No Gods, No Masters

Vincent Lloyd on Nathan G. Alexander

Race in a Godless World
Nathan G. Alexander, Race in a Godless World: Atheism, Race, and Civilization, 1850-1914. New York: New York University Press. 256pp. $39.

What does an atheist want? The answer is simple: freedom from domination. A powerful instinct toward liberation animates atheists. At its best, this instinct binds together liberation movements, linking atheists with those seeking racial justice, gender justice, an end to colonialism, and an end to the power of economic elites. At its worst – as we see with the New Atheists’ alignment with the far right – this instinct fuels paranoia, conspiracy theories, and scapegoating.

If God or gods exist, they are, by definition, dominating the world’s inhabitants. They arbitrarily intervene in the natural workings of the world: they are supernatural. If the actions of God or gods were explicable, they would not be divine at all, just elements of the natural world, objects for scientific investigation. More than markers of the inexplicable, divinities are supposed to have their own wills, and their mysterious interventions in the natural world follow those wills. This is domination: the capacity to intervene in another’s world arbitrarily.

The paradigm of domination, from ancient Rome to the present, is slavery. A master can intervene in the world of a slave arbitrarily, following the master’s will. From this paradigm, we can see domination present more or less explicitly, on smaller or larger scales, in racial discrimination, microaggressions, monarchy, patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism. Bosses, kings, white supremacists, casual racists, fathers, men, and colonial powers dominate – and those dominated struggle for self-determination. They aim to topple the system, or individual, who dominates. For atheists, that means religion, God.

There is a great deal of domination in the world, and in our lives. Most of us, most of the time, acquiesce. Occasionally, because of the contingencies of experience, personality, and social movements, some of us struggle against domination. Some become abolitionists, some feminists, some regicides, some revolutionaries, and some atheists. Those struggling against one form of domination should, it seems, be sympathetic to those struggling against other forms of domination – so long as they can recognize the shared logic of domination animating their separate antagonists. 

In the vibrant, colorful world of Anglophone atheism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, this principle of sympathy in struggle generally holds. Organized atheism and individual atheists were fed by socialist and feminist movements. For those challenging men and bosses who would set themselves up as gods, challenging God directly was not much of a leap, particularly as God was so often enlisted to legitimate social domination. For example, Annie Besant famously advocated for socialism and women’s rights while becoming a leading light of the British National Secular Society in the second half of the nineteenth century. She would later explore Eastern religiosity and became a leader of the theosophy movement, seeking to harmonize the essential truths of world religions with science.

Nathan Alexander’s book Race in a Godless World explores whether the instinct to oppose domination that motivates atheists to oppose God also motivates them to oppose racial and colonial domination. The short answer, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, is largely yes: compared with their theist peers, atheists were more likely to oppose racial discrimination and colonial rule. A small number of atheist leaders were clearly white supremacists, but a much larger number of atheist leaders held views in line with progressives of their day on questions of race and colonialism, and a significant number of atheist leaders took radical stances on these issues.

Alexander explains these views by pointing to the historical connections between atheists and other social radicals as well as to a sense of affinity atheists have for others who, like themselves, feel marginalized by a society. He suggests that “atheists glimpsed their societies from the perspectives of outsiders, which forced them to be skeptical of the status quo and to be willing to imagine new futures.” The outliers found each other: when Frederick Douglass was on a speaking tour in Illinois shortly after the Civil War, he found refuge at the home of the renowned freethought lecturer Robert Ingersoll.

Additionally, Alexander points to the deep engagement atheists had with the scientific developments of the age. God could be rejected because science provided answers, and the answers science provided were logical, comprehensible, and lacking caprice. A turn to science promised an exit from, and guarantee against, domination. The periodicals and speeches of atheists during this period were filled with information on and interpretation of the latest scientific developments. Did humans originate at one time and place (monogenesis), as the Bible was read to proclaim, or were there multiple points of origin to the human species (polygenesis)? Given developments in the theories of biological and social evolution, were humans qualitatively different from other species, or was there a continuum between the various types of humans and the various types of, for example, primates? 

Atheists’ responses to these questions varied widely, and they sometimes undermined the sympathy shown by atheists for those subjected to racial and colonial domination. Atheists drawn to polygenesis because of its challenge to Biblical inerrancy might be tempted to see the white race created separately from, and superior to, other races. Similarly, atheists drawn to evolutionary theories might be tempted to see white Europeans and Americans as evolutionarily superior to other races. The similarity between the religious practices of supposedly evolved Christians and “savage” people could advance the case for atheism. On the other hand, many atheists sought to dispel prejudices against non-white people and often turned to non-white, non-European peoples as sources of wisdom that could replace the false morality of Christianity. The civilizations of India, China, and Japan possessed insights as old, if not older, than Christianity, and atheists could find the best supposedly Christian ethical principles in the thought of these cultures without the superstition. This motivated some, including Annie Besant, to advocate for an end to colonial rule. Others went further: Alexander quotes the American atheist Charles Chilton Moore writing to a correspondent, “I like red men, black men and yellow men – Indians, Negroes and Chinamen, and I like white women, but I ain’t much stuck on white men.”

For Alexander, then, atheists do not discern a principle of non-domination from their reasoning about God and then apply that principle to other contexts. In this he is surely correct: it is only moral philosophers who actually believe moral principles motivate moral action. What Alexander describes, rather, is a rich culture created by those struggling against divine domination, exploring the resources for that struggle and the implications of that struggle. Atheist culture was made possible by certain era-specific infrastructure – periodicals and lecture-circuits – but it was also strengthened by the imperative to practice critical inquiry that accompanied the rejection of divine authority. While some progressive theologians including Hanna Reichel have recently advocated a turn to “citizen theology,” mirroring the “citizen science” that decenters scientific authority, atheist culture has always promoted citizen atheology. What atheism entails is determined by lectures, audience response, editorials, letters to the editor, discussions at atheist club meetings, and informal conversations. Out of a culture that is oriented against domination, rather than out of principles of non-domination, come atheist affinities with racial justice movements, feminism, and socialism.

When the focus is on atheist culture, it becomes clear that atheists are not simply one extreme of a spectrum that runs from atheists through agnostics to Unitarians, liberal Christians, evangelicals, and finally fundamentalists (mutatis mutandis for other religious traditions). The atheist commitment to intellectual self-determination, the opposite of domination, creates a culture where each individual has an obligation to participate in intellectual inquiry, including inquiry into natural and social science and religious traditions. It is not that religious communities are populated by blind followers acting on herd instinct; the imperative to inquiry, and particularly inquiry aimed at uncovering dynamics of domination, is just not a core feature of many religious cultures. And, not coincidentally, many religious cultures are deeply racist.

Of course there are ways of reading religious traditions, and practicing religion, that put the emphasis on the critical. Apophatic currents speak of the divine by saying what the divine is not, by pealing away the worldly words and habits that contaminate the way people encounter God. When these currents are taken seriously, the task of the believer is not to subordinate her life to the arbitrary commands of a hidden master but to interrogate the ways in which worldly prejudices, born of systems of domination, contaminate the believer’s perception and judgment. Certainly the apophatic believer refuses the label of “atheist” and remains attached to a religious community, but the difference may be more in disposition (half empty, half full) than in content.

Alexander touches on Black skeptics and non-believers, a topic that is the focus of Christopher Cameron’s recent monography Black Freethinkers. In the most famous figures from this tradition – W. E. B. Du Bois, Alain Locke, Hubert Harrison, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin – what one often finds is an apophatic instinct. Black skeptics are critical of what others say about God, and particularly critical of the way systems of domination are secured by their rational and affective association with God. But they rarely go about proclaiming themselves atheists. They are concerned with domination in all its forms. Indeed, even the iconically religious Martin Luther King, Jr. participates in this tradition: he has much more to say about what love is not than about what love (viz. God) actually is.

In short, what Alexander’s book invites us to do, by exploring the ways atheist culture addresses race and colonialism, is to center questions of domination, religious and otherwise, when reflecting on the history of atheism. Instead of searching for a shared metaphysics of atheism or searching for shared atheist affect that resonates over time and space, we ought to be looking for shared struggles. Whether these struggles go under the label of atheism or apophaticism, attending to them offers lessons and, at times, alliances for those who struggle against domination in all its forms.

Turning to atheism’s history helps us understand its risks and its transformative power today. With growing numbers of young people of all races identifying as atheists, and with even larger numbers embracing some sort of apophatic spirituality, believing in gods and spirits whose names elude the world, does this mean there are new legions assembling to struggle for racial justice? Prominent atheists flirt with the far right, espousing Islamophobic and white nationalist views. Yet Alexander’s book reminds us that atheists struggling in community, not as individual readers or internet users but in deepening personal relationships, were able to sharpen and appropriately direct their critical instincts. When we are alone, there is always a risk that the desire for freedom loses sight of its target: domination, and instead feeds narcissism and paranoia. 

Vincent Lloyd is an associate professor of theology and religious studies and director of Africana studies at Villanova University. His scholarship focuses on the intersection of religion, race, and politics. His books include In Defense of Charisma (Columbia, 2018), Black Natural Law (Oxford, 2016), and a coedited volume, Race and Secularism in America (Columbia, 2016). Lloyd is currently writing a book about dignity in Black politics.  He is the recipient of several grants from major institutions, and  served as a Visiting Scholar at the James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference at Emory University (2010-2011) and as a Kingdon Fellow at the University of Wisconsin’s Institute for Research in the Humanities (2015-2016).