In the sixth installment in our series of interviews with ISHASH members, Anton Jansson interviews Dr. Nathan Alexander, who is coming out with a book on atheism and race from 1850 to 1914.
Hello Nathan, and congratulations on your forthcoming book! First of all, would you like to introduce yourself briefly, including your current academic position?
Thanks, Anton! I’m originally from Canada. I did my BA and MA there, before moving on to do my PhD in Modern History at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. My PhD thesis formed the basis for my current book. Right now, I am a postdoctoral fellow at the Max Weber Centre for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies at the University of Erfurt, in Germany.
Your book is called Race in a Godless World: Atheism, Race, and Civilization, 1850-1914. I am interested in how this book came into being. How did you decide to write this book, and how did you become interested in the topic of atheism and race?
I got interested in the history of racial thought when I was studying for my master’s. Initially I was going to focus on African history, but shifted from this slightly and ended up writing about British views of the Asante Empire (in present-day Ghana in West Africa) in the nineteenth century. While finishing up my master’s, I realized that religion intersected in many ways with the history of race and racism, for example, in debates between monogenesis (the idea of a single origin for all humanity in Adam and Eve) and polygenesis (the idea that each human race had its own separate origin), or in debates about evolution, or in Christian justifications for slavery or imperial conquest. There had been some scholarship about the links between Christianity and racial thought – particularly Colin Kidd’s The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600-2000 – but there had not been anything about what nonreligious people thought about race, so this is what I decided to do my PhD about. (Obviously this process seems more straightforward in hindsight!)
And so you did. Your aim of this study – as the title suggests – is to investigate how ideas about race, atheism and civilization were interconnected within the freethought or atheist movement during its peak on both sides of the Atlantic. What were your main findings? Ambivalence seems to have been a key word?
Yep, ambivalence is key. On the one hand, white atheists and other nonreligious people seemed to accept the idea that whites were on top of the racial and civilizational hierarchy. In this, they were in line with other white people in Britain and the United States.
On the other hand, though, these same atheists were often marginalized within their own societies, due to their lack of religion, but also their class (since many came from the working classes). They were, therefore, outsiders who were discontented with their Christian-dominated societies. This outsider perspective, combined with the same skepticism that led them to give up religion, caused them to question racial and civilization superiority in ways that were extremely radical for their times.
So, while you also acknowledge the darker sides, you seem to suggest that the atheist movement is somewhat more progressive than their contemporaries in questions regarding race?
Yes, I think that’s right in general. This is not to suggest that atheists had a monopoly on subversive views about race and civilization, but I do think on the whole their views were far outside the mainstream, and that these kinds of subversive views were found disproportionately among atheists and other non-believers. This is because of a general skeptical mindset among atheists, but also the experience of marginalization made them more likely to question things that others took as obvious (like racial superiority).
Could you give one specific example of how these questions played out? Darwinism, for instance, must have been an important strand of thought here?
One example is the way in which white atheists portrayed so-called “savage” societies as, in many ways, superior to western ones. These societies seemed to be more egalitarian and more moral than their western counterparts, without the need for religion. For example, one author, Emily G. Taylor, quoted in the Truth Seeker newspaper in 1895, discussed the so-called Hottentots of South Africa. She wrote that “in the excellence of their morals,” they “surpassed all nations of the earth,” despite (or because of) their lack of religion. Likewise, their society was much more egalitarian than that of the West: “Peace and prosperity reigned; no wealthy class was supported in idleness by the toiling poor; no dens of infamy, no saloons, and – no churches.”
The issue of Darwinism is complicated. On the one hand, there is no doubt people could and did draw upon ideas of evolution and “survival of the fittest” to suggest that certain races were less evolved or less fit than others. On the other hand, though, we also see examples of atheists suggesting that Darwinian evolution refuted racist conceptions of humanity. One atheist author, James F. Morton Jr., in his 1906 book, The Curse of Race Prejudice, said that the true lesson of Darwinian evolution was “that the human race is one in all essential characteristics” and that talk of superior and inferior races therefore made no sense. Morton even thought 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?’”
That’s very interesting. Earlier, you mentioned “white atheists”, and it seems that most of the people in the movement and in the journals you have investigated were white. Is that a correct observation? What was the status of black freethought at the time? And what role do black freethinkers play in your book?
Yes, that’s right. My main focus is on white atheists and freethinkers, since these made up the majority within freethought organizations, though I do discuss black and other non-white freethinkers briefly. Black freethinkers were often few and far between in the nineteenth century, but their numbers begin to increase towards the end of the century. Examples include the famous sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, who was not involved in the freethought movement, and the socialist activist Hubert Harrison, who was. The full story of black freethought is to be found in Christopher Cameron’s book, Black Freethinker: A History of African American Secularism, which comes out this September. I was fortunate to read an early version of that book and I can highly recommend it.
In your book, you study both Britain and the United States. Why did you decide to include both? Is it, so to speak, one movement existing on both sides of the Atlantic? Because I imagine some aspects must differ, not least when it comes to race. What were the main similarities and differences of atheism between the two contexts during the era you have studied, according to you?
It’s a good question. I think there was a great deal of coherence to the movements on both sides of the Atlantic, such that it made sense to consider them in the same framework. Of course, it is true that the political and social context differed for each country, and this coloured the goals and composition of each movement. But there was a great deal of overlap intellectually. Similar themes are present in each, in terms of their critiques of religion and their support for science and reason, and it is clear that atheists in both countries read the work of their cousins on the opposite side of the Atlantic. Likewise, most of the leading figures in either country made speaking tours in the opposite country at some point in their lives. Some even spent significant periods of their lives in both countries, like Thomas Paine, Robert Owen, and Moncure Conway.
The book is not an explicit comparison between Britain and the US, but clearly there were contextual differences which shaped the way they thought about race. For the US, of course, the presence of millions of black people in the country was a context not shared by Britain. This made race much more of a concrete issue to white atheists in the US and they grappled with the legacy of slavery and the place of newly emancipated blacks within their society. Those in Britain watched the developments of the Civil War and its aftermath with interest, but this was always more of an abstract issue to them, though of course Britain also dealt with the legacy of slavery in their Caribbean colonies. Empire was another difference between the two countries. Britain possessed a wide-reaching empire in the nineteenth century. Questions of imperial conduct in India, Africa, and Australasia were hugely important and more pressing to British atheists than American ones. By the end of the century, Americans began to build up an overseas empire, particularly in the Pacific and the Caribbean, but this never came close to rivaling the extent of the British empire.
Another thing I thought about was your disciplinary home. You are an intellectual historian, educated at St Andrews, which has one of the leading centres of intellectual history in the world right now. What would you say that intellectual history brings to the study of atheism, and what is the advantage of an intellectual-historical perspective in comparison with, say, political or social history, or a more non-historical sociological study of atheism?
This is a really great (and challenging) question. I think, in large part, one’s topic will determine one’s methods. I don’t think there is a single, correct approach one should take to studying atheism, but I do think approaching the history of atheism from an intellectual history perspective can be valuable. Very tentatively, I would suggest perhaps that atheism is itself an intellectual phenomenon, at least for much of its history. By this I mean that one could be a Christian (or whatever the dominant religion of the time and place was) and not necessarily have given this position a great deal of thought. For atheists, at least for much of history, this was not the case, since they needed to consciously throw off the religion with which they were raised. This perhaps makes atheism almost inherently intellectual. This will then require a study of the various ideas around them and their own intellectual journey. (Of course, it is more and more true that as secularization continues, people will grow up without religion and will never have to consciously think about it.)
Another point is that intellectual history, at least as I understand it, forces you to study the world of ideas from the perspective of one’s subjects. Intellectual history cautions against projecting our own present-day notions backward into the past and assuming they would make sense or be important for the people there. One therefore needs to closely read sources from the time to attempt to understand their intellectual context. Likewise, again, as I understand the best kind of intellectual history, one cannot look at a handful of works by towering figures and then construct a history based on those cases. Rather, one needs to look at a broad section of thinkers to begin to understand the story.
Finally, I would say that intellectual history pays attention to the language historical actors use. For example, what did people mean by “atheism” in the past? What did people intend to do by describing themselves and others as “atheists”? These are not straightforward questions as historians, especially of the early modern period, have discovered. These terms themselves have histories and historians cannot take their meanings for granted.
Actually, if it’s permitted to turn the question around on you, what are your thoughts?
It is permitted, but I don’t want to take over your interview! However, I think you make a couple of good points. As you say, and I would stress that especially during the end of the 19th century, the freethought movement was very tied to ideas connected to central figures in intellectual history. Making sense of this movement must entail a sorting out of how freethinkers tried to overcome and challenge religion, which they did by seeking alternatives in the philosophers and scientists of their time, and of the philosophical canon. As you say, I also think that the intellectual (and conceptual) history perspective provides a nuanced way of studying past discourses, which is necessary to fully understand the history of atheism, secularism, etc. in its manifoldness. But I very much appreciate when this is tied to social, religious, and political history. All these sides are important.
Then, turning it around, I also think that the study of atheism is important for the field of intellectual history. If you look at the history of ideas, a persistent and totally central question for thinkers up until the 20th century has always been the existence of God, what and how God is, and how this relates to human affairs. The explicit negation of God is a very important shift in this history, and therefore needs to be explicitly studied. So all in all, intellectual history and atheism is a good pairing.
And after having stolen space from your interview, I guess I could conclude by saying that your book confirms the constructiveness of this pairing. And I recommend everyone to check it out when it comes out in September!
Nathan Alexander’s book Race in a Godless World: Atheism, Race, and Civilization, 1850-1914 is out this September through Manchester University Press and NYU Press, and available for pre-order now. If you have any further questions, you are welcome to contact Nathan at nathan.g.alexander50[at]gmail.com.