As I remarked in a post on the day after Mr. Mandela’s death, his value to South Africa (in particular) was in the unifying effect that his words, character and narrative offered to us. And while there’s certainly a risk of overdoing the praise-singing and mythologising when an important figure leaves us, it’s arguably more distasteful when such a figure becomes the subject of attempts to illegitimately bask in some reflected glory, through claiming some sort of kinship with them.
In asserting that Mr Mandela’s “atheism” is another reason to celebrate his life, The Freethinker magazine (and, presumably, those who, like Richard Dawkins, retweeted the story in question) seem to be exploiting what I’m told advertising types refer to as “borrowed interest”, but which you might know better as simple opportunistic exploitation of largely irrelevant details about someone’s life.
I say largely irrelevant, because Mandela’s role involved highlighting what we have in common, rather than our differences and antagonisms. If any of the labels we use to describe religion and related issues could fit, the one that would have the best chance would be humanism, because his relationship to the citizens of the world seemed to transcend the quite limited boundaries offered by religion and its explicit opponent, atheism. The focus in religion vs. atheism is on difference, rather than commonality, and hardly seems either a good fit or a fitting thing to bring up while people are still mourning Mandela’s death. It’s crass, and opportunistic.
Furthermore, it also seems largely a fabrication, or at least a fantasy, that he was an atheist at all. The “evidence” offered in The Freethinker consists solely of a birthday wish to Mandela from a South African atheist, urging Mandela to “come out” as an atheist. In another piece, it’s asserted that “the other [after Andrei Sakharov] great moral atheist leader of the 20th century was Nelson Mandela”, but we’re given no reason to believe this assertion to be true.
We do now know that Mandela was a member of the Communist Party, and some might therefore think it follows that he was an atheist. On the other hand, we do know that he was baptised as a Methodist, and we have Wikipedia quoting an interview with Mcebisi Skwatsha, in which Mandela apparently confirmed that he was a Methodist. In Mandela’s book Conversations with Myself, he says “I never abandoned my Christian beliefs”, and a comment on Pharyngula points to a CNN story, where it’s described how Mandela would regularly receive blessings from Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris.
Mandela also spoke at churches on a semi-regular basis, and in short, clearly seemed to have no antipathy to religion. Instead, his attitude to religion seems to have been exactly the right one for the leader of a nation to have – to hold it as a personal issue, and to devote himself to allowing others to exercise their religions, or lacks of religion, in the manner they see fit. In other words, regardless of what his personal beliefs were, he seems to have been fully committed to secularism in government.
When Christians or other religious folk try to claim deathbed conversions, there’s no shortage of voices pointing out how distasteful [it is] to “claim” people for one side or the other. It’s no less distasteful when atheists try to do the same. In this instance, exactly because of Mr Mandela’s apparent reluctance to choose sides in this matter, it’s perhaps even more distasteful than usual.