U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What is Unique about Black Freethought?

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

A question that I have been thinking about quite a bit over the past few months as I work on my book on black freethinkers is how their ideology and experience differs from that of the more mainstream (i.e. white) freethinking community.[1] There are of course many common beliefs we can point to among most freethinkers. Secular humanists, for instance, be they black or white, generally believe in the importance of scientific literacy, expanded access to education in general, practicing compassion toward other people, finding meaning and value in nature and human relationships, and working to benefit society. Black and white pagans generally hold non-theistic beliefs revolving around veneration or even a form of deification of the natural world. And of course atheism and agnosticism are the same beliefs no matter who holds them. Where the signal differences seem to lie, then, is in the manner in which these different groups have historically come to their positions and the ways in which they do so today.

Historically, the foundations of the white freethinking movement were laid in the era of the Enlightenment with the rise of deism. While 18th and 19th century Calvinists and Evangelicals would certainly disagree with me, I categorize deism as a liberal religion because in addition to the Enlightenment, many of its tenets drew from 17th century English theologians such as the Cambridge Platonists and Socinians. Nevertheless, this liberal movement, with its attacks on the doctrine of the Trinity, the historical accuracy of the Bible, and a belief in miracles, did lay the foundation for what Susan Jacoby refers to as the “golden age of freethought” in the mid-to-late nineteenth century.

The origins of African American freethought do not lie in Enlightenment rationalism, as was the case among white freethinkers. As I noted in my first post for this blog, black freethinkers emerged during the era of slavery and rejected Christianity largely because the principles espoused by Christian slaveholders did not prevent the brutality of the institution of slavery. Also, African Americans in general had an ambivalent relationship to the Enlightenment project, as scientific rationalism sometimes worked to exclude them from the pale of humanity.[2] Enlightenment thinkers ranging from David Hume to Thomas Jefferson to Richard Nisbet argued for the inferiority of blacks due to their supposed lack of capacity for reasoning. So while the Enlightenment brought white intellectuals closer to freethinking, it actually pushed blacks further away, toward an acceptance and articulation of Calvinist and Evangelical principles as a means of asserting their humanity.

As one can easily see through the contemporary works of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and other “new atheists,” a scientific education is often one of the primary routes toward freethinking within the mainstream movement. Black freethinkers certainly share an awareness of the importance of scientific knowledge, and are very likely to believe in evolution. But just as the Enlightenment was used as a tool of racial oppression in the 18th century, so has science been used as a means of mass sterilization of African Americans in the early 20th century and in the Tuskegee experiments that spanned the 1930s to the 1970s.[3] Thus, black freethinkers are more likely to be wary of claims for science as the end-all and be-all of human knowledge and progress. From the early 20th century, then, black freethought has emerged as a response to both white racism and a critique of the ineffectiveness of black churches in responding to the socioeconomic conditions prevalent within African American communities.

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] This dichotomy is for simplicity’s sake only. The most visible figures of the new atheism are whites, however there is great diversity within the freethinking movement.

[2] The philosopher and theologian William R. Jones argues that black humanism is a response to the inadequacies of black Christian theism and not a result of the Enlightenment or the Scientific Revolution. See his “Religious Humanism: Its Problems and Prospects in Black Religion and Culture” in By These Hands: A Documentary History of African American Humanism. Edited by Anthony B. Pinn (New York and London: New York University Press, 2001), 41.

[3] Anthony B. Pinn discusses the “suspicion regarding intersections between science and culture” among blacks in his book The End of God-Talk: An African American Humanist Theology (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 52.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is very helpful. Thank you.

    My question: “Freethought” is such a vague term. I’m wondering if, in the context of the history of African-American freethinkers, you could broadly outline some of the content?

    More specifically: Was black freethought mostly made up of critiques of Christianity and white racism, or what were the other major elements of that intellectual tradition?

    • Black freethought in the 19th century was primarily comprised of a critique of Christianity and white racism, but it began to evolve into agnosticism and atheism by the early 20th century. Harry Haywood, a black socialist in the early 1900s, recounted in his autobiography that he was initially turned off of Christianity by reading the atrocities in the Old Testament. He later mentions that reading the work of Robert Ingersoll helped turn him into an agnostic, and he eventually became an atheist. In the book I am writing I will have an opening chapter on 19th century critiques of Christianity by blacks as something of a forerunner to thinkers such as Haywood.

      In terms of absolute categories of freethought, I am still working that out. It is safe to put agnostics and atheists there, as well as secular humanists. This latter group consists of both atheists and agnostics, however, so the categories start to become a little fuzzy. And after reading Alice Walker’s 1997 address to the American Humanist Association, I believe I will add black pagans to the list of freethinkers, as their worldview seems to represent something very different from agnosticism and atheism. Walker argues against theism and orthodox Christianity, saying instead that she worships land and nature.

      • You may have a live wire with the Unitarian connection, American Unitarians having been at the forefront of abolitionism.

        http://archive.uua.org/ga/ga00/514.html

        Although 18th century unitarianism owed something to the English deists, and a bit to the unitarianism of Richard Price and Joseph Priestley, American unitarianism has its own path–beginning as a very Biblical “Unitarian Christianity” but by the 1830s mutating into “freethinking” that rejected the Bible as divine writ.* Its transformation owed more to transcendentalism than science and modernity, as you very intriguingly touch on

        African Americans in general had an ambivalent relationship to the Enlightenment project, as scientific rationalism sometimes worked to exclude them from the pale of humanity.

        here..

        I’m sure you’re familiar with the Unitarian-cum-Transcendentalist “awakening” from pacifism to politics re abolitionism, but for those who came in late, the Unitarian Universalist church does very trustworthy work on its history, and this covers a lot of ground.

        http://archive.uua.org/ga/ga00/514.html

        ___________
        *[Of its schism/takeover of many Congregationalist churches, it’s still joked that “Congregationalism kept the faith, the unitarians got the furniture.”]

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