Religious Journey of a Black Lesbian Atheist

Photo by Seynabou Thiam

Photo by Seynabou Thiam

I am an atheist. I’m also a skeptic. My atheism and skepticism are key parts in maintaining peace of mind, feeling in control of my life, and sometimes even healing. These things are nearly as crucial to the core part of me as being a lesbian Black woman.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of becoming socially aware has been connecting more deeply with people like myself, queer people of color. Spaces for us, especially Black queer spaces, are where I feel most at ease. This is true almost always, except when religion and spirituality come up. At those times it gets real awkward as a nonbeliever.

There’s been an uptick in folks reclaiming stolen spiritualities, as well as interest in magic, being witchy, doing tarot, psychic intuition, etc., in response to the high-stress times. It’s great folks are finding ways to cope. I just feel invisible in all that, not for lack of trying to find faith in those realms too.

 

Raised in Religion

“I had typical kid questions like, ‘Could god make a hot dog so big that even he couldn’t eat it?’”

I went to private school for the first half of my childhood education. Black Christian private schools.

It was really beneficial to be surrounded by Black teachers, staff, and students for the first part of my educational experience. I have far fewer hangups about being nerdy and Black because I had so many different models of blackness when I needed them.

Yet as a baby dyke, Christian school was not the best setting. When I was about six and realized I felt differently about my best friend, Corinne, than girls normally felt about other girls, I didn’t say a peep to her or anyone else. I thought her big sister might forbid me from hanging out with her anymore, and I could imagine the disapproving gaze of the school headmistress. Even though it had never been explicitly discussed at school, I gleaned that my feelings wouldn’t be tolerated.

I didn’t really think much about how that intersected with the things that I was being taught beyond that moment of clarity with Corinne and the following self-censure. I memorized the names and order of all the books of the Bible when asked, learned dozens of Bible stories, and attended church twice weekly without much fuss.

I had typical kid questions like, ‘Could god make a hot dog so big that even he couldn’t eat it?’ But I mostly accepted the answers at face value and was satisfied with, “God works in mysterious ways,” when I didn’t. It worked. Until it didn’t.

The summer when I was ten, I got my period for the first time and started developing boobs. The school year wasn’t over before I had grown men hitting on me. Being sexualized like that as a child took a toll on me. My anxiety spiked out of control, and things that had previously been an annoyance, like being required to wear skirts year-round because I was a girl, became a deal breaker. I asked to go to public school starting in sixth grade, and my wish was granted.

Things kind of flipped around when I started public school. My school life greatly improved partially due to having freedom of self-expression, but my home life drastically declined. Both my mom and I were sure that our new house was haunted.

 

Supernatural Anxiety

“When I believed in god and the supernatural, anything seemed possible.”

Strange things happened in that house, most of which I can offer naturalistic explanations for now. Some of what went down was that I’d wake up with scratches on my legs that looked days-old instead of fresh, there was a feeling that you weren’t alone in the home even when you were supposed to be, and once my mom swore something whispered “hey” in her ear when she was washing dishes home alone. I had a feeling that a demon lived in the basement.

I was terrified of that house and of being alone there, but as capitalism would have it, my mom had started the lateshift at her new job only a couple of months before we moved. I was alone in that house from three in the afternoon to nine at night, five days a week. When the sun was out it was bearable, but when the darkness came my mind was aflame with possibilities.

“Sinister things lurked in the dark,” my anxiety-prone brain said, so I kept the living room as bright as possible. “Someone could be looking in,” so I kept the rest of the first floor dark in order to see out better than they could see in. When I was alone, I kept the shades drawn, and the entire second floor felt off limits because that’s were a lot of the strange stuff happened. The basement door was to remain locked, always.

On good days, I just looked over my shoulder occasionally while sitting on the couch watching TV. On bad days, I sat with my back to the wall in full-blown panic attack, crying and praying to god to keep me safe until my mom got home. When I believed in god and the supernatural, anything seemed possible.

I think on some level I had doubts even then because sometimes my prayers would be for god to take away the fear I felt (implying that there was nothing supernatural to be afraid of), but then other times I’d pray that god would take away the bad things from the house. It went on like that for a year. I was twelve then and the most depressed I had ever been due to being on high alert all the time and feeling like god wasn’t easing my burden. I was in pretty bad shape with my mental health, including suicidal ideation. Somehow I was still managing to hide it from my mom, but it was getting hard not to blurt out how desperate I was for help.


 

Finding Atheism & Queerness

“The more questions I asked, the less I could hang with the answers given to me.”

Two big things happened my freshman year: I met my first atheist, and I realized that I was gay. One evening in the fall I was watching some HBO special about struggling teens, and one was a teenage lesbian. It was both a lightbulb moment and a natural extension of the knowledge I already had. My mom had had plenty of gay male friends my whole life, so I knew that was a thing. But gay women? Never heard of it before.

I thought a lot about being gay and what that meant for me. I thought about what it meant to be gay within our society. I saw that a lot of the legal opposition to gay folks was coming from conservative Christians based on their interpretation of the Bible and decided to research it myself.

Googling the most cited passages against homosexuality would result in different wording based on what edition of what version I was reading. The King James Version, New International Version, New American Standard, New Revised Standard, all these versions of the Bible said different things about the same text. I wanted to go back to the source and read what it said myself. It was then that I learned that not only do English Bibles come from a Latin Bible, but the Latin version was translated from Hebrew and Greek. How could I trust that across time and languages no one had changed the word of god, through error or on purpose, from what was originally dictated to the disciples?

Meeting my first atheist happened in Spanish class later in the school year. Religion came up when the teacher had left the room. This kid named JD as casually as could be goes, “oh, I don’t believe in god.” There was a flurry of reactions from the other kids, but I was too busy having my mind blown. Struggling with faith in god’s plan I was familiar with, feeling unhappy with god’s will I got, but not believing in god at all? It wasn’t an option I was aware of until that very moment.

I was curious what would happen to JD. You couldn’t blaspheme against god like that and not suffer divine consequences, right? I decided to keep tabs on him for the rest of the year. Just to see what kind of shit would happen to him. What happened to him was nothing. He was pretty popular that year, got decent grades, wasn’t struck by lightning or anything, and as far as I could tell there were no discernable consequences for saying god didn’t exist.

The more I thought about it, the more I felt I couldn’t trust that I was following the word of god and not the word of Matthew or Mark. I didn’t feel sure of what the right interpretation was because I heard so many conflicting things from other Christians. The more questions I asked, the less I could hang with the answers given to me. It was pretty clear that Christianity, as I understood it, wasn’t my thing.

 

Exploring Theology

“I learned about Sufism, Jainism, Kemetism, Buddhism, Shinto, ancestor worship, Hoodoo, and many other ways of being. I learned about myself.”

Losing my belief in Christianity and the Christian god felt less terrifying than I thought it would be. It felt like moving across the country, kind of scary to leave everything I’ve ever known, yet the fear was outshined by the excitement of embarking on an adventure. I was a little afraid to step into new territory, but excited to really get into learning about others and to learn about myself.

I figured something bigger than us had to be out there, something that wanted us to be good, something that loved the vastness of human experience and not just a select few. What its role was and what it wanted from us was up for debate. For four years I studied.

Since I was familiar with the Nation of Islam, I started there, but had a sense it wasn’t for me. Next I looked at Indigenous beliefs but determined that I didn’t know enough about my Native ancestry to feel comfortable trying to get in touch with the spiritual side of things there. I learned about Sufism, Jainism, Kemetism, Buddhism, Shinto, ancestor worship, Hoodoo, and many other ways of being. I learned about myself.

I found out that I value openness to questioning, learning, connection with nature, and destruction of hierarchies. I learned that fire and brimstone put me off and that valuing autonomy resonated deeply with me. I learned to challenge my fears myself and not wait for a savior. Instead of holeing up in the living room of my scary house I started grabbing a mag light and investigating the places I was afraid of. I shined a light in the darkness and found nothing but relief.

For a while, two years in, I dabbled in being wiccan/pagan because I appreciated the bits about not doing harm and the savoring nature, but got put off by the appropriation that ran deep in a lot of pagan spaces.

My fourth year of learning, my freshman year of college, was mostly devoted to one religion, Judaism. It was the only major religion I seriously considered converting to. I could appreciate the importance of doing good deeds, the positivity towards asking questions and learning, and the pull in the rhythm of Hebrew prayers and the communities that recited them. I also felt like I could connect with the history of struggle and survival as a child from the tribe of the Middle Passage (credit to Saidiya Hartman).

I spent a lot of time reading about Reform Judaism and reading Jewish perspectives before feeling nearly ready to commit. Before I decided to take the plunge I wanted to read up on accounts of what it’s like to be a Jewish queer person of color (QPoC). Seeing how people of color within the community feel about it and then further examining how QPoC feel about it is my go-to for determining how much I want to join a community. How people treat the most oppressed folks in their community says a lot about the larger group dynamics.

Most of the accounts I read involved people being very happy with their faith, but facing near-constant erasure of their Jewishness outside the Jewish community as well as microaggressions within the community. It was nothing new, but it did give me pause. I looked hard at why I wanted to be Jewish. I found that I really wanted to convert because of the values and connection I felt, yes, but also because you didn’t necessarily have to believe in god to be Jewish.

I was looking for a belief system that would allow me to be a good person but not necessarily believe in god, and at that point, I realized, I might as well just be an atheist who focuses on doing good. So I started reading more in-depth about social justice issues.

 

For Me, The World is a Better Place without Spirituality

When I lost my belief in the supernatural, I gained a deep sense of wonder for the naturalistic world. I stopped being afraid of what could happen and started appreciating what has happened. That’s not to say that my anxiety totally went away, that’s not how anxiety disorders work, but my anxiety did lessen once the world went from a place where literally anything could happen to a place where only so much can happen or is likely to happen.

I started taking classes that I felt would be beneficial to understanding the way the world works, how it got to be this way, and how to make it better for people who suffer under the systems that have been created. I learned that a healthy dose of skepticism could be a very useful tool for determining fact from fiction (hello Snopes), interpreting data, and learning how to tell when data is skewed.

I tried to join up with the larger atheist movement, but shortly after I started getting involved, there was a huge explosion over sexism and misogyny. Deep rifts separated people who cared about social justice from folks who didn’t. Looking back on my time with the mainstream atheist movement, I can see why there’s a stereotype of atheists as angry cishet white jerks. I definitely encountered some of those guys. But most of the atheists I’ve met have been decent, caring individuals who just want to make the world a better place.

I’m trying to make the world a better place. I just don’t need spirituality or the supernatural for that to happen.

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Image description:

The photo is in black and white. Two people are seated at a large round dining table, in an open space with high ceilings. Both are resting their heads on their hands and looking ahead with a blank expression. They are both dark-skinned and wearing black shirts. The person at the front of the image has long braids pulled into a ponytail. The other person's hair is worn natural in a ponytail, and they have on glasses.


About Seynabou Thiam:

Seynabou (Nanette) Thiam is an African queer artist living in D.C. after 27 years of hopping around the globe. Photography, writing, painting and henna tattooing are a few of her loves. She is also an energetic healer and loves to read the tarot for herself and others. See her artwork at @negrotesque and @twocameracats on Instagram.

About Asher_Jak:

Asher_Jak is a twenty something year old black antibinary dyke. She’s an awkward nerd who really enjoys tea, discourse, and playing Dream Daddy.