Churchgoing Agnostic

Churchgoing Agnostic
July 15
Curious African-American male seeking truth, rethinking Jesus and questioning "God" while living in the Bible Belt.


MARCH 18, 2009 4:28PM

The Free Thoughts of Zora Neale Hurston

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Zora Neale Hurston 

Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960)

A few months ago, I picked up a copy of African-American Humanism: An Anthology (1991) edited by Norm R. Allen Jr. It is a fascinating collection of essays and works written by some famous (and some lesser-known) Black humanists, rationalists and free-thinkers such as Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois, Frederick Douglas, Melvin Tolson, Hubert Harrison, Joel Augustus Rogers, Richard Wright and Emmanuel Kofi Mensah.

In this anthology, renowned humanist Norm Allen Jr. hoped to counter the popular modern perception of the Black religious community being the primary proponent of significant social change from the turn of the century until the Civil Rights Era by showcasing the significant contributions of Black free-thinkers and humanists (who are often overshadowed by their Caucasian contemporaries). 

Norm Allen Jr. enthusiastically shares the work of dozens of African-American and African individuals who refused to subscribe to traditional ideas about God and morality, yet who were also driven by a deep, “this-worldly” desire to improve living conditions for themselves and others for the betterment of humanity. 

As a young African-American male with strong humanist sympathies, I have been both enlightened and inspired by reading about the heroic accomplishments of these exemplary individuals- especially considering the fact that they were outspoken and active in a cultural context which rendered them unpopular in most religious, social and political circles. 

Among these individuals, I rediscovered Zora Neale Hurston, an author, folklorist and anthropologist who, along with Langston Hughes, became one of the literary forerunners of the Harlem Renaissance. Although raised in a Missionary Baptist Church as a preacher’s daughter, Hurston chose not to subscribe to the faith of her forbears and tells how her doubts regarding organized religion led her into a different understanding of reality.

Among its many offerings, African-American Humanism includes Hurston's essay, “Religion” (taken from her 1942 autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road), in which she further articulates her most personal thoughts about God, faith and spirituality. 

Towards the end of her essay, Hurston shares her understanding of the role of religion in the lives of human beings:

 "The unreachable and therefore the unknowable always seem divine- hence, religion. People need religion because the great masses fear life and its consequences. Its responsibilities weigh heavy. Feeling a weakness in the face of great forces, men seek an alliance with omnipotence to bolster up their feeling of weakness, even though the omnipotence they rely upon is a creature of their own minds. It gives them a feeling of security…"

She then delves into her personal thoughts regarding the topic of prayer:

 "…As for me, I do not pretend to read God’s mind. If He has a plan of the universe worked out to the smallest detail, it would be folly for me to presume to get down on my knees and attempt to revise it. That, to me, seems the highest form of sacrilege. So I do not pray. I accept the means at my disposal for working out my destiny. It seems to me that I have been given a mind and willpower for that very purpose. I do not expect God to single me out and grant me advantages over my fellow men. Prayer is for those who need it. Prayer seems to me a cry of weakness, and an attempt to avoid, by trickery, the rules of the game as laid down. I do not choose to admit weakness. I accept the challenge of responsibility."

Hurston begins the conclusion of her essay by explaining how she finds meaning and purpose in life outside of organized religion while recognizing its importance to those who subscribe to more traditional notions of divinity.

I love the portion of the passage below where she says, in reference to religious creeds, "I feel no need for such. However, I would not, by word or deed, attempt to deprive another of the consolation it affords. It is simply not for me."

I wholeheartedly share her sentiments here and appreciate the fact that she has not attempted to belittle those who find meaning in creed-based religion. 

In the closing passage of her essay on religion, Hurston advocates a fearless view of reality that expertly assuages existential fear and anxiety with bold, poetic language capturing the majesty of science's most credible insights and findings about chemistry, astronomy, biology and physics.


(I'll end this with Zora's own words): 

"Life, as it is, does not frighten me, since I have made my peace with the universe as I find it, and bow to its laws. The ever-sleepless sea in its bed, crying out 'How long?' to Time; million-formed and never motionless flame; the contemplation of these two aspects alone, affords me sufficient food for ten spans of my expected lifetime. 

It seems to me that organized creeds are collections of words around a wish. I feel no need for such. However, I would not, by word or deed, attempt to deprive another of the consolation it affords. It is simply not for me. Somebody else may have my rapturous glance at the archangels. The springing of the yellow line of morning out of the misty deep of dawn, is glory enough for me. 

I know that nothing is destructible; things merely change forms. When the consciousness we know as life ceases, I know that I shall still be part and parcel of the world. I was a part before the sun rolled into shape and burst forth in the glory of change. I was, when the earth was hurled out from its fiery rim. I shall return with the earth to Father Sun, and still exist in substance when the sun has lost its fire, and disintegrated into infinity to perhaps become a part of the whirling rubble of space. 

Why fear? The stuff of my being is matter, ever changing, ever moving, but never lost; so what need of denominations and creeds to deny myself the comfort of all my fellow men? The wide belt of the universe has no need for finger-rings. I am one with the infinite and need no other assurance.”



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This is really interesting. I hear a lot about Hurston from colleagues etc. in Orlando since she is so associated with Eatonville and one of the local colleges. I really never knew that she was not also associated with the black church.

Cool post.

Finally! A new ChA post, after so long.

I am off to do research on this wise woman. Never heard of her, it will come as no surprise to you probably. I have, vaguely, heard of the Harlem Reanaissance, and I really dig Langston Hughes. Thanks for expanding my frontiers. I want to include in my world of thought anyone who can write such beautiful words as in that last paragraph. idea just hit me. I did a phony interview with some dead white guys on my site earlier. But I think: you and I, already friends, have alot to teach each other, no? Collaboration is the key, I'm starting to see, with all these fine interviews floating around.

Care to do a, shall we say, mutual interview? Let me know. I already have some very interesting ideas....

best, & glad yre back, James Emmerling
Thanks you both!

Dorinda~ I myself had long heard about Zora but never realized how relevant she is. I kind of dismissed her to the periphery...but man, after I checked out her creations, I was floored. Thank you so much...ALSO: I've got an interview with a special individual on the way. You'll see something from us either tomorrow or Friday. Great idea on that! Sparked all kinds of ideas for us.

FYI, Alice Walker (poet, eco-activist and author of The Color Purple- another controversial, compelling literary/theological classic) was also heavily influenced by Hurston's person and artwork.

James Emm~ Thanks for the warm welcome back to the fold. Yes, it's been a long time. Depression sets in sometimes. Second-guessing myself and all that. I'm not the best at giving an opinion on political matters, and that sometimes leaves me wondering what it is I can contribute. But, one thing I do know how to do well is "to appreciate" and "find value." Ahhh, that's my zone. At least for now. Glad you like this though. And yes, I love the last paragraph, especially Zora's closing line: "I am one with the infinite and need no other reassurance." I'm diving deeper into her world myself. To think that many of my questions and concerns have already been addressed by individuals like Zora and Langston! Exciting for me. Also, I like your idea of collaboration on some mutual interviews. Let's connect some of those ideas. Hit me up!
I first met Zora through her novel "Their Eyes Were Watching God" in my high school AP Literature class. I fell in love with her writing and style and have continued to adore her ever since. She is a wise, wise woman.
Awesome post, wow:

"Why fear? The stuff of my being is matter, ever changing, ever moving, but never lost; so what need of denominations and creeds to deny myself the comfort of all my fellow men? The wide belt of the universe has no need for finger-rings. I am one with the infinite and need no other assurance.”

Thank you for this. I also first heard of her book in a high school AP class. ~ rated, Peece! DJ
Did some research on this lady. Guess she died in obscurity, with a heap of criticism on her from some heavy-hitters in the Black movement. About how she fed into caricatures of the black experience, for a white audience. Richard Wright especially had harsh words. Her idiomatic dialog was not appreciated.

Then along came Toni Morrison & Maya Angelou. Would be interested in your opinion of them. As I would be interested in yr opinions on alot of things. Let's get this interview going! Anyway, they brought her back into prominence, I guess.

Anyone who finds "reassurance in the infinite", though, is a little beyond such trivial backbiting, or even posthumous reappraisal. She seems to be one of those special souls who transcend race, perhaps?

As for yr depression & second guessing? Ach, been there, done that. Let me tell you: I have no opinions on anything. Rather, I have conflicting opinions on everything. "Opinion" is a lesser form of wisdom. You know that. Searching is what it's all about, and "consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds"...emerson.

On last thing, ChA: you have the right idea, I think, immersing yourself in a specific individual's world. If you groove with her, go with it. But: though all your concerns have been addressed by these other writers, YOU are the one alive in 2009, not them...the best form of love & service you can do for them, what they would want, is to continue their legacy, and improve on it, hip-ify it, drench yrself in their language but add it to your own. You already have a damn strong voice, and you got these geniuses in yr back-field....

SHOULD be damn exciting...We can learn alot from each other, too...We're both rather unconventional seekers of the biggest & most interesting subject in the Universe: God Himself...

Whose biggest message was, wasn't it: "Come together, right now, over me...?"

(or was that Dylan? hm..?)(ach, same differnce...ha)

James E
Thanks for the wise words of encouragement and counsel, Brother James. I will keep them at the forefront of my mind (especially the notion that while I may admire these individuals- I am the one living in the here and now~ build on their legacies and keep it moving!). Thanks for helping me to believe in my own voice. Just what I needed to hear!
AshKW and Jimenace,
Thanks for the rating and for stopping by to share in my appreciation for this mighty mind.
You bet, Brother ChA....boy, i'm champing at the bit for that interview....Go get Dylan's "empire burlesque" & listen to "trust yourself"...nast-ass prophecy-soaked version of emersonian "self-reliance" essay...hey! if you got time, read that, or skim it...

Brother J
Brother J,
I checked out the Dylan lyrics. I love the lines of "Trust Yourself" where he sings...

"Well, you're on your own, you always were,
In a land of wolves and thieves.
Don't put your hope in ungodly man
Or be a slave to what somebody else believes."

Right on!