ORLANDO, Fla. — At funerals, Warren Hughes always finds a seat in the back where, when the preaching and praying begins, he can slip out discreetly. He doesn’t bow his head pretending to pray because he hasn’t believed in prayer, or God, since he was 30 years old.
“If I stay there and bow my head, I am sanctioning what they are doing. I don’t sanction it because I think it’s wrong,” said Hughes, who grew up in the Christian Science church. “I give no validity to mysticism at all.”
Warren Hughes is 79, and until a year ago, he had never met anyone like himself: a black atheist. In the atheists groups he has joined, he was often the only black person.
It’s been lonely, he said, but that is beginning to change. The number of blacks who identify as nonreligious increased from 6 percent in 1990 to 11 percent in 2008, according to a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
At the same time, blacks remain far more religious than most Americans. They have the highest percentage of church membership of any racial group — 87 percent — and the highest percentage of people who say they absolutely believe in God, Pew says.
This leaves black atheists in the no man’s land between the black community they grew up in and the predominantly white world of atheists, agnostics and nonbelievers.
“The black church is so much a part of black life, heritage and culture,” said Richard Peacock, who started the Black Nonbelievers of Metro Orlando in 2012. “It’s assumed that even if you aren’t going to church, it’s part of your DNA.”
The oldest institution in the black community, the church is the center of gravity for social, economic and political activities. Religion is discussed in the barbershops and beauty parlors, at the post office and city hall. Churches sponsor youth groups, health fairs, voter registration and assistance to the poor and the elderly.
In the black community, those who deny the existence of God are viewed as devil-possessed or deranged.
“You are seen as basically alien,” said Bridget Gaudette, a 34-year-old atheist who grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness. “You are confused. You are mentally ill.”
At the same time, black atheists find their race negated by white atheists who dismiss race as irrelevant, said Peacock, a 39-year-old English professor.
“They’ll tell you, ‘Don’t you know race is a social construct?’” he said.
Jack Maurice, head of the Orlando Freethinkers and Humanists, said his group welcomes members of all races and sees no reason for a group of black nonbelievers. Maurice has a hard time understanding why a black person would not feel comfortable in an organization of like-minded individuals.
“We are all nontheists. We are all critical thinkers. It’s no difference,” he said.
But there is a difference, black atheists argue.
“They don’t acknowledge that things are different in the black community,” Gaudette said. “The church is the center of the black community. It’s not just about religion. Everything happens there.”
Being black and renouncing religion revokes your membership in a community in which God, church, family, friends, neighbors and classmates are all intertwined, in which every event from slavery to segregation to civil rights involved the church.
Gaudette said she was rejected by her church, her family and her friends when at 22 she admitted she no longer believed the Bible to be the literal truth. Shunned by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, she hasn’t spoken to her parents in 12 years — other than a phone call every six months or so from her mother to see whether she’s ready to accept God back into her life.
“It’s torture to not have your family. My family is all I had, and to lose that is excruciating,” Gaudette said.
Peacock, who grew up in the African Episcopal Methodist Church, has an unspoken truce with his family when it comes to religion. At the dinner table, he bows his head in respect while others pray. At the other end of the table, his mother knows he’s faking it.
“She knows I’m not a believer,” Peacock says. “She knows I’m critical of religion, but she doesn’t scold me.”
Peacock’s group has about 35 members. Warren Hughes said he joined to provide the younger members with something he never had: a mentor.
“The main reason I joined the group is my concern about young people,” Hughes said. “I want to encourage them, provide them with the philosophical underpinning of why atheism is right and theism is wrong.”
And to let them know they are not alone, and never have been.