(Photo: Courtesy of African Americans for Humanism)
Atheist organizations from around the country have taken to billboard advertising to promote their views and their organizations over the last few months, but a new campaign by one atheist organization is focusing on reaching one group of people in particular: African-Americans.
"A lot of people think there's one black experience. A lot of people think that if someone's black it means that they're religious. So we want to be able to show people that that's not true, that there are non-religious people out there," Debbie Goddard, director of African Americans for Humanism (AAH), told The Christian Post on Wednesday.
The AAH launched an advertising campaign in late January in six major U.S. cities – New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Washington, D.C. and Durham, North Carolina – with a seventh city, Dallas, being added on Feb. 6. The campaign was designed to coincide with February's Black History Month.
Each billboard, poster or banner that goes up says "Doubts about religion? You're one of many" and has AAH's website printed on it. Each sign will also feature the image of a famous historic black freethinker – like poet Langston Hughes, social reformer Frederick Douglass or writer Zora Neale Hurston – across from the photo of a contemporary black atheist leader.
Goddard said the organization's primary goal in the campaign is to encourage black people who already have doubts about religion or who are already atheist but haven't told anyone to make themselves known.
But that can be a difficult decision for an African-American, she said, because many people feel that the black identity is inextricably tied to religion. Black communities look to churches, pastors and holy books to help them make decisions, she noted, including decisions on who and what to vote for during elections.
Churches are also a hub for social activities like community service and social justice activism opportunities in black communities, and many black colleges and universities have religious ties.
"Not only is it seen as maybe going against the religious beliefs of their parents, their family, their close friends, but it often goes against what is seen as their race. They are seen as less black sometimes to be a nonbeliever," she added.
Many African-Americans view humanist philosophy as "Eurocentric and overwhelmingly white," said Goddard, who also noted that the atheist community is aware that minority groups are lacking in their community. Goddard believes many blacks who fill the pews on Sundays do so just so they can stay connected to other people.
"It often makes sense for people to just continue going to church because that's where their spouses go, because that's where their parents go, that's where their friends go, oftentimes that's where their business connections are," said the AAH director. "If they want to be involved in the community maybe that's the only way that they can do it that they see, so they'll keep going."
The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) found that the percentage of black individuals who associated themselves with no religion nearly doubled over an 18-year period, jumping from six percent in 1990 to 11 percent in 2008. The percentage of people who said they have no religion also rose for the entire U.S. adult population during that same time-span, increasing from eight percent to 15 percent overall.
The 150 person congregation of Shekinah Tabernacle Baptist Church in Dallas consists primarily of African-American attendees, and its building is located close to where the last AAH billboard will be put up this month. The church's founding pastor, Alfred Stapleton, said the black male in particular is "going to hell in a handbasket" and the church needs to do more to reach out to them.
"If you really want to know the truth, Christians have gotten away from the Great Commission, and nobody has an all-out effort on evangelizing and souls," said Stapleton.
Stapleton said there are some people in the black community who are now classifying Christianity as "a white man's religion" and many are turning away to embrace other faiths, like Islam. Several keys to changing that view involve reaching out to black children before they become teenagers and focusing more on outreach rather than constructing new buildings and hoping outsiders will come, he stressed.
Christians should reach people with the Gospel message by "any means necessary," he said, including through the use of billboards.
"How many churches are putting up billboards to tell about Jesus Christ?" he asked.