A photo of the word “racism” in a dictionary
A photo of the word “racism” in a dictionary

Several years ago, I embarked on a project investigating the history of the word “racism.” The project has gotten sidetracked for now, but I wanted to publish some of my findings in the event that they will be helpful to others.

One of the things I did was to look at the definition of the word in a bunch of dictionaries over time. I did this in the British Library in London in the summer of 2019. (Ahh, the distant memory of traveling!)

As I found in my research, the word “racism” was not used in English until 1903 and…

Across the globe, religion is in decline. Even in the United States, long an outlier among western countries for the slower pace of secularization, over a quarter of the country is now nonreligious and over half of the country is not a member of a religious community.

What does this mean for atheists and other nonreligious people?

For much of their history, atheists have focused their efforts on merely surviving. They have fought to attain tolerance, freedom from persecution, and still strive for equal rights. In 13 countries, atheism is punishable by death. …

A recent Hollywood casting decision gives us an opportunity to look back at an early skirmish in the Culture Wars

Gal Gadot (Zach Pagano/Getty)

Was Cleopatra black?

Israeli actress Gal Gadot was recently cast in the role of Cleopatra, the last ruler of the Ptolemy dynasty in Egypt, in a movie about her life. In response to this casting decision, the question of Cleopatra’s race has come up again. Some critics have charged that this is yet another example of Hollywood white-washing a supposed person of color from the ancient world.

This debates calls to mind the controversy over Martin Bernal’s multi-volume Black Athena (published in 1987, 1991, and 2006). Black Athena argued that the glories of ancient Greece were the responsibility of ancient…

Today, even the most hardened white supremacists are reluctant to use the term for themselves

Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler (Fox Photos/Getty)

“I am not a racist. I’m the least racist person you have ever interviewed.”

So declared Donald Trump in response to one of his many controversial statements about race — in this case, his query in 2018 as to why so many people from “shithole countries” were coming to the United States.

Leaving aside the question of whether Trump actually is a racist, it is clear that today virtually no one, not right-wing politicians like Trump, and not even the most hardened white supremacist, wants to call themselves a racist.

This has not always been the case.

The word “racist”…

One of my suggested ads

I have been reflecting on my own relationship with social media since watching the documentary “The Social Dilemma” on Netflix. One of the key ideas in the documentary is about the amount of data these sites collect about us and how they can use it to manipulate us to alter our behaviour into engaging more and more with the site and hopefully clicking some ads along the way.

There is no doubt this is true, but in my case, I do feel somewhat insulated from the advertising. I use an ad blocker and it prevents most ads — except on…

Watson Heston, The Freethinkers’ Pictorial Text-Book (New York: The Truth Seeker Company, 1890), 123. https://archive.org/details/freethinkerspict00hest

Many people, it seems, like to get their content in the form of “Top Whatever Lists” — and I am no different! Hence, I present to you the top 6 takeaways from my book, Race in a Godless World: Atheism, Race, and Civilization, 1850–1914 (NYU Press and Manchester University Press, 2019):

1. Atheists were interested in scientific racism for its own sake

In the nineteenth century, some scientific (or pseudoscientific) studies divided humanity into distinct races that could be arranged into a hierarchy, with whites invariably on top. Some white atheists were interested in this science since it seemed to…

A slightly embarrassing photo of me (left!) at the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne, Australia, 2012

The mid to late 00s were the heyday of what was called “New Atheism,” a very loose intellectual movement of outspoken atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. I was a latecomer to the party, but I would eventually become an enthusiastic convert to New Atheism.

In the years since then, however, the movement has seemed to dissipate and, likewise, my own strident commitment to atheism has worn away. What happened?

In the summer of 2009, I had finished my undergraduate degree in history and was going to be starting my master’s degree in the fall at another…

Nathan G Alexander

Writer and Historian from Canada. Author of Race in a Godless World: Atheism, Race, and Civilization, 1850–1914 (2019) https://www.nathangalexander.com/

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