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The wise men of the East

India, China, and Japan

Nathan G. Alexander

This chapter analyses freethinkers’ views of India, China, and Japan. Far from constructing the people in these countries as others, atheists attempted to portray these groups as similar to themselves and to break down the supposed racial and civilizational boundaries between them. Atheists for the most part rejected common negative views of these countries. India and China, in their eyes, both possessed ancient civilizations and had equally ancient religious traditions that had much wisdom to impart to western audiences. Some aspects of the religions of the East, like Buddhism or Confucianism, seemed to reject the supernatural and be quasi-secularist already. It was because of this admiration for the civilizations of the East that so many white atheists and freethinkers opposed western incursions into these societies. This perspective also led many, though not all, atheists and freethinkers to oppose the movement to ban Chinese immigration into the United States.

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Were Adam and Eve our first parents?

Atheism and polygenesis

Nathan G. Alexander

This chapter shows how a shared hostility to Christianity united white atheists and scientific racists in the nineteenth century. Crucial to this was the heretical doctrine of polygenesis, the idea that the various races of humanity had multiple origins instead of one single origin, as in the Christian doctrine of monogenesis. Polygenesis was a heretical theory that had both racial and theological implications. This theory gained scientific support by the middle of the nineteenth century among racial scientists, who argued that the races were innately different and could be ranked hierarchically. Atheists and freethinkers embraced polygenesis since it seemed to be the most accurate scientific explanation for the diversity of races, in contrast to the theory of monogenesis. More importantly, the theory seemed to deal a fatal blow to the creation account in Genesis and, with it, the entire foundation of Christianity. For this reason, many atheists often aligned themselves with irreligious scientific racists who posited vast differences between the various races.

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Sinéad O’Connor

The story of a voice

Emer Nolan

The chapter concentrates on the music of Sinéad O’Connor, encompassing all her albums from The lion and the cobra up to I’m not bossy, I’m the boss, with particular attention to key songs and video performances. It analyses her extraordinary vocal performances in relation to ideas about femininity in traditional Irish music and in popular music. It considers the evolution and significance of her image, especially her rejection of aspects of conventional feminine beauty. Her treatment of trauma, Catholicism, colonialism and her protests against child abuse are also detailed here. The chapter traces an ongoing negotiation in her work between the individual female artist and the idea of the collective.

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Race in a Godless World

Atheism, Race, and Civilization, 1850–1914

Nathan G. Alexander

Race in a godless world is the first historical analysis of the racial views of atheists and freethinkers. It centers on Britain and the United States in the second half of the nineteenth century, a time when a popular atheist movement emerged and skepticism about the truth of Christianity became widespread, and when scientific racism developed and Western countries colonized much of the globe. The book covers racial and evolutionary science, imperialism in Africa and Asia, slavery and segregation in the United States, debates over immigration, and racial prejudice in theory and practice. The book’s central argument is that there was a constant tension throughout the period between, on the one hand, white atheists’ general acceptance that white, western civilization represented the pinnacle of human progress, and, on the other, their knowledge that these civilizations were so closely intertwined with Christianity. This led to a profound ambivalence about issues of racial and civilizational superiority. At times, white atheists assented to scientific racism and hierarchical conceptions of civilization; at others, they denounced racial prejudice and spoke favourably of non-white, non-western civilizations. As secularization continues and atheists move from the periphery to the mainstream, the book concludes by asking whether this pattern of ambivalence will continue in the future.

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Nuala O’Faolain

An emotional episode in public life

Emer Nolan

The chapter concentrates on Nuala O’Faolain’s journalism, several media appearances (including her final interview on Irish radio just weeks before her death in 2008), and the astonishing international success of her confessional memoir, Are you somebody? In particular, the chapter considers her enduring fascination and involvement with Ireland and Irish culture, despite her extensive and sometimes despairing attention to the effects of misogyny, sectarianism and economic inequality in the country. It documents her treatments of sexuality and intimate relationships in the context of her experience of Ireland and of feminism. The chapter also details her account of the Irish family, of her own education and formation, and of her place in Irish literary, intellectual and political traditions.

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A London Zulu

Savagery and civilization

Nathan G. Alexander

In this chapter I show that there was considerable ambivalence about ideas of white, western superiority among atheists by examining the ways in which the so-called savage races – those in Africa, Australasia, and the Americas – appeared in their writing. Many white atheists found positives in these societies and even seemed, in some cases, to identify with them. The key link was a shared experience, among both atheists and savage groups, of persecution at the hands of more powerful Christians. Atheists recognized their own minority status and saw parallels between their own experience of persecution and the missionary and imperial incursions into savage societies. While white atheists and freethinkers were not opposed to imperialism per se, they were at least skeptical about the legitimacy of western society running roughshod over these groups. Because western civilization was so tied up with Christianity, atheists were not convinced of its inherent superiority over other cultures. Indeed, there were many positives to be found in these savage societies, including a more egalitarian social structure and a seeming lack of religion and belief in God.

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Emer Nolan

The introduction outlines the rationale for selecting these five women: Edna O’Brien, Sinéad O’Connor, Bernadette McAliskey, Nuala O’Faolain and Anne Enright. It discusses the ways in which women in Ireland have been understood as both symbols of the nation and key agents of modernisation. It explores the question of whether Ireland has been exceptionally oppressive to women. It considers current conditions for women in Ireland and argues for the significance of the contribution made to Irish feminism by innovative individuals such as the subjects of this book.

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Introduction

The tangled histories of Christianity, secularization, and race

Nathan G. Alexander

This Introduction lays out the central argument of the book that white atheists and freethinkers were profoundly ambivalent about the question of race and civilization in their societies. On the one hand, they accepted racial science that seemed to show white superiority, but on the other, the fact that the majority of their countrymen were Christian made them question notions of white, western superiority. The Introduction also gives a background to the ways in which religion, secularization, and race have intersected historically. I then provide a summary of the freethought movements in both Britain and the United States. Finally, I give an outline of each chapter.

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Five Irish women

The second republic, 1960–2016

Emer Nolan

This book is comprised of five interlinked portraits of exceptional Irish women from various fields – literature, journalism, music, politics – who have achieved outstanding reputations since the 1960s: Edna O’Brien, Sinéad O’Connor, Nuala O’Faolain, Bernadette McAliskey, and Anne Enright. Several of these could claim to be among the best-known Irish people of their day in the world. This book looks at their achievements – works of art in some cases, but also life-writing, interviews and speeches – and at their reception in Ireland and elsewhere, shedding light on some of their shared preoccupations, including equality, sexuality and nationalism. The main focus is on the ways in which these distinguished women make sense of their formative experiences as Irish people and how they in turn have been understood as representative modern figures in Ireland.

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Edna O’Brien

Writing sex and nation

Emer Nolan

The chapter considers the history of women in independent Ireland, up to the period of the emergence of Edna O’Brien in the early 1960s. It explores the representation of women in modern Irish literature since the time of W. B. Yeats and the Irish Literary Revival, outlining the rejection of the Revival in the work of James Joyce and other writers. It analyses Edna O’Brien’s creative response to these romantic (Yeatsian) and modernist (Joycean) traditions of Irish literature and pays detailed attention to O’Brien’s description of girlhood, romance, female sexuality, colonialism and violence. O’Brien is discussed in relation to the key works The country girls trilogy; her two volumes of memoir, Mother Ireland and The country girl; and some of her recent fiction.