On January 16th, the same weekend as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday and holiday, is National Religious Freedom Day. Officially proclaimed by U.S. President Clinton in 1993, this day highlights the diversity of religious belief, and reinforces the right to said expression freely.
How fitting that these two occasions flow together, especially in honor of a person who was a champion for Civil Rights in this country. However, there is still a segment of the U.S. population that is largely excluded in the fight for religious freedom – those who do not believe in god at all.
The nonreligious population is the fastest growing in the United States. There are a few terms used to describe us – atheist, agnostic, humanist, secular, etc. Some of these terms are used together, others interchangeably. But what is undeniable is that there is still much fear and misunderstanding about us, not only in the United States, but also around the world.
A look into history reveals that the freedom of religion has been weaponized and used to trample the rights of many American citizens, as well as those who were once enslaved in this country. Prior to the American Revolution, separation of church and state was almost nonexistent, and Christianity was the religion that dominated privilege. 250 years later, the cries of America, the “Christian nation,” have been fueled by the brutal treatment of Muslims/Non-Christians after September 11th, 2001 and heard as recently as the violent display at the nation’s Capital on January 6th, 2021.
The current Presidential administration promises a progressive horizon, with an emphasis on science, evidence-based information and practices, and respect for human rights and liberties. What remains to be seen as we approach this upcoming National Religious Freedom Day, is the full respect and pluralism that the freedom was established to uphold. The same pluralism that Dr. King fought for, and that the nonreligious are still routinely denied.
My organization, Black Nonbelievers, has focused on increasing the presence of atheists and religion doubters in Black communities, as well as providing much needed support and empowerment. While the overall number of “nones” is rising, research shows that approximately 79 percent of the Black population still place religious belief at the center of their lives. The Black Nonreligious Americans report, released jointly with American Atheists in October of 2021, reveals a harsh reality about the illusion of religious freedom.
However, there has been progress in recent years. Organizations such as the National Museum for African American History and Culture and the Religious Freedom Center have begun including the nonreligious perspective in programming. The creation of the Congressional Freethought Caucus is also very important in representing nonreligious voices. It is great to see genuine interest in the changing trends in religious belief, especially in young people, and how communities are arising outside of traditional norms.
What religious freedom means to me and many of my fellow nonbelievers, is the freedom FROM religion. To be rightfully recognized as human beings who place evidence and reason over divine intervention. It is the ability to state objectively that we don’t believe and why, without facing repercussions and ostracism. It is the opportunity to work alongside our religious counterparts, and the right to openly challenge human rights violations committed for religious reasons. And finally, to hold our lawmakers accountable for upholding separation of church and state. Very much like Dr. King did.
As the number of atheists and nonreligious continues to grow, I am confident that the nation will begin to see us for who we are – hardworking, passionate people who care about issues that affect us. We care very much about the state of our communities, believers and nonbelievers alike. We are not telling people what to think and do, but that they SHOULD think for themselves. We are nothing to fear. We, in fact, are a reminder of what this country’s founding was intended to provide – religious freedom for ALL.
By Mandisa L. Thomas, founder and president of Black Nonbelievers. Thomas has appeared on ABC News.com, CBS Sunday Morning, CNN.com, and The Humanist. She was also named 2020 Harvard Humanist of the Year.