Written by Adam Coleman
The emergence of the New Atheists was not the beginning of sorrows. Dawkins and friends are but a newer addition to a narrative that had its inception long before now. In many ways this narrative was shaped during Europe’s Enlightenment period. It was during this era that thinkers were emboldened to use their pens and printing presses to drive a wedge between Faith and Reason.
Since the Enlightenment period until today, the divergence between faith and reason has broadened to the degree that they are not seen as being merely incongruent but rather rabidly antithetical to one another—so says the atheist community. The seeds planted by the likes of David Hume have produced a harvest of vicious skepticism and anti-theism in our time. While this has certainly presented the Christian apologetics community with a foe worth fighting, I suggest to the reader there is another enemy at the gates, albeit a less familiar one. The Enlightenment produced the continual scrimmage of Faith versus Reason; however, among people of African descent who find themselves in the Western world, there is a different feud that can be characterized as Faith versus Identity— or better stated the Christian faith versus African ethnic identity.
A New Danger Arises
Prior to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, people groups on the African continent appealed to a variety of factors in the development of personal and ethnocultural identity. These factors would have included family lineage, clan affiliation, tribe, markings on the skin, physical build, language, traditions, religious practices, etc. These factors provided a basis for differentiating between people groups in Africa and afforded individuals a context for their self-concept. Unlike the modern Westernized concept of “race,” skin color was less central as a means of differentiating between people groups. The notion of being “black” or being “African” as a unifying characteristic would have been foreign to those who found themselves in chains on their way to the “New World.” Likewise, the indigenous African slave-traders who sold these individuals into that barbarous enterprise would not have seen them as being their “black” or “African” brethren.
Upon arriving in the New World, Africans found themselves in a situation wherein their productivity was valued above their personhood—people were made cattle. Ensnared in a web of economics and conquest, African slaves were stripped of some of the basic elements of humanity. In his autobiography, former slave, John Jacobs lamented:
“To be a man, and not to be a man—a father without authority, a husband and no protector—is the darkest of fates.”
In some ways the logistics and laws that undergirded the slave economy set the stage for a protracted disruption of ethnocultural identity development. At slave auctions, for example, a far too frequent occurrence was the separation of families — the preservation of family systems not being a priority for slave traders. Africans were often condemned to live and labor in places where others of the same predicament may have shared little in common aside from their chains and relative hue. Furthermore, the “Slave Codes” that were instituted to, among other things, curtail the possibility of collusion and revolt effectively limited opportunities for slaves to engage in the types of activities that facilitate cultural transmission from generation to generation. Common examples of this were Slave Codes that prohibited gathering, freedom of religious practice, and educating slaves.
We must also consider how throughout the Transatlantic slave era there were new ideas coming to the forefront related to the re-categorizing and ranking of people groups. Scientists and other academics advanced a number of theories wherein phenotypical traits such as skin color, bone structure, and size of the head were used as a means of elevating one people group over another; the pinnacle of which were European. With Africans seen as being at the lowest end of the human totem pole, this concept of ranking people by “race” was used as justification for the continued subjugation of “black” people (Smedley, 1995). In similar fashion, liberal progressive ideas regarding population control that targeted black populations in the early 1900s still plague the black community today.
Thus, via the Transatlantic Slave Trade, we find that Africans entered a milieu that was adverse to the continuity of their personhood, self-concept, and ethnocultural identity. In being taken from their original context, Africans were removed from the natural network of factors from which they had developed personal and ethnic identity as well as differentiated themselves from other people groups. In addition, Africans found themselves faced with challenges to ethnocultural identity development that arose due to the Slave Laws and general processes of the slave trade.
Thirdly, African slaves were subjected to the imposition of a racial identity that was foreign to them yet convenient for the oppressive labor system. The centerpiece of this new identity was a skin deep understanding of identity and value. Volumes could be written on the myriad of ways in which the descendants of African slaves have tried to reconstruct or reclaim the facet of their identity that was wrenched away—that lost “Africanicity.” From the black is beautiful movement and Blacksploitation movies of the ‘60s and ‘70s to the Afro-centric themes that are prevalent in the hip-hop culture, people of African descent in Western society have made fragmented attempts reaching inward and backward to regain what was lost. In doing so, there is often an unspoken sentiment that one must cast off anything that is “European” and take on that which is “African”—the supposed true self.
“The White Man’s Religion”
This brings me to the principal issue. As it pertains to people of African descent engaging in religion/spirituality, the thirst for lost identity often harbors with it a side-effect that seems to be increasingly problematic. In the shedding of what is perceived to be European, Christianity is often considered to be on the wrong side of the ledger. There seems to be a burgeoning problem in the black community: People are coming to the erroneous conclusion that Christianity is “The White Man’s Religion” and thus there is incompatibility between being black and being a Christian. As a result, many people of African descent are sadly either leaving the Christian faith or being hardened in their hearts toward receiving the gospel of Christ.
The perception that there is some sort of “Uncle Tomness” to being both black and Christian has driven many people of African descent into the arms of other belief systems that are thought to be more in line with African heritage. In times past the Louis Farrakhans of the world would say something along the lines of, “Christianity is the white man’s religion so you need to join the Nation of Islam.”
This argument has since become more nuanced: objectors allege that Christianity is the white man’s religion so blacks need to join either the Nation of Islam, Hebrew Israelites, Moorish Scientists, Egyptian/Kemetic Spiritualists, African spiritualists, or be an atheist. A concoction of apostasy, Afro-centrism, alternative religions, and a hint of pan-Africanist ideology is offered as the antidote for having betrayed one’s African ancestors in taking on the slave-master’s religion—Christianity.
The Consciousness Movement
Loosely speaking, people who hold to these “pro-black” religions and ideologies often associate themselves with the disjointed Afrocentric sub-culture referred to as the Consciousness Community or Consciousness Movement. In this context the term “consciousness” alludes to the process wherein a person of African descent awakens to their true African/indigenous self.
In the social media world one may see variations of the phrase or hashtag, “stay woke.” This phrase is used in two senses and encapsulates what the Consciousness community/movement is all about: Awakening to one’s true African/Indigenous self, and secondly, having an awareness of what one believes to be the efforts of a racist system opposing African/Indigenous people.
Generally, amongst people of the Consciousness Community it is taken at face value that white slave masters imposed Christianity upon the slaves to keep them in line. It is primarily on that basis, Christianity is deemed to be the white man’s religion. Nothing more than a shackle that is to be shaken off as one returns to their ethnic roots. For people who are susceptible to this brand of falsehood there is no shortage of chatrooms, websites, consciousness community semi-celebrities, and books filled with psuedo-scholarship to satiate their appetite for anything that affirms their “true selves.”
Under the Radar
The mainstream Christian apologetics community is largely unaware of this undercurrent in the black community. As we have concentrated on the most apparent threat to the Christian worldview in the West−−The New Atheism−−this other challenge to the faith has flown under the radar. For that reason my hope is that this article would be as alarming as it is informative.
There are questions and objections to the Christian faith that are of particular concern to people of African descent. For the non-believer, this issue of reconciling their ethnic identity with the Christian faith is many times an insurmountable barrier; preventing their hardened hearts from considering the gospel of Jesus Christ. For many believers, who happen to be of African descent, the balancing act of holding onto the faith while being true to their ethnic heritage is like having a pebble in their shoe. It presents a nagging concern that remains with them as they walk with God.
I am bringing attention to this in an attempt to shed light on the fact that this identity issue among people of African descent is a real obstacle to spreading the gospel and is presently causing many to turn away from Christ. My hope is the Christian apologetics community will recognize there is a need to broaden our focus and invest in providing a polemic that neutralizes the deception of there being incompatibility between being of African descent and being Christian. There is a real need here and through Christ we are well able to meet that need.
My next article explores the Consciousness Community in further detail and provides a general description of this movement, cursory review of the major groups within the movement, and recommendations as to how the church can respond to the challenges at hand. Of course, it would be impossible to give a comprehensive breakdown of the entire movement in one article. I do, however, hope to supply the reader with a starting point to engage the objections to Christianity in circulation within the black community.
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Nunn, N. (2007). The long-term effects of Africa’s slave trades (No. w13367). National Bureau of Economic Research.
Smedley, A. (1995) “Race” and the Construction of Human Identity.
 Smedley, “Race” and the Construction of Human Identity.
 Tadman, M. (1989). Speculators and Slaves: Masters. Traders, and Slaves in the Old South (Madison, 1989), 218.
 Jacobs, J. S. (2003, 1863). A True Tale of Slavery. Academic Affairs Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
 Patterson, O. (1982). Slavery and social death. Harvard University Press.
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 Tadman, Speculators and Slaves: Masters. Traders, and Slaves in the Old South
 Patterson, Slavery and social death Tadman, Speculators and Slaves: Masters. Traders, and Slaves in the Old South
 Smedley, “Race” and the Construction of Human Identity.
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Mphande, L. (2006). Naming and linguistic Africanisms in African American culture. In Selected proceedings of the 35th annual conference on African linguistics (pp. 104-113). Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Proceedings Project.