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Was Mandela an atheist? The answer is no, and it doesn’t matter.

Here’s the summary from Jacques Rousseau.

We do now know that Mandela was a member of the Communist Party, and some might therefore think it follows that he was an atheist. On the other hand, we do know that he was baptised as a Methodist, and we have Wikipedia quoting an interview with Mcebisi Skwatsha, in which Mandela apparently confirmed that he was a Methodist. In Mandela’s book Conversations with Myself, he says ”I never abandoned my Christian beliefs”, and a comment on Pharyngula points to a CNN story, where it’s described how Mandela would regularly receive blessings from Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris.

Mandela also spoke at churches on a semi-regular basis, and in short, clearly seemed to have no antipathy to religion. Instead, his attitude to religion seems to have been exactly the right one for the leader of a nation to have – to hold it as a personal issue, and to devote himself to allowing others to exercise their religions, or lacks of religion, in the manner they see fit. In other words, regardless of what his personal beliefs were, he seems to have been fully committed to secularism in government.

He was a secularist. That ought to be good enough.

Comments

  1. says

    We do now know that Mandela was a member of the Communist Party, and some might therefore think it follows that he was an atheist.

    Yeah, just like all Catholics go to Confession regularly and refuse to use birth control.

  2. infraredeyes says

    It saddens me that people are trying so hard to claim Mandela as an atheist. I had hoped that the whole “Great Man! Let’s all follow him!” notion could be left behind with the other trappings of religion.

  3. aziraphale says

    A quick look at the UK Communist Party’s web site gives no sign that atheism is part of their program. A few of their commentators argue for atheism, but many more for secularism. There is surely no necessary connection between communism and atheism.

  4. imthegenieicandoanything says

    I’m interested in reasonable and rational people generally very honest and willing to re-think their positions, even to the point of acknowledging they were wrong, especially about something essential, AND working to correct their errors. Nelson Mandela did such things, under impossible pressure.

    That rather sounds like science (though I’m not a scientist, officially)!

    People can believe in the Virgin Birth or crystals or Thor’s hammer or hell, so long as I don’t have to take their silliness as anything but ridiculous -and they don’t insist on legislating upon such beliefs.

    That sounds like secularism!

    Still, believing in dumb things is bad, for the person doing it and everyone else. I doubt Mandela believed in any “god” in any real way. The existence of such a thing was simply besides the point to him.

    Is there real evidence otherwise?

  5. Rip Steakface says

    Lots of communist writers condemn religion (for good reasons), so it’s fair to believe that being a communist generally means you’re at the very least a secularist, if not an atheist. However, Mandela was most definitely just a secularist, and a pretty good one at that.

  6. Fionnabhair says

    Something that occurred to me last night after reading the other thread on this topic, is that atheism doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to being inclusive of people who are not cis, straight, white guys. We’ve been seeing plenty examples of the ways in which movement atheism (or at least, certain people involved with it, including its leaders) is hostile towards women, but let’s not forget that people of colour aren’t always welcomed with open arms, either. As a Black man who was very focused on racial issues, it makes sense that he might not embrace atheism, either publically or privately… and there are too many atheists who would likely be hostile to the idea that Mandela should be counted among us, and who are hostile about addressing the issues of racial inequality that was the focus of so much of Mandela’s life.

  7. says

    @ Jacques Rousseau

    [This is x-posted to your blog]

    “Mandela was a member of the Communist Party”

    Could you find a citation for this? News 24 is reporting otherwise:

    Mandela was evidently never a member of the SACP, despite the admission he makes that he makes in the letter to P.W. Botha that “It is true, as I have already stated, that I have been influenced by Marxist thought. But this is also true of many of the leaders of the new independent States. Such widely different persons as Gandhi, Nehru, Nkrumah, and Nasser all acknowledge this fact”.

    .

    It is well known that the SACP has long been strongly aligned to, and an influence on the ANC. On the other hand, to me, it appears that Madiba would take pains to avoid any conflict of interest. He has stated his only affiliation was with the ANC.

    As a child, I was always indoctrinated (at least, in school and in church) with the notion of “barbarians at the gates” (often expressed as “die Swart Gevaar ™ “). One central aspect of this indoctrination was the demonisation of communism. Not least because they were all ATEÏSTE !!!elebenty!!! Whatever those may be. It was generally left to our childhood imaginings what horrors the terms may hold. As ridiculous as this all sounds, it did make its way into the national psych and thence into anti-ANC propaganda.

    Terms like “communist”, “atheist”, “terrorist”, etc were used more as pejorative words to malign the “Other”, while a proper definition of any of these terms was often beyond most peoples’ ken. As a “subversive” & “terroris”, Mandela collected all manner of unlikely epithets.

  8. anuran says

    @infraredeyes

    It saddens me that people are trying so hard to claim Mandela as an atheist. I had hoped that the whole “Great Man! Let’s all follow him!” notion could be left behind with the other trappings of religion.

    That’s not a “trapping of religion”. It’s a nearly universal human tendency.

  9. says

    @theophontes in #9 – just to complete the loop, for those who might not see it on my site, that’s not quite “reporting”, as in a journalists’ attempt at accurately portraying fact. It’s an opinion piece by an ex-ANC member, disaffected partly through being kicked out, and now campaigning for a competing political party with elections just 4 months away. He has every reason to accuse the SACP and ANC of lying about this, which is what he’s doing in that piece (in that they both released statements after Mandela’s death claiming he was a communist. Here’s the SACP version: http://communist-party.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1854:nelson-mandela-sacp-statement-on-the-passing-away-of-madiba&catid=127:statements&Itemid=160 )

    Now, of course the SACP and ANC might be lying about this also. I don’t know the truth here for sure, but fortunately the single sentence of the blog post we’re commenting on has no bearing on the overall point of the blog post.

  10. says

    @ Jacques Rousseau

    I have written to Alex Mashilo (spokesperson for the SACP) asking if he can clarify the issue. I find it believable, particularly given the circumstances at the time, but am nevertheless rather curious.

    As regards Floyd Shivambu, I haven’t had him on my radar, but can well appreciate why he would want to call the SACP statements into question.

  11. Nathair says

    @Fionnabhair

    people of colour aren’t always welcomed with open arms, either. As a Black man who was very focused on racial issues, it makes sense that he might not embrace atheism, either publically or privately… and there are too many atheists who would likely be hostile

    So you’re suggesting Mandella’s logic was “atheists might be mean to me therefore God exists”?

  12. says

    So far, it looks like claiming Mandela was a Communist is on par with a claim about a 50% mixed person that he’s “certainly black”.

  13. infraredeyes says

    @anuran

    That’s not a “trapping of religion”. It’s a nearly universal human tendency.

    Arguably, a tendency to theism is near-universal. And yet, we resist it.

    I think there is a relationship, although maybe not a simple one, between idolizing exceptional humans and creating gods. Then again, maybe it is simple: a lot of people like to have someone tell them what to do. If atheists don’t take a long, hard, critical look at this whole issue, then we may very well end up as “just another religion”, following the words of our holy men (and you know they most likely will be men).

    NO GODS, NO MASTERS! There’s a reason the old anarchists bracketed the two together.

  14. Esteleth, statistically significant to p ≤ 0.001 says

    Nathair:

    people of colour aren’t always welcomed with open arms, either. As a Black man who was very focused on racial issues, it makes sense that he might not embrace atheism, either publically or privately… and there are too many atheists who would likely be hostile

    So you’re suggesting Mandella’s logic was “atheists might be mean to me therefore God exists”?

    I think the suggestion is that Mandela may have been repulsed from atheism (both on a personal level and on a PR level) because of racist atheists.

    It isn’t like that doesn’t happen – it’s been argued many times that a substantial part of the reason why atheism is largely white, straight, cis, and male is because of racist, homophobic, transphobic, and misogynistic atheists. Those arguments have a lot of merit to them. Of course, we can’t know what Mandela’s inner thoughts were on the subject, but it doesn’t strike me as an outlandish claim.

  15. jamessweet says

    On a side note, partially thanks to the earlier Pharyngula article, the Wikipedia article now has a citation for Mandela being a Methodist. (Actually, more thanks to Wikipedia user Manus who actually dug up the citation, but the earlier article caused me to complain about the lack of a citation, which inspired Manus to add it in. Hey, oh my, that’s the way an open encyclopedia is supposed to work!)

  16. Nick Gotts says

    So far, it looks like claiming Mandela was a Communist is on par with a claim about a 50% mixed person that he’s “certainly black”. – Felix@16

    Ah, so Mandela was definitely a communist then. Felix, “black” is a social classification, and in most of the relevant circumstances (although as it happens, the situation was more complicated in apartheid South Africa), the socially important line has been drawn between those whose appearance indicates at least some recent non-white ancestry, and those whose appearance does not. Obama, to whom I guess you refer, is certainly black: he’d have had to ride in the back of the bus in the pre-Civil Rights south.

  17. Nathair says

    atheism is largely white, straight, cis, and male

    It seems that both of you are conflating (or perhaps confusing) atheism with “Movement Atheism”.

  18. pacal says

    Regarding Rousseau No. 11. I am baffled as to why Mandela would lie and lie repeatidly about it until his death. I doesn’t make much sense. Certainly several people who were with him during the late 50s and early 60s have denied it also. I frankly am puzzled. Certainly Mandela showed no problem in openly associating with SACP members so just why would he lie and lie repeatidly? I note the SACP is very careful to note that Mandela was a member when he was arrested but does not claim he continued to be a member until he died.

  19. Fionnabhair says

    @Nathair 21:

    It seems that both of you are conflating (or perhaps confusing) atheism with “Movement Atheism”.

    While the atheist census doesn’t have data for race or sexual orientation, it does have a gender breakdown: 73.4% male. Movement atheism is largely cis, straight white guys, and it appears that the movement isn’t doing a good job with welcoming people who don’t fit that demographic. When they alienate people from movement atheism, they also make atheism as a whole less appealing to marginalized people.

  20. JAL: Snark, Sarcasm & Bitterness says

    23
    Fionnabhair

    When they alienate people from movement atheism, they also make atheism as a whole less appealing to marginalized people.

    Yep. They are too busy calling religious people stupid or the libertarians are trying to destroy what little welfare system we have. Meanwhile, churches are on the street feeding, clothing, and housing people. It fucking sucks sitting through sermons and faking belief to survive but I did it. Everyone else honestly believed because hey, God’s people are delivering. It helps to believe in such a system when the world shits on you and waits for you to starve to death.

  21. Nathair says

    While the atheist census doesn’t have data for race or sexual orientation, it does have a gender breakdown: 73.4% male. Movement atheism is largely cis, straight white guys, and it appears that…

    OK, so you’re intentionally conflating rather than inadvertently confusing the two, thanks for clearing that up.The point remains, however, that whether or not Nelson Mandela believed in god(s) is unlikely to have been based on how friendly and/or welcoming “movement atheists” on the ‘net seem to be to you.

  22. Esteleth, statistically significant to p ≤ 0.001 says

    I’m not talking about movement atheists on the ‘net.

    I’m talking about the fedora’d d00dbros that, at the atheist meetup I went to in grad school, greeted me by saying, “Great! Someone to make coffee!” while staring at my tits.

    I’m talking about the straight white man who told me that he totally got how hard it is to be openly queer in Small-Town America – after all, he totally got side-eyed on the subway when he loudly talked about how all Catholic priests are pedophiles.

    I’m talking about white people who shrug and say that the reason why African-Americans tend to be more religious than whites is probably because they’re too stupid to see through the lies.

    I’m talking about the firebrands who shush women from talking about how religion is used to oppress women because it “distracts from the core message.”

    This is not just a “movement atheists on the ‘net” issue. There are plenty of bigoted asshat atheists out there in meatspace. And they seem to be rather noisy.

  23. Nathair says

    I’m talking about the fedora’d d00dbros that, at the atheist meetup I went to in grad school, greeted me by saying, “Great! Someone to make coffee!” while staring at my tits.

    Yeah, that certainly sounds like the exactly kind of thing that would have convinced Nelson Mandela that there is a god.

    You see, the problem is that you’re STILL discussing whether or not Mandela might have been comfortable socializing with some particular subset of atheists. Such a question has absolutely bugger-all to do with whether or why the man did or did not believe in god(s).

    What’s more, your point isn’t even consistent. YOU had these experiences, YOU know or at least know of these people and still YOU are an atheist. Hell, I once sat through an atheist group dinner with special guest Justin fucking Trottier and all that the ensuing argument convinced me of was that I should stop going to that group’s events. It sure didn’t make me into a theist.

    So what is your actual, underlying suggestion? That Nelson Mandela wouldn’t have been honest enough accept a truth because it might have had awkward social ramifications? That he didn’t have the moral or intellectual courage that you and I do?

  24. Esteleth, statistically significant to p ≤ 0.001 says

    FFS. What I’m saying is that this sort of crap is not uncommon. What I’m saying is that there’s a perception (warranted or not) that all (or most) atheists are like that. What I’m saying is that to someone who is wishy-washy on whether or not they’re really an atheist, to someone who is wishy-washy about whether or not they should be public about their atheism, to someone who is curious about just what this “atheism” thing is about, this can be powerful.

    Encounters with such people, hearing about such people, or the belief that all/most atheists are like that can be the deciding factor for someone deciding that they’re really just a humanist. Or that they’re “spiritual.” Or that while they’re an atheist, they aren’t going to say so publicly. Or that this “atheism” thing is not for them.

    There have been studies about why atheism is largely male, largely straight, largely white, largely middle-class-and-up and such. And when people ask women, LGBT people, POC, lower-income people, etc why they aren’t atheist, one of the things that keeps coming up is “I feel unwelcome/ I feel there is no place for people like me in atheism/ etc.”

    Atheism may well be absolutely true and correct. I think it is, and we seem to agree on that. But it has, to be perfectly clear, a massive public-relations problem. People don’t want to hang out with us, associate with us, or claim our viewpoint as their own because there’s too much shitty baggage. Sexist, racist, homophobic, classist, and otherwise bigoted shitty baggage.

    Do I know that Mandela himself was at one point in doubt about religion and thought about atheism? Or that he was a closet atheist? Of course not. But I’m saying that it could have happened easily.

  25. Esteleth, statistically significant to p ≤ 0.001 says

    Well, my html failed, but my meaning should be clear.

  26. Nathair says

    Encounters with such people, hearing about such people, or the belief that all/most atheists are like that can be the deciding factor for someone deciding that they’re really just a humanist.

    What you call yourself and the reasons you choose have nothing to do with it. Which groups you pal around with and which groups treat you with respect have nothing to do with it. Agnostic, Humanist, Raelian, Buddhist or whatever else you may be does not make you any less an atheist (even if it makes you reluctant to admit that fact in public.)

  27. Esteleth, statistically significant to p ≤ 0.001 says

    Jesus Tapdancing Christ.

    Read for comprehension. Reprehensible bigoted atheists can make someone decide that they’re really just a humanist/agnostic/[insert “not really an atheist” term here] and/or make someone who is an atheist hold back from admitting that publicly.

    What exactly are you trying to argue? That people don’t have a visceral reaction to bigotry and thereafter avoid things associated (even if the association is false) with the bigotry?

  28. Nathair says

    What exactly are you trying to argue? That people don’t have a visceral reaction to bigotry and thereafter avoid things associated (even if the association is false) with the bigotry?

    It’s painfully simple; the question was “Was Mandela an atheist”, a question of his belief in god(s). It was not “Do people have a visceral reaction to bigotry?” or “Are some gnu atheists utter douchebags and dontcha just hate that?”

    And since we’re here, however vile some of our atheists are (and they are) they still can not hold a tiny candle to the kind of bigotry and intolerance that we see from the other side. So what the hell was the point in bringing up the offences of these atheists? You never heard (to pick one example out of thousands) of the children being tortured to death as witches in Nigeria? I bet Mandela did. Don’t you think, if your thesis was valid, he might have had a visceral reaction to that kinda bigotry and thereafter avoided things associated?

  29. Esteleth, statistically significant to p ≤ 0.001 says

    My point is very simple: Mandela did not ever say that he was an atheist, despite some claims to the contrary.

    While, obviously, we cannot know his inner thoughts, I was offering one possible reason why (despite his known association with Communists and various non-religious folk) he might not have rejected religion (publicly or privately).

    And, in any case, “religious people are assholes, too!” is a really shitty counterargument to “some atheists are assholes.”

  30. Nathair says

    And, in any case, “religious people are assholes, too!” is a really shitty counterargument to “some atheists are assholes.”

    If the argument had merely been that some atheists are assholes I certainly wouldn’t disagree. But it wasn’t.