(book review from Free Inquiry, spring 1997)

2000 Years of Disbelief: Famous People With the Courage to Doubt By James A. Haught, Prometheus Books, 334 pages, cloth $26.95

By Robert Sherrill

The world is full of believers. Many are total believers, like the hundreds who travel each year to Villa Union, a tiny town in desolate, far-western Argentina, to touch the mummified body of an infant who died in 1966. Some claim that as a result of their visit to the wrinkled corpse, their lives were magically changed for the better; diseases were cured, lotteries were won. Efforts are under way to persuade the Catholic Church to declare the baby an official saint. A municipal official of Villa Union told a New York Times reporter who dropped by recently, "We all have to believe in something."

If by "something" he means something relating to a supernatural being whose existence is beyond scientific proof and must be accepted solely by faith, an omnipotent creator who sometimes rewards the faithful by interfering with nature and performing miracles -- if that's what he means, then he is in abundant company. Many millions of people around the world of many faiths would wholeheartedly agree with him.

Many others would agree with him, but not wholeheartedly. They are part-time believers, like Neil Simon, Broadway's most successful playwright. In his just-published memoirs, Simon tells us that for his high school graduation, his mother sacrificed hard-saved money to buy him a white shirt, white pants and white shoes. The newspaper predicted rain for graduation day. Knowing that a downpour would ruin his mother's gift, Simon days he "stayed up most of the night praying over and over again, repeating one simple sentence, `Please don't let it rain tomorrow.'" And behold! It didn't!
This persuaded Simon that if he prayed hard enough, God would grant his wishes, so long as he limited his appeals only to "the most important events in my life."

Now 70 years old, he still feels pretty much the same about the availability of supernatural help. "Although these are all childish fantasies," he writes, "I feel they are very important and healthy ones." Echoing the Argentine rustic, he adds, "You have to believe in something." But -- and this is a crucial but -- he now admits that because in old age he has grown a bit "skeptical about the existence of a God -- except when I need him badly -- I tend to trust myself the most."

Simon's now-and-then skepticism takes us to the outer boundaries of faith, and from there it requires only a few more short steps to reach the mental state in which God is excluded not some of the time but all of the time. For most believers whose faith has begun to fade, those are fearful steps -- too fearful -- and they draw back.

But as James A. Haught, editor of The Charleston Gazette, makes luminously evident in 2000 Years of Disbelief: Famous People with the Courage to Doubt -- a fascinating study into which Haught has poured three decades of research -- a great many of the world's finest minds over the centuries have not been afraid to continue down the path to atheism or agnosticism. Haught's admiration for this group is clear from the very first page.

"Intelligent, educated people tend to doubt the supernatural," he writes. "So it is hardly surprising to find a high ratio of religious skeptics among major thinkers, scientists, writers, reformers, scholars, champions of democracy, and other world-changers.

"The advance of Western civilization has been partly a story of gradual victory over oppressive religion. The rise of humanism slowly shifted society's focus away from obedience to bishops and kings, onto individual rights and improved living conditions. Much of the progress was impelled by men and women who didn't pray, didn't kneel at altars, didn't make pilgrimages, didn't recite creeds."

Haught's survey of dissenters comes down to the present day, but it starts with the so-called Golden Age of Greece -- which must not have seemed very intellectually golden to men like Socrates, whose death sentence was based on, among other things, a charge of "not worshipping the gods whom the state worships," or Protagoras, who was banished from Athens for saying he didn't know if the gods exist.

This -- the perils of bucking the religious establishment -- is one of the major themes of Haught's brief history of dissent that prepares readers for the hundreds of quotes to follow. The doubters' intellectual honesty has often carried a very heavy price, ranging from social or political ostracism, to flogging, to imprisonment, to death. The Western world quit executing infidels 250 years ago, but in the Islamic world disbelief is still punishable by death. "In Saudi Arabia in 1992, a man was beheaded in the marketplace at Qatif after being convicted of `insulting Allah, the Holy Koran and Muhammad the Prophet.'"

In recent decades, Christian fundamentalists have been so adept at intimidating politicians and public school officials and media owners that "No politician could be elected if he admitted atheism. Newspapers and mainstream magazines rarely print agnostic articles. Television programs seldom contain direct denials of God."
Former President Carter was recently asked if he thought an atheist could be a good president. He said yes, but "If someone runs for president as an admitted or confessed or proud atheist, I think they would have a difficult time being elected." He went on to say: "I don't think it's appropriate in our society to have as a prerequisite to holding public office any particular faith, including even a professed faith in God."

It's lucky that enough people in this country felt that way 200 years ago, or the United States would have been without the services of some of its most important founders. As Haught points out, not one of the first six presidents was an orthodox Christian. Most of the founders were Deists, "who doubted that Christ was a god" and equated God with "the power behind nature, as discerned by science."

Not all "disbelievers" agree on all points, but a sampling of quotes from 2000 Years of Disbelief illustrates the opinions of the majority. Here are some categories of skepticism, and remarks:

-- The Christian-Judaic God does not exist, and if He did exist as described in the Bible, He would certainly not be a good role model.

Naturalist John Burroughs: "The God of the Puritans... was a monster too horrible to contemplate."

H.L. Mencken: "The chief contribution of Protestantism to human thought is its massive proof that God is a bore."

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

Thomas Alva Edison: "Religion is all bunk."

-- The notion that there is a life after death, and particularly of a heaven and a hell, is poppycock.

George Bernard Shaw: "Heaven, as conventionally described, is a place so inane, so dull, so useless, so miserable, that nobody has ever ventured to describe a whole day in heaven, though plenty of people have described a day at the seaside."

Legendary botanist 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! I want no part of such a God."

-- Preachers and organized religion are among mankind's worst oppressors.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who launched the struggle for women's rights in America: "The Christian church has throughout the ages used its influence in opposition to the freedom of woman."

Thomas Jefferson: "In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own."

Napoleon Bonaparte: "How can you have order in a state without religion? For, when one man is dying of hunger near another who is ill of surfeit, he cannot resign himself to this difference unless there is an authority which declares 'God wills it thus.' Religion is excellent stuff for keeping common people quiet."

-- Christianity is a haven for hypocrites, sometimes very dangerous ones.

Ambrose Bierce, in his Devil's Dictionary: "Christian. n. One who follows the teachings of Christ insofar as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin."

Mark Twain: "Man is the religious animal.... He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself and cuts his throat, if his theology isn't straight. He has made a graveyard of the globe in trying his honest best to smooth his brother's path to happiness and heaven."

Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer: "The fruits of Christianity were religious wars, butcheries, crusades, inquisitions, extermination of the natives of America, and the introduction of African slaves in their place."

(For more on the subject of religious brutalities, see Haught's earlier book, Holy Horrors: An Illustrated History of Religious Murder and Madness.)

-- There is no "supernatural"; there is only nature and its process, all of which is ultimately within the grasp of the human brain, which is to say within the grasp of science. Prayer is self-delusion. The "miracles" that Jesus performed in the New Testament are no more believable than the "miracles" credited to the mummified Argentine baby.

Bret Harte, writer: "The creator who could put a cancer in a believer's stomach is above being interfered with by prayers."

Ivan Turgenev, novelist: "Whatever a man prays for, he prays for a miracle. Every prayer reduces itself to this: 'Great God, grant that twice two be not four.'"

The 19th century scientist Thomas Henry Huxley: "The deepest sin of the human mind is to believe things without evidence."

It is impossible to convey the overwhelming impact of the hundreds -- probably close to 2,000 -- quotes in this book by selecting out a few for a review. The effect of the 322 pages of these strong, unyielding, often blasphemous (by orthodox society's standards), sometimes bitterly humorous, fearless opinions -- thundering down on the reader like golfball-size hailstones in a storm -- is, well, awesome to say the least.

And yet Haught has kept everything under control by an intelligent orderliness, organizing his disbelievers by eras -- The Renaissance, The European Enlightenment, The American Rationalists, etc. -- then featuring the leading spokespersons of dissent (with a brief, sharp biography of each) followed by a host of other commentators getting space for only a few jibes each.

I confess there is a serious conflict of interest in my reviewing this book, for I am notoriously an admirer of Jim Haught as editor, investigative reporter, science writer, and critic of organized religion. The reader of this review should keep that in mind when weighing my judgment. Better yet, disregard my judgment and make your own. I am confident that anyone who reads 2000 Years of Disbelief -- even priests and preachers and deacons -- will get a refreshing rush of adrenalin from the candor on its pages even if they hate its conclusions.

As one who was reared in a fundamentalist church but long ago decided that too many guys from Torquemada to Oral Roberts to the politically intoxicated Billy Graham had turned organized religion into a very bad joke, I greatly enjoy such piquant opinions as Alfred North Whitehead's, "I consider Christian theology to be one of the great disasters of the human race.... It would be impossible to imagine anything more un-Christlike than theology. Christ probably couldn't have understood it."

And Mark Twain's, "The Church worked hard at it night and day during nine centuries and imprisoned, tortured, hanged, and burned whole hordes and armies of witches, and washed the Christian world clean with their foul blood. Then it was discovered that there was no such thing as witches, and never had been. One doesn't know whether to laugh or to cry. Who discovered that there was no such thing as a witch -- the priest, the parson? No, these never discover anything."

And Aldous Huxley's, "I'm all for sticking pins into episcopal behinds."

I was also pleasantly stimulated by the dissenters' bold attacks on God, reminding me of Milton's unrepentant Satan ("Better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven"), whom all scholars acknowledge is the real hero of Paradise Lost.

But on this point -- perhaps with my orthodox background taking over -- I was not nearly so attracted to those who wanted to kill off God as I was to those few who were more modest in their opinions about what's out there -- particularly Albert Einstein, who said:

"I believe in mystery and, frankly, I sometimes face this mystery with great fear. In other words, I think that there are many things in the universe that we cannot perceive or penetrate, and that also we experience some of the most beautiful things in life only in a very primitive form. Only in relation to these mysteries do I consider myself to be a religious man...."

My favorite among the doubters is historian Will Durant, who trained to become a Catholic priest but gave up because of doubts about the existence of God and because of contempt for the theological establishment. Nonetheless, he credits religion with having supplied the moral code that was indispensable for the creation of civilization. What makes him so appealing is that he calls for more tolerance and modesty from the high priests of science, who demand faith in quarky stuff whose existence is no more provable -- as yet -- than God's.

In a commencement speech, he told graduates: "Those of you who specialize in science will find it hard to understand religion, unless you feel, as Newton and Voltaire did, that the harmony of the spheres reveals a cosmic mind, and unless you realize, as Pascal and Rousseau did, that man does not live by intellect alone. We are such microscopic particles in so vast a universe that none of us is in a position to understand the world...."

As for the doubters' majority opinion that there will be no life after this one, I can offer no substantive counter-argument, but I certainly hope they are wrong, for I would like to have an eternally extended chance to hear Haught and these other brassy, brainy people continue their conversation, expanded into other subjects.

For their disbelief they will, of course, all wind up in Hell, but that's OK. In a recent New Yorker article, after reminding us that according to classical myth "a small but highly selective neighborhood in Hell" has been set aside for cynics, Joseph Epstein goes on to say that "if superior talk is your idea of a good time, it's not really such a bad place to end up, this neighborhood. 'Heaven for climate,' as J.M. Barrie once wrote, 'Hell for company.'"

(Sherrill is a Florida-based author and social critic.)