Atheism, Race, and the Freethinker at the Turn of the 19th Century

Atheism, Race, and the Freethinker at the Turn of the 19th Century July 16, 2019


WHAT is the historical relationship between atheism and racism? This is a question I examine in my recent book, Race in a Godless World: Atheism, Race, and Civilization, 1850-1914 (Manchester University Press, 2019 and NYU Press, 2019).

The book looks at what atheists and other non-religious people thought about racial issues in both Britain and the United States. One of the key sources for this book was the Freethinker newspaper, which began publishing in 1881 and has continued up to the present day (although now solely online).

In the book, I suggest that the relationship between atheism and racism is complex. On the one hand, atheists seemed to accept many common nineteenth-century views about the inferiority of non-white groups. On the other hand though, atheists also seemed more inclined than their Christian counterparts to question ideas of racial and civilizational superiority. A few examples from the Freethinker will demonstrate this complexity.

The first editor of the Freethinker, G.W. Foote spoke out against racism. For example, Foote denounced fears of a “Yellow Peril” – the idea that Asian countries would rise up to dominate the world. As he said, “we have no belief whatever in this Yellow Peril” and said that “it is a fantastic idea that the Yellow races will wage a war of extermination against the White races.” Indeed, Foote said, “the white man should really try to rid himself of the silly egotism connected with the color of his epidermis.” [1]

Other authors questioned the idea that the West was more “civilized” than other countries. An example of this can be found in a series of articles from 1912 in the Freethinker by Chapman Cohen, Foote’s eventual successor as editor of the paper. Cohen said, “[f]rom the throne – that stronghold of primitive ideas and barbaric ceremonial – downward, we meet with frequent reminders that our veneer of civilisation is of the thinnest possible kind.” [2]

War was the truest example of uncivilized behaviour, no matter the technology used: “In what ways is a fight between modern gunboats more civilised than a fight between canoes?”[3]

In this way, Cohen questioned whether Britain really deserved to be seen as more civilized than supposedly savage countries, therefore casting doubt on the entire notion of hierarchies of civilization.

Another article in the Freethinker by an author identified as H.J. criticized the black British preacher Celestine Edwards for his dislike of atheists. In the article, H.J. brought up the anti-slavery history of atheists and encouraged Edwards to “remember that some of the best friends the negro ever had were infidels and Atheists.” [4]

This is not to say that the newspaper was always free from racist views. In one case, the Freethinker reprinted an article by William Cowper Brann, a freethinker from Texas, who, incidentally, wrote:

I have nothing against the Baptists. I just believe they were not held under long enough.

In this article, Brann used various racist tropes as he criticized African American preachers. The black preacher, Brann contended, had “even less morals than the usual darkey.” It was these men who had been responsible for uprisings in the southern United States and “[t]he belief in many negro skulls that the black is several degrees better than the white is largely due to the assurances of their preachers.” [5]

As the historian of freethought Susan Jacoby points out, however, the fact that Brann was “a militant racist […] made him a pariah within the national freethought movement […].” [6]

In this case, it appears the Freethinker likely reprinted the article because of its criticism of Christian preachers, even if it also meant tacitly accepting racist tropes.

This selection of articles hopefully shows the complexity of the issue of racism and atheism. Atheists were certainly not immune from the racism common in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. At the same, however, it is true that among atheists there were perspectives about race that were rarely found in mainstream discussions. Atheists were often at the margins of their societies due to social and legal penalties against them. This led them to feel profoundly discontented with their societies and therefore to be more willing to question some of the central orthodoxies of their times, including racism.


[1] G.W. Foote, “That Horrid Japan”, The Freethinker, September 4, 1904, 561.

[2] Chapman Cohen, “The Primitive Mind”, The Freethinker, November 3, 1912, 690.

[3] Ibid., 691.

[4] H.J., “How Christians Love the Negro”,  The Freethinker, June 19, 1892, 388.

[5] “Negro Preachers and Their Work”, The Freethinker, May 27, 1900, 332.

[6] Susan Jacoby, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2004), 155.

• Historian Nathan G Alexander is interested in two broad areas: the history of race and racism, and the history of atheism and secularism.

His current project is tentatively titled, “The Meanings of ‘Racism’: A History of the Concept”, and examines the history of the term and concept, “racism”, as well as earlier and related terms like “race prejudice” and “colorphobia.”

He says:

Since so much of our contemporary debate about race turns on the meaning of ‘racism’, an analysis of the history of this concept is especially pressing. The project hopes to understand the historical meanings of ‘racism’ and related terms, particularly to disentangle whether ‘racism’ is best defined as being about individual beliefs and actions, or about social structures and institutions. I will also examine how these terms have been deployed in debate and how (or if) they played a role in shaping social change.

Alexander’s 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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