My name is Ken Granderson. I was born in New York City in 1963, and grew up in a blue-collar household. Like most Black Americans, I grew up in a religious background surrounded by both very religious and very sincere adults.
I have no negative experiences to speak of from my days growing up in the church. The church I attended tended was very moderate and the biggest thing that we kids had to worry about was strict older church ladies.
And it is safe to say that I’ve been a Humanist my entire life – long before I ever learned the word.
For those not familiar with the word, a Humanist is basically an atheist who takes strong moral stances on things, or for whom morality is a clear and present factor in the thoughts and actions in their daily lives.
Just as you can be a member of almost any religion and be an incredibly benevolent person or a criminal, be in any political philosophy or party, being an atheist likewise says nothing about who you are as a person.
You can be an atheist and be one of America’s top philanthropists like Warren Buffet, Bill Gates and George Soros, and you can be an atheist and be a selfish or horrible person like Ayn Rand or Joseph Stalin. By itself, being an atheist is not a defining personal characteristic. As a popular saying goes, it’s nothing more than ‘believing in one less God than most other people.’
When I reflect on my childhood, I have said that ‘I learned to question before I learned to believe,’ and as a child I recall asking questions that the adults could not answer, and which sometimes got me into trouble.
First in high school, and later in college, I had opportunities to study the histories of the texts of the Torah, a couple of Christian Biblical canons, and several other contemporaneous and precedent texts, as well as some of the socio-political events of the times and places areas connected to the books. This solidified my understandings of the Judeo-Christian texts as how I imagine many religious people view the sacred texts of religions unfamiliar to them.
Many years later, I would learn from others that rigorous study is a common way that many religiously-raised folk became secular, and studies like the Pew Religious Knowledge Survey (https://www.pewforum.org/2019/07/23/what-americans-know-about-religion/) consistently show that Jews, atheists and agnostics are the most informed about religion, and Black Protestants are the very least or next to the least informed.
Being a Black Humanist has always been something that separated me from most of my peers. In college in the early 1980s, I never feigned religiosity, although almost all of my friends professed and / or practiced Christianity.
Fast forwarding to the late 00’s, when I started to encounter other Black atheists and Humanists online, I remember traveling from Boston all the way to Washington, DC for a for a gathering of other Black American Humanists. That’s how hard it was to find ‘folks’ in that time frame.
In the past few years, due to increases in the numbers of Black atheists and Humanists, I’ve noticed that I no longer have concerns about surprise uncomfortable conversations about ‘what church do you attend,’ and far fewer situations where in casual conversation, people make opinionated, authoritative statements about reality based on their religious beliefs which, by your silence often would imply that you agreed with them.
The paradox is that in general, the vast majority of the atheists and Humanists I know would prefer to not have it be part of their identity at all, any more than the fact that I happen to not be a stamp collector, and I’m not really interested in my non-stamp collecting be how I am viewed in society.
However, most secular folk I know feel a need to affiliate with others due to the frequent micro-aggressions we face from religious folks who assume that we share their beliefs (and rarely leave it alone after we politely inform them that we happen to not share their beliefs), and (for those in America) the constant reminders from the state that Christianity is the de facto state religion with our public prayers, religious statements on our money, statements in courthouses, et cetera.
(Here’s a fun thought experiment for Christians who question my ‘de facto state religion’ statement – imagine that everywhere you see or hear ‘God’ in government events, buildings and currency, instead it was ‘Allah,’ and you’ll get a sense of how it can feel.)
I am at a place in my professional life where I am starting to speak out more as an Unapologetically Black Technologist, and having spent my entire life as a Black Humanist without any real role models, understanding how important representation is, I have asked myself how much of a stand do I want to take (or not) as being a Black Humanist.
You see, my entire career as an Unapologetically Black Technologist, where since the 1990s, I have put urban communities and a Caribbean government online, as well as created the first online searchable Black History Encyclopedia, is driven by my personal belief that I have a solemn duty to use my skills to leave things better than the way that I found them.
This stance is based on my Humanism, as I take the position that there are no supernatural beings listening or coming to intervene in our affairs, and there is no ‘universe’ that responds to our ‘thoughts and prayers,’ so our successes or failures are primarily going to be based on what we do (or not).
To quote one of my favorite sayings which I first heard many years ago:
“If it is to be, it is up to me.”
I view the progress or failure of the human race as something that is not ‘pre-destined’ or ‘written’ anywhere, but is the Effect of the various Causes we humans put into motion by our actions, and I view the ability to ‘Be the Change I Wish to See in the World’ as both an opportunity as well as a duty.
I have recently joined the Board of Directors of the Harvard and MIT Humanist Chaplaincy, which serves the non-religious student bodies of Harvard and MIT, and in that role, I’m looking to inspire public conversations around ethics that are not just outside of any specific religious perspective, but purposely engage people from different religious perspectives to demonstrate how strongly many of us agree about many things regardless of our creeds (or lack thereof).
So, I am working on a series of conversations I call “Ethics Across Beliefs” that will engage people of different religious faiths to share their perspectives on ethics and various areas of life like technology, business, social equity, climate change, politics and so on, with the Humanist acting as the impassionate arbiter who has no “dog in anyone’s fight.”
I believe this is important because outside of religious instruction and college level philosophy classes, very few people ever get the chance to engage in conversations regarding ethics and engage in questions like:
“What are the pros and cons of how we carry ourselves in this world?”
“How should we decide what we should or should not do in business and politics?”
“How should our personal beliefs impact what we do professionally?”
I believe that questions like these are vital for us to discuss, and to share answers across our various belief systems, so that we can identify areas of strong agreement and work together towards shared outcomes that we desire, regardless of our belief systems.
And while “Ethics Across Beliefs” surely touch on, but will not primarily focus on, issues of race, class and ethnicity, I am hopeful that leading them as an open Black Humanist will make it ‘safer’ for other Black Humanists to be more comfortable about letting others know that they are good people too, despite “believing in one less God than most other people.”
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- Entrepreneurship as a Black Humanist – by Ken Granderson - December 10, 2021