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The Golden Age of FreeThought

In my continuing series on the history of freethought and secularism in America I would like to spend a little time focusing on the “Golden Age of FreeThought”. It’s called by the author of Freethinkers, A History of American Secularism, Susan Jacoby, the Golden Age for good reason. During the period following the Civil War it was perhaps the most open period in American history to disagree with religious authority and even mock the more irrational aspects of religion. This openness wasn’t nearly as utopian as it may sound.

Unbelief during the Civil War

Perhaps the most telling comments about the status of secular thought during the 19th century comes from the following passage of Susan Jacoby’s book,

Today’s Christian conservatives frequently use the slogan “let’s put God back into the Constitution,” thereby implying that “secular humanists” have managed to overturn what was originally intended to be a marriage of church and state. Nineteenth-century clerics knew better and were honest about their desire to reverse what they regarded as the founders’ erroneous decision to separate church and state.

The late nineteenth-century was merely a foreshadowing of the kinds of vitriol that would be poured out on our elected leaders in recent decades. “In God We Trust” was first engraved onto our currency during the end of the Civil War and was soon made the butt of a number of jokes, such as “In gold we trust” during the debates surrounding the removal of U.S. currency from the gold standard. 

Theodore Roosevelt, one of the most devout Christians ever to be elected president, attempted in 1907 to dispense with the motto precisely because of the sacrilegious puns. He succeeded only in arousing a storm of criticism from ministers who had previously been among his strongest supporters. Roosevelt, who had dubbed Paine a “filthy little atheist,” was himself called an infidel for his attempt to remove God from American money.” 

Ah, the irony is overwhelming.

The Great Agnostic

Much as Thomas Paine was perhaps the most reviled infidel of his time, Robert Green Ingersoll was much admired and called the Great Agnostic. Ingersoll wrote many pamphlets during his time (c. 1870-1899), including the Gods and Other Lectures and Some mistakes of Moses.

Unlike today, the American people often went to see speakers give lectures. In fact, you could make quite a living going on the lecture circuit. Ingersoll was an extremely popular speaker with many connections to the Republican party of the day. In many of his talks he did not pull any punches in his ridicule of religious belief and social issues such as slavery and women’s rights.

From the Gods and other lectures, after quoting Deuteronomy chapter 20 from the Old Testament detailing the slaughter of men and the… uh… acquisition of the women,

Is it possible for man to conceive of anything more perfectly infamous? Can you believe that such directions were given by any being except an infinite fiend? Remember that the army receiving these instructions was one of invasion. Peace was offered upon condition that the people submitting should be the slaves of the invader; but if any should have the courage to defend their homes, to fight for the love of wife and child, then the word was to spare none – not even the prattling, dimpled babe.

And we are called upon to worship such a god; to get upon our knees and tell him that he is good, that he is merciful, that he is just, that he is love.

The book, called the bible, is filled with passages equally horrible, unjust and atrocious. This is the book to be read in schools in order to make our children loving, kind and gentle! This is the book to be recognized in our Constitution as the source of all authority and justice!

Reading Ingersoll is like reading Dawkins or particularly Hitchens. In fact, I dare say The God Delusion and god is not great are modern day versions of the very lectures that Ingersoll was so famously recognized for and the Four Horseman are so roundly criticized for.

FreeThought Activism

I don’t want to make it sound like the late-nineteenth century was a free and unfettered time to be a freethinker. In fact, the roots of what would ultimately become the “red scare” and much of the McCarthy-ist persecution was beginning to take root at this time particularly during the turn of the century. I will wait to delve into those issues with the next post, FreeThought in the 20th Century.

Among perhaps one of the most astounding things of the mid to late-1800’s was the prevalence of Freethought literature, newspapers and pamphlet printing organizations. Throughout the 1800’s FreeThought periodicals began popping up everywhere, the most famous of the bunch would be D.M. and Mary Bennett’s Truth Seeker. Some of the other periodicals were the Boston Investigator, the Blue Grass Blade, the Free-Thought Ideal and Free-Thought Vindicator, and my personal favorite the Lucifer, the Light-Bearer. Of course, like all “movements” they are rarely centralized and cooridinated as evidenced by the Iconoclast of Austin, Texas run by William Cowper Brann, a strident racist who was ultimately shot in the back by an enraged Baptist. The diversity of thought among those who wore the FreeThought banner was loosely held together by the almost universal opposition to organized religion and their support for a clear separation of church and state.

During this time period the roots of feminism were planted beginning with attempts to gain women the right to vote and the dissemination of information regarding contraception. There are so many famous figures from the women’s rights movement who came to fame during this time period, William Lloyd Garrison, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony and Ernestine L. Rose.

There are so many things that happened during this time period that I have only barely scratched the surface. I only glossed over Ingersoll’s life and almost the entirety of the women’s suffrage movement and spoke nothing about the emancipation of the slaves and Abraham Lincoln’s beliefs. I guess you’ll just have to read the book 😉

More in this series:

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Revolutionary FreeThought

I have recently finished reading Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. It is in my opinion an essential read in understanding the history of FreeThought and Secularism in America. I have re-read a number of sections and followed up on other articles and a number of historical points.

It’s hard for me to understate what an enormous impact this book has made in my understanding of freethought and secularism. I’ve had bits and pieces before, like the secular roots of the American Constitution, Robert Ingersoll and the role of many humanists and secularists during abolition, women’s suffrage and the early civil rights movement. But I’ve never had these pieces woven together into a cohesive history.

I’m so impressed I’ve decided to write a 4-part post on this one book alone. I won’t make any one post too lengthy however it looks like the book and the history of secularism in America could be broken into 4 rough periods. The first is the remaining portion of this post, Revolutionary FreeThought (c. 1776-1861)*, specifically the role that secular thought played in the founding of America, the way minority religious sects embraced secularism and the early foundations of freethought activism in the form of abolition and feminism.

I have posted in the past regarding the secular and specifically non-Christian origins of the American Constitution however this book spends only a small portion of the first chapter talking about the beliefs of Jefferson, Adams, Madison and other Founding Fathers. Instead, Jacoby focuses on the debate that raged around the wording of the Constitution and how any mention of any God was a strong point of contention among religious clerics at the time..

Secular Thought During the Revolution

During the formation of this country with rare exception each State had an official and established state church. And in some of those states you had to take an oath supporting that church in order to hold public office, elected or appointed. The Founders knew that if there was going to be strong and unified Federal government then religious tests for office would have to be eliminated and hence the following line shows up in Article 6 of the Constitution

…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States

To further extend the clear fear that the Founding Fathers, particularly Jefferson and Madison, had of sectarian strife within the new nation, they clearly infused the American Constitution with the same philosophy that embodied Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom. Madison conveyed his views on the dilemma posed by sectarian differences (let alone the pluralistic society we live in today) to the Virginia Assembly to proposed funding of religious schooling

Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? That the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever? 

Thomas Paine

Perhaps the most notable Freethinker during this revolutionary period was Thomas Paine. A man that contributed directly to the people’s support of the American Revolution to only be reviled as the Arch-Infidel upon his return from imprisonment in France. Of course, the author of Common Sense and The Rights of Man, the former a support for the American Revolution and the latter a support for the French Revolution and a critique of hereditary rule, was looked upon quite differntly after publishing The Age of Reason.

The Age of Reason was a scathing critique of many of the Biblical doctrines at the time. He soundly rejected divine revelation and miracles. He wholesale discounted all supernatural aspects of the Bible, Old and New Testament alike. He puts forth not a disbelief in God, despite the accusations of atheist at the time, but a belief in a deistic God. One who could be known through Nature’s Laws.

Religious Support of Secular Government

The most notable subplot, if you will, during this period was the role that early Evangelicals played in supporting the secular nature of government. As you can imagine some of the most outspoken critics of the Constitution at the time came from established, state-sponsored Christian denominations, such as The Episcopal Church (official church of Virginia) or to Protestantism in general. Catholics in America at the time were highly distrusted due to the perceived dual obligations to the papacy and to the civil governments. For example, Massachusetts only allowed Catholics to hold office if they renounced the papacy’s authority in all matters civil. New York, ironically, allowed Jews the right to hold office but not Catholics.

In the previously mentioned debate in Virginia regarding special assessments to fund private, religious education it was the minority religious sects, such as, the Quakers, Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians who opposed the special assessments and ultimately would support Virginia’s religious freedom act.

It’s not at all surprising although ironic that the early roots of the Evangelicals around today would fight so strongly to oppose religious language only to turn around in the 20th century to fight to have it included. It only goes to show that the Founding Fathers were right to fear the mixing of religious and political power. Because yesterday it was the Episcopal Church and today it’s the Baptists.

I have also posted over on FreeThought Fort Wayne’s blog about a need to cultivate religious advocacy of secularism in America. I now have a better understanding that I wasn’t proposing anything new and that there is a history of support that needs to resurface

* I know the timelines don’t have “clean” demarcation but it helps to give an idea of the time periods involved.

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Christopher Hedges doesn’t believe in atheists

Somehow I missed this really good interview with Christopher Hedges the author of American Fascists, a scathing attack on the Religious Right in America, about his new work I Don’t Believe in Atheists.

Christopher Hedges has debated by Dawkins and Hitchens,

I haven’t read the new book but it’s now on my evergrowing and seemingly never shrinking list of books to read. In his debates, watch the youtube video to see an example of this, his primary criticism is that there is this belief among the New Atheists, or Secular Fundamentalists as he calls them, is that once you remove religion the world will be great and that Religion was holding us back. And I have to agree that that criticism is legitimate in the sense that that does seem to be the way many of the New Atheists arguments seemed to get boiled down to. In addition, if you simply replace Religion with Atheism as the new set of “moral” standards you have essentially replaced something (religion) with a nothing (atheism) and therefore that criticism stands as well.

What I think perhaps Christopher Hedges best illustrates is that many of the New Atheists arguments are “against” religion but not specifically “for” anything and therefore leave a whole that must be filled. I personally think that is a legitimate criticism. There is a basis for morality or at least a basis for how we determine that morality.

What I anticipate happening in the coming years is a flood of books by authors whole we be dubbed as the New Moralists or New Philosphers. These books will actually put forward in laymen’s terms the basis for a new morality which anybody who reads this stuff will recognize as simply Humanism or some variant of it. These books will also come under attack as well but for different reasons. These new books will actually make “positive statements of belief” that can be directly attacked as opposed to the current batch of books whose “negative statements of belief” are really just attacks themselves. Of course, you will also have these new beliefs attacked as being morally relativistic however the current books by the New Atheists do a pretty good job of showing religions, particularly Christianity, are morally relativistic as well, although the phrase “subject to interpretation” is more appropriate, such as the rights of women, slavery and racism.

I think Hedges makes some great arguments that I hope some of the New Atheists and others will take to heart and  move the debate forward away from the irrational basis of religion and towards this so called “New Enlightenment”.

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