In the midst of the prayers, vigils and misguided national calls for forgiveness, theodicy’s question of the ages resounds—if God(s) exists why does he/she/it permit unspeakable evil like the white terrorist massacre at Emanuel AME church? Atheists point to Epicurus’ paradox about the impotence of “God” in the face of evil, arguing that last week’s murders tragically affirm his centuries-old caveat to the faithful.
While black folk are the most religiously devout group in the nation, “God”, it seems, has never had to answer, nor be called to account nor be indicted for black suffering.
No loving god would allow a twenty-six-year-old in the prime of his life to be mowed down in cold blood, nor abide by a five-year-old having to play dead to avoid being murdered.
So as a black humanist atheist I often get asked by white atheists playing ethnographer, “why are black people so religious? Don’t they know Christianity was used to justify slavery?” It’s been reported that the murderer deliberately targeted Emanuel because of its rich history of resistance to white supremacy. As a terrorist assault on an activist black institution in the heart of the Confederacy, the massacre was not just an individual act but a manifestation of state violence.
Founded in 1816 by black parishioners who broke from the racist white Methodist Episcopal Church, Emanuel was a platform for the revolutionary leadership of founder Denmark Vesey, who was executed in 1822 for plotting a massive slave uprising. It was a church that was prohibited, reviled and burned to the ground because black people were not supposed to have spaces to congregate and organize in.
Radical black humanists, most notably Frederick Douglass and A. Philip Randolph, have challenged black religiosity under slavery while acknowledging the crucial role activist churches played in black self-determination. Randolph’s critique of organized religion and the god concept was always coupled with a critique of capital and the imperialist occupation of black bodies and African countries. Churches dominated black communities because of the nexus of racial apartheid and capitalism.
Yet, ignorant of the socioeconomic and secular roots of slavery, and how they inform the privileges whites enjoy today, some white atheists marinate in smugness about the glories of Western rationalist traditions. Black folk, it’s implied, should consider themselves lucky to have benefited from the vaunted secular freedoms offered by the U.S., the world’s most prolific jailer of black people.
Nearly two centuries after the foiled Vesey revolt, African Americans remain at the bottom of a capitalist plutocracy built on our slave labor. Due to economic apartheid, wealth inequality and residential segregation, activist black churches are still pivotal in many communities. Yet, as an atheist I can value their role while believing that it was not—as Christians rationalize—the Charleston victims’ “time”, nor a perverse example of “God’s will” that they were slaughtered. I can value the profound fellowship that the Emanuel family displayed in welcoming the murderer into their bible study yet believe that a just god would not have allowed this parasite in their church home to begin with.
No loving god would allow a twenty-six-year-old in the prime of his life to be mowed down in cold blood, nor abide by a five-year-old having to play dead to avoid being murdered. No moral god would demand forgiveness for a crime for which there has never—since the first African was stolen, chained, exploited and “imported”—been any reparations.
Where, then, was “god” in that church? In the human agency, deeds and consciences of the victims, standing on the human shoulders of all the ancestor slave revolutionaries, known and unknown, who defied the lyncher regime of the U.S. government, a secular Constitution that branded Africans as 3/5s of a person and a “just” God who remains at large; un-indicted.