I’m a bit uncomfortable with this

Gregory Paul says that Nelson Mandela was an atheist. I’ve looked around a bit, and I can’t find any confirmation of that — I wouldn’t be surprised, but at best I find that he was a committed secularist who avoided coming out clearly about religion. Can anyone confirm? I don’t like it when dead people are immediately brought into the fold of a religion when they can’t deny it, so I’m not keen on atheists doing likewise.

Back in the last decade there was a cable talk show titled Faith Under Fire. Hosted by a right wing Christian, it featured theists and atheists in direct conflict over assorted matters. In one segment a theist challenged a leader of an atheist organization to name a single atheist who had become a great moral leader. To my annoyance the had-not-thought-about-that-one-before atheist was stumped. 

A leading example, of course, is Andrei Sakharov. The wholly ungodly leftist physicist started out as the father of the Soviet H-bomb, but became so fed up with dictatorial communism – Khrushchev’s insistence on detonating a colossal 50 megaton thermonuclear device for no practical reason being a factor – that he became the leading dissident against the system, fighting for progressive democracy at considerable expense to himself.

And the other great moral atheist leader of the 20th century was Nelson Mandela. He too was an nontheist of the left (as most are, in the US 3/4s of the nonreligious are progressives, the rest Randian libertarians.)

Now that last bit is interesting. If you’ve been wondering how big the atheist rift is, and are a little tired of vague claims that those jerks are a minority, it at least pins a specific number on them: 25%. Which isn’t small.

The claim is a little overstated, though. They aren’t necessarily Randian libertarians. The basis of that 25% comes from the Pew poll of the “nones”, which found that about a quarter of them were politically conservative.


I looked through the whole thing; no sign that they actually assessed the details of political alignment closely enough to recognize libertarians. But yeah, 25% does sound like a reasonable estimate of the fraction of jerks infesting the atheist movement.


  1. melody says

    I received that email from Gregory as well. I looked into it and couldn’t find any evidence of it. My reaction was the same as yours: This makes me uncomfortable.

  2. moarscienceplz says

    I wonder how many self-described Libertarians actually are Randians. When I turned 18 I registered as a Libertarian, mostly because I didn’t feel either mainstream party was interested in anything beyond lining their own pockets. I bought into the opposition to a progressive income tax because I was too ignorant to understand the consequences of a flat tax, but I finally left the Lib party when they started railing against taxpayer funded roads. My first 3 presidential elections saw me voting for third party or independent candidates, and I have never voted for a Republican. I also never read any Ayn Rand. So, for the first half of my voting life I would have identified as a Libertarian, but never as a Randian.

    Of course, back then the Lib party polled as 7-10% of voters, and it is much more of a fringe now, so maybe it is now much more true that Libertarian = Ranidan.

  3. doublereed says

    @3 moarscienceplz

    Eh, I’ve met a lot of “small-L libertarians” that are basically more-or-less progressives. I think 25% might actually be a little high, but I’ve been colored by my super-liberal area. And I often get confused because the ACLU is often considered a ‘civil libertarian’ organization.

  4. says

    Mandela was a communist, after all. (And I don’t mean that in a derogatory, right-wing, knee-jerk fashion). There is a strong chance that he was an atheist, like most communists. There’s also a good chance that his beliefs changed over time, especially after encounters with Desmond Tutu.

  5. viggen111 says

    I looked through the whole thing; no sign that they actually assessed the details of political alignment closely enough to recognize libertarians. But yeah, 25% does sound like a reasonable estimate of the fraction of jerks infesting the atheist movement.

    In truth, no, being a conservative leaning atheist does not make you a jerk, just as being a progressive leaning atheist does not make you either rational or sane. And yes, over-generalization is irrationality.

  6. robro says

    As robertwatkins says, the only reason that I think of to say he was an atheist is because he was a “communist.” Howerver, this is from the Wikipedia article about him:

    He stated later that he did not join the Party because its atheism conflicted with his Christian faith

    From the citation, this information is from his Long Walk to Freedom Volume I.

    So, perhaps I don’t know that he was a communist, only that he was called communist by the American government and press in the days when politicians could justify supporting White South Africa by labeling it’s enemies as such.

  7. says

    As far as I know, he was a methodist. He was raised methodist, his family was methodist, and he invoked the concept of “god” a fair amount. If he was an atheist, he was a closet atheist.

  8. keithm says

    There were some news stories about Mandela that clearly give the impression he didn’t put a lot of stock in religion, but one must bear in mind that he was Not American. For many of us who are also Not American, the constant mixing of religion and politics is something that we find a very peculiar American institution, so to have a politician not make a big deal about what, if anything, they believe in is more of the norm than the exception. So someone writing a story about Mandela, if they were used to dealing with American politicians, might tend to notice things like going to church, or not, and make that a bigger deal, while a Not American reporter, used to dealing with Not American politicians, might not even consider that relevant or notice it one way or the other.

    I wouldn’t put a lot of stock in knowing Desmond Tutu as meaning anything one way or the other either. I was at a memorial service for a renowned Canadian arctic pilot a few years ago and the eulogy was delivered by a family friend, a Catholic bishop, and it was plainly obvious that he was having difficulty not saying outright that the man had been at least agnostic, but probably an atheist (I don’t know what it was myself), because saying it outright meant that, doctrinally, he was obliged to believe the man was damned, which he clearly didn’t want to believe. I would expect that if Mandela was an atheist, a lot of South African religious leaders are facing that same sort of quandary.

  9. Suido says

    I’d say many young people who identify themselves as libertarian are actually progressives who have only dabbled in political thought and aren’t engaged enough to know the full implications of libertarian philosophy.

    I think a lot of young people first hear about libertarianism from a social policy point of view – decriminalising marijuana, same sex marriage, secularism, etc. Cough Penn Jillette cough. This is all agreeable, and many don’t think beyond that at all.

    For those that do think beyond that, it’s no surprise that a well spoken libertarian, already winning them over with anti-government rhetoric on those issues, can convince them that economic libertarianism is also rainbows and cupcakes and freedom for all. It’s a basic persuasive technique.

  10. says

    @ #3

    I wonder how many self-described Libertarians actually are Randians.

    -In my experience as a libertarian online, I’d say 10-20% at maximum. There are at least three major groups of American libertarians:
    *Mises Institute/Lew Rockwell types (many anarchists here, large minority of atheists)
    *Cato Institute/Reason Magazine types (very few anarchists here, even larger minority of atheists)
    *Randians (no anarchists here, supposedly 100% atheist)
    Fellows at the Independent Institute are an intersection of Mises Institute types and Cato Institute types. The Cato Institute types are the most moderate and are the largest group of libertarians. The Randians are the biggest foreign policy hawks. The Libertarian Party types are almost all Cato Institute types. Of course, there are many Rand admirers who cannot be called Randians in all categories of American libertarians.

  11. Rex Little, Giant Douchweasel says

    moarscienceplz @3:

    back then the Lib party polled as 7-10% of voters

    When was this? I’ve been a card-carrying Libertarian since the party was founded, and I don’t remember it ever polling nearly that high.

  12. jbegan says

    This passage seems to preclude him being an atheist, at least at an early age:

    “Staying with a cousin in George Goch Township, Mandela was introduced to the realtor and ANC activist Walter Sisulu, who secured him a job as an articled clerk at law firm Witkin, Sidelsky and Eidelman. The company was run by a liberal Jew, Lazar Sidelsky, who was sympathetic to the ANC’s cause.[40] At the firm, Mandela befriended Gaur Redebe, a Xhosa member of the ANC and Communist Party, as well as Nat Bregman, a Jewish communist who became his first white friend.[41] Attending communist talks and parties, Mandela was impressed that Europeans, Africans, Indians and Coloureds were mixing as equals. He stated later that he did not join the Party because its atheism conflicted with his Christian faith”

  13. Dick the Damned says

    Atheistic moral leaders:

    Bertrand Russell, Charles Bradlaugh, Robert Ingersoll, Albert Einstein (OK, he was a pantheist, but that’s almost the same, eh).

  14. Pierce R. Butler says

    Nerd of Redhead… @ # 22: Know any who aren’t?

    No, but since Cult Regulations mandate we accept our esteemed host’s guesstimate:

    But yeah, 25% does sound like a reasonable estimate of the fraction of jerks infesting the atheist movement.

    and since we need not look very far to find non-libertarian jerks in(festing) atheism, it follows that the set of libertarian non-jerks must be greater than zero.

  15. Erp says

    I wouldn’t say Mandela was an atheist or that he was not. He could give an overtly Christian speech as at the Zion Christian Church conference Easter 1992 http://www.anc.org.za/show.php?id=4124 (The ZCC is one of the largest denominations in South Africa if not the largest though it theology seems very distinctive)

    He was raised Methodist (though his father who died when Mandela was quite young never converted) and his last wife was Methodist (his first wife was or became a Jehovah’s Witness and I’m not sure on his second wife). I think he was pragmatic and his openly siding with one denomination or another (or with atheism) would have injured his aim of uniting and liberating South Africans. I suspect he was either a humanist (lower case ‘h’, god belief unknown) or a progressive Christian of no declared denomination (Desmond Tutu is definitely a progressive Christian though one who is quite open in his religion).

    I did find some interesting bits in “Mandela: The Authorized Portrait”, it seems no one knows his religious beliefs.

    by Mac Maharaj, page 164
    [he talks about a fellow inmate who ‘volunteered’ Mandela for all the religious services the prison authorities allowed]
    … So there was Madiba attending every religious service. But as it happpened, he turned the tabls on us because again he used it to show his open-mindedness, that whatever his private beliefs — and I think he still treats religion as a private issue — we need to respect all religions.

    by Fikile Bam, page 17,
    Mandela was nominally a Methodist, but he never had a habit of going to church and I don’t think he believes in the hereafter in the same way Christians do

    Desmond Tutu, page 234
    He was a Methodist and received much of his education from mission schools and institutions and although he isn’t someone who carries his faith on his sleeve, even unconsciously that would have had some effect.

  16. Great American Satan says

    vwiggendywhatev@7, U want the irrational? I will provide. I don’t front like I’m an atheist because I calmly weighed alternatives in a Vulcan style. Abrahamic faiths offend the shit out of me, and atheism is just my natural point of view as a person who wasn’t properly indoctrinated.

    Here’s my irrational – All conservative political positions advocated in the USA today are inspired by yellow dog cowardice or bloodsucking greed. The only difference between a fiscal and a social conservative is if they wanna kill the poor or kill the gays.

    OK, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but in practice, this is what it ALWAYS fucking comes down to. Poor people and marginalized groups suffering and often dying because we weren’t sufficiently bootstrappy to hack it in your meritocratic robber baron utopia.

    The only good conservative is an uneducated conservative, and as soon as they learn the score, if they’re still conservative, to hell with ’em. Moderates I could do without, but if you trimmed off the entire right wing of US politics and replaced them with the current centrists, we’d be at least slightly closer to having a basic sense of human decency as a nation.

    Grr… Been laid off by too many libertarian CEOs dodging labor negotiations like Neo dodges bullets. Fuck all y’all.

  17. Fionnabhair says

    Mandela’s reluctance in the 1940s to join with the Communist Party, or a speech made in 1992, aren’t much in the way of evidence that he was a Christian when he died. People can change their minds about faith in 20 years. I wouldn’t say that his political positions are evidence of atheism, though.

    Really, unless he came out and self-identified as an atheist, I don’t think he should be posthumously considered one. I think it’s probably more likely that he held on to the faith he grew up with (which seems to be what most people do), with a focus on the humanist side of things. It would be nice if he could be counted among us. Regardless of his personal beliefs, though, I imagine he would have respected atheists.

    It seems that, when it came to religion, he was private about his personal beliefs, and ultimately I think that privacy should be respected. It’s really no one else’s business, anyway.

  18. says

    Agreed with Fionnabhair @26. As a South African atheist myself, I’ve never heard any such suggestion during his life. He was committed to secularism, yes, but hasn’t left us with evidence that allows for a posthumous categorisation as atheist. The Gregory Paul piece also offers no evidence for the “rise of the nones” in South Africa (the link is broken). But I suspect that the link would have been to an abysmal Gallup Poll from last year, which relied on a sample size of 200, in one part of the country only. Our last census figures on religion have us as 80% Christian.

  19. says

    I searched commercial academic databases to see what I could find. I found brief passage in the Sage Encyclopedia of Leadership which verifies what Jacques Rousseau (nice online persona) wrote in #27.

    Mandela admits he is “not particularly spiritual” (Frost 1998, 14), though he admires the faith community’s anti-apartheid contributions.

    The reference: Frost, B. (1998). Struggling to forgive: Nelson Mandela and South Africa’s search for reconciliation. London: Harper Collins.

    A lot of the crap floating around on the internet mostly speculates based on his wife having been a Jehovah’s Witness or taking him to be a Methodist because his father had him baptized a Methodist at the age of 9 so he could go to a school. (You kinda had to join the club to receive the membership benefits).

  20. says

    I don’t know about Mandela’s religion but the ANC and SACP admitted after his death that Mandela had been a part of the communist party leadership. Apparently it was denied for political reasons. So saying he didn’t join it because of religion falls away.

  21. brucegorton says

    Speaking to people in the office who had actually met him for interviews – he was a Methodist who was pretty dedicated to secularism in government.

  22. says

    keithm #11

    For many of us who are also Not American, the constant mixing of religion and politics is something that we find a very peculiar American institution

    Not America is a very, very vast place, so I wouldn’t dare make any generalization about how politics and religion mingle or not through all its extent.

    One could much more confidently talk about how these things work in South Africa, but this is something I’m totally unqualified to judge.

  23. robinjohnson says

    travisrm89, #20

    All libertarians are jerks?

    Well, Libertarianism espouses an uncontrolled economy and and a dearth of public services, leading to wealth and power concentrating in a few hands (invariably white male ones) and the poor being invited to go fuck themselves. And the US Libertarian party is capable of the curious mental gymnastics that allow them to publically espouse all this at the same time as supporting ‘states’ rights’ to impose laws on people’s liberties. Otherwise non-jerky people occasionally do jerky things for reasons we haven’t figured out yet, but it’s hard to laugh off someone’s entire social and political outlook as a quirk.

    So… yes.