Towards the end of his recent book on atheism and racism, Nathan G. Alexander argues that our understanding of the American black civil rights movement is obscured by the towering figure of Martin Luther King Jr., making it all too easy to associate the movement with religion—which is fair, but only up to a point. The historian must examine things little more closely, and this Alexander does by reminding us of the huge contribution made by black freethinkers and atheists of that era, including the organiser of the 1963 March on Washington, A. Philip Randolph, and Black Power leader Stokely Carmichael.
Alexander takes as his starting point two historical theses: one argues that secularisation led to the decline of Christian universalism and therefore paved the way for scientific racism; and the other argues the precise opposite: that Christianity was the foundation on which racism and slavery rested and it was only with the decline of faith and the revelations of scientific progress that bigotry was overcome.
Alexander says that there is truth in both theses, but that too often the debate has focused on religion and the views of freethinkers and atheists have rarely been discussed. Alexander plugs this gap by looking at the racial views of the non-religious in the high period of racism and imperialism, during which freethinking movements carved out space in the public sphere for themselves. By looking at the subject dispassionately, Alexander has shed light on the secularism/racism debate, and his book will no doubt become a key text for historians of freethought and race.
As an atheist who identifies with the freethought movement myself, I braced myself to be thoroughly disabused of the notion that we were the torchbearers of progress.
Thankfully, Alexander’s dispassionate look at white atheists’ views on race shows that freethinkers have a fairly good record and probably have the edge over the believers on this. However, there are nuances and complexities: we atheists shouldn’t be entirely triumphalist either. Then again, neither should the religious.
A Brief History of Race and Godlessness
Alexander relates how, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, atheists often held ambiguous views about race. Debates over polygenesis and monogenesis—whether humanity had one common ancestor or separate ones for each race—tended to pit freethinking scientists against religious monogenists. Many supported polygenesis, often gleefully, as a stick with which to criticise the Genesis account of creation, but this had the sad effect of encouraging racist classification of the races, seen as separate and not as part of one human family, as the Bible had it. Nevertheless, many Christian monogenists derived Biblical justifications for racist views of non-whites and in favour of slavery.
Darwin’s great insight—that all people were part of the animal kingdom and had evolved via natural selection—was arguably driven by his disgust for slavery. Darwin wished to show that humanity was one; but others used his theories to justify racism and slavery.
Freethinkers prized themselves on being scientific and rational and were often linked with polygenist and evolutionary theories that put forward a race hierarchy (with whites on top, of course). But religious justifications for racism were even more common: even as secularist heroes like Charles Bradlaugh were writing and speaking about the inferiority of certain races, slaveowners were whipping their slaves with one hand while clutching a Bible in the other.
One of Alexander’s central arguments is that, because atheists were often marginalized in their own societies, and were armed with a sceptical mindset, they were more willing to critique ideas of western or white superiority and even to identify with the victims of western imperialism. Many excoriated imperialism and identified themselves with people they saw as victims of Christianity just like them; and, though racial stereotypes were common in freethought literature, so was the trope of writing a satire from the point of view of a fictional native—a Zulu, for example—to show how absurd Christianity was and demonstrate that native peoples could be highly intelligent and resistant to Christian superstition. Freethinkers were at the forefront of anti-imperialism campaigns and protests about the horrors inflicted upon innocent people in the name of western, Christian capitalism.
Freethinkers also campaigned against British involvement in India and racism against Chinese and Japanese immigrants. Indeed, Bradlaugh was a hero to the leaders of the later Indian independence movement (in one of those nice historical symmetries, his funeral in London was attended by a young Mahatma Gandhi), while, across the Atlantic, The Great Agnostic Robert Ingersoll spoke out against American fears of Chinese immigration. Of course, there were atheists who derived racist ideas from their freethinking. But the most vociferous of these were outside the mainstream of freethought. For example, Eugene Macdonald, editor of America’s largest freethought newspaper, was in a minority in his advocation of brutality against Native Americans: “On the whole, however, Macdonald’s hostility to Native Americans was out of step with most other white freethinkers, who looked favorably upon savage society and were reluctant to see it become westernized.”
Another outlier, R. Randolph, penned a letter to American freethought paper the Truth Seeker, viciously criticising Theodore Roosevelt’s decision to have dinner with Booker T. Washington in 1901. Roosevelt, he said, “has thus early shown the cloven-foot by having a coal black ‘nigger’ dine with himself and family in the White House, a national mansion hitherto held as negro-proof.” Randolph went on to blame black people for causing whites to lynch them. Most of the letters in response contain disgust at Randolph’s tirade, arguing that it was illiberal and unworthy of a freethinker to hold such irrational and intolerant views.
We shouldn’t ignore the unpleasant facts, though. Anti-imperialist freethinking contained contradictions, as suggested by Bradlaugh’s view that races were utterly distinct, with varying levels of cognitive ability (white people were at the top of that hierarchy, while black people, he thought, lacked their mental capacity). Still, freethinkers were often progressive and forward-thinking, even if their views would be unacceptable now.
Atheists were also involved in campaigns against slavery in America and in favour of black civil rights—though many believed in black inferiority. And there were black freethinkers too—like Frederick Douglass, whose meeting with Ingersoll is testament to the fact that many non-believers were proud of their anti-racist heritage.
Towards the end of this period, thinkers like J. M. Robertson and James Morton radically challenged the concept of race itself, on empirical and rational grounds. Robertson said that he could “see no scientific coherence in [racial/ethnic] generalisations,” while Morton viewed racial prejudice as a superstition—like belief in witches or fear of the number thirteen; Morton also invoked Darwin to argue “that the human race is one in all essential characteristics” and notions of racial superiority and inferiority were therefore meaningless.
Freethinking ideals could lend themselves to bigotry, but—at least as often—they provided the foundation for anti-racism. We cannot draw simplistic or reductionist conclusions here. So, how should we evaluate the freethought record on race?
Faith Fails and Freethinking Prevails
Dr Alexander’s book is nuanced, rigorous, dispassionate, well-evidenced and written with a refreshing clarity not often found in academic works. The conclusions and reflections that follow are my own.
Many Christians opposed the evils of slavery and racism, of course, but Alexander notes that their worldview was untenable, due to the battering their foundational truths had taken at the hands of secularism and science. Christianity in the West has steadily declined since the nineteenth century and therefore cannot form the basis of our shared morality and ethics. Science and reason, as Alexander says, are the best tools for discovering truth and it is on these—and on a humanism based upon them—that we must rely if we are to fight bigotry.
Christianity was the central foe in the fight against slavery: recall the Confederate motto Deo Vindice (“Under God, our vindicator”) It was Biblical arguments, more often than secular ones, that racists and slaveowners used to quiet their consciences as they strolled home from their Sunday sermons to their plantations, with no feeling of contradiction.
The other problem with Christian—and all religious—morality is that it relies on interpretations of texts and sermons, whose ideals can be construed in mutually incompatible ways ad infinitum. For every Biblical anti-slavery argument an abolitionist could offer, her opponent could throw chapter and verse back in her face.
There is no way to resolve moral problems within a purely religious framework because such arguments are subjective and based on incoherent systems. Reason, science and humanism, however, can resolve arguments by appeal to evidence. Science and reason have found out more truth about humanity and the universe in a few decades than theology has in millennia. Thus, the best tools with which to fight both pseudo-scientific and scriptural racism are to be found in the secular sphere.
Thomas Jefferson and the Freethinkers’ Enlightenment Ancestry
Alexander notes the contradiction in Thomas Jefferson’s thinking between egalitarianism and slaveholding. Jefferson was a racist slaveholder who hated slavery and he was tortured about this, as the author points out.
But Alexander suggests that the fact that Jefferson didn’t free most of his slaves after his death is a point against him. That may well be true—but, as a debtor, the law may have prevented him from releasing his slaves in his will: perhaps they had to be sold on. We cannot know for sure, but it is reasonable to think that he might have freed them if he could. Still, Jefferson was a racist and a slaveowner, admirable in other respects though he was.
The third American president was an Enlightenment man through and through, and Alexander briefly discusses the eighteenth-century intellectual ancestry of these later freethinkers, citing a paper by historian Anthony Pagden, author of The Enlightenment: And Why It Still Matters.
Pagden describes the ways in which Enlightenment thinkers envisioned other societies: some of them admired China for what they took to be its non-supernatural morality, while others thought China a stagnant, moribund civilisation. The Enlightenment interest in savage peoples as irreligious, as victims of colonialism and as prime exhibits for the study of early humanity can also be found among later freethinkers. Pagden notes that Christian universalism was rendered untenable by the Wars of Religion and the discovery by Europeans of ancient peoples not accounted for by the faith—thus Enlightenment thinkers sought a new basis for universalism and morality, grounded in sympathy and reason. They viewed humanity as a historical phenomenon, upon which the divine did not impinge.
This secular basis of morality also finds expression in later freethinkers and, indeed, in the modern world. Alexander notes much of this influence, though Pagden’s book provides a deeper exploration of these themes.
Race in a World of Atheists
In the book’s final section, we are given a potted history of freethought and race in the twentieth century and a reflection on the present. Alexander suggests that the atheist mindset of scepticism and questioning of taboos has backfired a little; because atheism itself is no longer so horror-inducing, a small contingent of atheists are drawn to alt-right ideas because they offer a way to rebel against liberal norms. Alexander is careful to note that such atheists are a small minority and differentiates his view from the absurd notion that criticism of Islam is ipso facto racism (he offers a brief defence of Sam Harris on this topic, while noting that he was troubled by Harris’ choice to host Charles Murray on his podcast).
But this is certainly a concern that freethinkers today should be mindful of. Liberal norms such as reason, science and humanism may be more popular nowadays, but they are no less radical than they have ever been. They remain our best hope of entrenching what progress we’ve made—and of making more. There is no value in being contrarian just for the sake of it. I hope that a serious commitment to the ideals of freethought will prevent most atheists from turning to the alt-right.
But Alexander also warns that, as atheists become the majority and lose their marginalised status, we could become complacent about racism and other prejudices faced by minority groups—or even embrace them ourselves. Let us not lose our empathy for minorities just because we are ceasing to be one. We should be as sceptical of our motives as we are of religion, Alexander suggests. I heartily agree.
Overall, my own conclusion is that freethinkers have a fairly decent record on race, and religion a patchier one. But Alexander’s book is not a polemic. Whether you are religious or not, you will find it interesting. It corrects a striking absence in the scholarly literature, while illuminating the secularism/racism debate—and does so dispassionately, insightfully, in great depth and with surgical precision.
…shows that freethinkers have a fairly good record and probably have the edge over the believers on this.
Tallying up racism scorecards for two imaginary groups using current year political sentiments as a universal, ahistorical standard—thinking doesn’t get deeper than this. You deserve tenure.
“There is no way to resolve moral problems within a purely religious framework because such arguments are subjective and based on incoherent systems. Reason, science and humanism, however, can resolve arguments by appeal to evidence.” Until you find a bridge across Hume’s Gap, the only arguments an appeal to evidence can resolve are arguments about facts, NOT VALUES! Which is why advocates can be found among both the Religious and the Anti-Religious, the Theists and the Atheists, for and against Racist assessments of value. The contention that Race is an unscientific concept is mendacious. Every human being is the terminus of a set of real biological lineages. If one takes a very simplistic approach to diagramming one’s lineage one sets out one’s parentage, father and mother, and their parentages, grandfather and grandfather and grandmother and grandmother, and etc, and if one doesn’t think carefully about it one imagines one’s ancestors… Read more »
The author calls himself a freethinker yet cannot even entertain the idea that human races are real and very distinct in characteristics, a fact that is as clear as day. Yet he even underhandedly makes out such ideas as unthinkable, blasphemous. It should be reminded that you can acknowledge race differences and discriminate as a result. Races are a fact. Discrimination is a moral choice.
Really excellent review of what sounds like probably a well-written, well-argued, well-balanced book! I am not an atheist nor a militant freethinker myself, but in our day of strident polarization and truculent tribalism where it’s customary to ascribe all virtue or all injured innocence to one’s own political, ideological, or religious/secular side and all vice and villainy to the other side, it’s refreshing to read a review or article, or hear about a book, that generally takes one or the other side most of the time but is also fair, honest, and judicious in admitting grievous faults or crimes in some people on one’s own side and real virtues among some supporters of the other side, as Daniel James Sharp dies in his review and Prof. Alexander apparently dies in his book.