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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 January 2018

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This article examines a previously unexplored chapter in the history of atheism: its close links with nineteenth-century racial anthropology. These links are apparent especially in many atheists’ interest in polygenesis, the theory that human races had separate origins, in contrast to the orthodox Christian doctrine of monogenesis that said all races descended from Adam and Eve. The article's focus is Charles Bradlaugh (1833–91), arguably the most important British atheist of the era, representing the radical working-class, secularist movement that emerged in mid-nineteenth-century Britain. The article charts the ways Bradlaugh and other atheists used the research on polygenesis from leading scientific racists in both Britain and the United States to critique Christianity. It also explores some of the contradictions of this use, namely the ways polygenesis clashed with Darwinism and a longer chronology of the age of the Earth. Finally, the article explores how polygenist ideas informed Bradlaugh's imperial worldview and notes that, despite his acceptance of polygenesis, Bradlaugh was a supporter of the rights of nonwhites in the British Empire, particularly in India.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2018 

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I would like to thank John Clark, Felix Driver, Colin Kidd, David Livingstone, and the two reviewers for their comments on earlier drafts of this article.


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36 Knox, The Races of Men, 384.

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39 Ibid., 477; Lonsdale hinted that Knox was sympathetic to deism: Lonsdale, Life and Writings of Knox, 407.

40 Autonomos, “Who Are the Jews? (1),” National Reformer, 12 May 1867, 293–4; Autonomos, “Who Are the Jews? (2),” National Reformer, 19 May 1867, 314–15; Autonomos, “Who Are the Jews? (3),” National Reformer, 26 May 1867, 322–4.

41 The whole series is Autonomos, “Christian Filibusters in Africa (1),” National Reformer, 9 June 1867, 362–3; Autonomos, “Christian Filibusters in Africa (2),” National Reformer, 16 June 1867, 373; Autonomos, “Christian Filibusters in Africa (3),” National Reformer, 23 June 1867, 394–5; Autonomos, “Christian Filibusters in Africa (4),” National Reformer, 30 June 1867, 407; Autonomos, “Christian Filibusters in Africa (5),” National Reformer, 7 July 1867, 5–7; Autonomos, “Christian Filibusters in Africa (6),” National Reformer, 14 July 1867, 20–22; Autonomos, “Christian Filibusters in Africa (7),” National Reformer, 21 July 1867, 37–9; Autonomos, “Christian Filibusters in Africa (8),” National Reformer, 4 Aug. 1867, 69–71.

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111 Ibid., Lecture 4, 6.

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