Atheism and Racism

Should this thread be split? The first three posts after my recent clarification speak to the question here, but then it seems we started debating Gal 3:28 and even some of the earlier posts were aimed to Christianity rather than at conversing with an atheist racist about racism.

Thanks very much for the thoughtful replies. This is what I was looking for, a bit more personally digested and thought through, and succinctly summarized.

Yeah, I’m in agreement, @John_Harshman and @Rumraket, that it may not be possible. A lot of people you cannot engage in true dialog, where both sides listen.

John - I will point to one minor objection, and it is truly minor in your excellent summary, but I see the use of “rationalization” vs “moral” as an attempt to objectify your opinion. If you believe it, it is “moral” but if someone disagrees, it’s because of “rationalization.” Perhaps claiming a little too much authority?

@T_aquaticus I look through the links you post, but coelsblog seems like one who doesn’t engage with any thoughtful Christians. Unfortunate. The AHA press release is, well, a press release, but your comments were more to the point.

To my question, yes, ultimately we’re left with hoping our racist will have some empathy, which, as I look around the world, I think the present company may have more of than average. I’m not sure if hope in humankind in that regard is misplaced. I can’t seem to find who first said something about our “thin veneer of civilization.” Alligator brain takes over too easily - consider the meaningless destruction and looting in the riots.

It seems to me that we as social beings tend toward tribalism, and “us vs them” thinking. It’s really hard to escape. I fear that the political polarization in our country is a form of that.

Thanks again for the comments!

I’m not sure I agree. I do agree that, if someone tries to justify his racism on a claim about inherent genetic inferiority, then his claim is refuted by showing this inferiority does not exist.

However, there remains a moral positon to be defended, namely: Even if genetic differences in abilities and attributes can be shown statistically to exist between ethnic groups, it is still not moral to treat members of an ethnicity as inferior to another.


You have quite misunderstood. What I was saying is that the expressed justifications that racists give for racism are not their actual reasons. A racist who, for example, cites the curse of Ham is not actually a racist because of the biblical defense of slavery. He has quite different reasons.


Good clarification. Got it. As @Rumraket pointed out they probably wrap it all up in conspiracy theories. And that’s sometimes why it is impossible to dialog with them, because they will not engage with their actual reasons. They may not even know their actual reasons, which probably comes down to some primal emotion, like fear.


I tend to think that we all bifurcate our morality to some extent: we have a felt morality and a reasoned morality, and we expect the two to coincide but they do not always do so. I think we feel, and then we explain, but the explanation is unlikely to correctly characterize the real cause of the feeling.

So, I would say that that explanation reads very much like one of these internal rationalizations. Understand that I do not mean “rationalization” in any pejorative sense here. I just mean that I would suspect that you have a felt morality which tells you how badly wronged you would feel if you were discriminated against on the basis of race, and that you seek to supply a rationale for this – the rationale may or may not provide some sort of ancillary guidance on related questions, but it is unlikely to be the reason why you feel as you do. As I have said, I think we all do this to a degree. And why not? Moral feeling is a neural phenomenon of its own, quite qualitatively different from reasoning about facts. It’s natural that we try to impose the latter on the former, but the results of our doing so are often less meaningful than they look.

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Excellent comment. Marketers know that about us, that if they can make us want something (“because I’m worth it!” … for example) we will rationalize buying it entirely on own.

Modern philosophers talk about “intentionality” as a thing of humans, though they do not try to define it from a scientific view, partly because if there is something more than just matter and energy, science cannot detect it. Leveraging from that I would push for the same starting point for our moral feelings. It’s obvious we are “moral seeking beings” and we generally agree, but the “why” is up for debate. I would, of course, attribute it to something God put in us (which is a common Christian apologetic argument, the “moral argument”), and, yes, neurons support that somehow. So while I agree with your conclusions, it would be more generic with “neural” dropped as “Moral feeling is a … phenomenon of its own.” … Hope that’s not too nit-picky!

Regarding the Bible discussions, amazing to me how people can look at the same thing and see something totally different. But I’ll give my perspective. A summary principle: context matters.

The worth of the individual is first a Biblical concept. In the Ancient Near Eastern context, their stories, humans were slaves made to do the bidding of the gods. But in the Bible God created everything for the humans, cared for them (planted them a garden), and made them “co-rulers” (Adam even named things). Today we have enshrined the worth of the individual, cut it away from its roots, and then claim that the Bible argues against it. Yet historically it first appears with astonishing clarity in Genesis.

Knowing something of the times in which they were written (the context), it also seems to me that in the Old and New Testaments slaves and women were treated better than they were in the surrounding cultures. The beginning of The Law, Exo 20 contains the ten commandments, and then Exo 21 begins with limitations to masters on how they could treat their slaves, and then verse 16: “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.” Period! If these weren’t problems they would not need to be addressed. God is raising the bar. When Paul appeals to Philemon, it is to raise his consciousness in regard to his slave Onesimus. Eph 6:9 has limiting commands to masters which Southern slave owners ignored.

And to understand Gal 3:28, you have to put it in context. Verse 29 is “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” Heirs of what? Of the anticipated kingdom where there will be “every tribe and language and nation” standing together. And since this is now the broken world and that will be the fixed world, and “your kingdom come on Earth as it is in heaven,” these inequalities are not the way it’s supposed to be even now and Christians are called on to improve it as they can. So please be careful trying to interpret Bible verses without both literal and overarching theological context.

There may be details here which can be improved or debated, but I think the overall argument is fair.

Exactly. We don’t dole out basic human rights based on a sliding IQ scale. Your IQ is 98? You get 9 of the first 10 constitutional amendments.

When @Marty asked how we would convince a racist to change their mind the very my first thought was to make the racist try to justify their position out loud. Ultimately, only the racist can change their own mind, and perhaps . . . just maybe . . . if they heard their own position spoken out loud they would see how poorly justified their racism is. Just maybe.


To unbelievers like me, and maybe especially to apostates like me, this is appalling moral abdication. You are accurately representing the bible as pro-slavery (the OT loves it, actually), and pointing to “limits” on it. I don’t think this means that Christianity, as a whole, is morally incompetent on the topic. I don’t think this means that YOU are morally ambivalent about slavery. Not at all.

What this does mean, clearly, is that neither you nor anyone else can honestly claim that the bible teaches against slavery. Phrases like “context matters” and “astonishing clarity” cannot change that.

And what this all adds up to is this: it was never reasonable to ask unbelievers how they oppose racism while claiming that your belief system had this somehow all wrapped up in a package labeled “god’s image.” The truth is that if you are committed to anti-racism, which I hope you are, it’s because you are a decent empathetic morally thoughtful human being. My opinion is that it is a terrible shame that you are giving your god credit for that. But: just my opinion.



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I very much agree with what @sfmatheson has said, and would also point out that the OT certainly is not anti-racist and the god depicted in it does not value the rights of individuals in the slightest. Much of the early story of the OT is a racist god choosing his favorite volk and directing them to commit atrocities against neighboring peoples. This god chooses, purely for the sake of inducing terror, to murder every first-born of Egypt: a punishment of a collective for the wrongs done by only some of its members. Apparently angry about the actions of a few people, on another occasion, he directs the wholesale murder of the Midianites.

This god, to use plain terms for plain facts, is a racist; and it directs actions which are nothing less than genocide. More, this god believes in collective punishment, which is quite the opposite of just treatment of individuals, or the recognition of individual rights.

Meanwhile, what do you rest your reasoning upon? Such things as the notion that men are created in the image of god. It should be obvious that this notion has no bearing at all upon the equality of men to one another. There’s no logical or practical difficulty, for a creature that can create other creatures from dust, in the possibility that it could create some lineages of them who are superior to other lineages of them. Racial equality, and the dignity of the individual, simply do not follow in any way from this “imago dei” speculation. We do not believe these things because of, but rather in spite of, the gods.

Now, because such an image of the divine is monstrous, modern people do tend to wish to deny it. But it’s there, for all to see, and the amount of fan-dancing, special pleading and other philosophical prestidigitation required to manufacture the god of the Bible into some sort of moral figure is truly immense. The one thing you’ve got on your side is, of course, that not many people actually bother to read the source material.


How to bring some closure here? First, I’m really grateful for you guys engaging on the primary question I asked. Treatises on moral philosophy got nothin’ on succint, personal, thoughtful discussion. So thanks!

We’re not going to resolve the Bible complaints you have raised, however my points are not nearly as “without merit” as you imply. Here are some quotes from historian Thomas Cahill’s book The Gifts of the Jews referring to OT Law, “this long-winded, unwieldy compilation of assorted prescriptions represents an overall softening—a humanizing—of the common law of the ancient Middle East… in the prescriptions of Jewish law we cannot but note a presumption that all people, even slaves, are human and that all human lives are sacred. The constant bias is in favor not of the powerful and their possessions but of the powerless and their poverty… However faint our sense of justice may be, insofar as it operates at all it is still a Jewish sense of justice.” (p154 - 155)

Most people are unaware of Old Testament context and without context it is impossible to judge. There are plenty of things in the Bible I don’t like – the times were brutal! But to help you understand how it comes across to me and not as a flame, I find your interpretations are a form of cultural imperialism: you are taking the cultural views of today and imposing them on a radically different time/place/people/culture, proclaiming it unworthy, then insist that if God was real he needed to bring them into the 21st century in one step. I think it’s an unreasonable expectation, but that’s just my opinion.

Ultimately I think we can debate this all day and not resolve it, and this is not why I started this thread. I personally think a lot of issues are a “draw” in that you choose which lenses you want to use. You feel the same way about me. It all needs to be put into a larger context and making sense of life.

But again, I appreciate the honest engagement! Thanks.


I think many of us would agree that an objective morality is an unreasonable expectation. What you are describing is exactly what we would expect from a subjective morality that humans are continually working on and adapting to the society and culture they find themselves in. It is a morality that is grounded in human well being, empathy, and reason.

Your posts were very welcome as well.


I don’t think that’s quite in line with the context of our conversation, but I agree with you that it is not reasonable (or even sane) to think that the bible should be read as a modern moral treatise (and therefore a failed one). Instead it should be read as a bunch of ancient human writings that contain horrors and evils (from the worlds that created the writers) and that contain wisdom and decency (from those same worlds). To acknowledge this is not to disclaim the decency of the good stuff. But it does render unreasonable a claim that the bible or Christianity is an edifice built on humanism (by which I mean the moral primacy of human beings). And it really does make the original challenge–which suggested that Christians, but not atheists, have a moral framework from which to reject and judge racism–unreasonable. I would even say “without merit.”

But it was a good discussion, and I was happy to see someone quoting Cahill. I was a bit less enthusiastic about the most recent book on Renaissance/Reformation, and I think the descendants of the Byzantines are justifiably miffed by his claim that the Irish “saved civilization,” but I love and own all his books.


I think you misunderstand. You were pointing to these works as providing deep moral guidance and as containing some sort of moral essence to which the atheist has no access. Now that their depraved nature is pointed out, you quick-flip from that to a position of extreme cultural relativism. You really cannot have it both ways.

As for insisting that your god ought to have done something about it: I of course do no such thing. I instead take the view that if your god were real, he would be evil and so there would be no reason for him to bring anyone into conformity with any type of moral standard, ancient or modern. His murder of the first-born of Egypt cannot, of course, be swept into your “moral relativism” argument because this is his own behavior, not the behavior of others interpreting his wishes. Such a creature is evil.

The fact is that it’s evident that we do not get morality from the Bible. And the implication that somehow a non-Christian would have no way of rejecting racism, while a Christian would because he’s got the Bible to turn to, is silly. The Bible is racist; that’s just a matter of fact. It is undoubtedly true that one can bring the mindset of cultural relativism into service to excuse or explain some of that, but once one has done that, the notion that the Bible has any moral authority, and indeed any moral use at all, is severely compromised.


Yes, I’m way behind and catching up on this thread.

Bingo. This is one of many reasons why I’ve always been baffled at this particular sub-argument under the “How can there be a standard of morality under atheism?” Didn’t everybody study symbiosis in even their elementary school science classes? The idea that evolution only involves “ruthless” competition needs to be addressed by some remedial education.


Indeed. Also, people do need to understand that “is” and “ought” statements operate very differently. It is a fact that if I shoot someone in the head with a gun, he will almost certainly die. That’s not good, and that’s not bad; it’s just a relation between an “if” and a “then.” Whether I OUGHT to shoot someone in the head is a wholly different question, and the only bearing the fact has upon it is that it supplies the consequences about which morality may have something to say.

(BTW, the answer generally is “no.” Certain special exceptions, however, may occur in practice.)

So while nature may at times be, in fact, red in tooth and claw, this observation (which, as you point out, is not universal in nature) in no way suggests that nature SHOULD be so. Even less does it suggest that humans should behave ruthlessly.


LOL!!! Very good.