Thursday, December 12, 2013

Reasons to Believe That Nelson Mandela Was a Non-Believer

Of all the words attributed to the late Nelson Mandela, the ones that I didn't find in his discussions of such matters as his political views,  his 27 year imprisonment and eventual release by South Africa's apartheid rulers, and his presidency of that country  were references to a belief in or a guidance by a supernatural power. In the matter of the unjust and horrific  incarceration such as what Mandela experienced, the tendency of many well known political leaders who have undergone similar hardship is to invoke prayer and faith in God as the source of their strength that got them through their ordeal.  However, in a passage from Nelson Mandela: Prison Years  Mandela instead said "...We drew strength and sustenance from the knowledge  that were part of a greater humanity than our jailers could claim."  Further, his outlook on life as reflected in  129 of  his quotes  are free of theistic allusions.
So was Nelson Mandela an atheist? Apparently, he was, even though he never declared himself outright as a non-believer. But even if it turns out that he was a theist, his lack of attribution to a supernatural being for his achievements was refreshing.

However, assuming for the sake of argument that Mandela was an atheist, did he come by this stance on his own or was it his membership in the African National Congress whose ally was the South African Communist Party that shaped his irreligionist views? In fact one source says that he was active and even held a leadership position in the latter organization.. But another source shades his affiliation with communism as tenuous and temporary. Mandela himself went so far as to acknowledge that the Communist Party did changed his views into accepting all races into the ANC and into realizing that African nationalism itself was not the exclusive property of any one ethnicity,  However, as previously noted, he doesn't mention whether the Party, known for its atheism, influenced him in this matter as well.

But in the end, the measure of this man was not a label on his philosophy but the scope of his deeds and his personal fortitude as the contribution that he made to not just South Africa but to a whole. 


Christian said...

I agree his link with the communist party was temporary at best. A marriage that had benefits for both parties involved and then they went their separate ways.

Interesting that you talk about this. Thinking back, I can't ever remember Mandela invoking a god at any time.

Secular Guy said...


Thanks for your reply. I think that your conclusion of Mandela's association with the Communist party as a marriage of convenience is apt.

As for Mandela's apparent atheism, it seems like a case of "don't ask, don't tell". Theistic leaders have lauded his fortitude as inspirational. Maybe they know that Mandela was a non-believer, but as long as he never publicly spoke of it, they gave him a pass.