Shanythia Cook, a 32-year-old mother of one, doesn’t have a Bible in her home in Marion.
“If I wanted horror fiction, I’d go look for it,” she said.
Cook is an online member of Black Nonbelievers, an Atlanta-based network of atheists, agnostics and other non-religious types. She’s one of a growing number of Black millennials who don’t identify with religion the same way older generations do. A 2014 study by the Pew Research Center found 64 percent of Black millennials are “highly religious,” while 83 percent of older generations are. Pew defines millennials as those born between 1981 and 1996. The same Pew survey shows Black millennials are still considerably more religious than non-Black millennials.
Experts on the African-American community’s relationship to religion see two things happening. Some younger Black people are rejecting religion and taking on markers such as agnostic, atheist or humanist. Cook calls herself agnostic. But there is also a growing trend of “spirituality,” where formal religion gives way to beliefs that aren’t as hardline.
Mandisa Thomas, founder and president of Black Nonbelievers, said spirituality is like a step down the ladder. According to her, it goes from being a firm believer to exploring different beliefs to being spiritual to finally being an atheist (or something like an atheist, since not all nonbelievers prefer that term). Thomas called spirituality a “loose belief,” meaning someone who’s spiritual may still believe in the supernatural, but they don’t align those beliefs with a religious sect.
“They’re still getting many of the same things they get from traditional congregations,” said Curtis Edwards, a professor of religious studies at IUPUI. “They’re just not going to the congregations.”
But others are letting go altogether.
“We live in an age of information,” Thomas said. “There are many people who aren’t buying the ‘fire and brimstone.’ It’s much more sufficient with more information to reject the claims of supernaturalism and that there is a God.”
Sikivu Hutchinson, who is on the leadership council for the Black Humanist Alliance, added Black millennials are also leaving religion because of social issues they feel the church in general has not been on the right side of — issues such as marriage equality, abortion and sexually transmitted diseases.
Keith McQueen, a millennial pastor at Powerhouse Church of Deliverance, called millennials a “blessing” since they’re forcing Black pastors to redefine their churches. Millennials don’t care for the pageantry and rigid hierarchy of power in Black churches. Instead, they’re asking direct questions about religious customs.
“Unfortunately, the Black church is run by clergy who haven’t had to answer questions for a very long time,” he said.
McQueen also said Black churches in Indianapolis haven’t become progressive enough to attract millennials who care more about social issues and wrestle with larger questions about the meaning of existence.
One issue for African-Americans who leave religion is they’re also leaving a historic bedrock of Black America. While slave holders and segregationists used the Bible to justify injustices, African slaves found refuge in passages about an all-powerful deity undoing earthly suffering with eternal life in Heaven. Churches have been community organizing centers for landmark civil rights events such as the Montgomery bus boycott. Bethel AME Church in Indianapolis was part of the Underground Railroad. Those historical ties make ditching religion especially stigmatized for Black people.
In finding institutions to replace the church, Thomas pointed to pillars that already exist, such as social activism, art and sports. But that optimism isn’t unanimous. Candace Gorham, author of “The Ebony Exodus Project: Why Some Black Women are Walking out of Religion — and Why Others Should Too,” said finding those institutions is a problem, especially for Black women like Cook.
“Often times when they walk away from religion, they’re walking away from family connections and friend connections,” Gorham said. “… Those relationships take a hit.”
Hutchinson said that’s because there is a “hyper-religious God belief” in the Black community that permeates everything from traditional church to Black athletes and politicians. Cook said her family’s reactions ranged from indifference to “severe disappointment,” and her aunt even told her the family knew she “wasn’t Black anyway.” But the bottom line for Cook is she doesn’t need the God of the Bible to lead a decent life.
“All those things they’re telling you in the Bible that make you great — feeding the poor, taking care of children — those are things I still do,” Cook said. “I just understand I don’t need religion for it.”
Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.