Atheism, race and free thinker at the turn of the 19th century
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 examines what atheists and other non-religious people thought about racial issues in Britain and the United States. One of the main sources of this book was the Free thinker journal, which began appearing in 1881 and has continued to the present day (although now only online).
In the book, I suggest that the relationship between atheism and racism is complex. On the one hand, atheists seemed to accept many mainstream 19th-century views of the inferiority of non-white groups. On the other hand, atheists also seemed more inclined than their Christian counterparts to question ideas of racial and civilizational superiority. Some examples of the Free thinker will demonstrate this complexity.
The first editor of the Freethinker, GW Foote spoke out against racism. For example, Foote denounced fears of a “yellow peril” – the idea that Asian countries would rise up to take over the world. As he said, “we have no belief in this yellow peril” and said that “it is a fantastic idea that the yellow races wage a war of extermination against the white races”. Indeed, said Foote, “the white man should really try to get rid of the silly selfishness associated with the color of his skin.” 
Other authors question the idea that the West is more “civilized” than other countries. An example can be found in a series of articles from 1912 in the Free thinker by Chapman Cohen, Foote’s eventual successor as the newspaper’s editor. Cohen said: “[f]From the throne – that bastion of primitive ideas and barbaric ceremonial – down, we encounter frequent reminders that our veneer of civilization is of the thinnest kind possible. 
War was the most faithful example of uncivilized behavior, regardless of the technology used: “How is combat between modern gunboats more civilized than combat between canoes?”
In this way, Cohen questioned whether Britain really deserved to be seen as more civilized than supposedly wild countries, thus casting doubt on the whole notion of hierarchies of civilization.
Another article in the Free thinker by an author identified as HJ criticized black British preacher Celestine Edwards for his aversion to atheists. In the article, HJ brought up the anti-slavery history of atheists and encouraged Edwards to “remember that some of the best friends the Negro has ever had were infidels and atheists.” 
This is not to say that the newspaper has always been free from racist views. In one case, the Free thinker reprinted an article by William Cowper Brann, a Texas free thinker, who incidentally wrote:
I have nothing against the Baptists. I just don’t think they were held long enough.
In this article, Brann used various racist tropes to criticize African American preachers. The black preacher, Brann argued, had “even less morality than the usual darkey.” These are the men who had been responsible for the uprisings in the southern United States and “[t]he belief in many negro skulls that black is many degrees better than white is largely due to the assurances of their preachers. 
However, as free thought historian Susan Jacoby points out, the fact that Brann was “a racist activist […] made him an outcast in the national free thought movement […]. ” 
In this case, it appears that the Free thinker likely reprinted the article because of its criticism of Christian preachers, although that also meant tacit acceptance of racist tropes.
This selection of articles shows, hopefully, the complexity of the issue of racism and atheism. Atheists were certainly not immune to the racism prevalent in the 19th and early 20th centuries. At the same time, however, it is true that among atheists there were views about race that were rarely found in mainstream discussions. Atheists were often on the margins of their society due to social and legal sanctions against them. This made them feel deeply unhappy with their societies and therefore be more willing to question some of the central orthodoxies of their time, including racism.
 GW Foote, “This Horrible Japan”, The free thinker, September 4, 1904, 561.
 Chapman Cohen, “The Primitive Spirit,” The free thinker, November 3, 1912, 690.
 Ibid., 691.
 HJ, “How Christians Love the Negro”, The free thinker, June 19, 1892, 388.
 “Black preachers and their work”, The free thinker, May 27, 1900, 332.
 Susan Jacoby, Free Thinkers: A History of American Secularism (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2004), 155.
• Historian Nathan G Alexander is interested in two main 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 such as “racial prejudice” and “” phobia. colours.
Since much of our contemporary race debate revolves around the meaning of “racism”, an analysis of the history of this concept is particularly urgent. The project hopes to understand the historical meanings of “racism” and related terms, in particular to determine whether “racism” is best defined as a matter of individual beliefs and actions or of social structures and institutions. I will also examine how these terms have been deployed in the debate and how (or if) they have played a role in shaping social change.
Alexander’s article is part of a project that received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under Marie Skłodowska-Curie Grant Agreement No 665958.