Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Aug/10

21

Why Obama is likely to be privately irreligious

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The heritability of religiosity is modest in the American environment. In some environments, such as Saudi Arabia, a normal range in variation in religiosity obviously can not express itself. But under more relaxed conditions it seems that around half of the variation in religiosity in the population can be traced to variation in genes; in other words, the trait value runs in families. Obama’s father was born a Muslim, but was an avowed atheist. I couldn’t find survey data from Kenya, but I did find some from Tanzania. According to the World Values Survey 8 out of 1171 respondents did not believe in God in Tanzania. The equivalent figure for the United States was 51 out of 1200. And his mother, from what we can tell, was also an atheist. The United States and Kenya are not, and were not, Saudi Arabia, but neither were they Sweden or Japan. Though one had license to be an atheist, it was certainly culturally atypical, and all the pressures would have gone in the other direction. From this I conclude that Barack H. Obama lacked a natural disposition toward supernatural belief.


Which is where environment steps in. From what I know of his biography (far less than most I assume) he did not receive any push toward religion until he began to consider his future in black urban politics. For historic reasons that African American church is the core institution within that ethnic community, maintaining a line of continuity even to the antebellum period. The relationship of black Americans to their churches is perhaps analogous to Greeks to Greek Orthodoxy. A Greek may not be very religious, but to be Greek is to be Greek Orthodox. Contrast this with a Korean ethnic identity, which can entail a host of religious or irreligious orientations. The analogy between blacks and Greeks breaks down insofar as black religion is sectarian and highly fractured, resembling the competitive marketplace common among white evangelicals. This even includes black Islam, which despite a recent move toward orthodoxy, originally resembled black Christianity far more than conventional Islam. One can perceive the black attraction to a particular style of religion in the fact that they are underrepresented in American Buddhism, except in Soka Gakkai, an “evangelical” Japanese Buddhist sect (a black Congressman from Georgia, Hank Johnson is a member).

Barack H. Obama started out with the biological “raw material” of being black in America. But from what we can tell he had to learn and socialize to be a black American during adulthood. An almost necessary constituent of being black in America is a relationship with a prophetic, evangelical and revivalist religious culture. Even if one is irreligious personally, this is the religious culture which one grows up in, and is familiar with. Obama, being raised in a white secular household did not experience this firsthand, so he could not afford to remain detached from religion as an adult. I can not speak to the sincerity or opportunism of Obama in accepting conversion into the Christian community, but one can not deny that the event lay at the nexus of disparate personal tensions, between his familial heritage and upbringing, which was extremely secular compared to the norm, and what was necessary to become a part of black America, a identity which is imbued with a religious tinge.

Finally, one must address the reality that most secular people do not view all higher superstitions as standing on equal ground. I had a Dutch friend who was an atheist who once explained to me how much more superstitious Roman Catholicism was than Calvinism. He was naturally from a Calvinist cultural background. Similarly, atheists from a Roman Catholic background on occasion will give the church its philosophical due in relation to the rank emotionality and blind faith which they perceive to be the bread & butter of evangelical Protestantism. The Protestants may respond that at least they read the Bible which Catholics also claim to believe in! At even a further remove, Edward Said was from an Arab Protestant background, but was an avowed atheist as an adult. Despite that he would assert that Islam was his civilization! This is I think analogous to atheist Jews who retain a strong identification with the religious culture of Judaism. So I suppose we can wonder where Obama’s heart is. I suspect that despite his lack of belief in the truth claims of black Christianity, he identifies with it on a moderate level as an expression of black nationalism with which he is not without sympathy toward, but balanced against this is a cosmopolitan respect for religion as a generality, from his sister’s philosophical Buddhism to Islam.

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13 comments

  • Rich Rostrom · August 21, 2010 at 11:52 pm

    The history of “black Islam” in the U.S. is a bit complex. The “Nation of Islam” was founded as a pseudo-Islamic cult, with doctrines that any conventional Moslem would find horrifically blasphemous, such as the divinity of Wallace Fard.

    After the death of Elijah Muhammad, there was a schism in the NoI. His son Wallace, who had repudiated these peculiar doctrines in favor of orthodox Islam, succeeded him. Wallace also dropped the anti-white aspects, and changed the name to the American Society of Muslims.

    Louis Farrakhan then re-founded the “Nation of Islam” under his own leadership, with all the old rhetoric. The NoI also went back to Elijah Muhammad’s practice of Sunday services (rather than Friday), with celebrants sitting in chairs or pews rather than prostrate in Moslem fashion.

    Farrakhan’s anti-white message continues to appeal, and Wallace Muhammad made a show of public reconciliation with Farrakhan in 2000. Wallace is now dead; I don’t know if the ASoM even exists as functioning organization.

  • Kele · August 22, 2010 at 12:32 am

    For some reason, I had no idea that Obama’s parents were atheists. I don’t remember it coming up at all during the election season. Is that from his autobiography (never read) or some other source?

  • Stephen · August 22, 2010 at 3:10 am

    Since Obama grew up (partly) in Indonesia, I suspect he is like Edward Said and identifies with Islam. That would make his Christianity more of a political decision.

  • Author comment by David Hume · August 22, 2010 at 3:18 am

    Since Obama grew up (partly) in Indonesia, I suspect he is like Edward Said and identifies with Islam. That would make his Christianity more of a political decision.

    the said analogy is somewhat weak because said was an arab with a deep connection to arab nationalism, who grew up in the arab world. obama by contrast was a cosmopolitan transient, and shows no deep specific interest in indonesian history from what i can tell (e.g., has he commented on the transition from sukarno to suharto?). also, the arab connection to islam, no matter one’s specific religion, is rather sui generis. the indonesian connection to islam is weaker for various reasons.

  • Author comment by David Hume · August 22, 2010 at 3:20 am

    re: said vs. obama. to be clear, i think that a difference would be that said had a somewhat precise identity re: islam. obama obviously doesn’t, even if he is pro-islamic.

  • Author comment by David Hume · August 22, 2010 at 3:21 am

    kele, the sources are obama for his father, and obama + a variety of people (including his sister) for his mother. just look up their entries in wikipedia and you can find the specific cites.

  • Stephen · August 22, 2010 at 10:32 am

    “obama by contrast was a cosmopolitan transient, and shows no deep specific interest in indonesian history from what i can tell (e.g., has he commented on the transition from sukarno to suharto?).”

    I don’t believe an opinion on Indonesia’s political history is relevant, as I am trying to point out a cultural affinity. Obama has mentioned hearing the Muslim call to prayer as a child, and (I think) he attended a Madrassa in Indonesia. So, the only religious culture Obama experienced as a child was Islamic. I doubt his exposure to Christianity as an adult would override his memories.

  • Author comment by David Hume · August 22, 2010 at 5:31 pm

    stephen, fair enough. though your model indicates he is only vaguely “like said” :-) (whose relationship with islam was very different as he grew up in an explicitly internationalist protestant arab environment).

  • cynthia curran · August 22, 2010 at 11:27 pm

    I agree Obama’s religion is more of the social gospel and bending over backwards to be religous tolerant of minority religions in the us even if like Islam they are not that tolerant in moslem countries. Rev Wright believe that the anicent Romans and the modern US opress black people, even if the Roman Empire did not have Sudan or Africa south of that. Wright knows little anicent history.

  • Author comment by David Hume · August 22, 2010 at 11:51 pm

    Rev Wright believe that the anicent Romans and the modern US opress black people, even if the Roman Empire did not have Sudan or Africa south of that. Wright knows little anicent history.

    i think most black americans believe/assume that roman africa and egypt was inhabited by black people. the educated class (such as wright) may know this is false, but it may have to pander to it. it is basically a truism among black americans i think that hannibal was black for example.

  • Stephen · August 23, 2010 at 1:43 am

    ‘stephen, fair enough. though your model indicates he is only vaguely “like said”’

    Agreed. Actually, my only disagreement with your post was the line “I suspect that despite his lack of belief in the truth claims of black Christianity, he identifies with it on a moderate level…”. My argument is that Obama might have a very mild affinity towards Islam, and his Christianity is simply political.

    Aside from that minor point I appreciated your post, as it helped me in puzzling out Obama’s religiosity, or lack thereof.

  • Mercer · August 25, 2010 at 12:58 am

    Obama worked with churches when he was an organizer and that is when he met Wright. Not being a member of a church was awkward for him when dealing with ministers. This is several years before he ran for office.

    His first book expresses his desire to be part of the black American community. Being a Christian was part of blacks identity just like listening to soul music and playing basketball.

  • RandyB · August 25, 2010 at 1:34 am

    Barack Obama is a citizen of the world, who thinks all religions are more the same than different.

    Unfortunately, he thinks the same thing about nations, and wants to turn the USA into a combination of Mexico and Nigeria.

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