“Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.”
—James Baldwin, “A letter from a Region in My Mind” The New Yorker (1962)
I appreciate this opportunity to discuss and debate the implications of my book Divine Variations. Many points were raised that I believe careful readers will find answered in the book itself if not in the special issue of Zygon devoted to the text.See Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, Vol. 54, No. 1 (March 2019): 225–79. In what follows, I first discuss what it means for the protestant Reformer Martin Luther to have represented God and the world’s first people as white Europeans. Then, I discuss why I am not interested in the essence of Christianity but instead the formal structures that make up its limit points. Following this, I discuss why I do not think Darwin and monogenism offer clean solutions to scientific racism. Lastly, I close by offering reflections on whether or not Europeans and Americans are willing to admit that they believe in their own gods.
The Implications of Luther’s White God
In January of 2020, a research team led by the Stanford psychologist Steven Roberts conducted a fascinating study of how Americans conceptualize God and the social consequences of these ideas for believers and atheists.Steven O. Roberts, Kara Weisman, Jonathan Lane, et al., “God as a White Man: A psychological barrier to conceptualizing Black people and women as leadership worthy” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, (2020) 119.6, 1290–1315. This study contributes to a large and expanding body of scientific research on the racist, anti-Black, and patriarchal implications of religious belief, of which Simon Howard’s work on Christianity has been especially influential.See, for example: Simon Howard and Samuel Sommers, “White religious iconography increases anti-Black attitudes” Psychology of Religion and Spirituality (2019), 11, 382–91; Simon Howard, Debra L. Oswald, Mackenzie Kirkman, “Who believes in a male God? Ideological beliefs and gendered conceptualizations of God” International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, (2018) 28, 55–70; Simon Howard and Samuel Sommers, “Exploring the enigmatic link between religion and anti-Black attitudes” Social and Personality Psychology Compass (2015), 9, 495–510; Mark Johnson, Wade Rowatt, and Jordan LaBouff, “Priming Christian religious concepts increases racial prejudice” Social Psychological and Personality Science (2010) 1, 119–26. Roberts and his team recruited 444 U.S. Christians for the first part of their study to assess how Americans conceptualize God. Researchers found that U.S. Christians conceptualized God as more male than female and that white Christians were significantly more likely to imagine God as a white male than any other social identity.Roberts et al, “God as a White Man,” 1293. Roberts and his team then studied how gendered and racialized conceptions of God predicted American Christian ideas about who was more worthy of leadership roles. They recruited 1012 American Christians for this part of their study and found that the more participants conceptualized God as white and male, the more they believed white men were better qualified for leadership compared to all other racial and gender groups.Roberts et al, “God as a White Man,” 1298. Roberts and his team also studied American atheists and found that when prompted to think about the social identity of an imagined God these conceptions predicted who they believed was fit for leadership within that imaginary world.Roberts et al, “God as a White Man,” 1308.
I think there are at least two directions one might take to explain the results of this study, both I believe lead back to Luther. One could say the divinization of whiteness discovered in this study reflects the racist social history of the transatlantic slave trade and the dominance of Europe as a global empire beginning in 1415 when the Portuguese captured the North African city of Ceuta, just northwest of Morocco. On the other hand, one could say that the divinization of whiteness predates European colonialization and reflects deeper intellectual tendencies of Christian Europe that were brought to the Americas. Many scholars of race, slavery, or religion follow the former line of reasoning and come to the conclusion that the economic gains to be had through the expansion of European empires into Asian, Africa, and the “new world” made it ideologically necessary for modern Christianity to support the social and economic transformations taking place during this period.Robin Blackburn, The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492–1800 (New York: Verso, 1997), 350. What is often cited is the reluctance of slave traders and plantation owners to convert African and Indigenous people to Christianity for fear of the emancipatory implications of their own religion. Catholic and then Protestant missionaries were happy to amend their gospel to accommodate the demands of slavery while colonial legislators worked to ensure that white sovereignty would remain legally binding over their subjects regardless of their faith.Rebecca Goetz, Baptism of Virginia: How Christianity Created Race (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), 3–6.
While there are many merits to this argument that also allow us to identify some of the counter-racist elements within Christianity that Eric Washington and Jules Martinez-Olivieri allude to, I have always found this account of the modern origins of racism lacking. What this account inevitably fails to explain is the simple but rather important question: what were the cultural and epistemic conditions that inspired Europeans to assume ownership over non-white bodies and lands to begin with? Or for the English colonist to believe that God sanctified the Americas as the location for building his kingdom on earth? Roberts’s study offers a contemporary answer for this historical problem so clearly put on display with Luther’s color illustrated Bible. Even a cursory understanding of the artistic traditions of Europe prior to the renaissance make it obvious that Luther did not originate this practice of Europeanizing God and the first people spoken of in the Bible. What were the cultural and epistemic conditions that inspired Europeans to assume ownership over non-white bodies and lands to begin with? The work of the medieval art historian Pamela Patton, for example, has shown how the whitening of Christian iconography along with the association of African, Jewish, and Muslim features with the stigma of evil and the foreigner dates back to at least the fourteenth century.See, Pamela Patton, “Blackness, Whiteness, and the Idea of Race in Medieval European Art” in, Whose Middle Ages? Teachable Moments for an Ill-Used Past ed., Andrew Albin, Mary C. Erler, Thomas O’Donnell, Nicholas L. Paul and Nina Rowe (New York: Fordham University Press, 2019), 154–65; Geraldine Heng, The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).
Conceptualizing God as a white male has a long history that has given Christian and non-Christians in the West a framework for understanding whites as more valuable and God-like than non-whites and non-men. Thus, Martinez-Olivieri’s question concerning whether Luther had a strategy of racialization that centered German-European whiteness misunderstands how cultural transmission works. The inertia of cultural inheritance that confirms one’s privileged place within a social hierarchy is not a matter of overt strategy but most often the presumption of a birthright to make the frameworks produced by that inheritance one’s own. Luther’s presumption is revealed at the moment he, and countless European Christians before him, decided to de-historicize his own faith tradition by not depicting God, Noah, and his family with the physical traits of people from the Levant where Christianity originated—the Eastern Mediterranean region of Western Asia that includes populations from Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, and Syria. Had Luther, or Christians today, conceived of God, and the patriarchs of humanity with the physical traits that would historicize and honor the ethnic and geographic beginnings of their faith, he would be forfeiting the valuable social privileges available to subjects who understand whiteness to be closest to God. As I argue in Divine Variations, this belief has been transmitted culturally beyond Christian thinking and into European modern science.
Hence the significance of an ostensibly secular ethnologist like Johann Blumenbach and his decision to make whites the original human. Now on this point Martinez-Olivieri wonders what conception of God was operative in Blumenbach’s mind and how this might be tied to either deism, pantheism, or idealism in circulation among German thinker in the eighteenth century. Is this the best question we can ask? While contemplating the nuances of deism, panentheism, and idealism in Germany at this time might at first glance appear intellectually stimulating, it is far afield from a more fundamental and frankly obvious question I make explicit in the text that surprisingly has been glossed over in Martinez-Olivieri’s assessment. Why does Blumenbach believe in common human ancestry? Why impute the presence of a creative force within nature that designs living things? Why believe white people were created first? Or that humans have no antecedent forms? What are the historical, religious, and epistemological conditions that make these beliefs possible?All the evidence suggests that the curse of Ham did not drive Western racism or scientific racism even though it did play a role in racial violence against Africans during slavery. Wading into the waters of deism, panentheism, and idealism would not resolve these questions. However, asking where and how Christian intellectual carryovers concerning the Creator God, whiteness, and first people made their way into the theological positions of the eighteenth century is a fascinating question worth exploring.
To return back to the issue of slavery, race, and modern European expansion, Tite Tiénou asks where the curse of Ham falls within my study of scientific racism. This myth was not centered in this book because I was interested in Christian concepts about humanity designed to be universalized. All the evidence suggests that the curse of Ham did not drive Western racism or scientific racism even though it did play a role in racial violence against Africans during slavery. The myth of Ham’s curse was not capacious enough to give an account of color variation across the globe. This explains why it does not appear in Luther’s thoughts about human descent or the ethnology of Johann Blumenbach and his post-Enlightenment contemporaries. It was also explicitly challenged by polygenists in the nineteenth century. The curse of Ham, while derived from the story of Noah, is subsidiary to the belief in shared human ancestry, but on its own the curse cannot be scaled to explain the color of other races. Additionally, as all the authors Tiénou cites, the curse of Ham is a recent invention necessitated by transatlantic slave trade. But the religious antecedents to scientific racism are much older than transatlantic slavery and those antecedents (male Creator God, supersessionism, shared human ancestry, etc.) were the focus of my study because of their durability and wide application.
Not Essence but the Limit Points of Christian Ideas
How can one talk about the transmission of cultural inertia and frameworks produced by that cultural inheritance over time and space while not being mistaken for making a case about essences, and in this context the essence of Christianity? I am surely not after something permanent or unchanging. Yet, there are intellectual structures that endure and can inspire a range of ideas and practices—but within limits. This is one of the problems of modernity formed by the values of Christian supersessionism:An important component to Christianity is its monotheism along with its anthropocentric representations of God. the fetishization of what appears new and simultaneously the refusal to acknowledge that novelty is produced always out of old structures that are both limiting and protective. Allow me to use an example to make the point.
An important component to Christianity is its monotheism along with its anthropocentric representations of God. Bibles, theologies, and doctrines have been formed by this anthropocentric monotheism, yet despite this, Christian communities have imagined God in many different ways that serve those communities: Creator, spirit, the unknown, the all-knowing, God of the oppressed, a Black male. That last example, God as a Black male, exposed one of the limit points within Christian monotheism that hides in plain sight and determines what can and can’t be said about the Christian God. White Christians have literally killed Black Christians for worshiping a God in their own image—and this is to say nothing about Blacks who have been targeted for worshiping a God who is not Christian.The courage of free Black communities led by Richard Allen and Absalom Jones in 1794 to worship as equals to whites cost them their membership in St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in the so-called city of brotherly love. White supremacy made the Black church necessary and prompted the rejection of the Black church as illegitimate and thus worthy of assault and destruction—AME churches across the southern US have been burned down and assaulted by whites since they were formed. For more see: Dennis C. Dickerson, The African Methodist Episcopal Church: A History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020); Richard Newman, Freedom’s Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, The AME Church, the Black Founding Fathers (New York: New York University Press, 2009); David Robertson, Denmark Vesey: The Buried Story of America’s Largest Slave Rebellion and the Man Who Led It (New York: Vintage Press, 2000). Such killings have served to police the limits of what can and cannot be said about the Christian deity. Should we call this limit point an essence? Hardly not, given the great deal of heterogeneity accommodated within Christian monotheism—again, the Christian God can be many things but within limits. Viewing the Christian God as a Black male exposes a hidden intellectual structure that forms a limit point within Christian monotheism. That structure and limit point since at least the time of Luther has involved prohibiting religious beliefs that threaten white Christians as the chosen and original people made in God’s image. We should expect the effects of modern political liberalism to explain the range of tolerance Christians have for threats to these boundaries; not all white Christians in the past or present have been equally invested in actively policing the racial limits of their monotheism, but a great number of them have.
If I can push this example even further, let us consider God and the non-human within Christian thought. White Christians, or any Christian for that matter, as far as I can tell have not imagined God to be a tortoise. In theory, Christians are free to worship and call this animal God, but doing so would forfeit important value commitments about the primacy of humanity, masculinity, and whiteness that have structured Western society, law, heteronormative family relationships, etc. for millennia in Europe and America. Christians calling God a tortoise would begin to lose their intelligibility as Christians and thus also the forms of protections and benefits that come from remaining within the limits of a monotheism historically articulated as masculine, above all beings, and white. Christianity carries within itself formal structures capable of producing a plurality of practices and beliefs; but those structures have a limit point that when crossed can mean forfeiting privileges that have historically proctected the social positions of (white male) Christians in the West.
I’ve used this example about monothesism to make the point that historically there have been intellectual structures that limit the range of things that can be produced and called Christian. To pretend that no formal intellectual structures exist—or that such limits have never existed—is intellectually dishonest. I identified some of these formal intellectual structures in Divine Variations and showed their effects in modern science and medicine, but I did not presume to have written an account of the essence of Christianity.
The Problem with Darwin and Monogenism
In response to some of Diarmid Finnegan’s observations, it is worth restating the case I make in Divine Variations concerning the problem with Darwin, monogenism, and race. At the end of my discussion of American polygenism, I showed that Darwin’s understanding of natural selection and the species concept left unresolved the issue of racial classification. If the species concept captured a biological organism that was constantly subject to conditions of adaptation, then why retain the race concept? Darwin’s unwillingness to abolish the race concept reflected his own provincial attachments to European culture as the ideal of human development. This is not difficult to understand when we consider that the “Pax Britannica” was still in its prime duringIf Black bodies were collectively exposed to the same forms of racial violence, we should expect that violence to leave similar effects on their health outcomes. Darwin’s life.For more on the civilizing aspirations of the British empire during Darwin’s time, see: John Darwin, The Empire Project: The Rise and Fall of the British World System, 1830–1970 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Catherine Hall, Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination 1830–1867 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002). Sure, he was opposed slavery but he was not an anti-imperialist. This is a fairly obvious observation. The real issue with Darwin’s ambivalence about race was that he did not close the door to scientific racism as many continue to believe. Monogenism was very compatible with polygenism for a host of reasons but principally because both relied on racial realism: the notion that external physical appearances were signs of deeper and more profound biological variation buried within each race (pp. 86–89). Finnegan seems to have missed this rather important point. Thus, the significance of Charles Roman also seems to have been lost on him. Roman’s challenge was combating a form of polygenism that persisted in American biomedicine claiming humans belonged to the same species. By stressing shared ancestry, Roman drew attention to shared vulnerability, which was a hallmark of the species. This in turn allowed Roman to identify forms of historical and structural racism that produced illness and premature death in Black communities, but disastrously was misread as an innate feature of their race. If Black bodies were collectively exposed to the same forms of racial violence, we should expect that violence to leave similar effects on their health outcomes. But if social conditions were democratic and equitable, we should not expect to see those same poor health outcomes in Black bodies, thus eroding the biological signs and dispositions used to classify those very Black bodies as a distinct race. Roman inverted the notion that the biology or culture of a race was their destiny—instead, the society we build determines the quality and length of our lives. Tragically this remains a lesson that gene-centric life scientists and doctors have failed to fully grasp.See Chandra Ford and Collins Airhihenbuwa, “Critical Race Theory, Race Equity, and Public Health: Toward Antiracism Praxis” American Journal of Public Health 100, S30_S35, https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2009.171058. That said, Roman’s solution is not without its problems; there is still the matter of epistemic colonialization that is attached to evolutionary biology and modern biomedicine which assumes Western knowledge systems are superior to non-Western understandings of the human body and the origin of life. Hence my discussion of Spencer Wells and his conflict with the cosmologies of the Navajo and Australian aboriginals. The theory of shared human ancestry reveals its cultural indebtedness to Christian supersessionism in its hostility toward non-Christian and non-European knowledge systems that produce alternative human timelines. It is surprising that Finnegan had nothing to say about the religious and cultural history I revealed lurking in the background of Wells’s belief that “science is a European way of thinking about the world” (pp. 3–6).
There are of course resources within evolutionary biology to be anti-racist. Those resources partially derive from the scientific belief in monogenism—which again is not a fact of nature but is an idea carefully created over many centuries out of Christian intellectual history. Hence Christianity is capable of producing the antidote to the very racism it inspires However, there is another strand to this anti-racism: the anti-religious Marxism of the New Left that geneticists like Richard Lewontin and Joseph Graves, along with anthropologists like Stephen Jay Gould, brought to their study of human biodiversity after the social revolution of the 1960s.For more on the value commitments that shifted the modern study of human variation toward a more liberal and secular orientation see Maurizio Meloni’s discussion of Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould in Political Biology: Science and Social Values in Human Heredity from Eugenics to Epigenetics (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 136–58; See also Joseph Graves, The Emperor’s New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003). I favor this Marxist tradition but explain in Divine Variations that the secularism of this approach has blinded us to the persistence of Christian intellectual commitments within the life sciences (pp. 14–17).
Do White Subjects Believe in Their Own Gods?
There has been a strange quality to this exchange that captures—tragically or ironically, I cannot decide—the exhaustive labor expended by Black subjects whose society demands they must prove (principally to white subjects) that what they see is real. Whether or not that society is capable of believing Black subjects is a matter entirely separate from the observations they might make. I see clearly the deities of Euro-American Christianity that make possible white subject positions as well as the scientific disciplines that naturalize and insulate those social positions from suspicion and critique. I am using the term “white subject” to signify habits of mind and social actions formed carefully over time that can be inhabited by white and non-white persons.See, George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1996); Eddie Glaude, Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul (New York: Penguin Random House Publishing, 2016). I hoped the plurality of the title Divine Variations would signal to readers the proliferation of Euro-American Christian deities within Western science, medicine, and beyond. The challenge of disclosing these deities from within a fog of (white) disbelief is two-fold: First, the Black subject intuitively knows that their own experience is proof enough that the gods they see and encounter everyday are real—that the gods of white Christian Europe and America have always had the power to give and take life, knowing this is a matter of survival. But knowledge derived from Black experience can never be convincing on its own merits within a society that resents Black life or sees “Black bodies in motion” and is reminded of the failure of a white republic or a collapsed European empire.I am borrowing this reference to Black mobility from Wallace Best’s, “Fear of Black Bodies in Motion” The Huffington Post, December 4, 2014: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-fear-of-black-bodies-in-motion_b_6268672 Second, and this is perhaps even more difficult because of the stakes, there is nothing more challenging than convincing white people of gods they no longer believe in but that nonetheless authorize their social position in a secular society. This amounts to saying one knows the sources of white subjectivity better than whites know themselves. Knowledge of this sort, as James Baldwin reminds us, is paradoxical and disorienting while living in a stalled democracy where wealth, religion, and science can turn races into gods.