Race in a Godless World: Atheism, Race, and Civilization, 1850-1914 – An Introduction

In this post, Nathan Alexander introduces his soon-to-be-published book on the historical relationship between secularization and racism. Nathan details examples from his research into the ways atheists and other nonbelievers responded to racist ideologies in the 19th century. 58461844_2520540891323727_126561871485468672_o

What is the historical relationship between secularization and racism? Some historians have suggested that secularization helped to open the way for racism. As Christian arguments for human universalism faded, the argument goes, this allowed new racist doctrines to emerge in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Others have suggested that it was Christianity, with its long history of antisemitism and its self-professed superiority over other cultures and religions, that truly sowed the seeds of racism.

Little attention, however, has been paid to what nonreligious people thought about the issue of race and racism. This is something I tackle in my recent book, Race in a Godless World: Atheism, Race, and Civilization, 1850-1914 (Manchester University Press and NYU Press, September 2019). In the book, I focus on atheists, agnostics, and other freethinkers[1] in Britain and the United States in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Why this time period? There were two important trends taking place at this time. The late nineteenth century was a time that saw (pseudo-)scientific racism, with its focus on anatomical and psychological studies of races, come to the fore, while European countries (and to a lesser extent the United States) embarked on imperial domination of much of the globe. There was also a growing movement of atheists and freethinkers in both Britain and the United States at this time, as more and more Christians began to give up their religion in the face of new scientific findings, critical analyses of the Bible, and moral arguments.

The central argument of the book is that while some white atheists and freethinkers did indeed accept the scientific racism common in their era, others expressed skepticism about these doctrines of racial and civilizational superiority.

It could be argued that atheists are more prone to being skeptical of social orthodoxies (most obviously about religion, but also about other issues, including race), but this skepticism was compounded by the marginalization experienced by atheists in the nineteenth century. At this time, atheists regularly suffered from social prejudices, but also various legal barriers, including the threats of prosecution for blasphemy or “obscenity.” On top of this, many atheists in the nineteenth century came from the working classes,[2] meaning they also experienced economic marginalization. Why this was the case is not my focus, but one possibility could be that some from the working classes were attracted by radical politics which were often linked with irreligion.

This marginalization meant that atheists had reason to be profoundly discontented with their societies, and many were therefore skeptical that people living in non-white, non-western societies were inferior and should have western, Christian lifestyles forced upon them. A few examples will demonstrate this point. Emily G. Taylor, writing in 1895 in the American freethought newspaper the Truth Seeker, explained that the so-called Hottentots of South Africa, “in the excellence of their morals, surpassed all nations of the earth” despite lacking ideas of God or future rewards or punishments. She also noted that this society had not succumbed to the problems of wealth inequality in modern life: “Peace and prosperity reigned; no wealthy class was supported in idleness by the toiling poor; no dens of infamy, no saloons, and – no churches.”[3]

In some cases, atheists and freethinkers even seemed to identify with those people subjugated by imperial rule. In one case, W.P. Ball, a writer for the Freethinker, drew explicit parallels between the Maori of New Zealand and British atheists in their struggle against Christians. As he said, “[t]he ‘Infidel’ […], like the Maori, is fighting the Christian for the common rights of humanity stolen from him by self-complacent bigotry.”[4]

Likewise, George Holyoake, who coined the term “secularism” in the middle of the nineteenth century, authored a book under the pseudonym “A London Zulu.”[5] This was in reference to the famous case of Bishop John William Colenso, who moved to South Africa to become Bishop of Natal. While there, Colenso was led on the path to skepticism by questions from his Zulu assistant, William Ngidi. Colenso then authored a famous work showing various inconsistencies in the first five books of the Old Testament. Colenso’s work proved extremely controversial, and Holyoake defended his findings. Holyoake’s adoption of the guise of a “London Zulu” in this work suggested that in some way he saw himself as a skeptical outsider, just like the “natives” being exposed to Christianity abroad.

Aside from expressing sympathy with people of colour abroad, there were also atheists who tackled racism at home. This can be seen in the case of the American atheist author, James F. Morton Jr., who wrote a 1906 book called The Curse of Race Prejudice. Morton drew on evolutionary ideas to make the case against racism. To Morton, the true lesson of Darwinian evolution was “that the human race is one in all essential characteristics” and that therefore it did not make sense to talk about a race being superior or inferior to any other.[6] Morton predicted that in the future people would have difficulty believing that people in the past accepted racism, particularly in light of Darwinian science: “‘What!’ we may suppose them to say, ‘Did these crude notions prevail in an age when Darwin’s epoch-making scientific achievements had made the common origin of the human race a matter of schoolboy knowledge?’”[7]

The examples I’ve drawn on so far are from white atheists and nonbelievers, but there were of course atheists and nonbelievers of colour who were tackling racial inequality as well. They often had similar critiques of religion as their white counterparts, although unsurprisingly they also talked more explicitly about racism than did whites. Hubert Harrison is one example. He was born in the West Indies in 1883 but later settled in New York City in 1900. There, he lost his faith and became an agnostic. He contributed a number of articles to the Truth Seeker, the national freethought newspaper, on a range of topics from Thomas Paine’s legacy to arguments for taxing church property. Harrison was one of the leading black intellectuals in New York City and argued for the need for both greater class and race consciousness. For more examples like this, a detailed history of black atheists and non-believers can be found in Christopher Cameron’s book Black Freethinkers: A History of African American Secularism, which will be published in September 2019.[8]

Another case I discuss in the book is of Wong Chin Foo, a Chinese immigrant to the United States who became a freethinker in the US after growing up among Christian missionaries in China. In Wong’s lecture tours, he was described as “The Bob Ingersoll of China,” in reference to the famous American freethinker, Robert Ingersoll.[9] In 1887, Wong wrote an article for the North American Review, which was then running a series on individual religious views. Wong’s was entitled “Why Am I a Heathen?” and explained why he gave up Christianity.[10]

All of this is not to say that atheists in the 19th century were free from racism. Indeed, as I describe in the book, many accepted racist tropes or supposedly scientific demonstrations of racial superiority that were common in the nineteenth century. For most white Britons and Americans at the time, these racist ideas were essentially articles of faith,[11] so it is unsurprising that some atheists too accepted them. But I argue that atheists and freethinkers seemed to be more willing than the rest of their fellow citizens to question these ideas of superiority, and I suggest that this is because of a skeptical disposition that made atheists more ready to question social orthodoxies, and this skepticism was compounded by the marginalized position they occupied.

As secularization continues in places like the U.S. and the U.K, and atheists become less marginalized, the effects this will have on their political attitudes, including on racial issues, is something I muse about at the end of the book. As we continue to work towards goals of racial equality, one wonders whether atheist skepticism will be deployed for or against these goals. This is a question I hope others will take up and investigate more fully.

[1] I often use “atheists” and “freethinkers” interchangeably, but it should be noted that this is for convenience and that not all of the figures discussed would necessarily agree with being called “atheists.”

[2] On the class make-up of atheists and freethinkers in the nineteenth century, see Edward Royle, Victorian Infidels: The Origins of the British Secularist Movement: 1791-1866 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1974), 304–5; Susan Budd, Varieties of Unbelief: Atheists and Agnostics in English Society 1850-1960 (London: Heinemann, 1977), 95–98; Edward Royle, Radicals, Secularists and Republicans: Popular Freethought in Britain, 1866-1915 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1980), 126–28; Albert Post, Popular Freethought in America, 1825-1850 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1943), 69; Sidney Warren, American Freethought, 1860-1914 (New York: Gordian Press, 1966), 119.

[3] “The Christian and the Hottentot,” The Truth Seeker, December 14, 1895, 790.

[4] W.P. Ball, “Christian and Maori,” The Freethinker, June 15, 1884, 191. Emphasis mine.

[5] A London Zulu [George Holyoake], Cumming Wrong; Colenso Right: A Reply to the Rev. Dr. Cumming’s “Moses Right Colenso Wrong” (London: Farrah and Dunbar, undated).

[6] James F. Morton Jr., The Curse of Race Prejudice (New York: Published by the author, 1906), 8.

[7] Ibid., 31.

[8] Christopher Cameron, Black Freethinkers: A History of African American Secularism (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2019).

[9] Scott D. Seligman, The First Chinese American: The Remarkable Life of Wong Chin Foo (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2013), 91.

[10] Wong Chin Foo, “Why Am I a Heathen?,” North American Review 145, no. 369 (August 1887): 169–79.

[11] There are many histories of racism in the nineteenth century, but see, for example, Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (London: The Bodley Head, 2016); Douglas Lorimer, Science, Race Relations and Resistance: Britain, 1870-1914 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013).

Nathan G. Alexander is a postdoctoral fellow at the Max Weber Centre for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies at the University of Erfurt, Germany. He is the author of Race in a Godless World: Atheism, Race, and Civilization, 1850-1914 (Manchester University Press and NYU Press, 2019). Follow him on Twitter @NathGAlexander. This article is part of a project that has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 665958.


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