Nathan G. Alexander

Jun 17, 2020

Race in a Godless World

Atheism, Race, and Civilization, 1850–1914

New York University Press 2019

purchase at bookshop.org Is modern racism a product of secularization 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. In his new book, Race in a Godless World: Atheism, Race, and Civilization, 1850–1914, Nathan Alexander sets out to correct the oversight. The book centres on Britain and the United States in the second half of the nineteenth century, a time when popular atheist movements were emerging and skepticism about the truth of Christianity was becoming widespread. This newly embraced secularization created a paradox. How could Western civilization represent the pinnacle of human progress, as most white atheists accepted, when the majority of these societies still believed in Christianity? The result of this tension was a profound ambivalence regarding issues of racial and civilizational superiority. At times, white atheists assented to scientific racism and hierarchical conceptions of civilization; at others, they denounced racial prejudice and spoke favorably of non-white, non-Western civilizations. Covering racial and evolutionary science, imperialism, slavery, and racial prejudice in theory and practice, Alexander’s book 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 marginalized groups. Nathan Alexander is a Canadian historian, researching the history of race and racism, and the history of atheism and secularization. He finished his PhD at the University of St Andrews in the UK and was most recently a postdoctoral fellow at the Max Weber Centre for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies with the University of Erfurt, Germany.
Carrie Lynn Evans is a PhD student at Université Laval in Quebec City.

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