The Contributions of Freethinkers: W.E.B. Du Bois

It’s often been observed that atheism, or at least outspoken atheism, seems rarer among America’s black community than among American society in general. Although I don’t know why that’s true, I suspect that it may stem from the tendency of a minority group, especially one that’s often discriminated against by wider society, to seek to preserve its heritage and uphold its distinctiveness by emphasizing a shared cultural identity.

Regardless, it would be unfortunate if the black community in America spurned the message of atheism. They, as much as any other group, have been a part of the proud history of American freethought and secularism, as we’ll see in today’s post on the contributions of a famous black freethinker.

W.E.B. Du Bois was one of the most influential civil-rights activists of the twentieth century. He was the first black man to get a Ph.D. from Harvard, one of the founders of the NAACP, and a prolific writer, educator, historian and sociologist. His body of work included scholarly publications on history and sociology, novels, poetry, political columns, and collections of his essays such as his critically praised The Souls of Black Folk. For 25 years, he served as editor of the NAACP journal The Crisis, which published withering essays against racism and inequality and gave a voice to some major artists of the Harlem Renaissance.

Raised in a liberal Christian congregation in Boston, Du Bois attended an orthodox missionary college and then studied in Europe. By his own account, it was there that his initial doubts blossomed and he became a full-fledged freethinker. In Freethinkers, Susan Jacoby quotes a passage from his autobiography:

Religion helped and hindered my artistic sense. I know the old English and German hymns by heart. I loved their music but ignored their silly words with studied inattention. I worshipped cathedral and ceremony, which I saw in Europe, but I knew what I was looking at when in New York a Cardinal became a strike-breaker and the Church of Christ fought the Communism of Christianity.

After his return from Europe, Du Bois took up teaching at a black Methodist college, Wilberforce University. While there, he refused to lead students in prayer, drawing the wrath of school administrators. His views on religion were hardened by this treatment, and grew increasingly radical:

I refused to teach Sunday school. When Archdeacon Henry Phillips, my last rector, died, I flatly refused again to join any church or sign any church creed. From my 30th year on I have increasingly regarded the church as an institution which defended such evils as slavery, color caste, exploitation of labor and war.

Du Bois’ attacks on the church continued throughout his career. He wrote that World War I “spells Christianity’s failure” in promoting peace among men, and in 1912 called for reforms “to make the Negro church a place where colored men and women of education and energy can work for the best things regardless of their belief or disbelief in unimportant dogmas and ancient and outworn creeds.”

Later in life, Du Bois would become engaged in bitter public dispute with some of his fellow civil-rights activists. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington argued over whether social equality for blacks could come before they achieved economic equality (Washington’s position was that economic equality had to come first, while Du Bois, though he greatly valued education, argued that blacks were entitled to seek and demand the equal protection of the law in every area of life), while he and Marcus Garvey argued over whether blacks should seek to assimilate into American society as equals, or to promote the cause of black separatism (Garvey advocated the latter).

As he aged, Du Bois’ sympathies drifted toward Communism, and he was investigated (though inconclusively) by the FBI and Joseph McCarthy’s HUAC commission, where Albert Einstein testified as a character witness to defend him. He died in Ghana in August 1963, at the age of 95, one day before Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech.

Other posts in this series:

ISIS Is Bleeding Human History
Four More Solutions to Twitter Harassment
You Got Your Ideology in My Atheism!
Photo Sunday: Dark Sunrise
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • InTheImageOfDNA
  • InTheImageOfDNA

    Apologies for the redundancy. I didn’t look closely at your linked first phrase.

  • Samuel Skinner

    Atheism was probably rarer in the black community for the same reasons it was rare in the Jewish ghettos- high insistance on conformity, church served a function that had no replacement, really poor conditions and lack of education.

    I think the current situation isn’t better (for black atheists, not the black community).

  • Virginia

    Atheism was probably rarer in the black community for the same reasons it was rare in the Jewish ghettos, and in Chinese culture too. Chinese is very uncomfortable about the idea of the naturalistic worldview where no deity is there to push the bad and reward the good too.

    Atheism is also seen with unfavourable light because of its mistaken association with Communism.

  • TimJ

    Virginia, you are correct about Communism and is probably the main reason the phrase “One nation under God” was inserted into the pledge of allegiance in 1954.

    On Chinese culture, not being an expert I can not reach definitive conclusions. But I can perhaps contribute a little anecdotal insight, no matter how slight. My inlaws (Chinese wife) are both atheist, whereas my wife’s grandmother is nominally Bhuddist. This amounts to mainly the ritual of setting out food for her deceased husband in a small shrine, and then eating it later. Most of the other Chinese I’ve interacted with are atheists though (may have more to do with education), with a few exceptions, such as Bhuddists or Taoists (been to a Taoist temple a few times with a friend, who doesn’t take it too seriously, but appreciates some of the philosophical aspects). One notable exception was a convert to fundamentalist Christianity, which anecdotally does seem to be making some headway into China (can’t back this up with hard evidence at the moment). There also seems to be, among the general population, a tendency towards almost “magical” thinking. For example, the number 4 sounds a little like death and so is considered an unlucky number. Not too long ago, according to my wife, the government was trying to restrict certain ATM numbers from being used since so many people were choosing their PIN to be something like 8888 (8 being a lucky number). My wife, although atheist, has a very strong tendency to think (as you suggest) in terms of karma, while simultaneously realizing that this is not the way the real world works. Of course, the whole blend of religious cultural influences in China is topic for a whole other lengthy discussion (and many books :) ), and I claim no real expertise.

    Back on topic, it was great to hear about an African American free thinker, and I hope we will be seeing more out there soon.

  • the chaplain

    Re: the DuBois-Washington debate, history has shown that DuBois called this one correctly. Washington did not recognize that economic equality was all of a piece with social and political equality. One was not going to come on its own; they all had to move forward together and reinforce each other.

  • Brian Carnell

    *Drifted* toward Communism?? Just read DuBois’ sycophantic obituary for Stalin:

    “Joseph Stalin was a great man; few other men of the 20th century approach his stature. He was simple, calm and courageous. He seldom lost his poise; pondered his problems slowly, made his decisions clearly and firmly; never yielded to ostentation nor coyly refrained from holding his rightful place with dignity. He was the son of a serf but stood calmly before the great without hesitation or nerves. But also – and this was the highest proof of his greatness – he knew the common man, felt his problems, followed his fate.”

    DuBois was, however, equally comfortable with religious/military dictatorships. He urged China to accept its Japanese liberators who were saving it, in part, from white aggression in DuBois’ view.

  • Christopher

    “Joseph Stalin was a great man; few other men of the 20th century approach his stature. He was simple, calm and courageous. He seldom lost his poise; pondered his problems slowly, made his decisions clearly and firmly; never yielded to ostentation nor coyly refrained from holding his rightful place with dignity. He was the son of a serf but stood calmly before the great without hesitation or nerves. But also – and this was the highest proof of his greatness – he knew the common man, felt his problems, followed his fate.”

    Like hell he did – he was just another maniac-turned-politician bent on imposing his will over everyone else to the point of slaying millions of his own subordinates! I wouldn’t trust a guy like him to run a McDonalds as he may decide to kill every employee that sees flaws in his business plan or else just looks at him in a funny way (just imagine the resulting lawsuits that would come out of such a debachle!).

    The sooner every man becomes a power unto himself, the sooner we never have to deal with bastards like him again…

  • lpetrich

    Mr. DuBois was far from alone in the Left in losing all critical sense about Joseph Stalin. Bertrand Russell wondered why people who were usually intelligent and humane would turn around and defend Joseph Stalin and his monstrous regime; he remembered how George Bernard Shaw’s bullshit detector would switch off when the bullshit came from Moscow.

    Although one must concede that DuBois was ultimately correct, one must concede to the Booker Washington camp that social status is no substitute for competence. But BW and his friends ought to have been aware that being a very productive slave did not enable one to eventually own a plantation. And BW ought to have been aware of what competence without social status had done for the Jews — they got stereotyped as being too competent. Jews got stereotyped as ruthless, crooked, conniving businessmen, like bankers who demand their Pound of Flesh.

  • Ebonmuse

    I agree, Brian, that Du Bois’ praise for Stalin was deplorable. It’s also rather inexplicable. Perhaps everyone has a blind spot when it comes to certain evils.

    My personal hypothesis is that Du Bois, like many intellectuals of the early twentieth century, was initially sympathetic to the utopian claims of communism. (To be fair, capitalism had done much to make itself look unattractive prior to reforms like the Pure Food and Drug Act or the rise of the labor movement.) That youthful idealism probably lasted later into his life, even after communism had done far more to discredit itself than capitalism ever had, and biased his views so as to prevent him from seeing clearly.

    Still, even in the worst case, Du Bois’ support for Stalin was only verbal, never material. I don’t excuse it, but every man has his flaws, and I don’t think it negates the enormous contributions he made to the cause of civil rights and black equality here in the United States.

  • Brian Carnell

    I am a little surprised that people like DuBois were supporters of Communism in their youth, though it appears at that time that lots of public intellectuals in the West were fascinated with the twin face of fascism and communism.

    What is surprising is how quickly advocates of fascism largely abandoned that particular faith, whereas a significant proportion of adherents of communism generally persisted until the bitter end. It’s not surprising that Bertrand Russell initially had positive things to say and high hopes for the Bolshevik revolution, but quickly abandoned that as the evidence came in that contradicted his views and soon after ward authored a critique both of Lenin and of Bolshevism.

    But in DuBois’ case, he wrote that obituary in 1953, long after the crimes of the Communist regime in general and of Stalin in particular were well known.

    Communism appears to have functioned for some leftists of the day as a place keeper for the religion they had abandoned. Whereas Marx had said that religion is the opiate of the people, communism became the opiate of the left wing elite and the arguments in its favor (and against its critics) became very much like those religious believers use to deploy against critics of their system.

    And, of course, if I were a believer I’d enhance the “atheism leads to Stalin” line of argumentation by pointing out the # of prominent left atheists who were supporters of the Soviet Union. From the atheist side, I think it merely highlights that while religious belief may be the most visible form of widespread irrational thinking, it is hardly the only such system and that mythologies and moral blindness are not peculiar to religious belief but rather will persist even in entirely secular settings.

  • cl

    I would add that DuBois’ empathy for Communism was not from the onset of age but present from youth. Also, saying he was the founder of the NAACP might be an exaggeration. However, he was pivotal in the formation of the Niagara movement, which in 1910 became the NAACP.

    As Du Bois notes, “Those who have not thus witnessed the frenzy of a Negro revival in the untouched backwoods of the South can but dimly realize the religious feeling of the slave…”

    Even more off topic, in a sense it could be argued that the pre-Emancipation black’s retreat into religion was a concession of loss tantamount to the acceptance of defeat. Writes Du Bois of the “hypocritically compromising” Southern blacks in contrast to their “radical” Northern counterparts on page 735 of The Souls Of Black Folk, “The Negro, losing the joy of this world, eagerly seized upon the offered conceptions of the next..” In fact, in the very next sentence Du Bois describes this condition of mind as “religious fatalism.”