Was Nelson Mandela an atheist?

December 11, 2013 • 5:46 am

Does it really matter?  It matters as little to me as whether Einstein was a theist (which he almost certainly wasn’t). As Steve Weinberg has noted, with or without religion, good people will do good things, and Mandela was a good person.

Over at Reality Report, Gregory Paul, the paleontologist, artist, and freelance sociologist (who previously showed that religion correlates negatively with measures of societal health) considers whether Nelson Mandela was an atheist. His post was inspired by a question posted to an atheist on a talk show: has there ever been a moral leader who was an atheist? (The atheist queried was stumped.).  Paul argues that one is Andrei Sakharov, and the other Nelson Mandela. In his pieee, “The Great Atheist—Nelson Mandela,” Paul, however, adduces no evidence for this claim. There are only two statements offered in support.

1. “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.)”

That’s not evidence; it’s an assertion.

2. “Of course we will hear and read little, or more likely nothing, about Mandela’s irreligiosity from the supposedly secular bent mainstream, or even progressive, news media in the wake of the great atheist’s death. Just as there will be little mention of the deep religiosity of the operators of apartheid. But next time a theist deploys the old there-are-no-great-atheists-charge in your presence, toss Mandela – and Sakharov – back into their laps.”

That’s just an assertion, too. Nowhere will you find a statement by Mandela that he was an atheist, an agnostic, or any sort of unbeliever.  Or, at least, an internet search fails to reveal any evidence.

But who cares? Are we that desperate for atheist moral leaders that we must make such unevidenced claims? Perhaps Mandela was an atheist, and perhaps he just kept quiet about it, as world leaders are wont to do, particularly in religious countries. The fact is that, until recently, it was simply not on to admit nonbelief.

Nevertheless, if you must have people that I think are moral leaders, in the sense of setting moral examples, one could cite Jawaharlal Nehru, Clarence Darrow, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Peter Singer, Thomas Jefferson (he might have professed deism, but I suspect today he’d be an out atheist), and Margaret Sanger.

But we needn’t engage in this “who’s an atheist” game? After all, we have most of the scientists and philosophers! And of course the problem is that if you’re an atheist who leads morally while criticizing religion, or even professing nonbelief (and I’d put Richard Dawkins in the class of “moral leaders”), you’re automatically excluded from “moral leadership.” There’s a bit of circularity in the definition—at least in how it’s seen by the public, which equates “moral” with “religious.”

78 thoughts on “Was Nelson Mandela an atheist?

    1. Let us not call people ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – these terms come from the Judeo-christian belief set & anyway are overly simplistic. If we must, can we not say ‘x was a person who did some good or was good in such & such a way’ – ?

      1. The concept of good and evil is not exclusively Judeo-Christian-Muslim, by any stretch. It was present in India’s Rig Veda thousands of years ago, for example. We all perceive things and people to be either good or evil regardless of faith or lack thereof. Nobody is totally good or totally evil (except perhaps some psychopaths with regard to the latter), something that most people forget.

        1. The notions of “good” and “bad” are pretty primitive. They, no doubt, exist in the brains of all animals with brains. (Food, good. Pain, bad.)

      2. An in-law of mine is a dick. I’ve made comments to that effect a couple of times, only to be informed of kind and caring acts this person went out of his/her way to perform, at some personal expense on her/his part, without announcement or expectation of notice and praise. I revised my statement accordingly. My in-law is sometimes a dick. As am I.

      3. I am sure that good and bad are intrinsically biological, things that generate pleasureable sense (serotonin like) are good, and those that produce pains are bad.

        Since human cultures are recursively complex, those biological imperative were (and are still) stretched to many levels. When the kingdom culture demanded social cohesiveness, these good and bad were further distorted. Those things that increase cohesiveness are good. Simplify further king is all-goodness, when kings were seen as human, sky-god was created to provide longer shelf-life of patron of goodness. The Persian culture may be the first to clearly split good and bad, further simplifying things (older religions like Hindu or even Wiccans, Dreamtime were not so clear cut).

        This major simplification made the judeo-chrito-moslem religions “understandable to the masses”, and therefore further reduced into political ideology.

        (meaning stupid enough to be forced into masses by the not-so-bright oligarchy – compare to the ambivalence and difficulties of making buddhism or jainism an ideology)

        We live at the tapering end of the lifetime of this major human cultural mistake named levantine god-worship. A peculiar time, but not necessarily special.

        We might enter a new era of scientific culture, or setback into same old middle ages (most probably nations will be split within the two extreme points), added with variables of wealth, education etc.

  1. I completely agree that it doesn’t matter if Mandela was an atheist or not.

    Incidentally, I’ve recently watched some debates with Hitchens and this question sort of appeared in 2 distinct instances.

    In the first, Hitchens is talking about the fact that an atheist can be any sort of things : a sado-mazochist, a humanist, a fascist, etc. same for a religious person. Except as he said for a communist who almost certainly has to be an atheist as well.

    In another debate (against Tony Blair I think) he mentioned that Mandela was very probably a communist, at least at some point.
    Hitchens is obviously not definitive… he was talking about the good that some communists have done in History and mentioned Mandela (and he said “probably”).

    Anyway. Not a proof of any sort, just something I remembered on the subject.

    1. Under communism in Russia, for example, religion went underground and most communists (even in the elite) secretly had themselves and/or their children baptized. Therefore, communism and Christianity are not mutually exclusive.

      1. And being a communist in a communist state will in turn be different from being a communist in a non-communist state. So, I agree that you can’t infer that an individual is an atheist simply because he was a communist and communist states were officially atheist.

      2. “Therefore, communism and Christianity are not mutually exclusive.”

        Using a definition for communism that Marx would recognize, I think it’s fair to say that Jesus WAS a communist. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” is a sentiment that I think Jesus would wholeheartedly support.
        It’s unfortunate that everybody thinks the Soviet Union was communist when in fact it was really more of a fascist oligarchy.

        1. I wonder what Harry Potter would think about this matter. Also, Sam Gamgee and Peregrine Took might have had interesting opinions.

        2. Somewhere decades ago I read about a survey where Americans were asked to identify who said the Marx quote above. Many of them attributed it to Jesus.

          Marx himself, though with perhaps insufficient evidence, calls the early Christian communists of another sort.

          As for the SU, people used to say that both the SU and the US used to call the SU communist for opposite but “equally propagandistic” reasons: the former because communism had many laudable features they could pretend to support, and the US because labelling the prison that was the SU a communist state smearrs the movement, etc.

          1. In a sense, the origin of that is actually in ACTS in the Bible.

            Using that King James version so loved by the fundies (and so often incorrect in translation)

            27 And in these days came prophets from Jerusalem unto Antioch. 28 And there stood up one of them named Agabus, and signified by the Spirit that there should be great dearth throughout all the world: which came to pass in the days of Claudius Caesar. 29 Then the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judaea: 30 Which also they did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.

            The New American Standard translation:

            27 Now at this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 One of them named Agabus stood up and began to indicate by the Spirit that there would certainly be a great famine all over the world. And this took place in the reign of Claudius. 29 And in the proportion that any of the disciples had means, each of them determined to send a contribution for the relief of the brethren living in Judea. 30 And this they did, sending it in charge of Barnabas and Saul to the elders.

    2. I never went into much details about Mandela and always thought of him as an important man who have done a lot of good things etc. But, being not so educated in this and already with an opinion that I mentioned, I run on this article http://www.thenewamerican.com/world-news/africa/item/15888-saint-mandela-not-so-fast
      So, I have no idea whether this is a credible source and if those things are true. Perhaps someone who knows more than I do can explain and give an opinion?

  2. I’ve never really understood the concept of objective morality and all the fuzz that surrounds it. There’s one golden rule that I try to apply to my actions towards others and that’s it.

    I wonder what a moral leader is supposed to do and say to be considered a moral leader?

    1. I suspect brain chemistry has a lot to do with it in addition to the brain itself when it comes to morality. I for one could get far ahead if I did mean, scheming things and I even want to because some people would deserve what I dealt them but I feel so guilty at even the thought that I don’t do it. I feel like I’m subject to Asimov’s 3 laws. Stupid sub-routines!

      1. Hmmm, I’d say laws 1 & 2 were pretty good for everybody to have, but law #3 needs to be optional and conditional.

  3. Einstein did not believe in a personal god, as demonstrated by the fact that he stated that was sympathetic to the philosophy of Spinoza. And a god who does not exist, will logically also not play dices.

  4. FWIW, Bertrand Russell, imprisoned for his opposition to World War I, and later noted for his support for nuclear disarmament.

    Agnistic about God, but only is the same sense as he was agnostic about his eponymous teapot.

    1. Russell said that in explaining himself to the man on the street, he would say he was an atheist, but to a roomful of philosophers he would identify as agnostic. He said he was an atheist for all practical purposes (it was a provisional hypothesis.)

      1. Oh, for FSM’s sake, not that old agnostic/atheist tug of war again! It’s really quite simple: Atheist means “not a theist”. That’s it! In other words, unless you believe in a sky-daddy that answers your prayers, you are an atheist, period! It has nothing to do with proof/non-proof of supernatural phenomena, or whether god = love, or any of that other Sophisticated Theology bull-pucky.

        1. I was only trying to clarify Russell’s position. He lived in an era which there was a stronger tendency to identify atheism with strong confidence in the absence of a deity.

  5. When asked for atheist moral leaders scientists and philosophers should have been the first people to be thought about, if he wanted someone political I thought the current Dalai Lama would have come up.

    On Nelson Mandela’s Wiki page it says “In 1996 Mandela was asked by friends if he was religious, Mandela explained he was a Methodist…” But there is no reference.

  6. When people talk of ‘moral leaders/atheists’ does this mean ‘leaders/atheists who are moral’, or ‘people who are moral & take a lead/are atheists’?

    I suppose if the former, there can be ‘immoral leaders/atheists’ & perhaps ‘amoral leaders/atheists’!

  7. I did a bit of googling the other day regarding this question. I found lots of religious types claiming him for God. Which, of course, is evidence that religion continues to behave as it always has. As for what Mandela actually believed on the subject, I came up empty.

  8. Imagine you’re a Christian in Third Century Rome, and you’re challenged to list all the great Christian Senators and Emperors, with the clear implication that there can’t be anything to this “Christianity” thing if nobody who rejects Rome’s right and proper gods can be shown to have held any position of influence in the centuries since Christ.

    What say you then?



  9. “As Steve Weinberg has noted, with or without religion, good people will do good things, and Mandela was a good person.”

    Yes, as long as a person is doing good things, it is totally immaterial what his religious beliefs are or ideological convictions are.

  10. The 1992 speech that vierotchka links to above seems pretty unequivocal (assuming it’s an accurate text), and given the unabashedly religious language used there, I’m surprised at how studiedly non-religious Mandela’s public language was almost everywhere else (which is why I have a slight question mark about the authenticity of the text — can its accuracy be verified by a recording?).

      1. It may be official, but the text as delivered may well diverge, or show interestingly different emphases, from a text prepared beforehand. That’s what a recording would allow us to judge.

    1. If that speech was at a Christian Easter gathering, it’s not too surprising that it’s more religious in tone than his speeches in more secular contexts.

      1. True, but the text as presented seems to go beyond merely polite acknowledgement of the audience’s beliefs. It clearly shares them, and includes direct invocations of the Deity. The complete absence of anything comparable in any other public utterance I’ve ever heard is what surprises me.

  11. It was mentioned on CBS coverage yesterday that he was not religious. That may be as close as they’d come to saying he was an atheist.

  12. We may appear a little desperate trying to claim atheists, but who can blame us? We’re often told we’re immoral and not to be trusted by believers and our fellow atheists seem to wield other accusations like, “strident”, “naive”, “wrong headed”!

  13. Abraham Lincoln was an atheist in his ‘radical’ ’20s (in New Salem IL, 1831-37), a naturalist/determinist in his middle life, and a theist/determinist in his very last years (1864-65). Never did he join a Christian or any other church (though he attended church when he was president), still less believe in a personal god or Jesus-as-god. He despised evangelicalism and always thought that its emotionalism got in the way of effective social thinking and political action.

    That he died a theist of the predestinarian sort is probable; that he was a Christian, extremely unlikely; that he was a great moral leader, beyond question.

  14. If you listen to what he says at 1:22 mins into this video until 2:14 mins I think we can assume that he was politely saying “no” he doesn’t belive in God…

      1. There are (at least) two reasons he might refuse to answer. 1) He’s a closet atheist, 2) He’s sensitive to the divisive nature of religion, has atheist friends/colleagues, and doesn’t want to offer any divisive fodder to anyone.

        They could both be true, I suppose. I’d bet on the side of “closet atheist”, but maybe that’s just me projecting my preference.

      2. There aren’t many people who believe in God who don’t say so when asked. There are quite a few people in public life, however, not wishing to offend anyone or lose support from the many religious people that they represent, who prefer to remain non-committal or refuse to answer the question. I think that is what he was doing, but of course I could well be wrong

        1. I know quite a few who are discreet about their belief in god, who think it is an entirely personal thing which is nobody else’s business, and who therefore don’t answer to that question in terms similar to those used by Mandela.

    1. What you see there is a perfect politician’s answer. Take from it what you will.

      South Africa is a very multicultural country, and because race was such a divisive point in society for so many decades; religion (and there are many, many versions there) is remarkably regarded as a something where differences can be treated with tolerance. At least that was my experience when I lived and worked there.

      The other point that he was making was that for many communities in South Africa, mission-run schools were often the very best chance a Zulu or Xhosa child had at a decent education for a long time.

    2. Thanks for the link Mike. I think that’s a pretty clear “no”, whatever the ANC speech from 1992 reads like on paper.

    1. >>>>If we are looking for great moral leaders who were atheists, British abolitionist Harriet Martineau and also proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft come to mind.<<<<

      I've just read Mary Wollstonecraft, and she doesn't come across very atheist to me, rather the contrary she comes across as very religious. Someone else mentioned her in a post here too recently as being an atheist, so I'm a bit confused as to where they would get that idea from.

  15. I think Ataturk was a non theist; he certainly enshrined secular values into the laws of the modern state of Turkey

  16. Bertrand Russell and Linus Pauling, nuclear disarmament campaigners. Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman,civil rights martyrs. The list could go on for a very long time.

    1. There are two ways to read a sentence like that.

      I was a Lutheran. I’m not anymore, but I was confirmed into that faith way back in the Dark Ages.

  17. I don’t know why people feel the need to co-opt celebrities and public figures to validate or legitimize their personal world view. I mean, it is one thing if that person is comfortable advocating their position publicly, but this weird forensic attempt to “out” celebs for a position they refused to publicly endorse? I don’t get it. Have the courage of your own convictions. You don’t need someone else to hang your arguments on.

    1. But if the argument is about whether morality requires faith, it helps to be able to point to counterexamples.

      1. Of course. But that really only has any point if the person in question has publicly outed themselves. If they resolutely remain coy about their position, as so many politicians do, then they are not particularly good examples to use in the first place.

  18. Nelson Mandela was inspired during his incarceration by Henley’s “Invictus”:

    “Out of the night that covers me,
    Black as the pit from pole to pole,
    I thank whatever gods may be
    For my unconquerable soul.

    In the fell clutch of circumstance
    I have not winced nor cried aloud.
    Under the bludgeonings of chance
    My head is bloody, but unbowed.

    Beyond this place of wrath and tears
    Looms but the Horror of the shade,
    And yet the menace of the years
    Finds and shall find me unafraid.

    It matters not how strait the gate,
    How charged with punishments the scroll,
    I am the master of my fate:
    I am the captain of my soul.”

    An atheist lecturer with whom, as a yong Christian, I had many a debate in my unenlightened days, used to quote these words to me to wind me up (with great success). These are not Christian sentiments!

  19. When I was an arrogant young Christian know-it-all, an atheist lecturer used to quote Henley’s “Invictus” just to wind me up (successfully):

    I am the master of my fate:
    I am the captain of my soul.

    Nelson Mandela found these words inspirational during his incarceration, as President Obama stated in his eulogy, and the sentiments are most certainly not Christian in the traditional sense.

    1. As my first comment had disappeared when I logged on this morning I thought that I would try again. I don’t really consider my thoughts worthy of such repetition!

  20. …has there ever been a moral leader who was an atheist?

    Confucius? Buddha? (And as previously mentioned, the Dalai Lama?)

  21. When Mandela died The Guardian had an article claiming Mandela was an atheist. In all biographies of Mandela it says he was raised christian and he was so in the youth. From there on in his writings and public statements I could not find any reference to God or Jesus and therefore I think it is reasonable to see Mandela as an atheist even though he never made any statement to that effect. That I suppose to be for political reasons since most people in South Africa are still stuck in religious beliefs.

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