(RNS) – Dozens of non-religious women are gathering this weekend in Chicago for “Women of Color Beyond Belief” to discuss the effects of Christian nationalism and the overthrow of Roe and to present the voices of younger generations who reject more besides religion.
The conference, which began in 2019, comes as recent surveys show an explosion of Americans with no religious affiliation – up 10 percentage points in a decade. In 2021, nearly 3 in 10 Americans are unaffiliated (29%), up from 19% in 2011. Many are young people: About 35% of millennials are unaffiliated.
Commonly referred to as “none” (for their “none of the above” response to questions about their ties to religious communities), people with no religious affiliation cover a wide range of beliefs, including atheists, agnostics, humanists, and secularists. .
For Sikivu Hutchinson, atheist activist and main organizer of the conference, it is important to understand “what are the catalysts for this rejection (of organized religion) within the Gen Z communities?
RELATED: Poll: America is getting more secular every year
Secular and atheist spaces have long been largely white and male dominated. That leaves a lot of concerns out of the conversation, Hutchison said. She thinks it’s crucial to center women of color, especially black and Latino voices, and to give center stage to issues such as reproductive rights and what Hutchinson sees as an attack on LGBTQ rights, critical race theory and anti-racist education.
“Not everything can be centered on the separation of Church and State. It won’t work for people of color, especially women of color,” said Hutchinson, who founded Black Skeptics Los Angeles more than a decade ago.
As the data shows black and Latino no’s are on the rise, Hutchinson said they’re trying to “debunk those stereotypes about who the secular people are.”
Presented by the Los Angeles-based Black Skeptics Group, the Atlanta-based Black Noncross, and the Women’s Leadership Project of South LA, the theme for this year’s conference is “Hands Off Our Bodies!” underlining the collective’s commitment to reproductive rights and contraception.
Speakers include Charis Hoard, a secular activist who will lead a presentation on American religious extremism in public policy and society; Suandria Hall, a mental health counselor whose practice, My Choice My Power Counseling, focuses on life transitions and religious trauma; and Karina Quintanilla, who in 2020 was the first Latina elected to the city council of Palm Desert, a city in Riverside County in southern California.
RELATED: Study: Women with No Religion Experience Discrimination — When Seen at All
For Bridgett “Bria” Crutchfield, one of the main organizers of the meeting, the gathering serves as a lifeline for non-religious women in rural areas “where they do not have access to community services”.
“Being able to go out and commune and come together with like-minded women, it reaffirms that you’re not alone, because often times it’s a lonely journey,” Crutchfield said.
While the number of people with no religious affiliation is increasing, people of color in the United States are still more likely to be religious than white Americans. Data shows that 49% of white Americans said religion was very important in their lives, compared to 59% of Latinos and 75% of black Americans who said the same.
Crutchfield, who was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness and later began attending an apostolic Pentecostal church, left Christianity as an adult. She was stripped of a leadership position after questioning the financial structures of the church. She was also troubled by how her pastor called the death of a church member from breast cancer her “final healing.” Crutchfield wondered, “Are there levels of healing?” Crutchfield turned to the Bible after leaving the church, but found herself disagreeing with much of the scripture she read.
She sought out secular spaces when she began to embrace atheism. “I had a lot to learn,” she said. She ended up starting a group for minority atheists and eventually started the Detroit area branch of Black Noncross.
RELATED: 1 in 5 Latin Americans have no religion, according to the Latinx Humanist Alliance
These are the kinds of life experiences Belen Padilla, 19, a student at Scripps College in Southern California, is looking forward to hearing about at the conference. Padilla, a Mexican-American who identifies as gay and atheist, grew up in a Catholic household and said most of the atheists she knows are white. Padilla is a recipient of the Black Skeptics Scholarship Fund.
Padilla remembers using Google at a young age to ask, “Is it okay not to believe in God?”
For Padilla, being queer and atheist is seen as going against her culture. “It’s very difficult for people to understand where I come from,” she says.
Kaylin Nelson, 18, a student at the University of Central Florida, said getting to know others who didn’t grow up in a religious Christian home like hers ‘restored my faith in humanity’ . Nelson was sexually abused in church at a young age and said she saw “a lot of protection from abusers” as well as people “blaming it on God”. It pushed her away.
Nelson, who also received a scholarship from the Black Skeptics scholarship fund, is learning more about her secular identity and said participating in Women of Color Beyond Belief showed her “there’s a lot more out there.”
“It kind of inspired me to see that there are people who still believe in doing good, not in the name of God, but simply because it’s the right thing to do,” said Nelson said.
RELATED: Black skeptics find meaning in uplifting their community through social justice
Mandisa Thomas, who was not officially raised in any church, is one of them.
Thomas, the founder and president of Black Noncross, said she was raised with a secular outlook and was exposed to different religions such as Christianity and Islam. She was indoctrinated into the black consciousness community and learned early on about racism and injustice.
While Thomas saw herself primarily as spiritual and not religious, she began to better understand her identity as an atheistic humanist in her mid-thirties.
For Thomas, one of the main organizers of the conference, it is crucial as non-religious people of color to speak openly about Christian nationalism and reproductive justice because they are directly affected by these issues.
“We advocate an evidence-based approach to what we do in life. … Our view is that this is the world we live in. We have to make sure it’s a better place for ourselves and for future generations,” Thomas said.