish A Black Theology of Liberation in 1970 disagreed with the entire premise of the book but felt it was important to release. Cone is one of the most influential Black theologians and Long (Significations: Signs, Symbols and Images in the Interpretation of Religion) is widely respected as one of the most significant figures in African American religious studies. For Long, Jesus is not black as Cone insists – but rather theology in and of itself is a product of Constantine’s Empire. But Long recognizes the significance of having a book that flips white Christianity on it’s head and subverts the paradigm. See this video of James Cone speaking about white supremacy and white Christianity.

If you simply dismiss religion as “poisonous” or “harmful” then there is no real place for an analysis of the important work Cone has done within Christianity. I don’t see the predominant thrust of New Atheism drawing significant or meaningful differences between James Cone and Jerry Falwell. Rather, they all get dismissed under “religion is poisonous” or “harmful.”

When he speaks approvingly of the work of the Metro Community Church with respect to AIDS, he misses the other side of the coin, in which the black church virtually ignored the AIDS crisis unfolding in its own choir pews. African Americans are most likely to believe in literal interpretations of the Bible; this phenomenon buttresses homophobic and sexist dynamics within the black religious community. The beliefs are therefore not separate from the social justice issues, they are part and parcel, and challenging them is most definitely relevant.

Sparks sets an unrealistic standard: every time someone “speaks approvingly” of someone or something and fails to mention all the numerous things that the person doesn’t agree with they are guilty.

Yes, Christianity in it’s variety of expressions has been used to perpetuate injustice, colonialism, homophobia, sexism…etc. I’ve never denied this or said that religion or any institutions should be walled off from these critiques. Again, I’m pushing back against the claims that religion is only these awful things as many of the New Atheists reduce them to with totalistic statements. For some reason Sparks continually falsely equates mentioning how religion has played a positive role in society with believing that religion should be immune from criticism. I’m arguing precisely the opposite: that religion has had both positive and negative effects in cultures and societies around the world. No one is saying that “Religion is Perfect” but much of the predominant thrust of the New Atheism is saying that “Religion is poisonous.”

And finally, as I’ve said before literal belief in a supernatural God is no indicator of one’s inclination of being sexist or racist. There are vast amounts of people on this planet who believe in numerous forms of God and embrace various forms of theology. You can always find people that share similar understandings of the divine but have radically different social, political and cultural beliefs. Throughout the world belief in God, even in the Christian God does not guarantee any particular social belief. Again, religion is used to both resist and reinforce the worst injustices in society. People can share the same theology but differ radically in political orientation globally. Attacking the idea of heaven or God does nothing to change one’s political persuasion.

I’m of course all for humanistic and non-religious efforts in the black community at resisting social evils and challenging the ways in which the Church reproduces them. I’m merely saying that any effort whether done by black people or white people should avoid simplistic dismissals of the positive roles that those religious traditions are playing. Until there is a massive change away from religion being a primary method that people find support, meaning and social capital then we should be careful not to dismiss religion en mass.

UPDATE: In a short piece Greta Christina says “I especially liked how Sparks eviscerated Scofield’s out-of-context quoting of Sikivu Hutchinson’s Moral Combat, revealing that Scofield either didn’t read the rest of the book or didn’t digest its conclusions — since its conclusions are exactly the opposite of the one Scofield comes to.” Again, here’s what Hutchinson says in her book, “As delineated by many white non-believers the New Atheism preserves and reproduces the status quo of white supremacy in its arrogant insularity.” This was the conclusion and thesis of my article.  I didn’t take her out of context one bit.  If Christina thinks that my arguments are the “exact opposite” of the rest of Hutchinson’s book then she must believe that Hutchinson discounts her own statements in the rest of her own book as well.

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