THOUGHTS ON THE BLACK CHURCH

Henry Louis Gates’ two-part, 4-hour documentary on the Black Church was featured on PBS February 16–17, 2021. It focused on the Black Church’s role in combatting racism. While it is clear that churches (or rather, church people) have always had some positive aspects, the bottom line is that theistic churches have at their center the belief in a perfect God. Therefore, the ultimate question for me has nothing to do with churches’ beliefs, actions or lack thereof. Rather, for me, the ultimate question is: Has anyone (in this case, any member of a Black church) presented strong evidence for the existence of God? And as far as we can tell from this documentary, the answer is a resounding “no.”

Every action featured in this documentary can be explained in terms that are strictly human. Human beings sing, organize, plan, march, struggle, bleed, fight, die, and so forth. However, there is no strong evidence that God intervenes in human affairs. There is no evidence of any miracles of a religious nature having occurred during the Civil War or the civil rights movement. There is only all the evidence anyone should ever need for the existence of human thought and human action.

For all of the talk of the role of the Black Church in the struggle for civil rights, when I was growing up in the 1960s and 70s, I never attended a single church in which modern slavery or racism was even mentioned, let alone discussed in sermons. (The only time I heard discussions of slavery is when church people were bashing the African pharaoh and edifying the Hebrew slaves.) I have conducted no scholarly research to confirm or dismiss my personal observation. However, I have spoken with many other African Americans that attended church back then, and all of them have agreed with my observation. There are many Black scholars who have said that most Black churches either were not involved with the civil rights movement, or actually distrusted it. I suspect that this is true.

Speaking for the majority of the world’s population consisting of non-Christians, I would have liked to learn more about the beliefs propagated by Black churches.

For example, most Black churches have promoted the idea that only Christians can make it into Heaven. Obviously, religion evolves before our very eyes, and many, if not most, Black Christians have abandoned this bigoted religious belief. However, many still embrace it, and it is a part of history. A good historian should examine the belief and see how it has influenced people for better or worse.

Similarly, Black churches defend a belief in Hell and demons. The great 19th Century freethinker Robert Green Ingersoll once stated that “all the meanness of which the human heart is capable is summed up in that one word: Hell.” The belief in Hell and demons has led to botched “exorcisms,” false accusations against and ostracization of alleged sinners, literal witch hunts and much worse.

Historically, most Black churches have taught that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God and must be read and understood literally. However, there are many errors and scientifically falsified ideas in the Bible.

Indeed, the first line in the Bible is false (“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”) We now know that the earth was not “created” in the beginning. The universe is about 13.8 billion years old, but the earth is only about 4.6 billion years old. Genesis is wrong.

Genesis also teaches that all human beings are descended from Adam and Eve, which is how we have inherited Original Sin. However, population genetics shows that species evolve from populations, not individuals. There must have been at least 12,000 individuals in the beginning.

There is also the story of Noah’s Ark. Even a young child can see that it is physically impossible for so many animals to fit on a ship that was smaller than the Queen Mary. Moreover, there is no evidence that there has ever been a worldwide flood.

The errors of the Bible are many. If we are going to learn the truth about the Black Church, we cannot fully understand it without examining the Bible from which its foundation comes.

Many Black churches also believe in faith healing. But as the late, great skeptic James Randi and others have shown, there is nothing to faith healing. What is worse, many people have become sicker or even died at the hands of faith healers. Faith healing is just another dangerous religious practice that all humane and rational people should oppose.

As the documentary lightly touched on, some Black ministers and scholars of religion take other Black ministers to task for taking on hard-core rap music. But as the Reverend Calvin Butts pointed out in the documentary, he and other Black ministers are not condemning rap music per se. They are denouncing the misogyny, self-hatred, violence and moral rot on which the genre is based. If Christian leaders cannot at least take up this battle, are they really about morality at all?

Finally, the documentary focused on the idea that without the Black Church, there would have been no real fight against slavery and racism. This is a case to be argued and not assumed. In any case, if not for White Christianity and the racism and slave system that it created, there would have been no need for the Black Church. As Gore Vidal noted, Christianity is a great religion for solving the problems that it creates.

For 24 years, Norm R. Allen Jr. only full-time African American humanist traveling the world to promote humanism and skepticism. He is an author and editor.

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