Coming to a South Dallas Billboard: A Celebration of Black Atheists & Freethinkers

Categories: Events, Religion

black atheist billboard.jpg
"Here they go again," Reverend Kyev Tatum said. He laughed, but stopped abruptly. He was talking, of course, about the atheists.

When we last caught up with the Dallas-Forth Worth Coalition of Reason, our local band of atheists, freethinkers and humanists, they were trying fruitlessly to get The Dallas Morning News to include a "secular perspective" in their weekly religion blog. Just in time for Black History Month, they're announcing their newest campaign: a billboard in South Dallas celebrating black atheists and freethinkers, both historical and contemporary. And considering the reaction their last ad campaign got -- those "Good Without God" bus ads in Forth Worth -- they're preparing themselves for a big reaction.

The South Dallas billboard is actually part of a national campaign, the brainchild of the upstate New York-based African Americans for Humanism and paid for by a grant from the Stiefel Freethought Foundation. The Dallas billboard will feature a picture of Langston Hughes alongside a photo of Alix Jules, a member of DFWCoR's "Diversity Council." The tagline: "Doubts About Religion? You're One of Many."

Jules is a soft-spoken 37-year-old engineer from Brownsville, Brooklyn. "I got chosen," for the billboard, he told us, "because I happen to be one of the more active minority or diverse freethinkers in the Dallas area." He laughed. "I guess I'm known for being the black atheist."

Jules grew up attending an Afro-Caribbean Catholic church, where people regularly caught the spirit and spoke in tongues. He was fascinated with both religion and the occult, and by age five was convinced he would become a priest. "It's funny," he said. "That was my goal in life. The things I saw in church, I was like, 'I'm gonna be part of that. I'm going to help people.'"

But during his teen years at Bronx High School of Science, trying to argue with "nonbelievers," he said. " I started to understand I was a doubter. Through various experiences and life activities, I 'came out' right after September 11. I stopped saying I was 'spiritual but not religious,' or 'agnostic.' After 9/11, I came out and said, 'I'm an atheist.'"

At first, his family told him he was having a "crisis of faith." He pushed back, and they "stopped returning my phone calls," he says. He doesn't have a relationship with them anymore. He married a Caucasian woman; her family didn't care that he was black, but hated that he was an atheist. The couple would send out holiday cards; her family promptly sent them back, often with notes: "Please take us off your mailing list until you find Jesus."

Jules says that the "social cost" to being a nonbeliever in the black community is "huge."

"When you take a look at religion, religiosity, black culture and history, they're all intertwined," he told us. "The church was such a staple in black America, especially when you look at the civil rights movement. That was very much powered by the black church. You have black people who say you can't be black and an atheist," including celebrities like Steve Harvey and D.L. Hughley. "If you're a black woman, you're always told the only place you're going to find a good man is in church. Church is so much more in the black community than it is elsewhere. It's the support system, the mill, part of the ecosystem," he says, for social activities and dating, for free or low-cost childcare, especially in poor neighborhoods.

"When you wind up saying you don't believe, then you're walking away from a mating pool," Jules added. "You're not going to be able to do that because now you're deemed unfit. And you wind up throwing back into your parent's face the belief they gave you isn't good enough for you."

Jules anticipates an angry response from the black religious community over the billboard, especially given that the proposed boycott of the Fort Worth buses was organized in large part by black ministers. "When we did the 'Good Without God' campaign last year, I went down to the transit authority at the one hearing they allowed us to voice our opposition to the changes. And we saw nothing, really, but black ministers there. They threatened a boycott. They were aggravated, upset and angry. This is the irony of it all: a black ministers' boycott, that immediately evokes an image for most people of civil rights. What kept going through my mind was you have black ministers now saying to another minority, atheists, that they can't have a seat on the bus."

Jules acknowledged that "no one is going to boycott a billboard." But, he said, "we anticipate a little bit of a blow-back. They're going to be talking about it in churches." According to Zachary Moore, another DFWCoR member, he and Jules have already spoken with Dr. David Lane of the Marsalis Avenue Church of Christ. They're planning to hold an event at the church called the "Gospel of Doubt," featuring atheists from DFWCoR and Christians from Oak Cliff's black community.

Jules said they're hoping to have a dialogue about some of the famous humanist figures in black history. There are many: Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois, Frederick Douglass and Zora Neale Hurston among them. Douglass, Jules points out, once wrote, "Praying for freedom never did me any good til I started praying with my feet."

Debbie Goddard, African Americans For Humanism's national director, told us that out of all the cities where they're doing the campaign -- New York, L.A., D.C., Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas and Durham, N.C. -- they predict the biggest responses in Atlanta and Dallas. Already she's heard of local reps in several cities where the billboards are already up getting emails, "the kind that say, 'Jesus loves you whether or not you know it, and I hope you die.'"

A rep in Chicago got this response, from an apparent Dallasite, which Goddard sent on to us. It reads:

.WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU.I have looked at your web cite [sic] and your billboards in Dallas. Your black
Athiest Organizations make me sick. There is nothing worse than a bunch of
blacks supporting Gays and Lesbians.. You are infesting are cities with your
foolish beliefs! What is your reasoning behind your Athiest [sic] beliefs? It is
groups like yours that are screwing up lives
It's followed by the writer's phone number, and an invitation to "Call me if you wanna chat."

Finally, we called Reverend Tatum for his reaction; he's a Baptist minister who's also head of the Fort Worth chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was a central figure in the proposed Fort Worth bus boycott last year.

"I really don't have a reaction, to be honest with you," he told us. But he really did, as it turned out. "It's a sad indictment on the state of affairs for us as a community. We got major issues going on within our community that we need to address, and this is an unnecessary debate." He pointed to things like high incarceration and high teenage pregnancy rates in the black community, issues, as he put it, "that we could be working on that are more critical."

"When you rely on freethinking," Tatum said, "and you rely on your own individualism to make your decisions, you oftentimes make unrealistic and irrational decisions. It's irrational, in my thought process, for them to put those kinds of signs up," when they could be focusing on more pressing social problems.

"Do something. You know?" he added. "Don't say something. Do something. To just be able to get this kind of attention, not doing anything, just saying something, just saying, 'I'm a human and I don't believe in God ...'" He laughed and trailed off. "I'm a Baptist and I go to church every Sunday. Do I get this kinda coverage?"

"In essence," Tatum said, "What they're doing is they're really exploiting a season and a time when we should be honoring the works of many who have helped others out and over."

We had to ask: If the atheists offered some charitable help to the church-going, would they take it? Absolutely, Tatum replied.

"We have a garden over there that has about two, three thousand pounds of greens that need picking to give to the poor folk," he said. "Pick some greens. It's at 7510 John T. White Road. They pick those greens, we can take those over to Beautiful Feet, another ministry."

The reverend laughed. "We'll tell them, 'The devil might have picked it, but the good Lord sent it.'"


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31 comments
JDog_90305 (Confirmed Bachelor
JDog_90305 (Confirmed Bachelor

I'm not Atheist but it seems anti-Xian and anti-American to deny people their freedom of religion or non-religion.  The history of this country tells us that's why the British came to America in the first place, for that freedom.

Estevan Carlos Benson
Estevan Carlos Benson

Here's a simple way to summarize religious faith: 

I believe there is an invisible being who tells me what to do.  I speak to this invisible "being" regularly.  It understands me and helps me find my keys.

Question: Am I...

A) CrazyB) A theistC) Both

If you're answer is, "It depends" then that's the exactly problem with religion.

Guest
Guest

I am a Black female atheist who has not "come out" yet except to my children.  They don't care as they are not religious, especially the youngest.  Mr. Jules is right about the dating scene in the Black community when you do not have a belief system.  I am known for my compassion, generosity, courage and loyalty, yet if my friends knew I was an atheist, I'm not sure they would continue to associate with me.  They know I don't attend church and that I have "doubts" but I think they attribute that to my overall weirdness...lol  If my brothers and sisters knew I think they would collectively collapse and die on the spot so for now I'm sparing them that fate and just sticking to my standard line, "I don't go to church."

Texasdave60
Texasdave60

"I really don't have a reaction, to be honest with you," he told us. But he really did, as it turned out. "It's a sad indictment on the state of affairs for us as a community. We got major issues going on within our community that we need to address, and this is an unnecessary debate." He pointed to things like high incarceration and high teenage pregnancy rates in the black community, issues, as he put it, "that we could be working on that are more critical."

Well, Langston and Alix are still very much members of the black community, and I'm sure theyd be more than willing to assist you.  You're right, it's an unnecessary debate because it's not any of your GDamn business what anyone else believes.

PastorT
PastorT

>> "When you rely on freethinking," Tatum said, "and you rely on your own individualism to make your decisions, you oftentimes make unrealistic and irrational decisions." <<

Most American "religious" leaders say these kinds of things because THEY want to make all the decisions FOR you to serve THEIR OWN purposes.  That is not just irrational but IMMORAL!

Adam Martinez
Adam Martinez

I'd be happy to pick greens, just as I'm happy to volunteer at the Food Bank. But you won't get anyone to do anything when you already said you'll tell people the devil picked them for you. SMH!

Formerchristian
Formerchristian

And yet when Tatum is asked to partner with them publicly, i know he refuses. He's an opportunistic hustler.

Montemalone
Montemalone

Not being afflicted with the mental deficiency that requires a belief in an invisible sky fairy to discern the difference between right and wrong, I suppose I will never understand the argument that church is the answer to all our problems.We've had churches and religions for thousands of years, yet we still have bad people doing bad things, many inside these churches.I've got an idea, how about we try the next two thousand years religion free and see if things don't improve?

Chris Danger
Chris Danger

I've found the church-going African American community seems to be stuck in this continual loop of unacceptable of anyone who doesn't take their marching orders from the Right Rev. at the pulpit every Sunday, like white southern baptist from the mid 50s but much more militant and self-righteous in their behavior. Its a disservice to a community at large that has to live a lie because the church and their culture demands it.

Iwearblack
Iwearblack

"Don't say something. Do something." What? Like picket a Shamrock station or do the bidding of "our man downtown"? Pass...

Grammathel
Grammathel

Are you antimarriage?  And antiChristian is not spelled with an X!

Grammathel
Grammathel

I am sorry you aren't being truthful with your family.  My dear granddaughter and her husband consider themselves atheists.  It saddens me but that is THEIR choice!  I love them deeply and won't force my faith onto them.  But at Christmas and other family celebrations they will sit silently, and probably glance at each other, as a blessing is offered before we eat.  That is quite alright!  Athiests have a faith.  It is faith in NOT believing in Christian God and his son, Jesus Christ.  Again, that's quite alright for you.But athiest's choose to remove themselves from the dating scene of believers.  YOUR choice, Guest.  I wish you well in your life.  Be as happy as you can be lying or not sharing your NONfaith in God with them.

Tinsandwich
Tinsandwich

Well done for not feeling forced to believe in this nonsense. It's a shame you cannot be more open about it like the indoctrinated are - always shoving their views down our throats. Believe in good instead of god and you won't go far wrong. America is so religious. Hre in England we almost  consider church goers to be sort of wierd but if they are nice, let them get on with it.

Grammathel
Grammathel

Do YOU know Most American "religious" leaders personally!  You are speaking judgmentally.  Judge not, lest ye be not judged!  I feel your comment are more irrational and immoral than any others I have read.

RAD438
RAD438

Friend, your disbelief IS your religion.

RTGolden
RTGolden

I see you on here all the time, castigating the religious right because they won't accept you as you are.  And I often agree with you on that point, after all, "let he who is without sin cast the first stone" is one of the most basic elements of the christian foundation.

However, I've noticed you are just as closed-minded in your acceptance of others different than you.  I'm a believer, both in God and in the actual founding principles of this country.  I believe that people have a fundamental right to follow whatever beliefs brings them peace, as long as it doesn't involve subjugating others to that particular belief.  I don't think my belief counts as a mental deficiency, just as I don't think your lack of that same belief makes you in any way evil.

Ginsle
Ginsle

When is the last time you've been to a black church?

Montemalone
Montemalone

Don't you mean white southern baptists of the twentyteens? Miss Jeffress is still hurling her fire and brimstone against all the non-believers every Sunday. You can go see for yourself, but take your checkbook.

Albert
Albert

Blacks, enslaved by Jesus.

Hoo-boy.

Grammathel
Grammathel

And to you, Tinsandwich, I say: I force noone to believe my faith and try to shove my views down noone's throat.  My children, when they were young were required to attend church with me and my husband.  When they were grown and on their own, they made their own decisions.  One found his faith in another church and a second isn't interested in disciplining herself to not shopping on Sundays.  That is a big part of many Christian faiths.  The third of my three adult children, the oldest, attends church with me of her own volition. The main reason anyone of my neighbors know I have a religious faith is they see me leave for church meetings every Sunday at the same time, dressed modestly, carrying my scriptures and return the same.  AND, perhaps, they see me go visit my neighbors who live in my neighborhood who leave their homes at the same time as I and go to the same church building.  I am blessed in my beliefs and I hope you are happy with your unindoctrinated life.

f0rtylegz
f0rtylegz

Calling not-believing in invisible beings a religion is like calling not-collecting stamps a hobby.

Estevan Carlos Benson
Estevan Carlos Benson

A religion based on rationality?  Why that sounds much more attractive than invisible creatures and talking animals.  Sign me up!

Montemalone
Montemalone

I have no problem with difference, it's the hatred, bigotry, and hypocrisy that pisses me off.Religion is supposed to be this personal thing, but all too often the religious nuts want to impose their beliefs on the rest of us. They can't  be happy to live in a country that allows them the freedom to practice whatever religion they want, or none at all. And they ALWAYS blame everyone else for whatever is wrong at the moment.

William Weber
William Weber

There is truth to what you posted. Slaves were permitted to have their own church. White clergy had convinced them showing Bible passages that slavery was part of god's plan. Remember, the south used the Bible to justify slavery. After the civil war, black churches were already established.  They were sheilded from the freethought movement going on at that time. They never listened to Robert Ingersoll.

Montemalone
Montemalone

 Don't you have a lynching to get to?

Grammathel
Grammathel

A specific church doesn't make the faith, RTGolden.  A church becomes strong because of the believers.  AND because of the truths taught there.  I wish you well.  If your faith alone suffices, wonderful.  If not, find a group of those who believe as you do.  It will help your faith grow stronger.  Best wishes.

Grammathel
Grammathel

Poor Montemalone.  Sounds like he has reverse persecution beliefs he is accusing those of us who believe in and follow the teachings of Jesus Christ and his Father.  I don't want to FORCE you to believe anything, Montemalone.  That is your free choice.  BUT, the American people can't put up Christ in the manger displays on public property because your left wing black president and his wife aren't in favor of it.  But the atheist billboard can be displayed all year long?  I forgive your bias, Montemalone.  Do you forgive MY comments?

RTGolden
RTGolden

Ok, I can buy into that.  It's one of the reasons I believe, but I don't attend a church.

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