Non-Religious Belief ≠ Lack of Morality

A friend of mine posted an article across social media that cited research related to non-religious belief and moral values and outcomes. An area just below the top section of the article contained a headline which said:

“A growing American demographic: Children raised without religion, with moral values soundly intact.”

After reading the article myself, I responded by writing that researchers have also recently discovered that water is wet.

Although it was a sarcastic comment, I was glad to see it, and hope more narratives like that are able to challenge and expand the worldviews of people who might be unable to conceive of this possibility.

My friend, a person of color found it interesting that researchers were catching up and having the conversation. My comments were supportive, and they wanted to know if I was raised in a religious household, because in their experience being raised in a non-religious household was rare among people who are Black.

I was raised in a very religious, Christian household. Although it started before, and intensified while I was in college, I experienced far too much dissonance to be able to continue along the path of all or nothing thinking I had developed when it came to the faith itself as well as how I should perceive other people who were not christian (not to mention roles of men & women, attitudes about people in the LGBTQIA community, etc), with one of those beliefs in particular being that it’s impossible to live a “good, moral” life without religion, particularly christianity in the context of my development.

I plan to expound on this story in future notes, but those experiences, combined with a personal difficulty with being able to separate it from colonization and other factors involving elements of power and control (through fear, violence, guilt, shame, etc) led to my developing to a place where it doesn’t resonate with me.

I acknowledge that others have different experiences and perceptions, but at some point I came to accept the reality that perhaps everything I’d been told explicitly and subtly about the superiority of Christianity and the inferiority of other belief systems wasn’t completely accurate.

My socialization and group membership did bring, and sometimes still does offer certain privileges.

“Although I do not currently identify with a specific religious practice, my christian upbringing allows me the privilege to be able to blend in (which I have done in the past) and protect myself from loss of respect, credibility, and rejection in close relationships and other social situations, differential treatment in working environments, and a range of other areas.

My familiarity with the faith allows me opportunities to blend in where others who are either unfamiliar or visibly different in some way due to different practices cannot.

I freely enjoy the christmas season, and the time I spend with my family and other loved ones. I can celebrate christmas without someone thinking what I’m doing is wrong, and will not be viewed as a threat to national security if I decide to decorate a tree this year.

While my Christian upbringing has indeed allowed me to make connections with a variety of people, the benefits that I have received in the past and could still stand to gain by promoting this view as the only view at the expense of other faiths far outweighs  the consequences of asserting my belief that peace can be found in a variety of perspectives and belief systems.”

—From Barely Scratching The Surface: Thoughts on Social Identities, Power, Privilege, & Oppression.

My thoughts were pretty similar to my friend’s in that in my experience, non-religiosity is pretty rare among the people who are Black that I have known or met.

In my experience Christianity is often assumed, and admitting that one is not Christian, and living it out does not go without its consequences, one being for me at least, that it is sometimes difficult to find community, even within communities of color because of it.

I can still remember losing a lot of subscribers after I wrote “On Being Black and Non-Christian: When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong.

  • Writes blog post about how revealing non-christian identity has led to lost relationships.

  • Loses subscribers.

Beyond the potential loss of additional subscribers, the potential loss of relationships or exclusion from certain spaces, other losses could manifest themselves institutionally in terms of the impact this can have on working relationships, potential employment opportunities, etc.

The backlash, or threat of backlash can have a silencing effect. And that dear readers, is how power is maintained.

Oppression thrives off silence

I’ve found that sharing my experiences as a non-religious person of color can have a liberating effect. Not just for myself, but for others in the community who may be feeling isolated, silenced, or pressure to cover up this aspect of their identity.

Non-Religious Belief ≠ Lack of Morality

I think articles like the one my friend shared can go a long way towards creating some dissonance in others as well. My work isn’t about asserting one belief as being superior to another, as much as it is about bringing about the acknowledgement and acceptance of the fact that we can hold multiple realities simultaneously. 

If these messages can at least cause someone to be more open to recognizing, and being ok with understanding that there are people who can be “good” and “moral” without religion, I would count that as a victory.

I do recognize that it can be difficult to get to that place, particularly if you are socialized that the way you’ve been told about is the “only” way, and that one of your fundamental jobs is to convince others that their way is incorrect.

We’ve got to figure out better ways to get out of our own way.

Use that Agency

Now, one of the initial responses to being called out can be to become defensive.

Sometimes, in an effort to distance ourselves from owning up to any sort of responsibility or complicity, we may also inadvertently begin to formulate the all-invalidating “not all” response.

Know what I’m talking about?

  • But not all men….when talking about sexism

  • But not all cops….when talking about police brutality & racial profiling

  • and so on and so forth

Before responding with “not all”, please check out my note “For Would Be Allies On The Road To Equity: To Move Beyond Misrepresentation, We Must First Acknowledge The Facts.”

After some honest acknowledgement and confession of the role that you play, what you do next is critically important and can result in being restorative or further damaging.

The energy that you might want to put into trying to explain to an oppressed person that you’re not a part of the problem can be better directed towards talking to others who share your dominant identity.

Here’s a bit of a story. I was once introduced to an older woman who was Christian while in the grocery store. One of her first questions to me after learning my name was to ask me what church I attended. When I told her I didn’t, she said “That’s ok, we’re all a part of the human family.” I appreciated her warmth, and the genuineness of her response.

She offered me a hug. I accepted. I shook her hand, thanked her, and then politely asked her to please explain that to her cousins.

Use that agency.

Ubuntu,

From Aspiring Humanitarian, Relando Thompkins-Jones, MSW, LLMSW

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I'm a Social Justice Educator and Aspiring Humanitarian who is interested in conflict resolution, improving intergroup relations, and building more equitable and inclusive communities. "Notes from an Aspiring Humanitarian" is my blog, where I write about issues of diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice. By exploring social identities through written word, film & video, and other forms of media, I hope to continue to expand and enrich conversations about social issues that face our society, and to find ways to take social action while encouraging others to do so as well in their own ways.

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