Remembering Margaret Fell

Margaret Fell, with George Fox before the judges, from a painting by J. Pettie 1663, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Margaret Fell with George Fox before the judges, from a painting by J. Pettie, 1663

Margaret Fell was born on some unknown date in 1614, so let’s take this occasion to remember her on the date of her death, April 23rd, 1702.

Fell’s lived a life as passionate as it was long. She was an unconventional thinker for her time, a zealous and progressive religious activist at times imprisoned for her beliefs, a prolific writer, well-traveled, a mother of eight children and a wife twice.

An early adherent and eloquent promoter of Quakerism, Fell is now considered one of its founders. She converted to Quakerism after hearing a sermon by one of its most charismatic preachers, George Fox, and almost immediately launched into a lifetime of hosting Quaker meetings and speaking out on behalf of her new religion. After her husband died some years later, Fell married Fox, probably more as a co-missionary than as a romantic partner since their work, travels, and imprisonments kept them apart for much of their marriage.

As I’ve had a lifelong fascination with the history of human rights, I’ve long admired the Quakers because, along with Unitarians and Deists, so many have been leaders in the struggle to expand, establish, and promote them. That’s because these faiths emphasize the importance of individual conscience, the primacy of the human mind, God’s rational nature, and the moral equality of all human beings.

Fell believed in the Quaker doctrine of the Inner Light which God has caused to shine equally in the hearts of all beings; all we need do is heed it. Therefore, one does not need ministers, priests, or any other authorities or intercessors to achieve salvation. And because God has created everyone for the same purpose and gave everyone that light, everyone is spiritually equal and capable of understanding and proclaiming the Truth. We can see how this doctrine, central to Quakerism, readily aligns with human rights movements centered on a belief human spiritual and intellectual equality. The right of women to speak in church and write religious texts, in her time limited to men, was a cause particularly dear to Fell’s heart. While Fell’s belief in the equality of women was limited to their role as spiritual beings, Quakerism tended to encourage ever-more progressive beliefs in its adherents. Over time, Quakers came to be leaders in the abolitionist and pacifist movements, promoting the right of all to receive equal and universal education and for women’s rights in social and political spheres as well.

In light of her achievements as a female religious pioneer, and the human rights advances facilitated by the Quaker faith she helped found, Fell’s contributions should continue to be remembered and celebrated.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sources and inspiration

Broad, Jacqueline, ‘Margaret Fell‘, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

Jacoby, Susan. Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion. New York: Pantheon, 2016 (see chapter on Margaret Fell)

Mary Wollstonecraft, Champion of Reason, Passionate in Love

The life and work of Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of modern feminism, can seem to reveal a mass of contradictions.

Her seminal feminist work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, champions reason as the ultimate guide for a moral and productive life. She used reason to great effect to show why women should, and how they could, grow out of their socially constructed roles as under-educated coquettes and household drudges. She believed that reason should rule both individuals and societies because it’s the best tool we have to achieve justice and to perfect the self. Without reason, she thought, human beings are ruled by narrow self-interest, by prejudice born of ignorance, and by crude lust.

Yet the life Wollstonecraft chose to live was widely criticized both during her lifetime and over the two hundred plus years since her death. It’s not just because she didn’t conform to the mores of her time; her life choices are still considered unreasonable and even self-destructive by many. At times, they made her an object of scandal, impoverished, or deeply depressed, even in such desperate straits that she twice attempted suicide. That’s because she was also deeply passionate, devoted to retaining her personal and mental freedom while abandoning herself to loves which never failed to break her heart, be they revolution, family, friend, or lover. For Wollstonecraft, reason and passion are not opposites: they are two sides of the same coin. A truly reasonable person, she thought, is kind, affectionate, and generous as well, and a passionate lover of justice, truth, and beauty.

Wollstonecraft’s chosen role for herself was, first and foremost, a teacher, an advocate of knowledge and instiller of reason. While teaching was one of the few professions open to her as an eighteenth-century woman from a respectable but impoverished background, she brought her formidable powers of reason to bear on the problems with many of the educational and child-rearing practices of her day. After her first job as a companion, she became a teacher, first in the classroom at a school she founded with two of her sisters and her best friend, and then as a governess. When she became a mother twice over in her mid- and late thirties, she was a tender and hands-on mother, an advocate of breastfeeding and attentive parenting in an era of wet-nurses and governesses, when wealthy and middle-class parents participated relatively little in the care and instruction of their children even from infancy.

Her first book, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, opens with her parenting advice and argues that girls should be taught how to run a household while also learning self-sufficiency. In Wollstonecraft’s time, women were not expected to support themselves; they were trained to raise a family, learning how to catch and keep a man first, to be household managers second, and to be educators of young children third. Single women, widows, and married women whose husbands, fathers, brothers, and other male relations could or would not support them had few employment options available to them, mostly directly related to one of the three roles they were trained for. Those jobs that women could respectably accept paid very little, so those working women nearly always lived a life of subservience and privation. Modern feminist thought, until very recently, equated domestic life with that housebound, nearly choiceless life most women were required to live. However, now that women’s basic moral right to self-determination has become so widely established, most have come to consider a domestic-centric life just as valid a choice for free women as a professional or public life. So in this sense, Wollstonecraft’s view of women was more progressive even than that of many modern feminists, even if by accident rather than foresight: she did not speak of a time when women would need to reject domesticity in order to free themselves from it, only to reclaim it by choice after their liberation.

Her ideas were inspired by her own experience: Wollstonecraft discovered firsthand how important it is never to assume that one’s self or one’s children will always have someone they can depend on for education, sustenance, or affection. Life’s too uncertain for that: parents, spouses, relatives, colleagues, and friends can become neglectful, estranged, impoverished, or disabled, and of course, sometimes they die. Wollstonecraft’s father squandered his inheritance and never bothered to learn how to earn an adequate living, leaving all of his children (except for his oldest son, who inherited what was left) to fend for themselves in adulthood, and his daughters without the dowry necessary for a respectable marriage. Knowing firsthand what it’s like to wrest a living from a world where women were ill-equipped for and mostly barred from nearly all employments that men were free to pursue, Wollstonecraft believed all girls should have a thorough education centered on self-sufficiency, from learning how to take care of a household, to learning how to think, to learning how to make a living. This not only gives women the freedom to choose a partner for better reasons than mere survival (Wollstonecraft equated the latter with prostitution), but leaves women free to live their lives as independently as they choose.

Until Wollstonecraft’s response to Edmund Burke’s critique of the French Revolution, her Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), her published work continued on an educational vein, from original compositions to editorial work to translation. Beginning with The Rights of Men, through A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), and up to her last work, Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796), she transitioned from a teacher of ideas into an innovator, drawing on the wealth of knowledge she had obtained through her lifetime thus far of work and study. She was a semi-autodidact, her rather patchy childhood education supplemented in her teens by her own voracious reading and by friends who recognized her hunger for learning, and continued independently during her working years in the hours she could dedicate to her self-improvement. When she established herself as a professional author, she was finally able to immerse herself fully in the life of an intellectual, attending famous salons and becoming the friend and colleague of many of the brightest minds of her day.

One of the central themes in The Rights of Woman is women’s education. In this work, Wollstonecraft explained that it’s the nature of women, rather than their practical needs, that’s the ultimate justification for their rights, though she doesn’t minimize the importance of the latter. Since women possess reason just as men do, they also need education in order to be happy, fulfilled, and above all, moral. Infantilizing women by denying them a full education, she wrote, renders them not only financially helpless, entirely dependent on men whether or not they’re capricious, selfish, lazy, cruel, or just unlucky, but undermines them as moral beings. It’s reason, more than anything else, that determines the difference between right and wrong, and a quality, well-rounded education is required for using reason to its fullest capacity.

But outside of her moral reasoning, in her life as she lived it, Wollstonecraft displayed the often stark contrast between what one might expect a person ruled by reason would do, and what a person would do when driven by passion.

One of her earliest romantic interests, the Irish gentleman and songwriter George Ogle, ended up causing her no harm and probably doing her even more good than many might realize; not only did her cheer her with intellectual and witty conversation in her time as governess for the wealthy Kingsborough family in Ireland, a biographer credits him as the secret benefactor whose cash gift allowed her to return home to England and pursue writing in earnest. And her pursuit of the intellectual life she loved probably brought her more joy and fulfillment than anything else, with the possible exception of her daughter Fanny.

But most of her other loves did seem to bring her at least as much pain as joy. Her first deep attachment in her early teens was to her friend Jane Arden, who didn’t share her idealistic concept of the near-exclusive, passionate friendship of the soulmate. The more the young Mary sought to dominate her affections, the more Jane drew away. Fanny Blood, her dearest friend in adulthood, nearly lived up to her ideal, but her father’s shiftlessness kept her family impoverished, leaving Fanny with the responsibilities of main breadwinner as well as head housekeeper for her large family. Wollstonecraft saw her dreams for Fanny and herself mostly come true when they joined forces with Wollstonecraft’s sisters to found a school, but this didn’t last as long as she hoped. The distant and dithering suitor that Fanny had longed to marry for years finally carried her off to Portugal, leading to her painful death less than a year later as she succumbed simultaneously to her tuberculosis and the rigors of childbirth. The painter Henry Fuseli may have been a romantic interest: he later liked to claim this, and others echoed this claim, but much of the evidence also indicates that her interest in him was as an aesthetic and intellectual soulmate more than anything else. (At this time, she was still firmly opposed to marriage, and determined to keep herself free from the sort of entanglements that would hamper her mental and physical freedom.)

After a bit of scandal around her unconventional, and rejected, proposal to Fuseli and his wife (who was also her good friend) that she live with the two of them, she set off for Paris to witness the French Revolution firsthand. Wollstonecraft was an ardent supporter of the Revolution, as she saw it continuing the work of dismantling the tyranny of a parasitical monarchy, a corrupt and greedy church, and the oppressive social practices and mores that the American Revolution had started. By the time she arrived, the French Revolution had already taken a violent turn, but she held out hopes that this was a natural but temporary outcome of a people throwing off a tyranny that had ruthlessly oppressed them so badly and for so for so long. While she maintained throughout that a certain amount of violence is the natural byproduct of any truly transformative revolution, she became more and more disillusioned with its leadership and tactics over time, and finally, with her own hopes of its success. (She identified herself with the more moderate Girondin political persuasion throughout.) Wollstonecraft did not live long enough to see that the Revolution would end up ultimately succeeding in ushering in a new era of human rights-centered government in Europe, once some social balance was restored. But she did escape the Terror, probably narrowly, having fallen in love once again. She found herself pregnant and fleeing for her life, returning to England after giving birth her first child at age 35.

And it was Gilbert Imlay, the father of this child and the first deep romantic passion of her life, that caused her the most pain, more than the sisters with whom she was often at odds, more than her most cherished female friends who left her in one way or another, more than her ne’er-do-well brother and the Blood family, more than her self-important painter Fuselli, more than the school she founded that fell apart when she left to nurse Fanny in her final illness, leaving her deep in debt. Imlay presented himself as a man of adventure, an American frontiersman of rugged, self-sufficient, and honest character. These proved to be an illusion: he was actually primarily a man of business, sometimes (often?) of shady dealings, and one who frequently failed to keep his word. In Imlay, Wollstonecraft finally found an exciting sexual partner, a stimulating companion, and a fellow believer in truly living according to one’s personality. They never married because they didn’t believe in that institution, though they found it expedient at times to pass themselves off as husband and wife. In fact, this pretense may very well have saved Wollstonecraft’s life, since the perpetrators of the Terror, in its most insular stage, were executing many expatriate Britons; Americans, however, were still in good standing with the Revolution, and as Imlay’s ‘wife’ she was considered American as well. But it became clear over time that Imlay was not eager to embark on the happy domestic life her pregnancy caused her to long for, and he abandoned her slowly, in stages. It took her a long time to get over Imlay while struggling to get by as a single mother in 18th-century Europe; it was during this period she twice attempted suicide.

Her eventual husband and first biographer William Godwin called Wollstonecraft a ‘firmest champion’ of her sex. In Godwin, Wollstonecraft finally found the lasting sort of love she had been looking for. Their attraction was initially an intellectual connection which only later developed into romantic passion. Sadly, they only enjoyed a brief romance, less than two years, since she died of complications from giving birth to her second child. I think Godwin was right that she was a champion of reason, and I would add, of passion too, and a champion of seeking: of truth, of wisdom, of self-discovery, of new ideas and sources of knowledge, of experiences that expand the mind and the heart, of becoming the best human being one can be. To fully follow her example is very risky: she often flung prudent reasoning to the wind in favor of following her heart, in a time most dangerous for women to do so. Yet, though reasoned prudence is a virtue, it can be taken too far, holding you back, preventing you from taking chances and experiencing all the richness life can offer. She did not hold back.

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sources and inspiration:

Godwin, William. ‘Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman‘. London, 1798.

Gordon, Lyndall. Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Harper Collins, 2006.

Jacobs, Diane. Her Own Woman: The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. http://books.simonandschuster.com/Her-Own-Woman/Diane-Jacobs/9780743214704

Tomalin, Claire. The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft. London: Weidenfield & Nicholson, 1974

What Leaving Religion Has Done for Me

I grew up as a member of a large and generally very religious, very conservative Catholic family. As I describe in an earlier piece, both sides of my family are close-knit and traditional, with a tendency to insularity. When I was much younger, I loved it. Religion, especially in its more traditional and fundamentalist forms, has many upsides: a strong sense of community, a feeling of intimate belongingness in a group that shares a creed, a mythology, a history, and an identity. There are things I remember fondly: the warmth that suffuses family faith-based rituals, like putting on a fresh new dress for Easter morning, or the excitement of Christmas midnight mass, with its rich decorations, solemn rituals, and stirring hymns. We would return and light the tree, a luminous and dream-like vision to a child who just woke up from the wee-hours car ride home. There were pancake breakfasts and coffee socials after Mass, Sunday school friends, singing in the choir, and suppression of giggles as my brother, sisters, and I pulled faces at each other during the hour-plus long service.

I also remember that religious fervor, that soaring feeling, that high, that rush of heart-swelling emotion that would come over me sometimes as I sought connection with the divine. In my mid-teens, Jesus was my ‘drug’ of choice. (Not that I did much in the way of drugs later, ahhh-hem.) The Catholic religion has many elements that suit a romantic temperament: prayers and chants, candles and incense, a baroque artistic sense, a preoccupation with death, suffering, and self-sacrifice, and a deep veneration for martyrdom. And no-one is more romantic than a teenager.

But that feeling of belongingness can also lead to insularity, so that you feel removed to some degree from the broader human community and from the wider world of ideas. There was a feeling of loneliness sometimes, of separation from the world. I remember times when my religious compatriots and I would bad-mouth secular people: their music, clothing, slang, history, practices, and beliefs and ideas (I later learned we were mostly wrong about what they actually think and believe). It felt satisfying, in a way, as it made me feel part of some exclusive club, but it felt a bit mean too. We portrayed the rest of the world to ourselves as a lost, sad, evil place compared with what our religion had to offer. We could rest easy, satisfied that we knew the truth and could lead more meaningful, ‘holy’ lives, here on earth and after death. (Though, oddly enough, I feared death terribly in those years, and thought of it often. Try as I might, the always vague promise of the joys of heaven failed to console me. I thought perhaps God was testing me: tests of faith are an important theme in Catholicism.)

As I approached adulthood, and began to meet people from different backgrounds, with different beliefs, faith faded and gave way to doubt. I’d always been a curious person, but my youthful shyness and anxiety, combined with my insular upbringing, kept me mostly isolated from the world beyond family and church. It wasn’t until I entered the workforce, and then attended junior college, that I discovered the wider world, one of dazzling variety, and found it suited my personality to a T.

Slowly, I began to emerge from my religious shell. I began to let down my guard, thinking: if my religion is true, my faith will survive running the gauntlet of questions, challenges, and opposing ideas, gaining strength along the way. After all, if integrity and love of knowledge are virtues and God is good, God would prefer even an honest atheist to an intellectually lazy believer. So I opened myself up to discovery, to an enthralling diversity of beliefs, ideas, cultures, and practices, a world with a rich and varied history. Science, literature, philosophy, history, art, culture, religion itself, all became available to me to explore, to consider, and to critique, honestly, in its own terms, and on its own merits. There were no more heresies and dogmas: now, there were facts and theories, truth and falsehood, useful ideas and otherwise. There was no more sin and redemption: now, there were systems of ethics and self-improvement, and considered moral judgments derived from considerations of good and bad, help and harm, beneficence and selfishness, virtue and non-virtue. The supernatural gave way to the natural, certitude to a healthy skepticism, blanket acceptance of creed to understanding, faith to belief ‘wisely apportioned to the evidence’.

I came to value the sense of belonging to humanity as a whole over the sense of belonging to a narrower community of belief. My newfound cosmopolitanism broadened my sense of care for and responsibility to my fellow human beings beyond the scope of any one ideology. The world was no longer divided into ‘Us’ (in my case, Catholics) and ‘Them’, the poor benighted souls wandering this world lost, hopeless, and forlorn. Instead, I came to understand that all of these tools we’ve developed, from morality to literature to government to art to religion, are products of the great quest to better ourselves, to attain the happiness and fulfillment that all humans seek. Religion, like culture, language, and so on, I came to understand as a human creation, and no more or less important, sacred, or immune to change and criticism than any other artifact. Religion lost its magic: since humans made religion, humans can reform or unmake it. I could glean the best of what it has to offer, and explore its history, appreciate its role in moral progress, gain insight from its ethical and metaphysical theories, enjoy the creativity which gave rise to its fables and rituals, and discard the rest.

Likewise, the whole of the great treasure trove of human thought became available to me for study and consideration. There is no list of banned books, no heresies. Instead, there are good ideas and bad ideas: theories that better explain the workings of the universe, and those that do not; beliefs that accord with reality and with reason, and those that do not; ideologies that lead people to do good and to lead better lives, and those that do not; literature and art that arouse the best emotions and enrich understanding in us, and those that do not.

Many religions, including the brand of fundamentalist Catholicism in which I was raised, lead many adherents to restrict the education of their children to a cherry-picked, often distorted or flat-out-wrong, circumscribed array of ideas, scientific theories, and historical accounts that accord with the doctrines of their faith. Many of these children remain ignorant of the wider world of human thought and history until something in their experience or personality compels them to look beyond the teachings of their youth. For example, my own dear grandmother, out of love but misguided by her piety, did a disservice to the education of her grandchildren by attempting, and in some cases succeeding, to restrict our education in this way. Her religious beliefs led to her conviction that a broad, liberal education offered too many temptations to disbelief, so she felt compelled keep us from learning anything other than that which would accord with her fundamentalist Catholic faith. As I later discovered, she was right, not for the reasons she thought. Truth, in my opinion, holds fast in the face of challenges; it does not give way as easily as error does. Each new thing I learned, then, was not a temptation: it was a window of opportunity for growing in understanding, and for replacing bad ideas with better ones. Fortunately, I inherited, and was inspired by, her adventurous side, her love of people. Over time, I encountered and fell in love with the wider world of ideas, through the people I came to meet and the broader education I eventually received.

Now, in place of memorizing and reciting the Apostle’s Creed, I immerse myself in Aristotle and Mill, in Hume and Kant, in Wollstonecraft, Rose, Stanton, Jefferson, and Paine, in Avicenna and Aquinas, in Rawls, Pinker, Newberger Goldstein, and Hitchens. I can immerse myself in the teachings of religious founders as well, including the historical Jesus, endlessly more complex, fascinating, and inspiring than the blonde, haloed icon of the Baltimore Catechism. I have the opportunity to explore what all of these thinkers and reformers have to offer, to seek to understand their ideas on their own terms, putting aside those distorted accounts produced by religious rivalry. I can also, without fear of divine censure, explore the bad ideas people have conceived, from belief in witchcraft and satanic possession to the defense of torture, to racist ideologies, to ‘holy war’ and terrorism to social Darwinism (a sadly misleading term, does a disservice to a great thinker by associating his name with eugenics, a pseudoscientific theory contrary to his own ideas). I can try to enter the minds of those who created these dangerous and immoral ideas, in order to really understand how they came up with them, and to better explain why they are so terrible.

These days, I think of myself as a happier, more morally responsible, more intellectually honest, and more informed person than I would have been if I had remained religious. In that, I speak for myself only. Yet I know that this is true for many others, whose accounts celebrate the benefits of their own religious deconversions. It’s my impression that the most joyful, most passionate, and yes, the most resentful converts from religion are those who were brought up in more restrictive, fundamentalist belief systems. Critics say that such people gave up their religion because it was too hard, so they took the easy way out; or, that they just wanted to be able to ‘sin’ freely. I’ve had these accusations thrown at me many times. In a sense, they’re right, but not for the reasons they think. Many of these religions are too hard because their restrictions and demands are contrary to human nature since they’re based on deeply flawed accounts of it, and much of what they deem ‘sin’ is not wrong after all.

Many people attribute their own best qualities, of character, of behavior, of outlook on life, to religion, whether it’s the one they were brought up with or one they converted to. While I recognize the fact that religion can give a deep sense of fulfillment, the evidence indicates religiosity is not more of a predictor for good behavior than secularism. Study after study, personal account after personal account reveal that religious people commit most crimes at about the same rate, are about as generous, and behave about as morally overall than secular people.

My own observation is that people use religion to justify whatever way they are inclined to behave, good or bad. As the physicist Steven Weinberg points out, good people do good things, and evil people do evil things, regardless of religion. Many of the kindest, wisest, and most wonderful people I know are religious, and credit their religion with their moral successes. I’ve also known plenty of religious people use their beliefs to dodge responsibility for their bad behavior with excuses such as ‘the devil made me do it’ and ‘well, of course, I’m just a sinner’. They use this get-out-of-jail-free-card, such as this particular one available to Catholics (but of course, not necessarily endorsed by all Catholics): ‘I’ll just go to Confession later’. Some are otherwise good people who hold what I think are immoral beliefs, because they were taught to believe this way, and threatened with eternal punishment if they don’t. Others aren’t morally praiseworthy people in any sense of the term, and go through life doing only that which serves their own short-term self-interest. Religion, for these, is a matter of convenience or habit.

All of these things are basically true of the non-religious people I’ve come across, including my secular community of friends, family, and co-workers. Some are kinder than others, some are morally committed to doing good, some have a more nihilistic, selfish, or jaded view of the world. Yet here’s why I generally prefer a secular brand of morality over the religious: secular people generally take goodness more for granted. While this might sound counter-intuitive as an indicator of a better moral character or as a way of habituating oneself to better behavior, I think it’s excellent for both.

For example, when complimented on a good deed, a secular response is generally something along these lines: ‘well, obviously, it’s the right thing to do’, or, ‘it just feels right / good’, or, ‘of course, that’s how decent people behave’. These sorts of responses indicate that they see goodness as the default position, as required by reason, as a basic human instinct, or both. After all, human beings go through day to day life being decent to one another: we pay the asking price for the things we want, we step aside to let others pass on the sidewalk, we obey the rules of traffic, we say please and thank you, we lavish food, money, and medical care on strangers as well as family and friends, we spend huge amounts of our time communicating complex thoughts and ideas, and so on and so on. We take all this for granted, to our credit. When we compare the human species with all others, even to our closest relatives the chimpanzees, we find that our level of cooperation, generosity, and tolerance is quite remarkable. In all other species, some combination of predation, raiding, warfare, murder, infanticide, and/or indifference to suffering and the welfare of anyone besides close kin and allies are par for the course. With humans, however, such behavior makes the news.

Since goodness is the default, it’s badness has to be explained: by mental illness, alcohol or drugs, a bad upbringing, a momentary selfishness that overcame one’s better side, or by faulty ideology or culture. Therefore, most good deeds are not terribly remarkable: they are a natural product of sociability combined with reason. Sociability gives us the instincts to cooperate and help others; reason shows us that the more widely we extend our cooperation and good-naturedness, the better off everyone is in the long run.

Since secular people (as well as many liberal and progressive religious people) tend to believe in the basic goodness of human nature, they tend to be liberal in politics and morality, and broad in their conception of human nature. For example: since it’s everyone’s basic duty to help one another out, it’s right and just that we all pay taxes to create public welfare systems for those less fortunate than ourselves. To not institute public welfare systems is to say that it’s right that people should enjoy the benefits of civilized society, while being permitted to shirk their responsibility to care for those whom it hasn’t benefited. Another example: since most kinds of human behavior are good or at least morally neutral, there’s only a narrow range of behaviors that should be prohibited, namely those that actively harm others. Human nature, with its unique combination of advanced intelligence and strong social instincts, has evolved to include a wide variety of ways of being that are not only valid, but worthy of celebration, as they are indicative of the wonderfully fascinating, complex, endlessly inventive creatures that we are.

It’s no surprise, then, that secularists and adherents of the more liberal religions, which share this belief in basic human goodness and the broadness of human nature, have been on the forefront of reform and civil rights movements throughout history. Abolition of slavery, religious liberty, women’s, worker’s, and gay rights, indeed all of the great movements for reform and freedom, originated with the dissidents, the broad-minded, and the humanists. Religion is made for human beings, not the other way around.

An aside: there are certain leading secularists, such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, who claim that the only ‘true’ religious believers are fundamentalists. They argue that liberal and reformed believers just want to pick and choose the ‘nice’ parts and discard the rest, which constitutes a betrayal of their religion. I think this view is not only historically inaccurate, it’s based on a more basic categorical error. Religions are not, and have never been, eternally ‘fixed’ systems that do, or ‘should’, remain constant over time. They are better understood as belonging to a category of things that include culture and language, all of which come gradually into being from thoughts and practices that are products of human nature, and change over time. Culture, language, and religion evolve as human nature evolves and as the totality of human knowledge and wisdom expands and is applied to current circumstances. It’s no more true to say that the only ‘true’ religion is that which remains wedded to a particular holy book or creed established by a synod, or a particular interpretation of these, than it is to say that the only ‘true’ communicator of English language is one who strictly adheres to the first Webster’s dictionary, or considers the Canturbury Tales or the works of Shakespeare as the eternal exemplar of ‘true’ English grammar and style.

Let’s contrast the more liberal, progressive, humanist views of secularists and moderate believers with the views of some of the more fundamentalist and hierarchical religions, usually descendants of tribal belief systems. This includes the brand of conservative Catholicism I grew up with (which is not reflective of all variants of Catholicism, some of which are quite tolerant and emphasize social justice). In these belief systems, humans are born in sin, ‘fallen’, weak and corrupt, and it’s only through the greatest struggle, and never without divine help, that we can achieve goodness. Their view of human nature is narrow: people are created to fulfill one of a number of comparatively few, narrowly defined roles, and behavior and proclivities that aren’t in accordance with these are sinful. Their view of life is one of spiritual warfare: we are beset on all sides by Satan and his agents as they vie with God for dominance over our souls. The way to redemption, then, is a lifetime of constant prayer, diligence, and suffering, battling one’s way to an eventual union with God that relatively few can achieve.

Secularism and the liberal religions, with their naturalist view of morality, emphasize the ordinariness of human goodness and the value of habitual, systematic, readily achievable goodness. The more rigid, fundamentalist religions, on the other hand, emphasize the difficulty of defeating evil and the value of relatively rare exploits of good deeds through heroic self-denial. While the latter may be more romantic and exciting, I think that the secularist and humanist view of human nature has been more conducive to human flourishing overall. It promotes a greater quantity of goodness in the world by making it understandable and accessible. This is readily apparent when we examine the evidence throughout history and up to the present time. Where we find tolerant governments and secular or progressive religious belief systems, we find less warfare, a higher standard of living, and a system of laws that protect all citizens from oppression, from each other as well as from government itself. Where we find civilizations dominated by religious fundamentalism, rigid ideologies, and aristocratic and ‘ordained’ hierarchies, on the other hand, we find the opposite.

In sum: leaving religion behind, for me, has proved not only emancipatory, but has provided a wonderful opportunity for learning, for critical thought, and for personal growth that I may never had had otherwise. I still have a residual distaste for religion, especially for its more ritualistic trappings, as one has a distaste for imbibing a substance one has overindulged in, or for fire after one has been burned. I shy away from churches, am creeped out by rote prayers, and feel depressed when listening to Gregorian chants and solemn hymns. (I feel very differently about other forms of sacred music, and wouldn’t you know it, I never heard any of them in the church of my youth.) Yet I seek wisdom from any source in which it may be found, and since I know that there is much to be found in religious traditions as there is in any arena of human thought, I look for it there, too, despite the inclinations I sometimes have against it. And one day, when my residual aversion to religion has finally worn away, I’ll be that much less in the sway of the kind of bias that blinds the intellect and blunts the understanding.

*Listen to the podcast version here or here on iTunes
*Also published at Darrow http://darrow.org.uk/2015/04/12/what-leaving-religion-has-done-for-me/

In Her Own Words: A Defense of Atheism, by Ernestine Rose, 1861

My friends: –In undertaking the inquiry of the existence of a God, I am fully conscious of the difficulties I have to encounter. I am well aware that the very question produces in most minds a feeling of awe, as if stepping on forbidden ground, too holy and sacred for mortals to approach. The very question strikes them with horror, as is owing to this prejudice so deeply implanted by education, and also strengthened by public sentiment, that so few are willing to give it a fair and impartial investigation, –knowing but too well that it casts a stigma and reproach upon any person bold enough to undertake the task, unless his previously known opinions are a guarantee that his conclusions would be in accordance and harmony with the popular demand. But believing as I do, that Truth only is beneficial, and Error, from whatever source, and under whatever name, is pernicious to man, I consider no place too holy, no subject too sacred, for man’s earnest investigation; for by so doing only can we arrive at Truth, learn to discriminate it from Error, and be able to accept the one and reject the other.

No is this the only impediment in the way of this inquiry. The question arises, Where shall we begin? We have been told, that “by searching none can find out God” which has so far proved true; for, as yet, no one has ever been able to find him. The most strenuous believer has to acknowledge that it is only a belief, but he knows nothing on the subject. Where, then, shall we search for his existence? Enter the material world; ask the Sciences whether they can disclose the mystery? Geology speaks of the structure of the Earth, the formation of the different strata, of coal, of granite, of the whole mineral kingdom. –It reveals the remains and traces of animals long extinct, but gives us no clue whereby we may prove the existence of a God.

Natural history gives us a knowledge of the animal kingdom in general; the different organisms, structures, and powers of the various species. Physiology teaches the nature of man, the laws that govern his being, the functions of the vital organs, and the conditions upon which alone health and life depend…. But in the whole animal economy–though the brain is considered to be a “microcosm”, which which may be traced a resemblance or relationship with everything in Nature–not a spot can be found to indicate the existence of a God.

Mathematics lays the foundation of all the exact sciences. It teaches the art of combining numbers, of calculating and measuring distances, how to solve problems, to weigh mountains, to fathom the depths of the ocean; but gives no directions how to ascertain the existence of a God.

Astronomy tells us of the wonders of the Solar System–the eternally revolving planets, the rapidity and certainty of their motions, the distance from planet to planet, from star to star. It predicts with astonishing and marvelous precision the phenomena of eclipses, the visibility upon our Earth of comets, and proves the immutable law of gravitation, but is entirely silent on the existence of a God.

In fine, descend to the bowels of the Earth, and you will learn what it contains; into the depths of the ocean, and you will find the inhabitants of the great deep; but neither in the Earth above, nor the waters below, can you obtain any knowledge of his existence. Ascend into the heavens, and enter the “milky way,” go from planet to planet and to the remotest star, and ask the eternally revolving systems, Where is God? and Echo answers, Where?

The Universe of Matter gives us no record of his existence. Where next shall we search? Enter the Universe of Mind, read the volumes written on the subject, and in all the speculations, the assertions, the assumptions, the theories, and the creeds, you can only find Man stamped in an indelible impress his own mind on every page. In describing his God, he delineated his own character: the picture he drew represents in living and ineffaceable colors the epoch of his existence–the period he lived in.

It was a great mistake to say that God made man in his image. Man, in all ages, made his God in his own image, and we find that just in accordance with his civilization, his knowledge, his experience, his taste, his refinement, his sense of right, of justice, of freedom, and humanity, –so has he made his God. But whether coarse or refined; cruel and vindictive, or kind and generous; an implacable tyrant, or a gentle and loving father; it still was the emanation of his own mind –the picture of himself.

But, you ask, how came it to be that man thought or wrote about God at all? The answer is very simple. Ignorance is the mother of Superstition. In proportion to man’s ignorance he is superstitious–does he believe in the mysterious. The very name has a charm for him. Being unacquainted with the nature and laws of things around him, with the true causes of the effects he witnessed, he ascribed them to false ones–to supernatural agencies. The savage, ignorant of the mechanism of a watch, attributes the ticking to a spirit. The so-called civilized man, equally ignorant of the mechanism of the Universe, and the laws which govern it, ascribes it to the same erroneous cause. Before electricity was discovered, a thunderstorm was said to come from the wrath of an offended Deity. To this fiction of man’s uncultivated mind, has been attributed all of good and evil, or wisdom and of folly. Man has talked about him, written about him, disputed about him, fought about him,–sacrificed himself, and extirpated his fellow man. Rivers of blood and oceans of tears have been shed to please him, yet no one has ever been able to demonstrate his existence.

But the Bible, we are told, reveals this great mystery. Where Nature is dumb, and Man ignorant, Revelation speaks in the authoritative voice of prophecy. Then let us see whether that Revelation can stand the test of reason and of truth.–God, we are told, is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, –all wise, all just, and all good; that he is perfect. So far, so well; for less than perfection were unworthy of a God. The first act recorded of him is, that he created the world out of nothing; but unfortunately the revelation of Science–Chemistry–which is based not on written words, but demonstrable facts, says that Nothing has no existence, and therefore out of Nothing, Nothing could be made. Revelation tells us that the world was created in six days. Here Geology steps in and says, that it requires thousands of ages to form the various strata of the earth. The Bible tells us the earth was flat and stationary, and the sun moved around the earth. Copernicus and Galileo flatly deny this flat assertion, and demonstrates by Astronomy that the earth is spherical, and revolves around the sun. Revelation tells us that on the fourth day God created the sun, moon, and stars. This, Astronomy calls a moon story, and says that the first three days, before the great torchlight was manufactured and suspended in the great lantern above, must have been rather dark.

The division of the waters above from the waters below, and the creation of the minor objects, I pass by, and come at once to the sixth day.

Having finished, in five days, this stupendous production, with its mighty mountains, its vast seas, its fields and woods; supplied the waters with fishes–from the whale that swallowed Jonah to the little Dutch herring; peopled the woods with inhabitants–from the tiger, the lion, the bear, the elephant with his trunk, the dromedary with his hump, the deer with his antlers, the nightingale with her melodies, down to the serpent which tempted mother Eve; covered the fields with vegetation, decorated the gardens with flowers, hung the trees with fruits; and surveying this glorious world as it lay spread out like a map before him, the question naturally suggested itself. What is it all for, unless there were beings capable of admiring, of appreciating, and of enjoying the delights this beautiful world could afford? And suiting the action to the impulse, he said, “let us make man.” “So God created man in his own image; in the image of God created he him, male and female created he them.”

I presume by the term “image” we are not to understand a near resemblance of face or form, but in the image or likeness of his knowledge, his power, his wisdom, and perfection. Having thus made man, he placed him (them) in the garden of Eden–the loveliest and most enchanting spot at the very head of creation, and bade them (with the single restriction not to eat of the tree of knowledge), to live, to love, and to be happy.

What a delightful picture, if we could only rest here! But did these beings, fresh from the hand of omnipotent wisdom, in whose image they were made, answer the great object of their creation, answer the great object of their creation? Alas! no. No sooner were they installed in their Paradisean home, than they violated the first, the only injunction given them, and fell from their high estate; and not only they, but by a singular justice of that very merciful Creator, their innocent posterity to all coming generations, fell with them! Does that bespeak wisdom and perfection in the Creator, or in the creature? But what was the cause of this tremendous fall, which frustrated the whole design of the creation? The Serpent tempted mother Eve, and she, like a good wife, tempted her husband. But God did not know when he created the Serpent, that it would tempt the woman, and that she was made of such frail materials, (the rib of Adam,) as not to be able to resist the temptation? If he did not know, then his knowledge was at fault; if he did, but could not prevent that calamity, then his power was at fault; if he knew and could, but would not, then his goodness was at fault. Choose which you please, and it remains alike fatal to the rest.

Revelation tells us that God made man perfect, and found him imperfect; then he pronounced all things good, and found them most desperately bad. “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.” “And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created, from the face of the earth; both man and beasts, and the creeping things, and the fowls of the air, for it repenteth me that I have made them.”So he destroyed everything, except Noah with his family, and a few household pets. Why he saved them is hard to say, unless it was to reserve materials as stock in hand to commence a new world with; but really, judging of the character of those he saved, by their descendants, it strikes me it would have been much better, and given him far less trouble, to have let them slip also, and with his improved experience made a new world out of fresh and superior materials. (*see footnote)

As it was, this wholesale destruction even, was a failure. The world was not one jot better after the flood than before. His chosen children were just as bad as ever, and he had to send his prophets, again and again, to threaten, to frighten, to coax, cajole, and to flatter them into good behaviour. But all to no effect. They grew worse and worse; and having made a covenant with Noah after he sacrificed of “every clean beast and of every clean fowl,”–“The Lord smelt the sweet savour; and the Lord said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every living thing, as I have done.” And so he was forced to resort to  the last sad alternative of sending “his only begotten son,” his second self, to save them. But alas! “his own received him not,” and so he was obliged to adopt the Gentiles, and die to save the world. Did he succeed, even then? Is the world saved? Saved! From what? From ignorance? It is all around us. From poverty, vice, crime, sin, misery, and shame? It abounds everywhere.Look into your poor-houses, your prisons, your lunatic asylums; contemplate the whip, the instruments of torture, and of death; ask the murderer, or his victim; listen to the ravings of the maniac, the shrieks of distress, the groans of despair; mark the cruel deeds of the tyrant, the crimes of slavery, and the suffering of the oppressed; count the millions of lives lost by fire, by water, and by the sword; measure the blood spilled, the tears shed, the sighs of agony drawn from the expiring victims on the altar of fanaticism; –and tell me from what the world was saved? And why was it not saved? Why does God still permit these horrors to afflict the race? Does omniscience not know it? Could omnipotence not do it? Would infinite wisdom, power, and goodness allow his children thus to live, to suffer, and to die? No! Humanity revolts against such a supposition.

Ah! Not now, says the believer. Hereafter will he save them. Save them hereafter! From what? From the apple eaten by our mother Eve? What a mockery! If a rich parent were to let his children live in ignorance, poverty, and wretchedness, all their lives, and hold out to them the promise of a fortune at some time hereafter, he would justly be considered a criminal, or a madman. The parent is responsible to his offspring–the Creator to his creature.

The testimony of Revelation has failed. Its account of the creation of the material world is disproved by science. Its account of the creation of man in the image of perfection, is disproved by its own internal evidence. To test the Bible God by justice and benevolence, he could not be good; to test him by reason and knowledge, he could not be wise; to test him by the light of the truth, the rule of consistency, we must come to the inevitable conclusion that, like the Universe of matter and of mind, this pretended Revelation has also failed to demonstrate the existence of a God.

Methinks I hear the the believer say, you are unreasonable; you demand as impossibility; we are finite, and therefore cannot understand, much less define and demonstrate the infinite. Just so! But if I am unreasonable in asking you to demonstrate the existence of the being you wish me to believe in, are you not infinitely more unreasonable to expect me to believe–blame, persecute, and punish me for not believing–in what you have to acknowledge you cannot understand?

But, says the Christian, the world exists, and therefore there must have been a God to create it. That does not follow. The mere fact of its existence does not prove a Creator. Then how came the universe into existence? We do not know but the ignorance mind of man is certainly no proof of the existence of a God. Yet upon that very ignorance has it been predicated, and is maintained. From the little knowledge we have, we are justified in the assertion that the Universe never was created, from the simple fact that not one atom of it can be annihilated. To suppose a Universe created, is to suppose a time when it did not exist, and that is a self-evident absurdity. Besides, where was the Creator before it was created? Nay, where is he now? Outside of that Universe, which means the all in all, above, below, and around? That is another absurdity. is he contained within? Then he can only be a part, for the whole indeed includes all the parts. If only a part, then he cannot be the Creator, for a part cannot create the whole. But the world could not have made itself. True; nor could God have made himself; and if you must have a God to make the world, you will be under the same necessity to have another to make him, and others still to make them, and so on until reason and common sense are at a stand-still.

The same argument applies to a First Cause. We can no more admit of a first than a last cause. What is a first cause? The one immediately preceding the last effect, which was an effect to a cause in its turn–an effect to causes, themselves effects. All we know is an eternal chain of cause and effect, without beginning as without end.

But is there is no evidence of intelligence, of design, and consequently of a designer? I see no evidence of either. What is intelligence? It is not a thing, a substance, an existence in itself, but simply a property of matter, manifesting itself through organizations. We have no knowledge of, nor can we conceive of, intelligence apart from organized matter; and we find that from the smallest and simplest insect, through all the links and gradations in Nature’s great chain, up to Man–just in accordance with the organism, the amount, and the quality of brain, so are the capacities to receive impressions, the power to retain them, and the abilities to manifest and impart them to others; namely, to have its peculiar nature cultivated and developed, so as to bear mental fruits, just as the cultivated earth bears vegetation–physical fruits. Not being able to recognize an independent intelligence, I can perceive no design or designer except in the works of man.

But, says Paley, does the watch not prove a watchmaker–a design, and therefore a designer? How much more does the Universe?Yes; the watch shows design, and the watchmaker did not leave us in the dark on the subject, but clearly and distinctly stamped his design on the face of the watch. Is it as clearly stamped on the Universe? Where is the design, in the oak to grow to its majestic height? In the formation of the wing of the bird, to enable it to fly, in accordance with the promptings of its nature? or in the sportsman to shoot it down while flying? In the butterfly to dance in the sunshine? or its being crushed in the tiny fingers of a child? Design in man’s capacity for the acquisition of knowledge, or in his groping in ignorance? In the necessity to obey the laws of health, or in the violation of them, which produces disease? In the desire to be happy, or in the causes that prevent it, and make him live in toil, misery, and suffering?

The watchmaker not only stamped his design on the face of the watch, but he teaches how to wind it up when it runs down; how to repair the machinery when it is out of order; and how to put a new spring in when the old one is broken, and leave the watch as good as ever. Does the great Watchmaker, as he is called, show the same intelligence and power in keeping, or teaching others to keep, this complicated mechanism–Man–always in good order? and when the life-spring is broken replace it with another, and leave him just the same? If an Infinite Intelligence designed man to possess knowledge, he could not be ignorant; to be healthy, he could not be diseased; to be virtuous, he could not be vicious; to be wise, he could not act so foolish as to trouble himself about the Gods, and neglect his own best interests.

But, says the believer, here is a wonderful adaptation of means to ends; the eye to see, the ear to hear, &c. Yes, this is very wonderful; but not one more jot so, than if the eye were made to hear, and the ear to see. The supporters of Design use sometimes very strange arguments. A friend of mine, a very intelligent man, with quite a scientific taste, endeavored once to convince me of a Providential design, from the fact that a fish, which has always lived in the Mammoth Cave of Kentucky, was entirely blind. Here, said he, is strong evidence; in that dark cave, where nothing was to be seen, the fish need no eyes, and therefore has none. He forget the demonstrable fact that the element of light is indispensable in the formation of the organ of sight, without which it could not be formed, and no Providence, or Gods, could enable the fish to see. That fish story reminds me of the Methodist preacher who proved the wisdom and benevolence of Providence in always placing the rivers near large cities, and death at the end of life; for Oh! my dear hearers, said he, what could have become of us had he placed it at the beginning?

Everything is wonderful, and wonderful just in proportion as we are ignorant; that that proves no “design” or “designer”. But did things come by chance? It exists only in the perverted mind of the believer, who, while insisting that God was the cause of everything, leaves Him without any cause. The Atheist believes as little in the one as in the other. He knows that no effect could exist without an adequate cause, and that everything in the Universe is governed by laws.

The Universe is one vast chemical laboratory, in constant operation, by her internal forces. The laws or principles of attraction, cohesion, and repulsion, produce in never-ending succession the phenomena of composition, decomposition, and recomposition. The how, we are too ignorant to understand, to modest to presume, and too honest to profess. Had man been a patient and impartial inquirer, and not with childish presumption attributed everything he could not understand, to supernatural causes, given names to hide his ignorance, but observed the operations of Nature, he would undoubtedly have know more, been wiser, and happier.

As it is, Superstition has ever been the greatest impediment to the acquisition of knowledge. Every progressive step of man clashed against the two-edged sword of Religion, to whose narrow restrictions he had but too often to succumb, or march onward at the expense of interest, reputation, and even life itself.

But, we are told, that Religion is natural; the belief in a God universal. Were it natural, then it would indeed be universal, but it is not. We have ample evidence to the contrary. According to Dr. Livingstone, there are whole tribes or nations, civilized, moral, and virtuous; yes, so honest that they expose their goods for sale without guard or value set upon them, trusting to the honesty of the purchaser to pay its proper price.

Yet these people have not the remotest idea of a God, and he found it impossible to impart it to them. And in all the ages of the world, some of the most civilized, the wisest, and the best, were entire unbelievers; only they dared not openly avow it, except at the risk of their lives. Proscription, the torture and the stake, were found most efficient means to seal the lips of heretics; and though the march of progress has broken the infernal machines, and extinguished the fires of the Inquisition, the proscription, and the more refined but not less cruel and bitter persecutions of an intolerant and bigoted public opinion, in Protestant countries, as well as in Catholic, on account of belief, are quite enough to prevent men from honestly avowing their true sentiments upon the subject. Hence there are few possessed of the moral courage of a Humboldt.

If the belief in a god were natural, there would be no need to teach it. Children would possess it as well as adults, the layman as the priest, the heathen as much as the missionary. We don;t have to teach the general elements of human nature;–the five senses, seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling. They are universal; so would religion be were it natural, but it is not. On the contrary, it is an interesting and demonstrable fact, that all children are Atheists, and were religion not inculcated into their minds they would remain so. Even as it is, they are great sceptics, until made sensible of the potent weapon by which religion has ever been propagated, namely, fear–fear of the lash of public opinion here, and a jealous, vindictive God hereafter. No; there is no religion in human nature, nor human nature in religion. It is purely artificial, the result of education, while Atheism is natural, and, were the human mind not perverted and bewildered by the mysteries and follies of superstition, would be universal.

But the people have been made to believe that were it not for religion, the world would be destroyed–man would become a monster, chaos and confusion would reign supreme. These erroneous notions conceived in ignorance, propagated by superstition, and kept alive by an interested and corrupt priesthood who fatten on the credulity of the public, are very difficult to be eradicated.

But sweep all the belief on the supernatural from the face of the earth, and the world would remain just the same. The seasons would follow each other in their regular succession; the stars would shine in the firmament; the sun would shed his benign and vivifying influence of light and heat upon us; the clouds would discharge their burden in gentle and refreshing showers; and cultivated fields would bring forth vegetation; summer would ripen the golden grain, ready for harvest; the trees would bear fruits; the birds would sing in accordance with their happy instinct, and all Nature would smile as joyously around us as ever. Nor would man degenerate. Oh! no. His nature, too would remain the same. He would have to be obedient to the physical, mental, and moral laws of his being, or to suffer the natural penalty for their violation; observe the mandates of society, or receive the punishment. His affections would be just as warm, the love of self-preservation as strong, the desire for happiness and fear of pain as great. He would love freedom, justice, and truth, and hate oppression, fraud, and falsehood, as much as ever.

Sweep all belief in the supernatural from the globe, and you would chase away the whole fraternity of spectres, ghosts, and hobgoblins, which have so befogged and bewildered the human mind, that hardly a clear ray of the light of Reason can penetrate it. You would cleanse and purify the heart of the noxious, poisonous weed of superstition, with its bitter, deadly fruits–hypocrisy, bigotry, and intolerance, and fill it with charity and forbearance towards erring humanity. You would give man courage to sustain him in trials and misfortune, sweeten his temper, give him a new zest for the duties, the virtues, and the pleasures of life.

Morality does not depend on the belief in any religion. History gives ample evidence that the more belief the less virtue and goodness. Nor need we go back to ancient times to see the crimes and atrocities perpetrated under its sanction. Look at the present crisis–at the South with 4,000,000 of human beings in slavery, bought and sold like brute chattels under the sanction of religion and of God, which the Reverends Van Dykes and Raphalls of the North fully endorse, and the South complains that the reforms in the North are owing to Infidelity. Morality depends on accurate knowledge of the nature of man, of the laws that govern his being, the principles of right, of justice, and of humanity, and the conditions requisite to make him healthy, rational, virtuous, and happy.

The belief in a God has failed to produce this desirable end. On the contrary, while it could not make man better, it has made him worse; for in preferring blind faith in things unseen and unknown to virtue and morality, in directing his attention from the known to the unknown, from the real tot he imaginary, from the certain here to a fancied hereafter, from the fear of himself, of the natural result of vice and crime, to some whimsical despot, it perverted his judgment, degraded him in his own estimation, corrupted his feelings, destroyed his sense of right, of justice, and of truth, and made him a moral coward and a hypocrite. The lash of a hereafter is no guide for us here. Distant fear cannot control present passion. It is much easier to confess your sins in the dark, than to acknowledge them in the light; to make it up with a God you don’t see, than with a man whom you do. Besides, religion has always left a back door open for sinners to creep out of at the eleventh hour. But teach man to do right, to love justice, to revere truth, to be virtuous, not because a God would reward or punish him hereafter, but because it is right; and as every act brings its own reward or its own punishment, it would best promote his interest by promoting the welfare of society. Let him feel the great truth that our highest happiness consists in making all around us happy, and it would be an infinitely truer and safer guide for man to a life of usefulness, virtue, and morality, than all the beliefs in all the Gods ever imagined.

The more refined and transcendental religionists have often said to me, if you do away with religion, you would destroy the most beautiful element of human nature–the feeling of devotion and reverence, ideality, and sublimity. This, too, is an error. These sentiments would be cultivated just the same, only we would transfer the devotion from the unknown to the known; from the Gods who, if they existed, would not need it, to man who does. Instead of reverencing an imaginary existence, man would learn to revere justice and truth. Ideality and sublimity would refine his feelings, and enable him to admire and enjoy the ever-changing beauties of Nature; the various and almost unlimited powers and capacities of the human mind; the exquisite and indescribable charms of a well-cultivated, highly refined, virtuous, noble man.

But not only have the priests tried to make the very term Atheism odious, as if it would destroy all of good and beautiful in Nature, but some of the reformers, not having the moral courage to avow their own sentiments, wishing to be popular, fearing lest their reforms would be considered Infidel, (as all reforms assuredly are,) shield themselves from the stigma, by joining in the tirade against Atheism, and associate it with everything that is vile, with the crime of slavery, the corruptions of the Church, and all the vices imaginable. This is false, and they know it. Atheism protests against this injustice. No one had a right to give the term a false, a forced interpretation, to suit his own purposes (this applies also to some of the Infidels who stretch and force the term Atheist out of its legitimate significance). As well we might use the terms Episcopalian, Unitarian, Universalist, to signify vice and corruption, as the term Atheist, which means simply a disbelief in a God, because finding no demonstration of his existence, man’s reason will not allow him to believe, nor his conviction to play the hypocrite, and profess what he does not believe. Give it its true significance, and he will abide the consequences; but don’t fasten upon it the vices belonging to yourselves. Hypocrisy is the mother of a large family!

In conclusion, the Atheist says to the honest conscientious believer, Though I cannot believe in your God which you have failed to demonstrate, I believe in man; if I have no faith in your religion, I have faith, unbounded, unshaken faith in the principles of right, of justice, and humanity. Whatever good you are willing to do for the sake of your God, I am full as willing to do for the sake of man. But the monstrous crimes the believer perpetrated in persecuting and exterminating his fellowman on account of differences of belief, the Atheist, knowing that belief is not voluntary, but depends on evidence, and therefore there can be no merit in the belief of any religions, nor demerit in a disbelief in all of them, could never be guilty of. Whatever good you would do without fear of punishment, the Atheist would do simply because it is good; and being so, he would receive the far surer and more certain reward, springing from well-doing, which would constitute his pleasure, and promote his happiness.

‘A Defense of Atheism’ by Ernestine Rose. Reproduced with permission from Women Without Superstition: No Gods – No Masters, The Collected Writings of Women Freethinkers of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Edited by Annie Laurie Gaylor. Madison, Wisconsin 1997.
https://ffrf.org/shop/women-without-superstition-no-gods-no-masters

***************************************************************************

* Note: In the paragraph regarding the story of Noah’s flood, Ernestine Rose could be interpreted as having a negative view of human nature, or she could be satirizing religious views of human nature as intrinsically evil and in need of redemption from some power outside of itself. From her other writings, it appears to be the latter; in her writings overall, she reveals her more positive view of human nature. For example, consider this quote: “I have endeavored to the best of my powers and ability to serve the cause and progress of humanity, to advocate what seemed to be the truth; to defend human nature from the libel cast upon it by superstition…” (Dorress-Worters, Paula. Mistress of Herself: Speeches and Letters of Ernestine Rose, Early Women’s Rights Leader. The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2008, p. 208)

Gospel Songs, Negro Spirituals, and This Heathen

The great Mahalia Jackson

I’m a non-religious person, an atheist, a freethinker, a heathen…. whatever you want to call me, any of those terms suits me just fine. I also love a lot of ‘God-dy’, spiritual music.


I grew up Catholic, but for the most part, our church music didn’t ‘stay’ with me as an adult. I’m just not that into chants (I usually find them kinda depressing) and traditional Catholic and Christian hymns tend to be pretty chant-y, or too ponderous and formal for my taste. ‘Ave Maria’ is lovely, and some of the Christmas songs, but overall, that style just doesn’t do much for me. Nor did I ever like the more modern, multi-denominational Christian hymns: they’re mostly pretty corny, and are as artistically satisfying and pack as much of an emotional punch as a discount Hallmark card. The absolute worst of all: Christian rock, country, and pop music. ***shudder***

But let me tell you: if I had grown up in a Baptist church in the South, and heard that passionate, joyful gospel music every Sunday, or those soulful Negro spirituals, I may have remained a weekly churchgoer to this day. I just don’t know if I could have torn myself away from those songs, which alternately uplift the hearer to dizzying heights, or tears your heart apart with the most delicious pain as it simultaneously heals you.

Why do I love this brand of religious music? Why do I find it ranks right up there with the very best of human artistic accomplishments?

I’ve thought this over quite a bit, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there are three main reasons:

1) Time: Gospel songs and Negro spirituals were developed from centuries of earlier forms of music, from standard Christian church songs, American folk songs, and rhythmic African music. The crafters of these songs had a rich tradition to draw from, and this music was developed and perfected over centuries. Of course, this is true of all types of music one degree or another, so now we add the next basic element:

2) Indirectness: For some as yet poorly-understood reason rooted in human psychology, I find that the most sublime, most important emotional truths are rarely well conveyed if the language used is too literal. The words can be simple and seemingly direct, but what they’re ultimately alluding too, the deepest and most transcendent parts of human experience, are somehow out of reach of ordinary language. When it comes to religious music, it has a way of revealing the depths of pain, joy, gratitude, ecstasy, and connection with each other and the universe as it’s couched in the symbolic language of the supernatural. (To me, that is; to its authors, the supernatural imagery is often meant to be taken literally). Other forms of poetry do the same; that’s why similes, metaphors, and other linguistic forms of insinuation and suggestion are so universal. Like symbolism, they are incredibly effective in igniting the imagination and setting it free to roam the universe and explore our inner depths. Yet there’s one more element needed to really raise these forms of music to the heights of artistic expression:

3) Authenticity: Gospel songs and Negro spirituals (along with other related forms of American music, blues, country, and folk) are a direct outpouring of some of the greatest suffering, coupled with the deepest longing for redemption and relief from suffering, that humankind has ever known. There is little to no affectation in this music. Much of this music is the legacy of slavery, the outpourings of the tortured human spirit in the midst of oppression, torture, hopelessness, and despair resulting from one of the greatest evils the human race has ever inflicted on so many of its members. So it’s no wonder that the language of religious redemption, combined with the longing for liberty and freedom from pain on earth, and the joy at the thought of its attainment, resulted in some of the most transcendent, stirring music that our species has ever created.

That’s why I find, heathen that I am, that most freethought and atheist songs leave me cold: they are missing one or more of these elements. Steve Martin is just about right: ‘Atheists Don’t Have No Songs‘! They are too gimmicky, too ‘clever’, too literal, too simultaneously reactionary to and derivative from religious music. The few freethought songs I like are are almost always the funny ones, where cleverness is what the song’s all about, such as Roy Zimmerman’s Creation Science 101.

It’s no surprise that agnostic, atheist, irreverent songs are generally not very good, since freethought as a movement is still very young compared to religion. Give it some time and good songs will come, no doubt, once they’ve escaped the overly-rational, self-consciously non-spiritual constraints they’ve placed on themselves. Tim Minchin, by adding some heart to the mix with his witty and sweet White Wine in the Sun, moves freethought songcraft in the right direction.

So who cares about religion or no religion in music: all are created by human beings for the enjoyment of other human beings. Here’s a list of some of my very favorite gospel and spiritual songs (and songs inspired by that tradition) that I think are more moving than just about anything else you’re likely to hear:

He Must Have Known‘ – Mahalia Jackson – (Thanks for this one, Mike LaSalle)

Let It Shine‘ – Blind Willie Johnson

Didn’t It Rain‘ – Sister Rosetta Tharpe (and well, pretty much every other song she ever did!)


Sending Up My Timber‘ – Blind Willie McTell


I Saw The Light‘ – Hank Williams as Luke the Drifter


Com’ By H’Yere Good Lord – Nina Simone

I Must See Jesus – Snooks Eaglin


Uncloudy Day – The Staple Singers

I Was Standing By the Bedside of a Neighbor – Michelle Lanchester and Sweet Honey in the Rock

I’ll be adding to this list from time to time as I think of them, or find a new must-hear. In the meantime, dance, weep, jump up and down, sway, transcend, and enjoy!