(Editor’s Note: the following is a guest post from frequent contributor Chris Cameron — Ben Alpers)
As I get deeper into the research for my project on black freethinkers and closer to the point of publishing an article and applying for fellowships to start funding the study, one question has been continually on my mind: how should I categorize black humanism? Is it a religion, or more of a philosophy? Admittedly, humanism is not the only component of this project, but it is the largest, as I have encountered few black atheists (thus far) who do not also consider themselves humanists.
This question has very practical implications for anyone studying humanism, whether among Africans Americans or any other group. If a strong case could be made for humanism as a religion, then that opens up a number of funding opportunities that may not be available for someone studying black intellectual history. For graduate students, categorization becomes even more important, as how they market their dissertation projects will determine which types of jobs are open to them. Also, if I want to publish an article on black humanism, would I submit something to the new Journal of Africana Religions, or would I go with something such as Modern Intellectual History?
There are more than just pragmatic questions in considering where black humanism fits, however. There is also the more important question of historical accuracy—what did the historical figures who were humanists consider themselves and their movement? Did they even consider themselves part of a coherent black humanist movement? And if so, how would they have described it?
Among the few scholars who have written about black humanism, there seems to be a general consensus that it is indeed a religion. In William R. Jones’ Is God a White Racist?, for instance, he posits that “black humanism is antithetical to traditional Western theism, black or white, but we can label it non-religious only if we equate religion and theism.” Jones was responding to the critiques of liberation theologians such as James Cone that black humanism was a secular philosophy that could not adequately speak to the black experience. Anthony B. Pinn likewise categorizes black humanism as a religion. His work The End of God-Talk aims to construct a nontheistic black humanist theology, while his new textbook Introducing African American Religion has numerous sections on black humanism. Pinn also notes correctly that many black humanists feel comfortable attending Unitarian-Universalist congregations, many of which espouse pagan ideals or religious ethics detached from theism.
In Introducing African American Religion, Pinn defines the topic as “the quest to make meaning out of life.” This definition is broad enough, in his view, to include black humanists who do not believe in God, but consider themselves religious. While a part of me agrees with this move, I also have the feeling that the definition is too broad and could incorporate almost anything that humans do that can have some sort of meaning ascribed to it.
Michael Lackey, who has produced a fine scholarly treatment of atheism in African American literature, agrees that humanism should not be a religion, but for a different reason. For Lackey, the move to classify atheism and humanism as religions challenges notions of blacks as being inherent believers in theism, but it does not challenge or question “the view that black people are, by nature, religious.”
I am currently leaning toward categorizing black humanism as more a part of intellectual history than religious history. I think Lackey makes a great point and I also think expanding the definition of religion to include humanism could be broadening it too far. But I am conflicted. The Southeastern Commission for the Study of Religion just put out a CFP and the unit on “Method and Theory of Religion” is asking for proposals on the New Atheism. I may submit one, partly to present at a conference outside of my field, but also because presenting there could clarify my thoughts on where this type of study fits. If others have ideas on this or suggestions for theoretical sources on the topic I would love to hear them.
 William R. Jones, Is God a White Racist?: A Preamble to Black Theology (1998; Boston: Beacon Press, 1973), xxi.
 Anthony B. Pinn, The End of God-Talk: An African American Humanist Theology (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); Introducing African American Religion (London and New York: Routledge, 2013).
 Ibid, 12.
 Michael Lackey, African American Atheists and Political Liberation: A Study of the Sociocultural Dynamics of Faith (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2007), 144.