As a trained theologian with degrees from the Howard School of Divinity and Wesley Theological Seminary, Verdell A. Wright is an atheist who knows the Bible well. In fact, while he enjoyed pursuing his theological education, he often found churches somewhat intellectually stifling. As he once remarked, “Depending on what church you’re going to, a good semester of seminary, and you know more than a lot of pastors!” Verdell also retains the ability to recognize healthy religion, however, and he once observed, “You can still be a believer and get rid of a whole lot of the unhealthy things that we believe about ourselves and others that we get from church, to be frank.”
Verdell’s own journey to openly embracing atheism, and to acceptance of his sexuality as a gay man, has been a complex one. He is a thoughtful and insightful thinker, and I was delighted when he agreed to do an Ex-Evangelical Conversations interview examining issues of race, religion, and unbelief in light of both his knowledge and his lived experience for Not Your Mission Field. In addition, Verdell gives us a glmpse into his current thinking and plans. Read on for details.
Chrissy Stroop: Verdell, could you please tell us a bit about your journey to embracing atheism? What were the most important considerations that led you to that point? Were there any factors holding you back?
Verdell Wright: I refer to my loss of divine faith as a pilot light blowing out. You know, that flame on a gas stove that enables you to light the bigger flame. Events in my life, my own failing health, the ugliness of the current political moment, racism, and so many unanswered questions about God’s working in the world just blew it out.
When I reflect back on it all, I was headed in that direction anyway. My questions about the lack of God’s clear and obvious working in the world were leading me down this road, as well as my own healing from trauma. In reality, my journey was about embracing and coming to terms with the fact that I no longer believed. I had so much invested into being a Christian. I had two graduate theological degrees, I preached, I had my connections and networks. I also thought that there was a way to relight that flame. I soon realized there wasn’t and embraced the fact that I no longer believed.
Understanding that my being a Christian was largely because of trauma—I was taught that my hard childhood was proof of God’s calling on my life—I realized that it was best to let go of those efforts and find out what it was like to be my own person and create a life that makes sense for me. Losing connections and friends held me back for a bit. It wasn’t too long ago that I lost relationships around coming out [as a gay man–C.S.] and I didn’t want to repeat that. And it’s still been quite challenging. But ultimately, I realized being true to myself was more important than maintaining a facade of belief.
CS: I’d also like to ask you to unpack some, if you will, what it’s like being an African-American atheist. I’m often critical of the most visible and vocal elements in atheist spaces, those who participate in what we might call movement atheism or the atheist community, which has proven to be riddled with racism and sexism. I eventually wrote an essay about these issues and the reasons I prefer to call myself a non-religious agnostic. Of course, I don’t consider anything about my self-identification to be prescriptive for others. Do you engage with movement atheism, and if so, how? Do you believe that the atheist community that currently exists can become more inclusive of women and people of color? If not, do you think that new inclusive secular spaces and a new sort of non-religious community can or should be built?
VW: It’s challenging because I feel caught between two rough spots. I’m a theologically trained, formerly progressive Christian, Black, same gender loving atheist. So on the one hand, I have to discuss and defend non-belief as not being inherently white. On the other hand, I have to challenge racist and anti-black ideas about Black religiosity. I find that I’m dancing between those two realities. And while it’s tiring at times, I think it’s necessary to be fair and authentic to my experiences and the experiences of my people.
Black non-belief didn’t emerge from exposure to white ideas. It emerged as a response to racist treatment in America. Black people then and today have complicated relationships with faith, even as the dominant narrative is that we’re all Christian, or at least very spiritual. At the same time, Black religious spaces have been vital for safety, organizing, and cultural formation even while being deeply homophobic, sexist, and a whole list of negative things.
I haven’t engaged fully with movement atheism yet. If I had to label myself, I’d call myself a humanist and an absurdist with dashes of Buddhism and Stoicism for flavor. Since most people don’t even know what those are, I simply say that I’m a non-believer as a way to spark conversation. It’s a goal of mine to create culturally specific ways for Black people to engage in healing from religion. I think that more Black people need to to craft the environments for more of our folks to engage in these realities.
CS: Are there any particular readings you could recommend to readers of Not Your Mission Field with respect to the history of both the Black Church and Black unbelief?
VW: I’d recommend Anthony Pinn’s work, especially the edited work By These Hands. Pinn connects the dots of Black unbelief in a way that highlights Black intellectual work while holding critiques of theism. Also, Is God A White Racist? by William R. Jones. Jones’ work really impacted me, and I wish I was exposed to it while learning about Black Theology, especially since critiques of Black Theology aren’t often elevated in the spaces I used to frequent.
CS: You’ve said on a number of occasions that being religious was a choice you were allowed to make for yourself growing up, and that your parents allowed you to ask questions. Did this ultimately make it easier for you to come to a place of self-acceptance as a gay man, even though you still spent some time committed to the conservative Christian idea (if I’ve understood you correctly) that gay people must be celibate?
VW: In some ways yes. But in hindsight I was still steeped in many Christian ideas. I thought me being a preacher was inevitable. I basically believed that Christianity was the “right” way, albeit in a passive way. Christianity guided a lot of my ideas and choices, even my eventual decision to “get saved” as we say in college. Because I wasn’t steeped in church like many other people, I think I had leeway to think outside of the box in some ways. However, I was a passively conservative charismatic Christian for the majority of my 20s, even as I began to learn other options.
CS: You were featured recently in Linda Kay Klein’s book Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free. As Linda has also been featured in these Ex-Evangelical Conversations interviews, I wanted to ask whether you’ve had a chance to read her book, and, if so, what your thoughts on it are?
VW: I’ve known Linda for a few years now, and I appreciate that she made an effort to reach out to me and others to hear about Black Christians’ experience with these ideas. I wish more people did the same. Me and a few other Black, progressive believers were talking about these issues online very early on, but most of us didn’t receive much credit or even exposure as a result. That’s been typical of popular Christian movements, unfortunately. With that said, I think it will be up to Black people to present their experiences. I’d love to write or curate one of the books to make that happen.
CS: The exvangelical community and movement has sometimes been criticized for remaining too White-centered. While the demographics of right-wing evangelicalism itself would seem to dictate that a substantial majority of exvies will be White, I consider it very important for white exvies to take criticisms of racial blind spots and insensitivity from POC seriously, and to work harder to be inclusive of POC exvies. What is your assessment of this situation? And do you have any suggestions for how the exvangelical community can work on decentering whiteness?
VW: In my years of experience in the Christian world, I consistently find that much if not all progressive, emergent, even radical thinking about the faith is also rooted in the experience of White people. I don’t find that to be automatically evil; I don’t expect White people to understand every nuance of Black experience or to be able to speak to it. I do, however, think there needs to be more conversation about what religious freedom and health look like for Black people. There are cultural distinctions that make the situation more challenging for us. Black people don’t even use the word evangelical to generally describe themselves (even though many of us align theologically with evangelicals in every way). I would like to see people use their power and connections to make that happen. Invite us on your podcasts. Get our perspectives. And if you listen to us, really do what we suggest.
CS: Can you give us some examples of the kind of thinking you’re currently doing on how to create more inclusive and/or Black-centered spaces for reckoning with the complex legacies of religion and loss of belief?
VW: I’ve been a little quiet on the internet in regards to belief and faith. I’m going to ramp that up again. I also want to do more writing about these topics. In short, I want to see more Black people discussing their experiences with religion and how they navigate the issues that arise because of it.
CS: Is there anything else you’d like to say to readers of Not Your Mission Field?
VW: Black people have a complicated history with Christian faith. It’s better to learn from us than assume you know what’s going on.