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  • Antoine Simmons

"Who Told You That You Were Naked?"

According to the Pew Research Center, 83 percent of all African Americans surveyed believe in god with an absolute certainty. Compare that number to the 61 percent of surveyed whites who believe in god with an absolute certainty, and you have a significant difference between the races. This difference in the belief of god translates into higher religiosity, and is fairly consistent across categories. From the importance of religion in ones life, attendance at religious services, frequency of prayer, and frequency of the study of scriptures, African Americans consistently outpace whites. As I’m wont to do, I see statistics like these and I ask myself why? What’s behind this?

Many people who shun religion may point to the socioeconomic disparity between African Americans and Whites. That is, they may feel that those who have less, tend to be more religious. Unfortunately for them, the data doesn’t really reflect that. In fact, according to Pew there is very little difference at all in the certainty of the belief of god between households who make 30k, and households that make more than 100k. Moreover, there’s some evidence that would suggest that if you’re religious and have a high income, your likely to be even more religious. So that’s bunk. How about the assertion that it’s a source of comfort for a people who have consistently endured the hardships associated with living in a country that was designed to prosper from their enslavement and oppression? Well, there’s definitely evidence to support that notion. In fact, there’s strong evidence that individuals who practice religion tend to be happier and more satisfied with their lives. Having practiced religion for most of the earlier part of my life as a Jehovah’s Witness, I can certainly attest to the insulating effect that religious belief provides. Not only that, but it offers a full compliment of support and guidance from individuals who genuinely care about your well-being (for the most part). It’s like being wrapped in a warm blanket, and shielded from the perils of the world around you. For me, the comforting embrace of religion certainly offers an explanation for some of the disparity, but not all.

Anecdotally, it would seem that African Americans are more than happy to trace a great many elements of their current existence to slavery, yet few seem to be willing to examine their religiosity through the same lens. But make no mistake, religion—like many aspects of the African American existence—is deeply rooted in the slave experience. African slaves, when brought to the shores of foreign lands, carried with them the traditions and beliefs of their native lands. This did not include Christianity. The African slave worshipped the spirits (Orisha) of their ancestors, which were rooted in the curiosity of existence. What I mean by that is, African religiosity—like many ancient religions—were affixed to the land, the weather, interpersonal relationships, inexplicable events, and most importantly, health. Each element of life was controlled by a spirit, or many spirits. The religiosity of the African was not codified in writing or books, but in traditions and rituals that were passed down from generation to generation. There was no central god, or gods. This belief system still exists today in many disparate forms throughout the African diaspora in the forms of Vodou, Santeria, Regla de Ocha, and others.

How then, does the enslaved African go from the belief in the Orisha, to the belief in Christianity? The same way the enslaved African adopted any number of behaviors: at the whim of their masters. The early Christian missionaries consistently viewed native peoples as savages with heathen ways who needed to be liberated from their ignorance of god (which is a mandate of the Bible). Their ways were inherently wrong in the eyes of god (again, taught by the Bible), and had to be corrected. God (made famous by the Bible) is a selfish god, and requires exclusive fealty. There is no room for other beliefs. With this foundational mandate, the slave masters systematically removed the religion of the enslaved African. How you ask? Through violence of course! Practicing the religion of their ancestors was strictly forbidden for African slaves, and was punishable by death. Having removed their native religiosity, the enslaved African was force-fed Christianity. In fact, for many years in much of the antebellum south, the only book that could legally be taught to enslaved Africans was the Bible (it was illegal to teach slaves how to read anything but the Bible). While many enslaved Africans still engaged in the rituals of their ancestors (that’s how Vodou, Santeria, Regla de Ochoa etc., came to be), many wholly adopted the ways of their masters, and shunned the beliefs of their people. This of course, cannot fully explain the disparity in the engagement with religion between whites and African Americans in this country, but it's interesting no?

In all likelihood the root cause of the disparity in religiosity between African Americans is highly complex and nuanced. It's probably rooted in some combination of the real social and psychological benefits of religion for a people wholly oppressed, the systematic removal and demonization of their native beliefs, and a whole slew of other psychosocial factors. Whatever the reason—at least for me—if we’re going to question all of the many ways in which slavery in the United States has created inequality between African Americans and Whites, why not this?

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