Honest Minds, Past and Present

Talks for History of Freethought conference
Sept. 20-21, 1997, Cincinnati, Ohio
sponsored by Council for Secular Humanism and Free Inquiry Group

(Saturday - The Renaissance and the Enlightenment)
(Sunday - 20th century freethinkers)

By James A. Haught

First, I have some news that may disturb you. I've changed my mind about life after death. I heard about a husband who was dying of cancer. He told his wife, "Honey, if it's possible, I'll communicate with you from beyond." So he died, and about a month after his funeral, she got a phone call. He was on the line, and he told her: "It's wonderful. We just eat salad, and make love, and eat salad, and make love." She said: "Good grief -- is that what it's like in heaven?" He said: "Heaven? I'm not in heaven. I'm in Minnesota, and I'm a rabbit."

Well, on second thought, that report probably is just as unverified as all the other supernatural claims, so I'll revert to my usual skepticism. Which brings up an observation I want to make:

Each of us here today is in an odd position, set apart from 99 percent of humanity. We have taken a public stand against mystical, magical religion, because we think that's the only honest course for rational people.

But why do we pour our energy into this effort? What compels us to crusade against supernaturalism? Hardly anyone else feels this compulsion, so why should we?

I live almost entirely among secular people -- Unitarians, newspaper staffers, chemists, college professors, social activists, and the like. They don't pray or worship. But, unlike me, my secular friends show no inclination to attack religion. They just shrug and ignore it, as a topic holding no interest for them. Most of them think I'm a fanatic, since I feel a need to wage combat.

Basically, I think my friends accept the popular view that religion is essentially good. They can't swallow the stuff about gods and devils, heavens and hells, miracles and messiahs, etc. -- but they still get a warm feeling about piety and ritual and preaching kindness. They never go to church - but they never criticize it, either.

So, sometimes I wonder: What's wrong with me? Why can't I be like my secular friends and simply pay no attention to religion? They're as intelligent as I am, but they're not squandering their energy in a Don Quixote crusade against overwhelming odds.

Then I decide: no, dammit, I can't sit silent while priests impose a fantasy on humanity -- while they teach children that invisible beings will punish them after they die. Integrity requires resistance against what I think is a universal delusion, a harmful self-deception.

Steve Allen said it well in one of his Prometheus books, Reflections. Quote:

"I do not understand those who take little or no interest in the subject of religion. If religion embodies a truth, it is certainly the most important truth of human existence. If it is largely error, then it is one of monumentally tragic proportions -- and should be vigorously opposed."

Exactly. If, as the churches say, there is an all-merciful god who loves you so much that he's waiting to burn you forever, this is the biggest fact of life. But if it's a hoax -- if people don't live after death, and there are no unseen spirits to reward or punish us -- then a mighty sham has been perpetrated on humanity since the dawn of time.

I think most of us have concluded the latter -- so how could we stay quiet while the young are taught this false basis for living? How could we sit idle while a million priests proclaim that invisible spirits are real, and that the priests are the special emissaries who know how the chief spirit wants us to live? How could we do nothing while billions of tax-exempt dollars and vast amounts of human energy are wasted on spirit-worship -- and while differences in this worship alienates people into hostile cultures?

When I use the word religion, I'm not talking about preaching kindness or helping the poor. That's humanitarianism, and everyone endorses it. To whatever extent churches do it -- great! But I'm talking about spookery, the belief in magical, miraculous things, without evidence.

Therefore, it seems clear to me that conscientious, scientific-minded people have a duty to "go public" and say that supernatural religion is a myth.

Since religion has billions of believers, we who oppose it are hopelessly outnumbered. However, maybe our voices, at least to some degree, will be like that of the little boy who said the emperor's new clothes were imaginary. Maybe we'll cause some thinking people to take a second look and realize that the holy, divine, supernatural churches are naked.

As we take this mission upon ourselves, we aren't as alone as it may seem. We have the example of many great secular humanists of the past -- all the thinkers, scientists, democracy advocates, writers, philosophers, social reformers, and others who had the courage to question the supernatural, even if it put them at risk.

These outstanding people are my heroes, so I put them all into a book, along with their skeptical statements. I wanted to provide a handy reference for humanist-minded people -- especially the young -- showing that truly great minds generally have doubted mystical systems. Therefore, we skeptics have powerful allies, and we aren't so defenseless, even though we are vastly outnumbered.

The purpose of this conference is to outline the history of freethought, to recount all the thinkers who were brave enough to raise doubts about the magical proclamations of priests -- even when this could mean death. Throughout much of human history, including today in the Muslim world, "holy men" have sought to kill skeptics who questioned them.

Dr. Roder described the earliest known freethinkers, the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, of whom Socrates and Anaxagoras were condemned for doubting the gods, and others were banished. After their brilliant period, the Dark Ages -- the Age of Faith -- came over the Western world like a shroud.

After Christianity established its grip on Europe, a dozen centuries ensued during which doubters were put to death. In 385, Priscillan was executed for having unorthodox thoughts about the Trinity. In 415, Hypatia, leader of the Alexandria Library, was killed by Christian monks who thought she was a pagan. In the 6th century, the Christian Emperor Justinian executed multitudes to enforce orthodox beliefs.

After the turn of the millenium, killing for religious beliefs reached a golden age. Popes launched crusades against "infidels" in the Holy Land -- and then launched "internal crusades" against nonconforming European Christians. Jews were massacred by Christians time after time. The internal crusades spawned the Inquisition, which tortured and burned thousands upon thousands of people on suspicion that they weren't standard, approved Christians.

Under these conditions, it isn't surprising that nobody spoke up against the church. In fact, throughout the dozen centuries that were the Age of Faith, virtually the only known person who dared to write a skeptical view was Omar Khayyam -- and he apparently did so in secret, since none of his quatrains came to light until long after his death.

However -- slowly, haltingly, cautiously -- the seeds of scientific humanism began to sprout, even while the cruel Inquisition was at its worst. Starting in the 14th century, ancient copies of Greek and Roman classics were rediscovered and began circulating among educated people. For example, only one lone copy of Lucretius' masterwork, On the Nature of Things -- a Roman account of Greek scientific thinking -- survived the Dark Ages. After it was found in 1417, it was recopied, and when printing was invented a few years later, it was among the first books reproduced.

This was the spirit of what we now call the Renaissance, a time of rebirth, roughly 1300 to 1600 - the period when human curiosity and ingenuity began to subvert the grim Age of Faith. In my book, I focused on the few bold thinkers who were brave enough to write ideas not approved by the Church. They risked terrible punishment, and not just from the Catholic establishment. The Reformation occurred during this period, and Protestants executed doubters too. For example, the physician Michael Servetus, who discovered the pulmonary circulation of blood, was burned at the stake in 1553 in John Calvin's Geneva for doubting the Trinity. Calvinists were just as ruthless as Catholic priests of the Roman Inquisition, who burned philosopher Giordano Bruno in 1600 for teaching that Earth orbits the sun, and that the universe is infinite.

Here are some of the nonconformists, and their brave statements:

-- Michel de Montaigne, a nobleman whose mother came from Spanish Jews who were forced to convert by the Inquisition, and who fled to France. Montaigne created the essay as a literary form. He wrote comments like these:

"Man is certainly stark mad; he cannot make a worm, yet he will make gods by the dozen."

"Nothing is so firmly believed as that which we least know."

"Men of simple understanding, little inquisitive and little instructed, make good Christians."

Montaigne was jailed twice - once by Catholics, once by Protestants -- but he managed to escape charges of being a heretic.

-- Christopher Marlowe, a brilliant young playwright, whose skepticism got him into trouble with English authorities. He couldn't write openly against religion, so he put heretical words in the mouth of a despised character, The Jew of Malta:

"I count religion but a childish toy, and hold there is no sin but ignorance."

"Religion hides many mischiefs from suspicion."

Marlowe was stabbed to death in a tavern brawl at age 29 -- and some of the devout said this was God's punishment for his disbelief.

-- And finally, the greatest of all, William Shakespeare. Remember, Shakespeare and Marlowe lived at a time when every Englishman was required by law to be a Christian, and church attendance was mandatory. So a direct attack on religion was impossible. But Shakespeare did something insidious: Never once in his brilliant works did he say that the purpose of life is to be saved by an invisible Jesus and go to an invisible heaven. Instead, he wrote all the uncertainties and skeptical thoughts that occur in an intelligent mind.

For example, in act 3 of the First Part of King Henry IV, Glendower claims to have supernatural powers, declaring: "I can call spirits from the vasty deep" -- and Hotspur replies: "Why, so can I, or so can any man. But will they come when you do call for them?"

Shakespeare slipped skeptical lines into his plays, as in act 3 of The Merchant of Venice:

"In religion, what damned error but some sober brow will bless it, and approve it with a text."

And his bitter characters saw that there's no great, transcending, divine meaning to life -- as when Macbeth laments:

"Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time. And all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle. Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

I always thought Macbeth's soliloquy was a perfect summation of lonely, alienated existentialism. Shakespeare didn't say there's a miraculous God waiting to reward the pious in paradise. He just described the ultimate futility that a wise person sees (without offering existentialism's requirement that we must struggle to give meaning to life, in spite of the abyss). So, living under government-enforced Christianity, Shakespeare subtly undercut Christianity.

Rising humanism in the Renaissance blossomed into what we now call the Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason: two centuries of intellectual ferment that was largely a rebellion against religion's blind faith in the supernatural. The era was marked by dozens of brilliant thinkers who said people should use their minds to search for knowledge, instead of swallowing pronouncements of priests. "Dare to know" was the great motto of Immanuel Kant. Here's a brief rundown of a few of them:

-- Thomas Hobbes hatched the concept of government as a social contract among people - which undercut belief in the divine right of kings. Once, Hobbes was forced to flee into exile. Another time, a bishop accused him of atheism, but he escaped execution.

-- Baruch Spinoza was a Dutch Jew who couldn't accept the mystical claims of his religion, so he was excommunicated by Jewish leaders and lived a lonely life of writing philosophy. For example, he said:

"Philosophy has no end in view, save truth. Faith looks for nothing but obedience and piety."

-- Voltaire, that brilliant French reformer whose real name was Francois Marie Arouet, was the ultimate symbol of the Enlightenment. He wasn't content just to write witty sneers against the church - he became perhaps the first true human rights crusader by waging battles against cruelties of religion and the ruling elite.

For instance, in 1766, a teen-age boy in Abbeville was convicted of marring a crucifix, singing irreverent songs, and wearing his hat while a religious procession passed. He was sentenced to have his tongue cut out, his right hand cut off, and be burned at the stake. Voltaire pleaded for leniency. The case was appealed to parliament in Paris. The clergy demanded death, and parliament agreed, but granted mercy by allowing the youth to be just decapitated. His body was burned along with one of Voltaire's skeptical books.

Voltaire wrote, in a letter to Frederick the Great: "Christianity is the most ridiculous, the most absurd and bloody religion that has ever infected the world." He also said: "Every sensible man, every honest man, must hold the Christian sect in horror."

Voltaire took great risks by publicly challenging religion. Near the end of his life, he lived on an estate on the French-Swiss border, so he could run into Switzerland if French Catholics came for him, or run into France if Swiss Calvinists did.

-- David Hume was a great Scottish thinker who disputed claims of miracles, and was frequently accused of atheism. He was among the founders of modern philosophy. In his Natural History of Religion, he wrote:

"Examine the religious principles which have, in fact, prevailed in the world, and you will scarcely be persuaded that they are anything but sick men's dreams."

The Age of Reason had many other outstanding skeptics -- Denis Diderot, creator of the first encyclopedia; John Locke, who championed the radical idea of not punishing people who held unapproved religious beliefs; Baron Montesquieu, who advocated separating government powers into executive, legislative and judicial branches; Edward Gibbon, author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But we haven't time to go through them all.

The Renaissance, the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment: This was the historic time when the human mind broke the chains of the cruel Age of Faith, and most of our Western freedoms came from it.


(sunday session)

As Dr. Larue, Annie Laurie Gaylor and all the others have spelled out, the late 19th century, after the blockbuster impact of Darwin's theory of evolution, was a golden age for freethought. In that era, many thinking people truly felt that science could remove virtually all the mysteries of existence.

As it turned out, that wasn't quite the case. Mystery proved to be indestructible. I know a slightly weird physicist who says Darwin made theology disreputable -- but Einstein and quantum physics made it reputable again. The bizarre revelations that time slows down, that gravity bends space, that dimensions change with speed, that subatomic particles vanish in one spot and reappear in another -- all these seemingly impossible things made angels and demons and heavens and hells seem a little less fantastic.

Regardless, though, the late 19th century finally established the Right to Doubt. From that tumultuous time, it became possible -- if you were willing to endure the hostility of the majority culture -- to question supernatural faiths. I'm speaking of the West, of course. Muslim lands didn't make this advance. There, you can still be beheaded today for doubt.

But in the West, many great skeptics of the 1800s set an intellectual tone, and then lived on into the 1900s, influencing many thinking people. Mark Twain, Leo Tolstoy, William James, Ambrose Bierce, Thomas Edison, H.L. Mencken, A.C. Swinburne, John Burroughs, Luther Burbank, Sigmund Freud, George Bernard Shaw, Clarence Darrow, John Dewey, George Santayana, Bertrand Russell -- all these were brilliant men of the 19th century whose impact snowballed through much of the 20th century.

So, even though the golden age of freethought faded under an onslaught of conformity, the 20th century became a time when it was safe to challenge the supernatural, and many outstanding thinkers did so.

In fact, looking back over the 20th century, it's almost impossible to find a major scientist or philosopher or reformer who said that invisible gods and devils are real. In today's world of mental honesty, magical spirits hardly exist among intelligent, educated people.

Let's run through some great names of the 20th century, and hear a few of their skeptical comments:

--- Thomas Edison - "So far as the religion of the day is concerned, it is a damned fake.... Religion is all bunk.... All bibles are man-made."

--- Luther Burbank - "The idea that a good God would send people to a burning hell is utterly damnable to me -- the ravings of insanity, superstition gone to seed."

--- Sigmund Freud - "Neither in my private life, nor in my writings, have I ever made a secret of being an out-and-out unbeliever."

--- George Bernard Shaw - "At present there is not a single credible established religion in the world."

--- Clarence Darrow - "I don't believe in God because I don't believe in Mother Goose."

--- John Dewey - "There is nothing left worth preserving in the notions of unseen powers, controlling human destiny, to which obedience and worship are due."

--- Bertrand Russell - "My own view on religion is that of Lucretius. I regard it as a disease born of fear and as a source of untold misery to the human race."

--- Albert Einstein - "I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own -- a God, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty. Neither can I believe that the individual survives the death of his body, although feeble souls harbor such thoughts through fear or ridiculous egotism."

--- H.L. Mencken - "I believe that religion, generally speaking, has been a curse to mankind."

--- President William Howard Taft - "I do not believe in the divinity of Christ, and there are many other of the postulates of the orthodox creed to which I cannot subscribe."

--- Playwright Maxwell Anderson - "The gods of men are sillier than their kings and queens, and emptier and more powerless."

--- Novelist Theodore Dreiser - "Assure a man that he has a soul and then frighten him with old wives' tales as to what is to become of him afterward, and you have hooked a fish, a mental slave."

--- Novelist Pearl Buck - "It may be that religion is dead, and if it is, we had better know it, and set ourselves to try to discover other sources of moral strength before it is too late."

--- Margaret Sanger - "No gods, no masters." (Motto of her newsletter.)

--- Wil Durant - "Does history support a belief in God? If by God we mean not the creative vitality of nature but a supreme being intelligent and benevolent, the answer must be a reluctant negative."

--- Walter Lippmann - "The radical novelty of modern science lies precisely in the rejection of the belief, which is at the heart of all popular religion, that the forces which move the stars and atoms are contingent upon the preferences of the human heart."

--- Ayn Rand - "Religion... is the first enemy of the ability to think.... Faith is the worst curse of mankind, as the exact antithesis and enemy of thought."

--- Jean Paul Sartre - "The existentialist... finds it extremely embarrassing that God does not exist, for there disappears with him all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven.... We have lost religion, but we have gained humanism."

--- Isaac Asimov - "It seems to me that God is a convenient invention of the human mind."

--- Kurt Vonnegut - "I am of course a skeptic about the divinity of Christ and a scorner of the notion that there is a God who cares how we are or what we do."

--- Gloria Steinem - "By the year 2000 we will, I hope, raise our children to believe in human potential, not God."

Etc., etc. We could go on for hours listing famous 20th century people who couldn't swallow the magical parts of religion.

So, as we near the end of the century -- and the millenium -- we can see that honest agnosticism has made great progress. Or has it? Supernaturalism still dominates the planet, as it always has done. For every skeptical intellectual, there are 1,000 Southern Baptists or fundamentalist Muslims or praying Hindus. Is freethought advancing? What's the world situation today?

Personally, I think religion is dying among intelligent, educated Western people. In my youth, America's mainline, "high steeple," Protestant churches were the bastion of the college-educated elite. But today, those churches have dwindled to a fringe. They've lost 7 million members since the 1960s, while the nation's population rose 60 million. I think this means that educated people don't need religion any more.

Even pollster George Gallup, who obviously champions religion, keeps reporting that supernatural beliefs have dwindled in American society.

Look at the religious taboos that have fizzled: When I was young, you could be put in jail for looking at the equivalent of a Playboy magazine -- but now there's nude lovemaking in most R-rated movies. In my youth, you could be jailed for buying a drink or a lottery ticket -- but now drinking is respectable, and the state government runs the lottery. In my day, homosexuals were sent to prison for "sodomy" -- but now they're mostly seen as fellow humans. In my day, an unmarried couple sharing a bedroom could be jailed for "fornication" -- but now millions of young couples simply live together. So the old church "thou shalt nots" have bitten the dust. This has been a huge transformation, yet hardly anyone notices. I think it signifies a retreat by religion.

While mainline churches are dying in America, there has been a giant upsurge in Catholics, Mormons, Southern Baptists, Pentecostals, Moonies, Hare Krishnas, TV evangelists -- plus every imaginable sort of "New Age" fruitcake. Americans now spend $300 million a year on calls to "psychic" hot-lines.

What does it all mean? Where has the 20th century brought us? Maybe America is pulling apart into two societies: educated secular people, and lower-income magic-believers? Maybe all this growth in simplistic beliefs is a death spasm for religion -- a binge of irrationality in the face of relentlessly advancing scientific views? Maybe America is becoming like Europe, where traditional religions mostly have died, without such a conspicuous growth in fringe beliefs? I'm not sure.

The wishful thinker in me says we're witnessing the end of voodoo. But the cynical realist in me says voodoo will always dominate the world, no matter how many great minds oppose it.

It's a subject we can mull over forever -- so let's go to questions.