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Who are the freethinkers?
Rejection of religion ran the gamut of great thinkers.
by Madalyn Murray O'Hair
The following is the text of American Atheist Radio Series program No. 209, first broadcast on September 2, 1972
As we try to delineate who were Atheists and who were not in the history of our times, we run into the variable names \Rationalist,\ \Humanist,\ \Freethinker,\ and it is very difficult to try to sort out those who were frankly A-theist and those who were theists but who were \liberal,\ whatever that meant at each stage of history.
We had one compiler of biographical material in our ranks, Joseph McCabe. He got together A Biographical Dictionary of Ancient, Medieval and Modern Freethinkers, 1 and I have had a very difficult time with it attempting to figure out what is what and who is who. The booklet has a preface which is interesting, and I read that to you now:
\The clergy of all denominations share our zeal for reconstruction today and loudly announce a campaign to 'bring the world back to God.' I have not yet encountered the religious writer who explains why God leaves it to their puny efforts to do this. According to them he could convert New York in a day by making, for instance, the Statue of Liberty take a stately walk around the waters of the Harbor or bidding the Empire State Building stand on its head for an hour. And this would clear his servants of the suspicion of evil minds that in their zealous campaign they have too much thought of their own treasuries. However, there is one serious and transparent fallacy in their pretensions. I have shown in earlier works . . . that skepticism or freethinking grows in all ages in exact proportion to the grant of freedom of expression and the diffusion of knowledge, and that this skepticism, beginning with a challenge of the prevailing religious form, rapidly deepens into atheism. These conditions were ideally fulfilled in the present half-century until Fascism and semi-Fascism spread over the earth, so the prodigious spread of atheism is as natural as the development of radio or the cinema. Do the clergy propose that we should curtail our liberties or restrict the diffusion of knowledge so that their churches and conventicles be filled once more?
\Some will wonder why, if this is a law of history, as I have repeatedly proved, it is so little recognized that in popular literature the freethinker or the Atheist is treated as a rare if not morbid phenomenon. Ought it not to be possible to collect from the best ages of history a gallery of great men and women whose names would rebuke the common superstition? That does not follow. In most ages the scholar and the statesman, the leading writer or artist, are the least free to express their skepticism. The priests, whether of Zeus or Jahveh, Allah or Christ, rouse the mob against them. In our time, for instance, Professor Leuba has twice shown, from their own private assurances, that three-fourths of the five hundred leading men of science and history in America 'disbelieve' in God, and that is the dictionary definition of atheism. But how many of them tell that to the public? The late President Roosevelt was a skeptic in his pre-political years, and biographers do not tell of a 'conversion,' but . . . yet one can collect a gallery of great names or notable personalities far too vast for the limits of this small work, which offers just a selection of freethinkers of interest or profit to the reader. For ancient times few can or need be included. All the thinkers during seven centuries of ancient Greece except Plato and Pythagoras rejected the idea of spirit or a personal God and immortality. So did nearly all the writers of ancient Rome. At the other end of the scale it is hardly necessary to record that such men as Haldeman-Julius, McCabe, Bertrand Russell, Joseph Lewis, etc., are Atheists. [Well, they are all dead now and I fear that the radio audience knows none of them at this point either.] The list is a selection, but it is hoped that while it does include some two score monarchs and heads of states, more than a score of the world's greatest musicians and artists, and hundreds of famous scholars and writers, the less illustrious names that are included will prove of interest to the reader. The great majority are atheists, but it was clearly inadvisable to apply a criterion of freethinking that would exclude Jefferson and Paine, Voltaire and Rousseau, Lafayette, Washington, and Lincoln. Writers on the subject (Wheeler 2 Robertson, 3 etc.) have too readily admitted liberal members of organized religions, but beyond noticing one or two of special interest I exclude them.\
Well, let's see who he lists and what he has to say about them. I am tempted to do this alphabetically, as he has done, and I will try to find in this ninety-six-page list of about five hundred persons, one from each letter of the alphabet, Americans mostly, and women where I can find them.
John Adams (1735-1826), Second President of the United States. His rejection of Christianity, which he professed to admire morally, runs all through his letters to Jefferson, of which there is a good selection edited by Welstach (1925), though it is better to read them in the original edition (1856). The correspondence of the two men, the most accomplished who ever rose to high political office in America — they freely quote Greek, Latin, Italian and French to either other — is very free and most interesting. The attempt of his grandson and a few others to represent Adams as a Unitarian is not honest. He was not even a very firm Deist. One letter he wrote to Jefferson (May 12, 1820), who says that its \crowd of skepticisms\ kept him awake at night, has been suppressed by the pious Unitarian grandson, but in another (January 17, 1820) he defines god as \an essence that we know nothing of\ and says that the attempts of philosophers to get beyond this are \games of push-pin.\ He calls the Incarnation an \awful blasphemy,\ and says of the First Cause \whether we call it Fate or Chance or God\. He believed in personal immortality but admitted that he knew no proof of it. He was, he says in a letter of May 15, 1817, often \tempted to think that this would be the best of all possible worlds if there was no religion in it.\ His family fell away to respectable Unitarianism, but his grandson Charles Francis Adams (1835-1915) the distinguished historian, was an Agnostic of the Leslie Stephen school, as is shown in the Life and Letters.
Well, this is how we learn. Who in the world was Leslie Stephen? Let's see what McCabe has to say about him. Ah! here he is on page 79. Sir Leslie Stephen, LL.D., Litt.D. (1832-1904), British writer:
Sir Leslie Stephen
He took orders in the Church of England when he was at Cambridge, but the fit of piety soon passed. He told me that even there he was a member of a sort of secret society of heretics and that his language in the athletic field was robust. In time he reached the front rank of British writers — in his later years he was known as \the Dean of English Letters\ — and was regarded as the leading literary critic and a very sound historian, widely respected on both sides of the Atlantic. He was an outspoken agnostic (Free Thinking, An Agnostic's Apology, etc.) and a man of genially austere character. His brother, Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, baronet, a judge, professor of law, and author of weighty works on law, also \entirely abandoned his belief in the orthodox dogmas.\
Well, frankly, I have never heard of him, or of his books. Let me see if he has any books listed as extant in the volumes of All The Books in Print. I find twenty-two books listed and a set of about fifteen volumes of his works, the latter costing about $400. Not one of those titles listed are either Free Thinking or An Agnostic's Apology. Anyone checking a listing of this man's works would not know that he was anything but a good Christian, for there is not mention that he ever wrote anything about agnosticism, much less been the head of a kind of intellectual posture called the Agnosticism of the Leslie Stephen school.
Tut. Tut. Let's try another. It will be a \B\ this time, the entire thing we just went through came only from choosing names listed under the \As\:
Sarah Bernhardt (1845-1923), the greatest French actress of recent times. A. Carel says in his Histoire anecdotique des contemporains, (1885, p. 46) that Gounod once asked her in her studio if she ever prayed. \I,\ she said, \Never. I'm an atheist.\ To her disgust Gounod went down on his knees there and then and prayed for her. Gounod, the favorite composer of modern Roman Catholics, was neurotic and inconsistent. He \vacillated between mysticism and voluptuousness,\ says one of his biographers.
Well, that's interesting. That hasn't happened to me yet. Let's try \C\:
Andrew Carnegie (1837-1919), philanthropist. In the course of his life he gave away $350,000,000, generally for sound social objects such as public free libraries. Dr. Moncure Conway, who knew him, says that he was an Agnostic, and a few references to his religion in his Life of James Watt confirm this. He refers to \the mysterious realm which envelops man\ and says in regard to discussion of religion that \we are but young in all this mystery business.\ The Truthseeker of August 23, 1919, quoted a confession of faith of his in which, a few years before his death, he rejects \all creeds\ and says that he was \a disciple of Confucius and Franklin.\ His confusion of an Atheist and a deist is due to the fact that he shed religion without any serious interest in it and avoided the subject as far as possible.
Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945), novelist: His hostility to religion runs through all the grim, realistic novels that have made him famous. In one of them he says: \Assure a man that he has a soul and then frighten him with old wives' tales as to what is to become of him afterwards, and you have hooked a fish, a mental slave.\
Henry Havelock Ellis (1859-1939), sexologist: It is hardly necessary to show that the famous psychologist of sex was a freethinker. The clergy loathed him and I had private knowledge of attempts to trap and prosecute him. His agnostic views are explained in his Affirmations [written in 1897] and My Life [written in 1940].
Well, again, I have just checked him out. Seventeen of his books are available and three biographers have written about him — and naturally these two books are the among the missing.
Let's try some more. We are up to \E\
Sigmund Freud, M.D., LL.D. (1856-1939), founder of psychoanalysis: In his last work, Der Mann Moses and die monotheistische Religion (1939), he showed that, as most folk had assumed, he was a thorough freethinker. In his last few years he was an Honorary Associate (like myself) of the British Rationalist Press Association.
Mathilda Joslyn Gage (1826-1898), writer: One of the many able American women who, in spite of general public hostility, took an active part in the abolitionist and feminist movements of the last century. Mrs. Gage was President of the National Women Suffrage Association, edited their paper, and collaborated with Miss. Anthony in writing the history of the movement. Her freethought is emphatically given in her Women, Church, and State (1893).
Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), the famous German zoologist: As Haeckel outspokenly rejected all religion all his life and wrote the very anti-religious Riddle of the Universe, which sold several million copies in a score of languages, religious writers have been untruthful about his scientific distinction;... His many large scientific works brought him four gold medals and seventy diplomas from scientific bodies all over the world .... When I went to stay with him in Jena, I found that streets and squares of the city had been named after him. The clergy put out a legend that he had \forged\ illustrations for his books — he was a good artist — which I completely disproved twenty-six years ago....
Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906), the great Norwegian dramatist: A druggist's boy who worked his way up to the position of probably the greatest dramatist of modern times. His biographer Aall shows that he discarded orthodoxy in his later teens but was quietly skeptical until 1871, when he met Georg Brandes. A few years later he wrote The Emperor and The Galilaean to express his new militant mood. He remained agnostic and anti-religious to the end. \Bigger things than the state will fall,\ he wrote Brandes, \all religion will fall.\
And, in case you wonder who Brandes was who so influenced him, he was Georg Brandes, LL.D. (1842-1927), Danish critic:
Although born and educated in Denmark he lived in so many countries and had so remarkable a knowledge of the literature of each that he was the nearest approach to a [continental]. He was a member also of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the British Royal Society of Literature. His position did not deter him in the least from professing freethought and helping the cause. Both he and his brother Carl were outspoken Agnostics.
And then, of course, there was Benito Juarez (1806-1872), president of the Republic of Mexico:
He was a full-blooded Indian who was admitted to the Mexican bar and became a judge. As governor of Oaxaca, then Minister of Justice, he \oppressed\ the clergy — that is to say, curtailed their privileges and checked their corruption — and rendered fine service to the people. He was President 1858-1862 and 1867-1872 and left a great memory behind him. He was an atheist.
1 Girard, KS: Haldeman-Julius Publications, 1945
2 J.M. Wheeler, A Biographical Dictionary of Freethinkers of All Ages and Nations (London, Progressive Publishing Company, 1889)
3 J.M. Robertson, A History of Freethought Ancient and Modern to the Period of the French Revolution, 2 vol. (London: Watts & Co., 1936)