An overwhelming majority of Black Americans who describe themselves as nonreligious say they nonetheless believe in God or a higher power and pray for spiritual guidance at least a few times each month.
Religious surveys have long shown that Black Americans are more likely than U.S. adults at large to either believe in God or to describe a specific religion as “very important” in their lives. But a newly published Pew Research Center study of faith among Black Americans reveals that even religiously unaffiliated Black Americans have a strong spiritual connection to prayer and a belief in a higher power. One Black church leader told Newsweek that African Americans who identify today as atheist, agnostic or nonreligious are inextricably linked to a deep, ancestral belief in a “most high God.”
The in-depth survey of 8,660 Black Americans found that 94 percent of Black adults who described their religious affiliation as “nothing in particular” still say they believe in God or a higher power. Sixty-percent of respondents who said they don’t identify with a specific religion noted they pray at least a few times each month.
Nonreligious Black adults were more likely than their Protestant or atheist counterparts to say they believe that praying to one’s ancestors can protect them from harm. And only a tiny 3 percent of Black Americans described themselves as “atheist” or “agnostic.” By comparison, about 26 percent of Americans from among all racial and ethnic groups describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.
The Chicago-based president of the National Black Evangelical Association, the Reverend Walter McCray, told Newsweek Tuesday that these statistics are a reflection of someone’s African ancestry and the Black church’s longtime role as a place of community.
McCray noted that “the idea of atheism did not come out of Africa,” in contrast to the largely European and Asian roots of atheism.
“Africans, people of African descent, believe by and large in the most high God,” he said. “Whether you’re dealing with Africans who were Hebrew, Israelites or Africans who were Christians—or Africans who were Muslim or Africans who were into traditional religion—[they] by and large believe in the most high God.”
In addition to a strong monotheistic belief originating in Africa, McCray told Newsweek that Black Americans today feel an intrinsic, spiritual connection to prayer that stems from the Black church’s central role in African American communities. Black Americans in the survey were far more likely than white adults to believe that prayers to ancestors have protective power and that evil spirits can cause problems in a person’s day-to-day life.
“The church was the hub at certain points in history for everything that went on in the Black community,” McCray said, noting that all financial, communal or church meetings to this day frequently begin and end in a prayer. McCray suggested that Black Americans are very open to joining others in prayer, whether they are strangers, friends, family or co-workers.
“Everybody agrees the Black church was one place that provided community for Black people in slavery and its aftermath. It was in churches of African Americans that we were free and had control, without outside control of whites in our Black church. Ipso facto, everybody who was a party of this African American community was a part of the church,” McCray added.
Overall, about 97 percent of Black adults in the Pew study said they believe in God or a higher power, compared with about 10 percent among all U.S. adults.