Are Black People Too Religious?

African Americans are too religious. For that matter, of course, any religious person is too religious. But even for the tastes of mainstream, religious America, black people are too religious. The religiosity of the black population has often been praised and admired by religious leaders, and religious institutions have formed the anchors for many black communities, and incubated generations of black leaders. At the same time, however, this tendency toward the spiritual has constituted a major element in the negative image of blacks, and now stands to hamper the development of African America in almost every area. One reason for this is that black religious traditions and institutions are held in less high regard than their white counterparts. That is hardly any surprise. Members of any religious group generally tend to discount the validity of other religions - it's usually part of the doctrine. In the case of black people in America, however, the religious experience is seemingly judged by whites to be so "over the top" that it violates the solemnity and inscrutability that in the European tradition separates true religion from false beliefs. In the European tradition, people in true communion with God are transcendetally peaceful, whereas people who are possessed of the devil are energetic and lively. Joe Knows GodMainstream African American religious tradition, in its often raucous celebration of religious zeal, violates European sensibilities. Black religious devotion has not been held as being sacred in the same sense that European belief is. Such is obvious in the media where earlier this century the humorous portrayal of African American religious ceremonies was almost a comedy cliché. How often in that era was fun poked at white services? Black religion has been often viewed as less than its white counterpart and the African American as not devout so much as ignorant and superstitious.

But what does it matter what whites think of black religion? All aspects of African American culture (if one can, for sake of argument, define such a thing) have, at one time or another, been vilified. While white criticism of black religious belief is certainly motivated largely by racism, and ignores the fact that black religious practice is more like European practice than unlike it, nevertheless there could be some validity to these indictments of black faith. Could there be a large element of superstition?

Who is to define religion as opposed to superstition? There is no clear line. This obvious truth is reflected in the fact that, although rarely stated in such a manner, most believers regard superstition as other people's religion. Black people have often been viewed as practicing some "primitive" form of Christianity heavily tinged with "superstition." At black churches, religious services are commonly conducted with an extra helping of moaning, chants, and, in certain sects, writhing about on the floor. Not that white churchgoers themselves do not occasionally display such spirit-filled antics, but in the collective mind of the American public black people seem to be the champions of being overcome by their religion. In the battle of reason versus ignorance the perception is that among blacks, reason often comes out the loser. Such a conclusion, of course, ignores the abundant mumbo-jumbo factor of European religious practice, but trying to determine who's religion is more reasonable would be like arguing over the relative merits of Batman and Spiderman. It seems clear that much of society has formed an opinion of black religions as being in some way inferior, while at the same time perceiving blacks as being more devoted to their religion and spirituality. This enhanced sense of spirituality, however, extends well beyond the domain of mainstream white religious belief in both directions. On the one hand blacks are viewed in the classic Stepin Fetchit mold, being so dim-witted that they are befuddled to the point of terror at the mere suggestion of the supernatural, and even the mention of a ghost is enough to send the largest black man diving under the nearest bed. At the other extreme blacks are depicted as masters of the occult, with unearthly abilities to bring supernatural forces under their control. Black people are imagined to have a special ability to commune with the spirits and invoke occult forces. Voodoo is viewed as not much more than a black version of the popular conception of witchcraft, that conception itself being a gross distortion of reality. The Salem witch hunt began with the suspicion that a black woman was calling upon malevolent spirits, and the media still present the image of the extra-sensory black person, as in the movie Ghost.

The perceptions of black people as stupid and uneducated is inextricably linked to their image as excessively religious. It is certainly true that less educated people are frequently more religious, and to the extent that educational opportunities for the African American community have been less than the population in general, it is hardly surprising the blacks should be, on average, more religious. But other factors are at work, as well.

The story of how the church came to assume such a prominent position in the black community is well known. Religious leadership came to the fore primarily by default. Certain arguments may be made about the role of religious leaders in traditional African societies, but virtually all other means of organization and community action were foreclosed for many years. Black political action was effectively stifled, especially in the South, until just a few decades ago. Black economic development and the formation of a viable presence within the business community faced similar restrictions. Black professionals were often few in number and shut out from the networks that provided their white counterparts with political clout. The black church was present in the community often as the sole focus for meeting and organization. The image of black people gathered together in churches remains, to this day, a relatively benign tableau in the American psyche, combining elements of safe, traditional values and non-threatening social impotence. High rates of church attendance in black communities is the legacy of this dominance of religious institutions. The ascendancy of the church is a pathological aberration, the result the same forces that have brought about epidemic unemployment and drug usage. As an adaptation to the blatant racism of previous years, it has obviously outlived its socio-economic function. Any defense of the value of the black churches is directly impugned by the crime and suffering outside their doors every day.

As a manifestation of the oppression of black people in America, reliance on religion and similar patterns of irrational thinking can be addressed in much the same manner as the problems of employment and drug abuse. Emphasis has to be placed upon the provision of education and economic opportunities. But this should be a priority for all persons regardless of ethnicity. The burden of religious hucksterism can only be removed from poor people's backs through the removal of the impediments which lead them to seek these miracle cures. Lenin pretty much had it right with that remark about religion being "the opium of the people." You can't stay on that kind of medicine forever.

Copyright 1998 by Patrick Inniss.  All rights reserved.

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