Was Mandela an atheist? How atheists are defiling Mandela’s legacy

Not only has the late Nelson Mandela become a source of commerce (t-shirts, books, etc.) but now his name is also defiled by atheistic apologetics. Just read this article: http://freethinker.co.uk/2013/12/06/widely-understood-to-be-an-atheist-nelson-mandela-dies-at-the-age-of-95-hamba-kakuhle-comrade/. This article, that was retweeted (without comment, but probably with appreciation) by Richard Dawkins, claims that it is “widely understood” that Mandela was an atheist.

Another atheist, one Damian Mogale, states on his Facebook page that Mandela, because of his political role, could not afford to say out loud that he was an atheist. Like Obama, Mandela’s utterances about his personal faith were “for the show”. Again, others say that Mandela was an atheist because he is on the honorary membership list of the Bertrand Russell Society…

I don’t know whether these claims about Mandela’s atheism are true. A religious Dutch newspaper (Nederlands Dagblad) published yesterday a brief article on Mandela’s faith, in which it is argued that Mandela was quite silent about his religious faith, but that he more than once talked about him having faith. The conclusion of the newspaper article was that Mandela’s faith followed his way of life and not the other way around. That makes sense, but that definitely does not make him an atheist.

But does it matter what his beliefs were? Does it matter whether he was an atheist or a theist? His view was that one should rise beyond the differences that divide people, and look for the goodness in human beings that can be hidden but that never entirely disappears.

Whatever Mandela’s beliefs were, I am frankly appalled that atheists are trying to claim that Mandela was actually in their camp. First it was Darwin (who never confessed to atheism), then it was Einstein (idem), now it is Nelson Mandela. Such apologetic strategies are dishonest and simply don’t work.

Moreover, it is appalling to see that these atheists are actually arguing in opposition to Mandela’s ideals: they try to polarize society and to increase hostility towards religious believers, whereas Mandela – whatever his personal beliefs were – stood for reconciliation and mutual respect. By fighting religion and calling religious believers hypocrits, atheists defile Mandela’s legacy.

But don’t get me wrong, though. Christians who are doing the same thing – claiming that Mandela was “one of theirs” – in order to argue against atheism – to me are just as appalling, since they are going against Mandela’s vision just the same…

9 thoughts on “Was Mandela an atheist? How atheists are defiling Mandela’s legacy

  1. Dear Mr Smedes, your grasp of the English language is frankly fantastic (a skill that seems to endemic in Holland) so much so that I cannot attribute words like ‘defiled,’ ‘appalling’ and ‘hostility’ as a simple misunderstanding as to their meaning – you quite obviously understand exactly what you are writing.

    It is true that some in the atheists are trying to instigate debate on whether Mandela was an atheist (is that not allowed?) but to say that they are trying ‘… to polarize society and to increase hostility towards religious believers’ is disingenuous in the extreme.

    People will continue to opine on Mandela’s faith just because he kept it so close to his chest, in fact all the way through ‘A long Walk to Freedom’ there are clues as to whether or not he held faith. The fact is that your article jumps on the ‘he’s in my gang!’ bandwagon as much as any of the articles you refer to. Your parenthesized aside at the end does nod towards the fact that perhaps you were being one-sided, but it is a little too little a little too late.

    Atheist or not what I think we can all agree on regardless of religion is the fact that he was a genuinely good and honest man who had extremely strong moral principals, the majority of which have helped shape and define the world we live in today.

  2. Hi Tobin,

    Of course it is allowed to think and talk about whether Mandela was an atheist or a religious believer. (But why would it matter?) And I agree completely with your last sentence. That sentence actually underscores the point I was trying to make in the first place. It was definitely not my intention to claim that Mandela was a religious believer and that that was the source of his wisdom, honesty and strong morality. My blogpost was a response to the Freethinker-article that I thought was disingeneous in claiming that Mandela was an atheist, thereby suggesting (not claiming, but the rhetoric is obvious) that Mandela’s humanistic attitude arose from his atheism. It made me think of the (equally disingenous) attempts of creationists to claim that Charles Darwin on his death-bed rejected his evolutionary theory and converted back to Christianity.

    That many – not all – atheists try to polarize society and increase hostility towards religious believers is, I think, a fact. Just listen to Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and many others who function for many atheists not much unlike the bunch of Saints in the Catholic Church and who in their writing express extreme hostility towards religion in general. Again, many fundamentalist religious believers express similar hatred and hostility towards other religious believers and towards non-believers. Both such militant atheists and militant fundamentalists violate the principles that Mandela stood for. He stood for reconciliation and respect for all humans, irrespective of their religious beliefs.

    Did you already check out the responses to the Freethinker-article on Twitter? https://twitter.com/search?q=mandela%20atheist&src=typd&f=realtime

  3. I note Christian attempts to claim or wish Mandela was religious

    He was not and claiming he was religious or a Christian is a lie and tarnishes his memory.

    Mandela was an atheist.

    1) He never ever talked about Jesus, god, or claimed Jesus was his personal saviour or paraded his piety in public.

    2) He never went to church or joined groupy religious meetings with Christians or any other cults of god believers.

    3) He never invoked god or called upon the imaginary god for help, waved bible around or made public displays of piety like a typical Christian hypocrite.

    4) And here is the kicker – he was an honorary member of one of the world’s leading atheist societies, the Bertrand Russell Society which honours the memory of one of the most prominent 20th Century atheists.
    users.drew.edu/~jlenz/brs-members.html

    No Christian or religious person would be made an honorary member of prominent international organisation that celebrates the life of a very active ant-theist . Nor for that matter would any religious person want to be associated with it.

  4. Hi Tobin,

    The response by Atheitis Godfrey, who calls religious believers “typical Christian hypocrits” just proves my point about the polarization and hostility of many atheists…

  5. “Polarization and hostility of many atheists…” This is simply not true! You say many of us Atheists are hostile, but you’re comparing us to Richard Dawkins?? He is a very militant Atheist but can we even COMPARE his militant Atheism to the Westboro baptist church? Not even close my friend! If that’s the extent of your version of Atheist Extremism, call yourself lucky! See you’re complaining of Atheists claiming “Mandela is in their camp” but the same is happening with Christians! On his WIKI it says he is a Christian as well! He was a great guy, everyone wants him in their camp.

  6. Ishmael,

    Don’t get me wrong: the people of the Westboro Baptist Church are complete idiots, no doubt about it! And I also agree that there are Christians who are claiming that Mandela is in their camp (please read my post carefully, since I don’t spare their efforts either!).

    And you’re right: Mandela is/was a great guy so that everyone wants him in their camp. The point is that he IS in everybody’s camp, simply because as a human being he set an example that we can all follow, irrespective of religion, beliefs, worldviews, etc. That’s why I find the quarrels about “in whose camp” he is so ludicrous.

  7. Quote from Nelson Mandela:
    “I join you in that humble prayer: Nkosi Sikelela i`Afrika!”
    Address by President Nelson Mandela to the Annual Conference of the Methodist Church
    http://www.anc.org.za/show.php?id=3685

    What kind of atheist joins in prayer to say “God bless Africa!”? Was he then also a hypocrite?

  8. I find it difficult to see what is so appalling here. It’s a legitimate historical question to ask what beliefs Nelson Mandela held, and naturally atheists would be motivated to bring forth arguments that the man didn’t believe in god(s).

    It’s not an insult to be called an atheist, nor is it inherently polarizing. There is certainly no ‘apologetic strategy’ to be found here, since it matters squat if Darwin, Einstein, or Mandela were atheists, in terms of apologetics.

    The only polarizing view I see here is, ironically, in this blog post, where the term ‘hostile’ is used in response to an article that contains no hostility.

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