Are There Racist Atheists? November 22, 2008

Are There Racist Atheists?

The question comes from reader Nick.

Are there racist atheists?

To my knowledge, I haven’t met any… racism is completely contrary to any sort of rational thought. I guess I’d be surprised to meet an atheist racist. Or an atheist homophobe. Or an atheist sexist.

But we’re a big group. Those types have to be within our community, right…?

Have you met any?

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  • A friend of mine claims that her grandfather is.

  • Yeah, unfortunately, I know of a few. But to be fair, most of their racist beliefs are a direct product of a Catholic upbringing (you know, not liking Jews and homosexuals).

    I don’t think that atheism prevents you from being racist at all. Prejudices happen for a variety of reasons that has nothing to do with religion (such as social stereotypes), and xenophobia isn’t something only religious people experience. It’s true that many atheists are rational and intelligent people, but it’s not universal, unfortunately.

  • Absolutely. Many of the neo-nazis are atheists.

    The KKK types are a type of fundamentalist Christian, but the neo-nazis don’t believe in deities.

  • Andrew
  • I’m sure there are. I know atheists that believe in homeopathy and reincarnation, so just because you don’t believe in gods, doesn’t mean you only have rational beliefs.

  • There are some neo Nazis who are atheist.
    I think everyone is racist to at least some degree, and it is probably a defense mechanism we evolved over time. Survival percentages increased if surrounded by your own tribe, and other tribes (with perhaps different racial characteristics) could mean danger.
    I’ve been accused of racism for doing a post or two on Arab intelligence and education in the Arab world. But I know I’m not a racist in the way FA is throwing it out there here.
    I have seen Jew haters who are atheist on a few occasions. Likewise I’ve seen atheists who despise Arabs and Muslims.

  • Stephen P

    Well, it comes back to what one precisely means by atheist, doesn’t it. If you just mean someone who doesn’t believe in gods, then yes, there are plenty of atheist racists. But if, as you imply in this post, you mean someone who actively promotes rational thought, then there are probably very few.

    It is surely time to make an effort to clarify the confusion around what the word ‘atheist’ means.

    As a suggestion, if one wishes to refer simply to people who don’t believe in gods, for whatever reason, one might refer to de facto atheists.

    People who have considered the claims of religion and actively decided to reject them could be referred to as ‘considered atheists’.

    While for people who reject all dogmas, whether religious, communist, nationalist, racist or whatever, and who actively promote rational thought, I am coming round to the idea that ‘humanist’ is a better term than ‘atheist’. In which case there would be, by definition, no racist humanists.

  • Michael

    Atheist and racism aren’t mutually exclusive, unfortunately. Someone can rationalize segregation and still not believe in god, I would imagine.

    You don’t need to believe in god to believe your race to be superior.

  • I’ve met my share of atheists who have some nasty opinions about black people, Mexicans and Arabs. Apparently being rational about gods doesn’t automatically mean they’ll be rational about anything else.
    That being said, most atheists I know are color-blind and generally don’t care about a person’s race. They also tend not to be homophobic or sexist. If any of them are discriminatory it is usually related to a person’s religion.

  • Adrian

    Why do so many people make the mistake of associating “atheism” with “rationalism”? Is this a US-phenomenon?

    Racism, homophobia, and out-group fear/hatred in general is a human condition, not a religious one. Religions create more outgroups and create more powerful fear of the outgroup but there are many, many ways of building groups.

  • Miko

    Personally, no, but I’d expect it exists. For example, IIRC more than half of the French population are atheists and they have enough anti-Algerian sentiment to make some overlap a mathematical near-certainty.

  • Matthew

    I have a family member who is but this person isn’t an atheist for rational reasons.

  • Aj

    I haven’t known someone to be an atheist and a racist in recent years, but I don’t doubt they exist. Atheists were racists in the past when racism was acceptable in culture. James Watson is an athiest, but he apologised and recanted saying what he said was nonsensical. I think he was genuine and seemed like a nice chap in interviews.

    Many atheists don’t accept the concept of race as a scientific description of the species, there aren’t subspecies and we don’t divide other species up in this way. Skeptics Guide to the Universe had a good conversation about it.

    On the “Implicit Association Test” I had a slight negative bias towards people with “black” features compared to those with “white” features. I don’t think that’s unusual, even for people with “black” features. I also had a slight positive bias towards Judaism compared to other religions, which didn’t make much sense to me.

    From the atheist blogs, forums, and podcasts I get the impression that we rock on most issues, including sexism, racism, and homosexuality.

  • Miko

    Why do so many people make the mistake of associating “atheism” with “rationalism”? Is this a US-phenomenon?

    I’d guess yes. Most free countries have drastically higher percentages of atheists, making the atheist nuts more visible than they are here. On the other hand, in the US, atheism is strongly correlated with higher education whereas many religious sects have decided to cast their lots with the anti-science crowd. So, if one avoids looking too closely I can see where the misconception would come from.

    That said, I expect there may be a (probably fairly weak) correlation between atheism and rationalism, but I also imagine the causation is rationalism->atheism rather than the opposite direction. (That is, there may be a tendency for rational people to become atheists, but not a tendency for atheists to become rational people.)

  • Bruce

    I’m sure there are atheist racists and homophobes and such. I think it just comes as such a big surprise because, at least in my experience, a larger percentage of atheists tend not to have these qualities than the rest of the population. But yes, I have had atheist friends in the past who aren’t quite so sure about the gays or who don’t like all the Mexicans showing up in town to do our dirty work. You definitely do not need god to have irrational fears about groups of people (although it certainly doesn’t hurt).

  • bobbo

    someone can be raised and indoctrinated to atheism the same way most christians are. that kind of atheism does not guarantee rational thought and could easily be given to many kind of -isms, including racism

  • Marc

    Oh, come on, Hermant. Your question somehow implies that it should be extremely unusual for one of ours, an atheist, to be a racist.

    Why in the world would you think that? To clarify: my problem is specifically with the very word “atheist”. I know, I know, it’s an old argument and we don’t need to rehash all the particulars here but my basic contention would be that “atheism” as such is utterly devoid of any content – it is not a worldview, in the same way as “not-a-mammal” doesn’t specify any particular animals species…

    To illustrate what I mean:
    Some Christian apologist like to point out surveys that indicate a much higher believe in the occult, spritist ghost, New Age etc… among non-believers. Of course, the crucial point they overlook is that they simply believe in a different flavor of supernaturalism, so the lower percentage of believers in the “paranormal” among Christians is just a matter of memetic competition among rival supernatural belief systems.

    To come back to the original point: an atheist can believe in all kinds of supernatural or paranormal nonsense just as he can have all kinds of whacky and utterly objectionable moral and political views.

    Look, I am a huge fan of Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, Harris and all their predecessor, both in modern as in ancient times, but I really do agree with Sam Harris’ point about the inescapable problem of defining yourself with a negative.
    Yes, I know, we will be called atheists anyway by our opponents – no problem, there is no need to run away from the word.
    But the issue is where we put our primary focus, and here I strongly believe that we must put the emphasis on our humanistic ethic and the underlying worldview of Scientific Naturalism.

    Then you can start talking about how racism, sexism, homophobia etc. should be comparatively rare or unusual since our shared values really don’t leave much room for such nonsense. But that doesn’t work with “atheism”.

    Sorry if I seem to be nitpicking. I just really think this is a crucial issue.

  • Bekka

    Um, Christopher Hitchens and sexism, anyone?

  • Yes, there are definitely racist/sexist/homophobic atheists out there. Not all atheists are rational all the time about absolutely everything, unfortunately. I have met sexist and racist atheists. I haven’t met a homophobic atheist yet, but I doubt they are nonexistent.

  • One of my good friends is a homosexual atheist. He was brought up in a very bigoted home. He has moved past his families views on homosexuality and on religion, but race has been a hard one for him.

    He did vote for Obama, but it caused him a lot of grief. He knew that Obama was better for the nation, but he still had issues with it.

    It takes some people a great deal of time to move past the deep seated stereotypes of the homes they are raised within.

  • Ditto to what other people have said about not all atheists being rational. I also want to add this:

    Racism isn’t an either/ or thing. You don’t have to be an epithet- spouting Klan member to have some racism in you. Racism (and sexism, and homophobia, etc. etc.) often exists in subtler, unconscious ways. I would argue, in fact, that we all have it in us to some extent.

    And those subtle ways can be very devastating. I’m sure that most loan officers at banks don’t consciously think, “Black loan applicants are less trustworthy than white ones”… and yet it’s been documented that black people are less likely to get bank loans than white people, even if their financial specs are identical.

  • John

    Not all atheists are rational all the time about absolutely everything, unfortunately.

    You seem to be implying that racism is irrational. I must argue against you on this, every racist out there has made up their minds on completely rational thinking. People don’t just go around saying “I’m going to randomly decide to hate on a group of people,” they do so based on rational thinking. Hitler wasn’t just some nut that hated jews, he had reasons to hate to jews. This isn’t a defense of Nazism or Racism, but to say that people’s decisions on these subjects is irrational is completely false.

  • Maria

    atheist racist. Or an atheist homophobe. Or an atheist sexist

    I’ve met all 3. I’m starting to think Hitchens is one with how he attacks Hillary Clinton on a regualr basis for dumb reasons.

  • Marc

    Re Hitchens:

    yes, he is being an idiot about Hillary. But in his defense – though in a rather backhanded way – I should point out that he generally goes insane about anything to do with the Clintons.
    He hates or detests them with a vengeance. Don’t ask me why. My point is, that he is/was just as vicious against Bill as against Hillary.

    Let’s just admit that he can be a giant, unbelievably annoying and obnoxious asshole when he wants to.
    Still, despite his many flaws, I can’t quite bring myself to completely dislike him – yet.
    I just tune out his noises about the Clintons as run-of-the-mill inane beltway-blather and appreciate him for the areas where we agree.

  • John

    Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. – Ephesians 5:22-24

    And you’re calling Hitchens a sexist because of some comments he made against Hillary?

  • K

    I’m a bigot. I can’t stand religious people. I hate all muslims. Their religion keeps them about 500 years retarded. STONING people to death? Oh, sorry, not people, just women and little girls. Because of religion, the whole middle east is a mess. Mostly muslim mess but there is some jewish mess going on too. It takes 2 to tango. Evil, low moral, poor character, blind followers of a blood cult.
    And then there’s christians. Death threats for catholic cracker, “abuse.” Murdering and hating homosexuals. “God hates fags!” Any human being who believes in a magical sky fairy and has to lie to themselves every day, constantly, to keep themselves from questioning, from thinking, from doing the right thing, THOSE are bad people with bad morals. I hate them all, no matter what color skin, no matter what accent, no matter where they were born. Religious people are vile.

  • John

    K, you are just as fiendish as the fundie Christians. There are plenty of good Christians out there, even highly religious ones. To hate them and call them ‘bad’ simply because they came up with a different answer to the great question is to group yourself with the same nuts you so fervently despise.

  • Hitchens pretty much lost me with his Why Women Aren’t Funny article.

    Bill Maher has also said some objectionable shit.

  • I haven’t had any personal experience with atheists who are more than incidentally racist/sexist/homophobic, but they undoubtedly exist. (And not just by inference from their writings…)

    The world is full of people who are rational in one area of their lives while being irrational (or even contradictory) in others…

  • sam

    not believing in god has no relation to their views on race relations.

  • Eric

    Atheism doesn’t require being rational. I would say there’s probably no (or at least few) racist rationalists.

  • Dan C.

    Of course there are racist, sexist, etc. atheists. Not believing in God doesn’t preclude being stupid in other ways, and people arrive at atheism in ways other than by strictly adhering to rational thought in every way.

  • Amanda

    To quote Avenue Q,

    “Everyone’s a little bit racist!”

    If you reside in America, are currently living, and you are not some type of hermit, you probably have stereotyped others or had racist thoughts – probably even unintentionally or subconsciously.

  • Nick

    I didn’t really think it was so possible for an atheist to also be racist, and sexist and homophobic, etc. I’m really glad I asked that question, I learned alot.

  • Roger Scott

    I agree totally with Dan C. Transistor co-inventor William Shockley was a non-religious racist AFAIK.
    While I’m not religious and not a racist (which seems to have no scientific validity) cultural respect is another thing entirely. In Australia we have a huge gap in living standards between whites and the indigenous population. Billions of dollars and decades of effort have shown little reduction in this gap. The Aborigines were living in a stone age culture when Europeans arrived and the cultural memes persist.
    About 20 years ago the Federal government stopped a mine proceeding on land allegedy sacred to Aborigines. It would have interfered with cultural beliefs. The land housed the spirit of “Bulla” we were told. This was not a sentiment universal among Aborigines. Some educated locals decried the decision, which was based on cheap politics and obsolete cultural ideas (ie religion). The locals missed out on millions of dollars to improve their facilities. One of the chief indigenous pushers of the ban became a member of parliament and a minister. Journalists from the big cities treated him as a beacon of reasonablness. For mine, he was a manipulative, self-serving cynic.

  • John

    I’m not religious and not a racist (which seems to have no scientific validity)

  • Sure there are. Let’s not make the mistake to assume that all of us have come to our atheism rationally. There are many atheists that are dogmatic about their atheism. They just happen to get to the right answer, via the wrong way. I know quite a few racist atheists myself.

  • Zar

    There are a lot of sexist atheists out there.

  • Aj

    I don’t know whether Hitchens is sexist, and the title “Why Women Aren’t Funny” might suggest so. However, the article itself is more thoughtful, and contains quotes from actual neuroscience research, and talks about “taking as a whole” and “on average” difference. I don’t think the article is sexist.

    Race has no scientific validity. As Darwin noted, the problem is not that people aren’t different, but that there are many ways to divide the species, and they seem to be completely arbitrary. Races aren’t useful scientific descriptions, but social constructs.

  • bob

    I know of one, 75 years old, former Church of Christ minister. He finds inter-racial relationships to be disgusting. I don’t think he can say why though…?

  • I met an atheist who wants to nuke Iran, on the grounds that it will save Western civilization from the irrational extremists there. That’s not irrational. Disgusting and callous, yes, but irrational, no.

    I would argue that it’s a contradiction for a secular humanist to be a racist. There is absolutely no such contradiction for atheists. Atheism does not equal rationalism anyway. It doesn’t equal egalitarianism or altruism either.

    And, as many have pointed out, there are plenty of sexist atheists. Kind of goes along with that “I’m better and more moral because I’m an atheist” thing. Chauvinism crosses many boundaries. :-p

  • Pseudonym

    To my knowledge, I haven’t met any… racism is completely contrary to any sort of rational thought.

    Hate is completely contrary to any sort of following of the teachings of Jesus. And yet, we all know of examples.

    I agree with those above: Atheism is not the same thing as Rationalism. Even Theistic Rationalism isn’t as uncommon as people think. (I could also mention Hitchens, but I won’t. That’d be too easy.)

  • Indigo

    A relative of my significant other holds a PhD, has nothing but scorn for all religions, and thinks it’s wrong for people of different races to intermarry.
    However, in a spectacular example of “do as I say and not as I do”, he is presently dating a Malaysian woman.

  • Scott

    Yes. And there are gay heterosexuals and heterosexual child molesters. Idiots. There is nothing on the planet that is mutually exclusive except matter and anti-matter! And we haven’t cornered the market on that yet, either!

  • Esh_two
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