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.
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