How W. E. B. Du Bois Helped Pioneer African American Humanist Thought
On January 10, 1956, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote a letter to his good friend, fellow Marxist, and literary executor Herbert Aptheker that briefly explored his notions on the existence of “Absolute Truth” and his faith in human beings’ ability to use science and reason to change the world. Du Bois noted that he gave up the search for absolute truth at a fairly young age because he did not think current research methods would provide a fruitful means to apprehend it, thus causing him to turn toward scientific hypothesis as a means of approximating truth as much as possible.
When beginning his well-known sociological studies at Atlanta University in the early twentieth century, Du Bois “began to count and classify the facts concerning the American Negro and the way to his betterment through human action. I assumed that human beings could alter and re-direct the course of events so as to better human conditions.” Du Bois recognized that the environment, inheritance, and natural law would always limit human agency, but he nevertheless retained his faith in humanity. He “did not rule out the possibility of some God also influencing and directing human action and natural law.” Du Bois responded, however, that he “saw no evidence of such divine guidance. I did see evidence of the decisive action of human beings.”
In these few lines, W. E. B. Du Bois articulates some of the central themes of African American humanism, a system of thought that has recently gained many more adherents but that has been present in the United States since the mid-nineteenth century. While there is no hard-and-fast definition of African American humanism, there are a number of basic principles it includes. First, African American humanists believe that human beings are responsible for their own condition and for changing the world. This belief squares well with Du Bois’s statement that he saw no evidence of God influencing human life but saw plenty of evidence that human beings had done so. Second is a claim that human beings have evolved over time from lower life forms and constitute an intrinsic part of the natural world. African American humanists also share an appreciation for Black culture, a responsibility to help better the world, and optimism that such change is possible. Many if not most African American humanists are nonbelievers, and such was the case with Du Bois, who had already become an agnostic by the time he started his position at Atlanta University in 1897.
Despite Du Bois’s many professions of disbelief and harsh criticism of Black and white Christianity for decades, many scholars have downplayed his religious skepticism. Manning Marable, for example, argued that Du Bois “was simultaneously an agnostic and Anglican, a staunch critic of religious dogma and a passionate convert to the black version of Christianity.” This is despite the fact that Du Bois wrote in 1938 that the Black church “has built up a body of dogma and fairy tale, fantastic fables of sin and salvation, impossible creeds and impossible demands for ignorant unquestioning belief and obedience.”
These words hardly sound like those of a “passionate convert” to the old-time religion, but Marable nevertheless insisted that Du Bois’s commitment to Blacks meant that he could never fully reject African American Christianity. Edward Blum refers to Du Bois as a prophet and one of the central African American spiritual figures of the twentieth century, someone who prefigured both liberation and womanist theology by decades. Du Bois’s use of religious language, sociological studies of Black religion, knowledge of the Bible, and periodic involvement with religious institutions, according to Blum, clearly demonstrate a level of religiosity that other scholars have either ignored or dismissed.
African American humanists such as Du Bois laid the foundations for one of the most significant streams of twentieth-century Black thought and culture.
Many scholars have of course recognized and discussed Du Bois’s religious skepticism, including David Levering Lewis, Phil Zuckerman, and Brian L. Johnson, but none place Du Bois’s thought within the context of a broader African American humanist movement, nor do they explore at any length the connection between his religious skepticism and political radicalism. This essay attempts to broaden the scholarly understanding of Du Bois and religion by doing exactly those two things. I argue that becoming and being a humanist and a freethinker were central components of Du Bois’s identity and ones that significantly influenced his political ideology and activity.
Just as scholars often point to an individual’s conversion to a particular religion as a critical moment in their lives and one that informs much if not most of their worldview, so too did Du Bois’s “conversion” to secular humanism influence the course of his life in significant ways, especially his acceptance of Marxism later in his career. In embracing humanism, Du Bois became part of a growing movement of Black artists, intellectuals, and political activists, including figures such as Louise Thompson Patterson, Hubert Harrison, and Harry Haywood, that denied the existence of God, an afterlife, and other central teachings of American Christianity. By rejecting the supernatural, embracing human potential, and working to transform their world through science and reason, African American humanists such as Du Bois laid the foundations for one of the most significant streams of twentieth-century Black thought and culture.
Du Bois’s humanism represents another central component of his conception of freedom. Numerous essays in this volume discuss Du Bois’s political thought, as does this chapter. But this piece also argues that Du Bois’s embrace of communism was closely tied to his agnosticism. His critiques of both white and Black Christianity and his dogged nonbelief in God throughout his life represent another aspect of “freedom of soul” and “freedom of thought” that he believed were crucial to the Black freedom struggle. While Du Bois certainly demonstrated ambivalence toward Black Christianity and a nuanced perspective on religion in general, as Phillip Luke Sinitiere’s essay points out, sometimes praising its potential and other times condemning religion’s ties to racism, the main thrust of his personal writings on the topic situate him squarely in the ranks of twentieth-century Black freethinkers.
Before he enrolled in college, Du Bois adhered to the theological tenets of the First Congregational Church, the congregation he attended in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. David Levering Lewis notes that during his teenage years, his beliefs “were superficially orthodox and anchored in the rigorous Calvinism of New England Congregationalism.” This Calvinism posited that humans were sinners by nature, sinners were doomed to spend eternity in hell, salvation came only through faith in Jesus, and the Bible should be interpreted literally. Had Du Bois grown up in the same town one hundred years earlier, he likely would have also believed in predestination, which held that humans could do nothing to influence their spiritual fate.
Indeed, Du Bois did seemingly subscribe to a different aspect of predestination, namely that of the Elect, the small percentage of the world that God deemed worthy of salvation. On a practical level, church attendance represented an opportunity for Du Bois to practice and show off his Greek language skills and to demonstrate his facility with biblical interpretation during Sunday school. While he eventually abandoned his adherence to Calvinism, Lewis argues that it continued to influence Du Bois throughout his life, although it became secularized. Instead of salvation coming from faith in God, it would come from the social sciences. Damnation awaited all those who lived morally dissolute lives or wasted their talents, and the Elect transformed into the Talented Tenth for Du Bois, at least early in his career.
In 1885, Du Bois began attending college at Fisk University and in short order threw off the religiosity of his youth to embrace secularism. This embrace started not because of revelations in science or philosophy courses, as would be the case with later Black freethinkers, but because of what he saw to be the religious hypocrisy of those around him. Du Bois joined the college church and even began teaching Sunday school. He soon gave up this latter endeavor, however, after a dispute with an older student named “Pop” Miller. Pop was an official in the school’s Congregational Church and he had Du Bois and other students brought up on charges for dancing. These charges were astonishing to Du Bois, who had danced all his life, and represent the differences between northern and southern variants of Congregationalism. What made Du Bois even more incensed was that the teachers admitted to him that his dancing may be innocent but still disciplined him because of the negative example it might set. During the dispute, Du Bois notes, “the teachers intervened and tried to reconcile matters in a way which for years made me resentful and led to my eventual refusal to join a religious organization.”
Du Bois was also put off by the school’s attempt to enforce Christian orthodoxy by making all students read George Frederick Wright’s The Logic of ChristianEvidences. Wright, an amateur geologist and historian, worked as a professor of New Testament language and literature at Oberlin Theological Seminary while Du Bois was a student at Fisk. Administrators there hoped that reading Wright’s text would bolster religious orthodoxy among the students. For Du Bois, it had the opposite effect. He notes that The Logic of Christian Evidences, which presented standard ideas such as God’s rulership of the world, Christ’s love, and punishment for sinners, “affronted my logic” and “was to my mind, then and since, a cheap piece of special pleading.” So just at the time when many young men and women were becoming strengthened in their faith, Du Bois began to move away from his. The situation with Pop Miller and being forced to imbibe Wright’s ideas set Du Bois on “an intellectual journey that would end, after a very short time, in serene agnosticism,” according to David Levering Lewis.
Du Bois’s path toward secular humanism continued after he left Fisk University. Within short order he threw off his faith in God and replaced it with a faith in humanity. As he noted in the foreword to Reverdy Ransom’s The Negro, theHope or the Despair of Christianity, “I have little faith that Christianity can settle the race problem, but I have abiding faith in men.” This faith in men began to flower during the 1890s. Du Bois graduated from Harvard College in 1890 with a bachelor of arts in philosophy and then traveled to Germany in 1892 to work on his doctorate. It was in Germany, Du Bois states, that he “became a freethinker.”
So just what did freethought mean to him? It certainly wasn’t participating in polemical wars with Christians as prominent freethinkers of the time such as Robert Ingersoll engaged in. Nor was it writing for freethought periodicals such as the Truth Seeker. Du Bois’s freethought was somewhat public but not as open as many self-professed atheists and agnostics. In 1894, for example, Du Bois accepted a teaching position at the Methodist school Wilberforce University where he refused to lead students in prayer and refused to participate in religious revivals. He notes of his time there that “it took a great deal of explaining to the board of bishops why a professor at Wilberforce should not be able at all times and sundry to address God in extemporaneous prayer.” He believed that the only thing that prevented him from getting fired was the fact that his hiring had been widely advertised and that he possessed an extraordinary work ethic, as he regularly taught five classes a semester while pursuing his research. Indeed, by the mid-1890s, Du Bois had come to believe that in his work ethic “lay whatever salvation I have achieved.” His humanist perspective thus informed both his semipublic stances on religion as well as his private beliefs.
After a brief stint at the University of Pennsylvania and a fifteen-year stint teaching at Atlanta University, Du Bois moved to New York City to work for the NAACP and in short order launched The Crisis, a magazine that historian Brian Johnson refers to as Du Bois’s “agnostic pulpit.” The Crisis was to be a monthly periodical performing multiple functions: reporting on issues around the world relevant to African Americans, reviewing new and significant works of literature, publishing articles on race relations in the United States and globally, and advocating for civil and human rights for African Americans.
The magazine was also an outgrowth of his early notion of the Talented Tenth, or his belief that a small cadre of Black intellectual elites bore the responsibility for improving the fortunes of the race. His idea of the Talented Tenth, which he largely abandoned after becoming a communist later in life, likely drew from his Calvinist background but was a secular philosophy that argued education, manners, morality, refinement, and culture were necessary for any leadership class. Du Bois felt that these qualities were lacking in Black leadership of the time, which consisted primarily of ministers. So, The Crisis would become his “agnostic pulpit” and his tool for “disseminating a newfangled version of reform for the African American community that would not be grounded in unknowable dogma but in knowable scientific study.”
Du Bois’s evolving humanist perspective was on full display when, in 1912, he published a scathing indictment of the Black Church in The Crisis. He started his piece “The Negro Church” softly, noting that Black churches had instilled morals, strengthened family life, provided opportunity for community, and even contributed to success in business. The tone of the piece quickly became negative, however. He argued that Black religious leaders were by and large uneducated and immoral. “The paths and the higher places are choked with pretentious, ill-trained men,” he posited. “And in far too many cases with men dishonest and otherwise immoral. Such men make the walk of upright and business-like candidates for power extremely difficult. They put an undue premium upon finesse and personal influence.”
Harkening back to his college days at Fisk University and his punishment for dancing, Du Bois also decried the fact that Black churches were “still inveighing against dancing and theatergoing, still blaming educated people for objecting to silly and empty sermons, boasting and noise.” To top it off, in his view, was churches’ practice of raising exorbitant sums of money for new church buildings while many Black people in the country remained homeless or in need of school buildings.
Du Bois’s denunciations of Black religious leaders might lead one to believe he saw no place for religion or religious institutions, but that was not the case. Rather than advocating for Black people simply to abandon their faith or their churches, Du Bois called for reform, demonstrating his complex engagement with Black religion that would characterize his life. He argued that Black churches needed to begin addressing their problems by electing honest and upright leaders and incorporating more positive educational and social uplift programs.
He likewise urged Black religious institutions to stop trying to compel religious orthodoxy and to focus less on belief and more on behavior. For him, effective Black churches would be ones that bent “every effort to make the Negro church a place where colored men and women of education and energy can work for the best things regardless of their belief or disbelief in unimportant dogmas and ancient outwork creeds.” The Black church, then, would be an institution open to including people like him who had no faith in God but did have faith in men and a desire to improve human life in this world.
Rather than advocating for Black people simply to abandon their faith or their churches, Du Bois called for reform.
Du Bois’s humanist perspective was informed by his views of the Black church as well as his views of American Christianity writ large. In his 1913 article “The Church and the Negro,” Du Bois argued that from the founding of the nation, white Christian churches “aided and abetted the Negro slave trade” by justifying slavery on the grounds that it would bring the gospel to Africans. He likewise stated that “the church was the bulwark of American slavery; and the church today is the strongest seat of racial and color prejudice.”
His comments here are reminiscent of the nineteenth-century freethinker Frederick Douglass’s critiques of white Christianity in the well-known speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” There Douglass had similarly posited, “The church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes side with the oppressors. It has made itself the bulwark of American slavery, and the shield of American slavehunters.” It is hard to believe that Du Bois had not read Douglass, and it appears that Du Bois adopted, nearly wholesale, Douglass’s perspective on American Christianity. He ended the piece by noting that wherever Black people fought for civil and economic rights, “the church gaily tosses him stones for bread.”
Du Bois’s animus for American Christianity seemed to grow stronger with each passing year and cemented his secular humanist perspective. In a 1929 essay for The Crisis entitled “The Color Line and the Church” he built on and extended many of the critiques from his 1913 article. Du Bois began by referencing the fact that one Reverend Blackshear of the Episcopalian Church in Brooklyn was in the process of kicking Blacks out of his congregation, a practice that Du Bois notes had been standard in the nation for 250 years. This situation led Du Bois to conclude that “the American Church of Christ is Jim Crowed from top to bottom. No other institution in America is built as thoroughly or more absolutely on the color line.” The dilemma that American churches faced, in Du Bois’s estimation, was whether they would be worldly institutions that reinforced economic disenfranchisement and racism, or whether they would live up to their claims to divine inspiration and try to undermine social injustices.
For Du Bois, it was clear that the majority of American religious institutions were choosing the former. This was especially true of white churches. “When the church meets the Negro problem,” Du Bois proclaimed, “it writes itself down as a deliberate hypocrite and systematic liar. It does not say ‘Come unto me all ye that labor’; it does not ‘love its neighbor as itself ’; it does not welcome ‘Jew and Gentile, barbarian, Scythian, bond and free’; and yet it openly and blatantly professes all this.” Demonstrating his deep knowledge of scripture, despite his skepticism of its veracity, Du Bois decries the hypocrisy of white churches and the fact that “the church had opposed every great modern and social reform,” including the labor movement, universal education, women’s rights, the spread of democracy, and abolitionism.
Along with his own critiques of religion, Du Bois opened up the pages of The Crisis to other humanists and freethinkers desirous of a venue in which to air their thoughts on Christianity. One contributor to the magazine was the skeptic Franz Boas, an anthropologist at Columbia University, who served as a mentor to another significant Black freethinker of the era, Zora Neale Hurston. Boas’s colleague at Columbia University, John Dewey, likewise contributed to the magazine, an inclusion that was significant because he was widely recognized as a leading humanist during the 1920s and an individual who “completely discards all supernatural forces and entities and regards mind as an instrument of survival and adaptation developed in the long process of evolution,” according to the humanist and philosopher Corliss Lamont. Another skeptic and anthropologist at Columbia University who wrote for The Crisis was Livingston Farrand, as did Clarence Darrow, the famous lawyer from the 1926 Scopes Trial that dealt with the teaching of evolution in schools. Darrow’s presence in The Crisis, along with Du Bois’s own public critiques of religion, served to scandalize many people in the Black community and led to angry letters written to the magazine.
In more than twenty years editing The Crisis, Du Bois demonstrated his contempt for American Christianity and his growing commitment to secular humanism. The magazine became his outlet for what were at times incredibly harsh denunciations of both Black and white Christianity. Of the former, he argued that the church was too focused on enforcing right belief and restricting harmless behaviors such as dancing and theatergoing. And his views on the latter were that white churches were profoundly racist and unlikely to reform themselves any time soon. As an advocate of science, Du Bois believed in Darwinian evolution and invited skeptics who believed in it as well to write pieces for The Crisis. Lastly, the magazine became an outlet for a new generation of Black freethinkers to share their work, including writers and artists such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. Du Bois left his position as editor of the magazine in 1933 and his positions on religion and politics would become even more radical over the next few decades.