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Atheism, Race, and Civilization, 1850–1914

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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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.

in Race in a Godless World
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.

in Race in a Godless World
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Race and society in evolution
Nathan G. Alexander

This chapter shows how the implications that evolutionary ideas held for thinking about race and society were far from straightforward. On the one hand, there were those who argued that evolution showed that all humans were related and that any racial differences between them were ultimately superficial in the vast expanse of evolutionary time. On the other hand, there were those who argued that races could be ranked in a hierarchy based on their evolutionary progress or that each race descended from its own unique ape ancestor. Evolution also shed light on the development of civilizations. The eighteenth-century idea that societies followed a linear course on the way to civilization fit well within an evolutionary worldview. Along with accepting the idea that white European civilization represented the apex of progress, other white atheists also gave a subversive reading of societal evolution in which religion itself was seen as a product of evolution, formed when humanity was in its “savage” state. In this view, Christians were really no better than their savage counterparts.

in Race in a Godless World
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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.

in Race in a Godless World
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.

in Race in a Godless World
African Americans and white atheists
Nathan G. Alexander

This chapter examines white atheists’ views of African Americans. Freethought newspapers often contained one-dimensional caricatures of black people as pious, superstitious, foolish, and immoral. These were the opposites of the traits on which white freethinkers prized themselves, and therefore the image of black Americans often acted as a mirror in which white freethinkers could clarify their own identities. Despite these negative depictions, however, on the whole white atheists attempted to portray themselves as free from racial prejudice and argued for equal rights and opportunities for all regardless of race. Yet not all white atheists held such optimistic views. An alternative discourse within freethought circles held that a rational and scientific approach showed the innate inferiority of blacks. This chapter wrestles once more with the competing demands of scientific rationalism, hostility to Christianity, and a commitment to equality that helped to inform white atheists’ racial views.

in Race in a Godless World
Rethinking race at the turn of thecentury
Nathan G. Alexander

This chapter presents the clearest examples of arguments made against racism that were rooted in an atheist perspective. Environmentalist ideas that stressed the importance of social circumstances – not biology – for forming character offered ways to attack racial determinism. Atheists and freethinkers also drew upon the Darwinian perspective that showed that all of humanity was one and rejected notions of timeless racial essences. Many atheists challenged “race prejudice” as emotional and irrational and therefore contradictory to the atheist worldview, which prided itself on the use of dispassionate reason. The culmination of the chapter is a discussion of the 1911 Universal Races Congress, held in London. Atheists and other freethinkers played a crucial role as organizers of the congress and speakers against ideas of scientific racism. The central point of the chapter is to show how an atheist worldview could offer the tools of science and reason as a way to critique ideas of racial prejudice and racial determinism.

in Race in a Godless World
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What next for racism in a godless world?
Nathan G. Alexander

This chapter summarizes the book’s arguments and offers some final reflections on the links between secularization and race. I give an overview of some developments in the twentieth century, including the growing number of black freethinkers, the opposition to racism from figures like Madalyn Murray O’Hair, and Bertrand Russell, and the turn to racism by the Truth Seeker in the middle of the century. I also discuss contemporary developments, including the links between the white supremacist “alt-right” movement and atheism, and the criticisms made against the leading white atheist Sam Harris. I argue that, in the past, atheists’ willingness to question social taboos led them to support radical views like democracy, abolition, and women’s rights. Now that things like racism have themselves become taboo, however, this same skeptical spirit has led some to question fundamental tenets of our contemporary society like racial and gender equality.

in Race in a Godless World