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9 Great Freethinkers and Religious Dissenters in History

This article was originally published on AlterNet.

What kind of world would we have if a majority of the human race was atheist?

To hear religious apologists tell it, the triumph of atheism would mean a swift descent into selfishness and chaos. The defenders of the faith argue that atheism inevitably leads to selfishness and nihilism, and that only religion can justify charity or compassion, bind people together in community, or inspire a lively and flourishing culture. But this assertion can only be sustained by ignoring the accomplishments of famous nonreligious people throughout history, of which there have been many.

To dispel the myth that nonbelievers have never contributed anything of worth or value to human civilization, I want to highlight some who’ve left their mark in the arts, the sciences, or the humanities. Demonstrating that the godless count distinguished members of the human race among our numbers is a way to fight back against this prejudice and to demonstrate that we, too, have a historical legacy we can be proud of.

Not all of the people profiled here were strict atheists, but all of them were freethinkers, a broader umbrella term that embraces a rainbow of unorthodoxy, religious dissent, skepticism, and unconventional thinking. It’s no surprise that so many influential thinkers and creative types have come from the ranks of these intellectual revolutionaries. Organized religion tends to reward people not for thinking creatively or critically, but for reciting and defending the dogmas of the previous generation. Throughout human history, it’s consistently been true that hidebound theocracies have been mired in poverty, backwardness and intellectual stagnation, whereas the most dramatic advances have come about in times and places where people had the freedom to think for themselves, to freely question and debate. The lives of all the men and women to be recounted here bear testimony to this.

Albert Einstein. The archetypal scientific genius, Einstein inaugurated a revolution in physics that bears fruit to this day. His theories and equations undergird the 20th century: technologies from nuclear power to GPS satellites only exist because of his discoveries. But beyond his impressive scientific contributions, he was known as a peacemaker and civil-rights advocate: he was one of the first to warn the world of the dangers of Nazism, joined anti-lynching campaigns, publicly opposed McCarthyism, and called for nuclear disarmament worldwide. Later in life, he was offered the presidency of Israel but turned it down, saying that he was unqualified.

Einstein famously made statements like “God does not play dice with the universe” that have inspired religious apologists to try to claim him as their own, but on other occasions, he made it clear that this was nothing but poetic metaphor. He made his views known in letters, writing, for example: “I do not believe in a personal god and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.” On another occasion, he wrote, “the word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.”

Robert Ingersoll. One of the most famous Americans that most people today have never heard of, Colonel Robert Green Ingersoll, known in his lifetime as the “Great Agnostic,” once commanded national fame and renown. In an era before television and radio, public oratory was the leading form of entertainment, and Ingersoll set the gold standard. He was one of the most sought-after speakers in the country; he drew crowds of thousands, and on one occasion, after hearing him speak, Mark Twain observed, “What an organ is human speech when it is employed by a master!”

He was a staunch abolitionist who served honorably for the Union in the Civil War, and went on to advocate progressive causes like free speech, women’s rights, anti-racism and the abolition of corporal punishment. Though politicians repeatedly sought his endorsement and his rhetorical talents, the highest position that Ingersoll himself ever held was the attorney general of Illinois – due, no doubt, to his willingness to eloquently express his freethought views. In a eulogy, the New York Times observed that only his outspoken irreligious views kept him from taking “that place in the… public life of his country to which by his talents he would otherwise have been eminently entitled.” Not that Ingersoll himself would have wanted it any other way: as he declared, a truly spiritual man “attacks what he believes to be wrong, though defended by the many, and he is willing to stand for the right against the world.”

W.E.B. DuBois. Contrary to popular impression, the black community in America has a long tradition of involvement with freethought and secularism, as exemplified by one of its most influential racial-justice activists, W.E.B. DuBois. DuBois was the first black man to get a Ph.D. from Harvard, one of the founders of the NAACP, and a prolific and critically praised writer, educator and historian.

By DuBois’ own account, he was raised religious and attended an orthodox missionary college, but his doubts on religion blossomed while studying in Europe. When he returned to America, he taught at a black Methodist college, Wilberforce University, but drew the wrath of school administrators for refusing to lead students in prayer. As Susan Jacoby quotes him in her book Freethinkers, “I flatly refused again to join any church or sign any church creed. From my 30th year on I have increasingly regarded the church as an institution which defended such evils as slavery, color caste, exploitation of labor and war.” He also said that he wanted “to make the Negro church a place where colored men and women of education and energy can work for the best things regardless of their belief or disbelief in unimportant dogmas and ancient and outworn creeds.”

Zora Neale Hurston. Like DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston was an influential black freethinker and an acclaimed author of the early 20th century. She attended Columbia University on a scholarship, and while living in Manhattan at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, met scholars and artists like Margaret Mead and Langston Hughes. She herself wrote both fiction and anthropological works about the black community. Her masterwork, the 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, was judged one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.

In her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, Hurston makes her freethought views clear and denies that the prospect of nonexistence after death holds any fear for her:

Prayer seems to me a cry of weakness, and an attempt to avoid, by trickery, the rules of the game as laid down. I do not choose to admit weakness. I accept the challenge of responsibility. Life, as it is, does not frighten me, since I have made my peace with the universe as I find it, and bow to its laws… It seems to me that organized creeds are collections of words around a wish. I feel no need for such.

I know that nothing is destructible; things merely change forms. When the consciousness we know as life ceases, I know that I shall still be part and parcel of the world. I was a part before the sun rolled into shape and burst forth in the glory of change. I was, when the earth was hurled out from its fiery rim. I shall return with the earth to Father Sun, and still exist in substance when the sun has lost its fire, and disintegrated into infinity to perhaps become a part of the whirling rubble of space. Why fear? The stuff of my being is matter, ever changing, ever moving, but never lost; so what need of denominations and creeds to deny myself the comfort of all my fellow men?

Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Although no one person deserves sole credit for laying the groundwork for the Nineteenth Amendment, Elizabeth Cady Stanton comes close. One of the pivotal early events in the suffrage movement, the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, was organized and shepherded in large part by Stanton, and she played a key role in issuing the famous Declaration of Sentiments that first called for women’s suffrage (against the wishes of other attendees, some of whom felt that demanding the vote was too radical even for them).

Despite a lifetime of organizing and lobbying for women’s suffrage, Stanton was often shunted aside by her own movement for her controversial, outspoken freethought views and her attacks on religion as a major justification for the continued oppression of women, including her scathing The Woman’s Bible. On one occasion, she wrote, “I have endeavoured to dissipate these religious superstitions from the minds of women, and base their faith on science and reason, where I found for myself at least that peace and comfort I could never find in the Bible and the church.”

Some of Sanger’s spiritual descendants in the feminist movement had similarly irreligious views. One of the most famous was Margaret Sanger, one of the founders of Planned Parenthood and a fearless crusader in the fight to make birth control available and legal to American women. Sanger’s motto was “No Gods, No Masters,” and her newsletter had the memorable title The Woman Rebel.

Asa Philip Randolph. The 20th-century American civil rights movement is often identified with Christianity, which is almost single-handedly due to the influence of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But there were secular humanists who played almost as important a role, one of whom was Asa Philip Randolph, a trailblazing labor organizer whose career spanned the 20th century and who was one of the pioneers of the strategy of nonviolent civil disobedience.

Randolph entered the civil-rights movement by way of the labor movement, beginning by organizing mainly black railroad workers. But he soon set its sights higher, especially as the country was drawn into World War II and the defense industry was booming. He took the lead in organizing civil-rights marches that convinced Presidents Roosevelt and Truman to issue executive orders ending segregation in defense contractors and the armed services. As his star rose, he served as vice president of the AFL-CIO and helped organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where King’s “I have a dream” speech was delivered.

In addition to all this, Randolph was a lifelong freethinker. He was the founder of a literary magazine, The Messenger, whose masthead declared that “Prayer is not one of our remedies… We consider prayer as nothing more than a fervent wish.” He was also one of the signers of the Humanist Manifesto in 1970.

Robert Frost. New England’s most famous poet is justly immortalized for his poetic tributes to nature and rural life, but his religious skepticism is lesser known. Frost’s views on God are complex: for much of his life, he grappled with a deep-seated superstitious fear he could never fully shake off. But after twenty years of marriage, his wife said that he was an atheist, and he didn’t deny it.

What’s interesting is that this comes through inadvertently in his poetry. When speaking of his fellow human beings and their relationships, Frost is warm, welcoming, thoroughly humanist. But when he turns to the subject of God, he more often than not becomes dark and terrifying, depicting the idea of a deity as a savage force of nature more than a worthy object of reverence. His famous poem “Design” calls the suffering and predation in nature a “design of darkness”. The poem “Once by the Pacific,” Frost’s vision of the apocalypse, has the poet looking out at crashing ocean waves and envisioning them as a harbinger of doomsday. The poem “A Loose Mountain” envisions God as a cosmic destroyer waiting to hurl a meteor at the Earth, like a stone thrown from a sling, biding his time so that he can release it when it will cause the maximum amount of devastation.

Emma Lazarus. Like Robert Frost, Emma Lazarus was a poet whose words have become defining of the American experience. She may not have as many classics to her name, but her one crowning achievement may be even better-known than any of his: her poem “The New Colossus,” best known as the words engraved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” The statue was originally a symbol of republicanism, but it was Lazarus’ poem that recast it as a beacon for immigrants from all over the world. Even when America has fallen short of this ideal, it’s these words which remind us that we can do better and inspire us to work for positive change.

Lazarus came from a Jewish background, but like the others profiled here, she was known as a freethinker. As the Jewish Virtual Library records, on one occasion she told a rabbi who asked her to contribute to a hymn book, “I shall always be loyal to my race, but I feel no religious fervor in my soul.”

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Yip Harburg. E.Y. “Yip” Harburg isn’t a household name, but some of his works are. Harburg was the Broadway lyricist who wrote the words to some of America’s most memorable and culturally significant songs, including “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”, “It’s Only a Paper Moon”, and all the music from The Wizard of Oz, including “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. Harburg was known as “Broadway’s social conscience” for the progressive messages of his songs and musicals, including “Bloomer Girl” and “Hooray for What,” which advocated feminism and anti-war themes respectively. At one point he was blacklisted by McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee, but kept working for the stage even as he was barred from television and film. He said in a biography, “The House of God never had much appeal for me. Anyhow, I found a substitute temple – the theater.”

For more famous historical freethinkers, see my series “The Contributions of Freethinkers“, Susan Jacoby’s excellent book, “Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism”, or Jennifer Michael Hecht’s “Doubt: A History”.

Image: Zora Neale Hurston, via Wikipedia


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