Black Freethinkers Face Unique Set of Challenges

Vlogger says Christianity left too many unanswered questions

African Americans have the highest church attendance among all ethnic groups in America. According to a Pew survey, 94 percent of Black Americans regularly attend church. But that might be changing. A Pew survey showed that young African Americans are less frequent church attendees than their parents’ generation. But African American freethinkers face a unique set of challenges since the church is often the center point of the community. Africans are even more religious than Black Americans. So, what does it mean for young Black people who are non-believers? “Omo Igbo the Agnostic,” is one such person. She vlogs about this topic on YouTube. This is my conversation with her.

Otiko: Can you tell me about your ethnic background?

Omo Igbo: Both my parents are Nigerian Igbos from southeast Nigeria. My dad is from Rivers state and my mom is from Abia state. My dad came over to the U.S. in 1981 or ’82 to attend college. My mom came over in 1988 or ’89 to join him. They settled down in the Twin Cities (Minnesota) where they had my four siblings and I. I grew up in a smallish, predominantly-white suburb in Minnesota but we had a strong Igbo cultural community across the Twin Cities, which was nice.

Otiko: When did you first start having doubts about Christianity?

Omo Igbo: In earnest, it was around age 19 when I was attending college in Los Angeles, Calif. Prior to that, I don’t know if I ever thought about officially dropping that label. I don’t think I knew I could back then. It just felt like something I was by birth rather than a choice I had made. I remember journaling during my freshman year of college, trying to make sense of the pain and suffering I saw all around me.

Not all pain was part of a plan, from what I was seeing. I remember having a lot of questions about the logistics of prayer as a kid. Why do we have to close our eyes and bow our heads? Why do I have to say it out loud? Can’t God hear my thoughts? Why does God need blood to wash away sin? Can’t he change the rules? Jonah and the whale? Come on. Little questions here and there. I felt like I didn’t understand it all, but I figured I would understand… eventually. Maybe the holy spirit just hadn’t found me yet. I didn’t expect that I’d become an atheist. That never occurred to me. By the time I was in middle school and into high school, I think I had firmly decided my mom’s level of belief in the spiritual world was excessive. I wasn’t convinced that reading Harry Potter would introduce demonic spirits into my life. I didn’t question the whole Christian deal until a little later in my life.

Otiko: Were you ever in the “atheist closet?”

Omo Igbo: I kind of still am! It seems weird because I have a whole YouTube channel talking about atheism…but most people in my life don’t know that I’m an atheist. My immediate family only just found out last year. When I first decided religion wasn’t for me, I didn’t talk to anyone about it. I had zero people to talk to about it. The most I said about it was when a Christian friend had confronted me during a “prayer walk” around Griffith Park in L.A. during my sophomore year of college. I was not taking it seriously and she asked me if I wanted to work on this, that is my relationship with Christ or something, and I said “no” — without hesitation. It was the first time I can remember verbally saying “no” to religion. So, I guess I was kinda in the closet then, but I didn’t think of myself as an atheist at that point in my life.

I’m not sure if it’s because I’m Black or Nigerian or what but no one has ever asked me if I’m religious or not. They will talk about Jesus, God, the bible, etc., assuming I’m one of them. People who know my family assume I believe like they do. My coworkers don’t ask about it. A handful of my very close friends know. There have been times when I could have corrected people or spoken my mind honestly about an issue that pertained to religion, but I punked out. I am trying to stop doing that. I am at a point in my life where I’d rather have judgmental people sever ties with me if they chose to than having to continue pretending. So, I promised myself I won’t hide it anymore but like I said, people don’t inquire about my beliefs. I might start wearing a shirt that says, “I’m an atheist,” just to be out, out, out, out (haha.)

Otiko: I have noticed from some of your YouTube videos that you seem to be a very logical, scientific thinker. Did that play a role in your deconversion?

Omo Igbo: Aww, thanks! I can only speculate. Maybe? I like answers and I like answers that make sense. The answers provided by religion don’t make sense to me. I’m rarely satisfied with vague answers. I keep digging and digging until I find understanding. I think many people give up before they reach that point because it’s mentally exhausting to keep digging for truth. But I don’t know how to turn off that part of my brain that keeps asking “how?” and “why?” When I stopped believing in Christianity, I had to replace the system I used to determine truth. I was duped once, and I don’t want that to happen again. So, I think I’m in general, very cautious about what I accept as truth now and I have the mental stamina to make that a lifestyle.

Otiko: How did your parents react to you declaring that you are an atheist?

Omo Igbo: Ah, well that’s still ongoing. My mom initially acted like she was unphased. She thought she could correct this situation quickly with a little prayer and explaining to me that agnosticism had occultic origins. When I pushed back and stood my ground she was enraged. She was enraged because she felt I was deliberately choosing darkness which would obviously lead to demons following me to her house. She’s terrified of what the devil will use me to do to her and her family. Then she was terrified for me. She still is. She is terrified of hell and doesn’t want me to end up there. I get it. She believes this stuff with every fiber of her being. In her mind, I’m 100 percent going to burn in a lake of fire for eternity if she can’t talk some sense into me. I feel bad that I can’t make that fear go away without also lying to her about my beliefs.

I can’t downplay the value of the hope the doctrine provided during slavery, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights era, and even today. It provides emotional comfort and a community. I get it. But then I think about some of the mega-churches and the piles of money they collect from Black people. Money that doesn’t always benefit the community. I think that’s definitely a negative impact, the financial drain. I know in Africa it’s even worse. Some of these pastors need to be arrested for what they are doing to people. — Omo Igbo

My dad actually was much more chill about it. He was never into my mom’s version of Christianity and he refused to attend her churches when I was growing up. I think had he been raised in a different time and place he might have ended up more like me. He’s much more inclined to let people live their lives however they want as long as they are not hurting anyone. He did question me a bit, but he hears what I’m saying more about humans not really knowing what they are talking about when it comes to a spiritual world. He wasn’t angry and he doesn’t talk about hellfire. I don’t think he even knows if he believes that.

God is much more personal to him. He just thinks it’s easier to go with the flow (fit into your culture) and believe in God just in case. He doesn’t understand why I’d go out of my way to declare atheism when I could just… not think about it so much. Plus, if I just stick to what we know I could end up in heaven. If he’s worried about it, he hasn’t said anything to me. I think he trusts my judgment more. My mom thinks I’m possessed by a demon.

Otiko: Was there a final straw that decided to make you walk away from Christianity?

Omoigbo: Two straws. I was a sophomore in college and I had taken two classes that changed everything. The first was a philosophy class. That was the first time I had to think about how I determine truth. In one class I remember we were trying to make an argument for God. I have an “A” student mentality, so there I was thinking I was about to kill it and come up with a great answer. Turns out…I could not prove my point. I might have been able to brush that off and call it “grammar” like some Nigerians do. So, what if I couldn’t explain it the right way? I could still believe it if I wanted to, right?

The second class was a religion class. We compared the Quran, Torah and Bible across several themes. One question I remember the professor asking was, “How do you know the snake in the garden is Satan?” I had NEVER thought about questioning that. I learned so much through examining the texts. We had to write a final paper at the end of the semester and I chose Satan. I don’t know why. I might have felt I had the most to say on that theme. Through that paper, I had to learn about the context, make sense of the similarities and differences between the three texts, and then come to some sort of conclusion. My conclusion was basically. Damn…what I thought I knew was incorrect. I couldn’t go back to believing what I used to believe about Satan and hell now knowing this new information and also knowing I couldn’t make an argument for God. I had no reason to hold on to that belief so I let it go.

Otiko: Do you think it’s more difficult for African Americans/Africans to walk away from Christianity?

Omo Igbo: A little. I know those cultures, in the U.S. at least, are the most Christian out of any other racial group. The church and religion is SO prominent in African American and many African cultures. It’s a huge part of their identity. From birth onwards, we are thoroughly indoctrinated in Christian beliefs and most people don’t question it. Why would they go against their community identity? No one wants to be an outcast. To be an atheist within those cultures might mean a person loses their community. That has real emotional and even financial consequences. Some people may even find themselves in physical danger for deconverting. So, I imagine even if a black person has doubts about Christianity, they’re less likely to be vocal for fear of social ostracization.

But I think they are just as capable of arriving at the same beliefs as I did. They might just have less opportunities to challenge their beliefs because their circles are tighter and more Christian than for other folks. Maybe. I don’t know. I got out as soon as I could so I’m not sure what’s stopping others if not a fear of social consequences.

Otiko: Do you see an increasing number of young Black people becoming free thinkers?

Omo Igbo: That’s what I’ve heard. A few Pew studies I think have found that to be true. I wasn’t really checking for Black freethinkers until I started this YouTube channel though. I haven’t met any other Black nonbelievers in person yet. Online I’ve been getting a steady flow of comments from other Black nonbelievers. I see many videos about Black people pushing back on religion and encouraging young people to leave the church. I see “spiritual” more on Bumble BFF (haha.) All signs that the conversations are happening among black people. I’m hopeful more will join the free-thinking side.

Otiko: Have you experienced any downsides from walking away from the church?

Omo Igbo: Not really. I wasn’t a huge church person even before I deconverted. I hated waking up early, dressing up, and going to sit for hours in a too cold or too hot room. Sometimes the singing was okay but everything else felt so long and boring. I don’t like people preaching at me! It’s not my thing. I also didn’t have close friendships through my church after we left my first church when I was 7 or 8. So I wasn’t losing anything when I stopped physically going to church, except for free food, I guess.

Otiko: What are the upsides of no longer being affiliated with the church?

Omo Igbo: Beside not having this additional life obligation to fulfill? I guess, freedom of thought. The church often limits rather than encourages free thought. I get to create my own personal values, meaning, and purpose. I enjoy that process. I accept life for what it is more now. I’m not always praying for the next thing I think will make my life better. I work for what I want and enjoy the life I have because it’s the only life I know exists. I’ve given myself permission to experience as much of this life as possible while I’m here. Guilt free and judgment-free.

Otiko: Do you think the church had a positive or negative impact on Black people?

Omo Igbo: I am not even sure. I’d have to do some more digging. Probably both, though. I can’t downplay the value of the hope the doctrine provided during slavery, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights era, and even today. It provides emotional comfort and a community. I get it. But then I think about some of the mega-churches and the piles of money they collect from Black people. Money that doesn’t always benefit the community. I think that’s definitely a negative impact, the financial drain. I know in Africa it’s even worse. Some of these pastors need to be arrested for what they are doing to people. I think the church has failed Black people just as much as it’s provided something good to them but isn’t that religion in general?

Manny Otiko writes about race, politics and sports. He has been published in Salon and LA Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @mannyotiko.

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