“Doubts about religion? You’re one of many.”
The slogan on billboards in half a dozen American cities in February, including one in Dallas, is intended to draw African Americans to an organization touting secular humanism.
The African American Humanists, a project of the Council for Secular Humanism, launched the billboard campaign targeting blacks in late January. The advertising coincides with Black History Month and uses images of historical, so-called “humanist” African Americans as examples of “free thinkers” who did not conform to traditional religious expectations within their communities. The faces of contemporary activists are posted next to their bygone counterparts.
The Dallas billboard is at the intersection of Interstate 35 East and Illinois in the south Oak Cliff area. In addition to Dallas, similar billboards appeared this month in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, and Durham, N.C.
Not surprisingly, the billboards have garnered criticism from black clergy, with several television news stations interviewing pastors of churches in south Dallas, an area with a large black population.
SBTC President Terry Turner said the history and culture of blacks in the United States has been tied, not to religion generally, but to Christianity particularly. In November, Turner became the first African American elected to lead the convention.
“All we had was tied into our faith, our Christianity,” said Turner, pastor of Mesquite Friendship Baptist Church, referring to the traumatic history of blacks in America.
“When it comes to our relationship with God, our history shows we have been able to love the Lord in our own way.”
That way, argues Dallas-area atheist Alix Jules, was foisted upon the African slaves. On the billboard in south Dallas, Jules is pictured on the billboard with Langston Hughes, a black writer and left-wing activist who was prominent in the early to middle 20th century for his jazz poetry and rumored homosexuality, among other things.
On the Dallas-Ft. Worth Coalition for Reason website, Jules states, “After years of trying to validate my faith as a believer, I came to understand that my former master’s master has never been interested in my people’s freedom. I look forward to the end of spiritual feudalism, when children will no longer subjected to the debasement and demoralization of slave sermons.”
Turner responded that there is a fallacy often spread about a Christless Africa before and during the slave trade. Pointing to the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8, Turner said from the outset, Christianity has been present in Africa.
He said the humanists’ efforts would suffer the same fate as cults and fads because “they don’t have anything that is going to keep them and sustain them.”
According to an AAH press release, there is a growing trend of nonbelievers within the African American population. They cite a 2008 work published by American Religious Identification Survey in which 15 percent of Americans identified themselves as having no religious affiliation, up from 8 percent in 1990. Within the African American population that number rose from six to 11 percent.
But Turner said the rise in the unchurched knows no racial boundaries. Churches no longer call out sin and pastors do not preach in a way to draw people to Christ and away from sin.
“People don’t know what to believe anymore,” Turner said.
The AAH statement contends African Americans who question religion or declare their unbelief “often feel rejected by religious family and friends, and by the greater black community.”
Asked if such stigma is accurate, Turner said, “I hope so!”
Questions, Turner added, are a sign of honest introspection. But wholesale denial of one’s upbringing, including life in the church, should not go unanswered. Being raised in the church—“getting enough Christ in their life”—isn’t always enough to draw an individual back to Christ’s teachings.
Because of the break-up of the family, especially within the African American community where the out-of-wedlock birthrate is 72 percent, Turner said fewer children are hearing about Jesus in the home where they once did.
“That is another problem we deal with. The home is not the place where Christ is taught, hence a falling away.”
During Sunday worship services in February, Turner said he highlights the life of an African American Christian who not only had a significant impact on the black community but on the nation. Stalwarts such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Sojourner Truth are Turner’s counter to the secularists who would attempt to marginalize the impact of Christian faith in the lives of those who changed this nation for the better.
Johnnie Bradley, pastor of Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in Dallas, told the TEXAN that black skeptics should be thankful to God, especially during Black History Month, because God “chose to open the door of equality and advancement for African Americans.”
“Regardless of the ethnicity, everyone is prone to believe in something or someone,” Bradley added. “If atheistic groups think God refuses to accomplish his will because they have purchased an advertisement, think again. No matter the publicity, God is revealed through Jesus Christ (John 1:14) and will always be more popular, potent, and powerful to deliver man.”