U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Death of God and African American Humanist Theology

(Editor’s Note: This is the latest in Christopher Cameron series of Saturday guest posts. — Ben Alpers)

In one of the first books written on African American Humanism, Norm R. Allen Jr. noted that black “humanism entails a belief in reason, science, democracy, openness to new ideas, the cultivation of moral excellence, a commitment to justice and fairness, and a belief in the inherent worth of humanity.”[1] Allen, the former director of African Americans for Humanism, believed that examining this topic would invigorate the study of Black history, especially by shedding light on the secular perspectives of civil rights leaders such as A. Phillip Randolph. He accordingly compiled short biographical essays on black humanists by various scholars, as well as essays by and oral interviews of black humanists ranging from W.E.B. Du Bois to Zora Neale Hurston to Charles W. Faulkner.

In the twenty-two years since Allen first published African American Humanism: An Anthology, not much progress has been made on our understanding of this vital intellectual tradition. Last year, however, Anthony Pinn published an important work that builds upon Allen’s definition of black humanism by articulating a fully developed African American humanist theology. Pinn, a professor of Religious Studies at Rice University, centers this new black humanism around the notion of “the end of God-talk.” The end of God-talk shares some similarities with the death of God movement, which began in the 1960s in the U.S.,  because they are both nontheistic humanist theologies. As William Hamilton, a “death of God” theologian writes, “my Protestant has no God, has no faith in God, and affirms both the death of God and the death of all forms of theism. Even so, he is not primarily a man of negation, for if there is a movement away from God and religion, there is the more important movement into, for, toward the world, worldly life, and the neighbor.”[2] Anthony Pinn articulates a similar definition for the end of God-talk and black humanism by arguing that it is “a way for African American humanists to speak and critique their collective life stories as these stories are guided by the structures and practices of nontheistic humanism as a quest for complex subjectivity.”[3]

But while black humanist and death of God theologies share some important similarities, there are also critical differences. The latter framework is a eulogy, in Pinn’s estimation, and presupposes the existence of God in the first place. In addition, death of God theologians often still rely extensively on sacred texts, replacing a humanist Christology with the former theistic framework. In this sense, many have labeled death of God theologians as “Christian atheists.” African American humanist theology, on the other hand, “asserts that God has never been anything more than a symbol—an organizing framework for viewing and living life in ‘relationship too….’ This symbol has run its course, and it is no longer capable of doing the heavy lifting required for the contemporary world.”[4] For black humanists who subscribe to the end of God-talk, the death of God is not necessary because he was never alive in the first place, except perhaps in our imaginations.

Christopher Cameron is an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His book on black abolitionists in Massachusetts is forthcoming from Kent State University Press, and he is currently working on two book projects—one exploring liberal theology in America before the Civil War, and another on black freethinkers from the mid-19th century to the present. He blogs regularly at professorcameron.com.

[1] Norm R. Allen Jr., African-American Humanism: An Anthology (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1991), 10.

[2] William Hamilton, “The Death of God Theologies Today,” in Thomas Altizer and William Hamilton, Radical Theology and the Death of God (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966), 40.

[3] Anthony B. Pinn, The End of God-Talk: An African American Humanist Theology (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 6.

[4] Ibid, 5.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Chris: Just a quick note to say how much I’m enjoying your posts on an element of African American intellectual history that I know next to nothing about. What a great topic.

  2. Christopher, does Pinn suggest what “God” has symbolized for African-American humanists? A symbol for the immanence of “the sacred,” or perhaps for the sacrality of interpersonal relationship(s)?

  3. “[Black] humanism entails a belief in reason, science, democracy, openness to new ideas, the cultivation of moral excellence, a commitment to justice and fairness, and a belief in the inherent worth of humanity.”

    Sounds great. Sign me up.

  4. I’m wondering if at some point these black humanist thinkers become a liability for black nationalists of the separatist persuasion — such as, for example, those who, as Andrew noted in one of his recent posts, eschewed footnotes and peer-review in their approach to black studies. I mean to say, in rejecting God or religion of one stripe or another but still associating themselves with Western Enlightenment thought (slash its descendants), was there ever a crisis for these or later thinkers about the intellectual heritage being claimed and political disposition being assumed? I’m not saying I would always necessarily agree with such a “tarnishing”, but I’m thinking, say, of Zora Neale Hurstons’s problems with Brown vs. Board (see the chapter in Sollors/Marcus’s edited New Literary History, I forget by whom), essentially from a position of cultural relativism — given her background in anthropology. She felt that black education was not inherently or necessarily inferior or unequal, but different.

    I come to this from the field of modern South Asian history, where the legacy of the political and intellectual thought associated with the West, encountered through colonialism, is for many — certainly postcolonial — thinkers forever tainted by, well, colonialism. A generation / “school” of scholars has sought to recover the acts of resistance to the cultural hegemony of the imperial West, to show how the nationalist discourse of anticolonialism in India was not in fact “derivative” (internally problematic, and ridden with fault lines such as gender/caste/religion, though it may have remained). Others have wondered what this binary separation of power between hegemonic “colonizer” and resistant “colonized” means for, say, Dalits’ and women’s rights activists who have often selectively appropriated the language/rhetoric of, and political means provided by, liberalism to further their own agendas.

  5. Others have wondered what this binary separation of power between hegemonic “colonizer” and resistant “colonized” means for, say, Dalits’ and women’s rights activists

    Now you’re talkin’.

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