Race in a Godless World

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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