Atheism and Racism

First let me state what I am NOT asking. I am NOT asking if atheists are racist. Nor am I looking to start a flame war. I know several atheists post here, and I’d like to get your input. Let me lay out my question by starting with myself.

As a Christian I believe all humans contain the Image of God (Imago Dei traditionally). Paul speaks in Galatians of “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female…”, that before God we are equal. James emphasizes equality of treatment, especially not showing favoritism.

I would like to understand how an atheist argues against racism. I know that the genetic differences between races are trivial and inadequate to justify racism.

But if you find racism somewhere, and there is no objective basis for claiming it “wrong,” how do you stand against it? You cannot claim that a lion is racist for eating gazelles (I know they are a different species and it is predator/prey). Nor can you claim that pecking orders among chimps are “wrong.” How, to an atheist, is racism different from “merely” the strong exploiting the weak, which can be argued to be a fundamental tenet of evolution?

Good qualifications.

Atheists, please give @marty the benefit of the doubt here and do your best to seek mutual understanding.

Isn’t this just a version of the old “how do atheists do morality” trope? (Yes, it is.)

To understand how unbelievers make moral judgments about anything, at all, you would be best served by reading about moral philosophy outside of your religion. Humanism is a common moral framework among atheists, for example.

This is the naturalistic (“is-ought”) fallacy, and I don’t think it needs to be re-argued here for the millionth time. Suffice it to say that this is a very bad misconstrual of moral thought by anyone I know. This may sound disrespectful, but I don’t think that question deserves an answer.

[Edited to change ‘genetic fallacy’ to naturalistic fallacy. They’re subtly different.]


Perfectly good question, and I take no offense.

The answer is that you do the exact same thing Christians do, you subjectively define something to be THE standard of morality(Christians say it’s God), and then point to the standard to show that some behavior or idea doesn’t live up to the standard.

There is really no difference at bottom. Where Christians point to God and simply assert that God is the standard of morality, an atheist can point to (for example) some conceptions of increased human well-being or flourishing(I’m being very brief here of course skipping a lot of nuance and caveats), and simply assert that is the standard of morality.

Either way, it’s just humans pointing to something and saying that’s what the standard of morality is. The standard of morality for humans always just reduces to an assertion. On both theism and atheism.


It’s been pointed out already that a Christian’s basis for morality is no more objective than an atheist’s. I would also point out that you have muddied the distinction between “factually true” and “morally wrong”. There is no factual justification for the claims of racism, and seems a reason for arguing against it even if it weren’t morally wrong. Then again, that assumes that truth is a virtue, so maybe we’re back to morality anyway.

So where does morality come from? I’d say it has an evolutionary basis in the social instincts of humans and other social primates. Evolution isn’t all red in tooth and claw; it can also promote cooperation, empathy, and sympathy. God is irrelevant in determining moral standards. Read Euthyphro.


Important point, and obviously true. I would add that the “image of god” thing, which I believed and spouted for decades, is meaningful to a believer but vacuous as a moral foundation. All it means is “humans are special” and you don’t need theology to say that or to believe it. I’m surely not saying that there is anything false about “humans are image-bearers” only that you don’t lose anything at all by tossing god out.


I will answer you an atheist and a humanist based on my reasoning, experience, and knowledge as a human being and an white American who grow up in the 1960’s.

From everything I know and have experienced, racism is a social construct rooted in inequality.

I know from evolution, genetics, biology, that all humans are of one species. We have traits such as skin tone that are adaptions of the latitude our ancestors are from. Skin tone is mostly an adaption of the need for vitamin D which we lost the ability to produce millions of years ago. All our ancestors of our species in Africa had dark skin, which lightened as our species moved to northern latitudes. Our Neanderthal cousins were of like skin tone than us. So racism is not biological.

But racism is real and has been part of the American social fabric since its founding. I question the sincerity of Christians asking this question of atheists because the Bible including Jesus condones racism including slavery. It is the ideals of the Enlightment that made progress to end salvery, racism, injustice, and economic inequity.

As a boy I watched in horror the race riots in 1968 after the assassinations of MLK and Robert Kennedy. I was under the impression that racism was way down in American as the country is much more “brown” today. The issues are still of economic inequality. I am hopeful that racism will go away with more education, more economic equality, and less religion and more secularization of American Society.

Society needs no religion nor god to know that racism and inequality is morally wrong and unjust. And we also know that no religion is going to fix the problems we have in the US today. The only way to solve our problem is through science, reasoning, and human empathy. No God needed nor necessary.

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I have to say I don’t agree with this. I don’t doubt the sincerity of Christians(or indeed anyone) who ask what basis there is for a rejection of racism.

What I ask in return is just that they ask it of themselves too. What is it about God’s nature, or His existence, that would make racism morally wrong? Even if God exists, why does that make certain behavior or thoughts objectively wrong?

One could ask, if we are made in the image of God, why does that make it morally wrong to be racist? Even if we accept for the sake of argument that God has made all humans equal, then that just means there is no factual empirical basis(except totally arbitrary superficial appearance) on which to justify discrimination, but why would that make it morally wrong to nevertheless engage in discrimination? A racist might ask, why is it wrong to dislike someone with a color or facial features different from my own, if I just happen feel repulsed by them? Why ought I not treat them some other way? - they look different, so I treat them different!

This highlights the is-ought problem once again. You might say that it IS the case that God has created humans equal, but it does not follow from that, that we ought not treat each other some particular way.

I think we are in the same predicament here, both theists and atheists alike. At a practical level we have to try to appeal to shared values and similar moral intuitions, that is all we can do. Esoteric philosophical arguments about what should be the moral standard, and whether this is truly objective, aren’t very likely to change anyone’s views on these things. To persuade the racist out of racism, you have to appeal to their (hopefully existing) empathy. How would you like it, if it was done to you? I don’t see how theism has any hope of a superior performance of persuading people out of bad behavior.


It’s based on basic empathy and reasoning. I wouldn’t want to be treated as less than equal based on the color of my skin. I can also determine that other people feel the same way as I do (i.e. empathy). Therefore, it stands to reason that if it is wrong for people to treat me a certain way then it would also be wrong for me to treat others in that same fashion.

We base it on our subjective emotions which are very, very important to all of us.

I would recommend reading that entire article. I agree with nearly all of it, and I think it is very close to how most atheists view morality.

That would be the naturalistic fallacy. Just become something is natural does not mean it is moral.


Sorry if some think I’m disingenuous, but I find it interesting to engage people with whom I don’t agree. I always learn something. Finding atheist philosphers arguing against racism was not a fruitful search. And I’m not here to make a case for my point of view, but if there is a point you really would like me to respond to, let me know.

Several point out that we all make a choice of where to ground our decisions about morality, and I agree with that. Each of us has made that decision.

These get more to what I am asking. I’m not really asking how we decide these matters for ourselves. Rather, if you encounter a person arguing that their racism is perfectly valid, how do you as an atheist disuade them?

What if they are saying that it is in their nature and they choose to express it, that they have chosen to root their morality in survival of the fittest and they believe other races are less fit? (As John Gray stated, “Civilization is natural for humans, but so is barbarism…”) To answer them, do you need to come up with an Ought yourself? I didn’t mean to suggest evolution provides an Ought, but that if someone wants to choose it as a model, what’s “wrong” with that?

Let me try it this way: how would you personally attempt to talk a racist atheist out of their racism?

I have another question: how would you?

But to answer yours, it’s probably fruitless. Racism is a rationalization, not a moral position. Consider all the Christian defenders of slavery, antebellum. How would you talk them out of it? We have to recast your question, I think: what is the argument against racism, whether or not it convinces a racist?

First, there are the facts. There are no biological races, only geographic clines at various loci. A few of these clines are probably maintained by selection, e.g. skin pigment. There is no evidence that any of these clines involve anything you could call inferiority.

Second, humans are social animals. If racism, or murder, or wearing white after Labor Day is in your nature, society enforces moral rules that you need to follow if you want to live in society. Those rules can change, but some rules make society a better place for everyone, and racism is corrosive to the well-being of its victims and its perpetrators.

Third, we have certain evolved moral instincts, one of which is sympathy and empathy for other people. You can try to exclude some groups from “people”, but there’s no justification for it, and the historical course has been to enlarge the coverage of “people” beyond your family, tribe, or nation.

Whatever the basis of your moral objections to racism, it can’t reasonably be “because God says so”.


For the record, I have found your posts to be honest and genuine.

Do a search for secular humanism.

I would ask them for their reasoning and we would discuss it. I would ask them how they could persuade society to follow their proposed morality. I would also ask them how they would feel if their rights were taken away because of the color of their skin.

The important part is that morality is something we debate within society and between people using our own inherent sense of morality and ability to reason.

The same as above. We debate and see if they have a good enough argument to convince society to follow them. Chances are, they won’t.

They need to come up with the logic and reasoning that starts with an Is and ends with an Ought. If they are proposing a moral system for society then the burden is on them to flesh it out and support it.

The first thing I would do is ask them to empathize with the people they want to discriminate against. IOW, have them put themselves in their shoes.

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I think we are in the same predicament here, both theists and atheists alike. At a practical level we have to try to appeal to shared values and similar moral intuitions, that is all we can do. Some times all it takes is for a racist to actually personally get to know someone from the “outgroup”, so they can experience in their own life that all the demonization is either both unjustified(and thus unfair), or that it affects people who are essentially just like themselves and capable of suffering.

Esoteric philosophical arguments about what should be the moral standard, and whether this is truly objective, aren’t very likely to change anyone’s views on these things. To persuade the racist out of racism, you have to appeal to their (hopefully existing) empathy. How would you like it, if it was done to you? You have to find out whether the person you’re talking to have a sense of fairness and is capable of feeling any sort of empathy for others. That’s in the end what is most likely to make someone “tick”.

I also think there’s a very significant difference between someone who has unconsidered or unexplored racist biases(which we probably all do to greater or lesser degrees), and someone who is a committed ideological racist.
In my experience, ideologically committed racists are almost impossible to talk to. And I mean that quite literally. It’s rarely possible to even get a real discussion started because no matter what you say they have some completely hermetically sealed network of conspiratorial rationalizations built up that provides an “answer” to basically anything you say(the fallback is, of course, always that it’s “the jews” who are orchestrating the collapse of civilization). It’s like talking to flat Earthers, where any putative evidence or argument against their position is dismissed as “these satellite pictures were photoshopped in a NASA bunker”. With people like this, conversation is utterly fruitless. It takes some sort of radical lived experience to change their minds, and you can’t do that through mere casual conversation.


Interesting that you would use a quote that explicitly assumes, and implicitly condones, the existence of slavery to support the claim that Christianity views all humans as deserving “equality of treatment.” I know it’s not what you intend to be discussed here, but it would be interesting to hear how you reconcile that.

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That quote doesn’t condone slavery.

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I agree with you, because the passage, one of the truly great pronouncements of the NT, isn’t even about the things in the list. It is about why none of those things matters “in Christ.” That passage was one of a few that kept my faith alive (if on life support) for years after it should have died.

So I think it is unfair to claim that the passage “implicitly condones” slavery. It is not unfair at all to note the plain and painful fact that the bible explicitly approves of–indeed essentially commands–enslavement and even worse. The NT fails to disclaim slavery in the terms we expect today, and it’s the letter to Philemon that shows implicit tacit approval. That would be a less remarkable moral failure if it weren’t for the OT.


If that’s the case, then it can’t reasonably be interpreted as a condemnation of racism, either. There is no way a slave and a master could be considered “equal” in the sense that a Jew and a Greek would be considered equal if we are not to practice racism. So the passage seems to have been misinterpreted as advice on how we should behave here on earth, and is just serving as a reminder of how, under Christianity, our earthly status has little to do with our ultimate fate.


Good point. It is far from clear that passage is speaking about human (physical or mental) equality in context, at least in the sense that a racist might assert some “races” are inferior to others by whatever measures of athleticism and intelligence. It seems to be speaking more about a sort of spiritual equality, in the sense that everyone who has faith will get what was “promised”.

I am wondering now, again, what was really intended to be understood by the statement that everyone was made in the image of God? Obviously it can’t have been meant that we are all absolutely equal in all measures of physical and cognitive performance(the kinds of crap that matters to racists). Innumerable people are just better athletes, better looking, and much more clever than I am. And after all, even superficially we all do look different, we are not identical clones of each other. So something else must have been meant by that statement or it would be directly obviously false. Perhaps this equality was only ever meant in a sort of spiritual sense.

But then the Christian has no basis for referring to these passages as a putative refutation of racist ideologies that derive from beliefs about human physical and cognitive inequality, as they are simply referring to a completely different measure of human value than the one the racist is referring to.


Yes I completely agree with this. I’d go a bit further and note that the Galatians passage equalizes people “in Christ” but can’t be understood to mean that the writer (Paul) believes in equality in society or even in the church. He’s brutally explicit about that in his other writings, most notably about women.

I think it is dishonest for a Christian to claim that the bible provides forceful or clear teachings against racism, or sexism or slavery or violence. Some strains of Christianity do provide those teachings, by quoting scriptures and (legitimately) amplifying those particular quotes to formulate a system of ethics and belief. Some strains are explicitly violent and xenophobic, and they quote scriptures and so on, to form their system of “ethics” and belief. My commitment is to give the first strain of Christians the respect they deserve by not conflating them with other strains. What I can’t respect is a blanket claim that the bible or Christianity (as a whole) has credibility or utility on anti-racism. The opposite is the case.


Anyway, slaves in the Roman world weren’t divided by race, anyone’s concept of race.