Race in a Godless World

Atheism, Race, and Civilization, 1850-1914

By Nathan Alexander

Race in a Godless World


  • eBook

Book Information

  • Format: Hardcover
  • ISBN: 978-1-5261-4237-5
  • Pages: 304
  • Publisher: Manchester University Press
  • Price: £25.00
  • Published Date: September 2019
  • BIC Category: Agnosticism and atheism, HISTORY / Europe / Great Britain / Victorian Era (1837-1901), HISTORY / United States / 19th Century, RELIGION / Atheism, History Of The Americas, Humanities / British & Irish history, Humanities / Social & cultural history, Agnosticism & Atheism, History, Modern History


Is modern racism a product of secularisation and the decline of Christian universalism? The debate has raged for decades, but up to now, the actual racial views of historical atheists and freethinkers have never been subjected to a systematic analysis. Race in a Godless World sets out to correct the oversight. It centres on Britain and the United States in the second half of the nineteenth century, a time when popular atheist movements were emerging and scepticism about the truth of Christianity was becoming widespread. Covering racial and evolutionary science, imperialism, slavery and racial prejudice in theory and practice, it provides a much-needed account of the complex and sometimes contradictory ideas espoused by the transatlantic community of atheists and freethinkers. It also reflects on the social dimension of irreligiousness, exploring how working-class atheists' experiences of exclusion could make them sympathetic to other marginalised groups.


'Race in a Godless World is a great contribution to the study of historical atheism, but also intellectual and religious history. It is timely, balanced, well-researched, laying bare the wide range of racial views atheists held.'
Global Intellectual History

'The book will be of interest to both scholars and general readers, who are likely to find this alternative narrative of the origins of racism in Britain and the United States as compelling as it is convincing.'
The Journal of American History

'Race in a Godless World is a timely and important contribution to a growing field.'
The American Historical Review

'Race in a Godless World is an excellent study. This is intellectual history at its best, demonstrating how the discriminated against minority of unbelievers, at the foot of the religious pecking order, challenged racial hierarchies and championed racial minorities. The book shows that a commitment to science and reason underpinned racial views amongst both atheist and religionist intellectuals of the nineteenth century. But scepticism and contrariness drew atheists to apply the same reason in shifting towards a more inclusive and progressive social agenda. With a strong structure and vivid clarity, this is the best contribution so far to scholarly study of how racist thinking came to be linked with, but also rejected by, atheists in the USA and Britain.'
Callum G. Brown, University of Glasgow

'An exhaustively researched and gracefully written book that makes a signal contribution to our understanding of the intersection of atheism and racial thought. The first book to fully flesh out the ties between racial thought and atheism, it is a masterful achievement that will be required reading for students and scholars of race, freethought, and British and American history more broadly.'
Christopher Cameron, University of North Carolina at Charlotte

'Situating the history of freethought in a fully transatlantic framework, Alexander carefully unpacks the ambivalences and contradictions of white atheist views on race and civilisation. Certain about the superiority of science over Christianity, freethinkers were far less clear about the racial and cross-cultural implications of their irreligion. Many embraced scientific racism and white supremacy, while others resisted xenophobia and race prejudice. Alexander captures these secularist complexities with admirable nuance and insight.'
Leigh E. Schmidt, Washington University in St. Louis


Introduction: the tangled histories of Christianity, secularization, and race
1 Were Adam and Eve our first parents? Atheism and polygenesis
2 Brute men: race and society in evolution
3 A London Zulu: savagery and civilisation
4 The wise men of the east: India, China, and Japan
5 The best friends the negro ever had: African Americans and white atheists
6 The curse of race prejudice: rethinking race at the turn of the century
Epilogue: what next for racism in a godless world?


Nathan G. Alexander is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Max Weber Centre for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies, University of Erfurt, Germany

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