by Tom Flynn
The following article is from the Secular
Humanist Bulletin, Volume 12, Number 4.
A Call For Preservation
While looking up a quote by Robert Green Ingersoll, the 19th-century agnostic orator, I
chanced on a passage that struck me with special power. Ingersoll proclaimed these words
in 1873, yet they might have been penned today:
"Although we live in what is called a free government, - and politically we are
free, - there is but little religious liberty in America. Society demands, either that you
belong to some church, or that you suppress your opinions. It is contended by many that
ours is a Christian government, founded upon the Bible, and that all who look upon that
book as false or foolish are destroying the foundation of our country. The truth is, our
government is not founded upon the rights of gods, but upon the rights of men."
("Individuality," Works of Ingersoll [Dresden Edition], Vol. I,
Humanists sometimes imagine that we have outgrown the rich freethought and atheist
literature of the nineteenth and early-to-middle twentieth centuries. Yet Ingersoll speaks
truths for whose acceptance contemporary secular humanists still fight.
"[T]he spirit of persecution still lingers in our laws. In many of the States,
only those who believe in the existence of some kind of God, are under the protection of
the law." (201-202)
An obsolete complaint? Hardly. From Roy Torcaso in the sixties to Herb Silverman in the
nineties, in our own era freethinkers still must litigate state by state, office by
office, to void statutes that declare atheists unfit for public trust. Only a decade ago
Texas jailed Robin Murray O'Hair for refusing to swear or affirm (affirmation, too, has
religious roots) in order to testify in court. Today a new campaign targets nonbelievers
as the Boy Scouts, everyone's favorite now-we're-private-now-we're-public organization,
purges atheists from its ranks.
Read what follows and try not to think of Pat Robertson:
"Last year, in a convention of Protestant bigots, held in the city of New York for
the purpose of creating public opinion in favor of a religious amendment to the Federal
Constitution, a revered doctor of divinity, speaking of atheists, said: 'What are the
rights of the atheist? I would tolerate him as I would tolerate a poor lunatic. I would
tolerate him as I would tolerate a conspirator. He may live and go free, hold his lands
and enjoy his home - he may even vote; but for any higher or more advanced citizenship, he
is, as I hold, utterly disqualified.' These are the sentiments of the church of
The issues that inflamed Ingersoll and his contemporaries may no longer stir passions
in western Europe. But in the U.S. disputes over Darwinism, immortality, discrimination
against nonbelievers, and the alleged dependence of moral values on divine pronouncement
remain current. It makes sense that the grand old freethought literature remains relevant.
Yet it is vanishing.
I remember the day in 1979 when I completed my transition from Catholic to atheist. I
lived in Milwaukee then. Giddy in the newfound confidence that lightning would not smite
me, I strode into the downtown Milwaukee public library and opened the card catalogue to atheism.
There were listed several books by Madalyn Murray O'Hair. Half a dozen Truth Seeker
titles from the thirties and forties. George H. Smith's ubiquitous Atheism: The Case
Against God. And a name I had not encountered before: Robert Green Ingersoll. An
entire Dresden Edition of Ingersoll's works was in the open stacks! I took down Volume I,
started reading "The Gods," and was electrified. My freethought odyssey was
underway. (If anyone had told me then that I would one day play a role in converting
Ingersoll's birthplace into a museum, I would have been too thunderstruck to reply.)
I mention this story because last week, I heard that an Ingersoll collector had
purchased the Milwaukee Public Library's Dresden Edition. Apparently it had been
de-accessioned (library jargon for "tossed in the street"). The path down which
I discovered freethought is closed; no other shall follow it.
Freethought classics have much to tell today's secular humanists. So does the rich
humanist literature of the post-World War II era. Some worry that it, too, is passing from
everyday consciousness on its way to being forgotten. Then there's the robust and
still-growing literature on such issues as the psychology of belief, the (largely
independent) sociobiological origins of morality and religion, and the role of brain
states in so-called religious and paranormal experiences. (If you haven't read John
Schumaker's The Corruption of Reality or Stewart Elliott Guthrie's Faces
in the Clouds, don't miss them.)
One institution targets all these literatures for preservation and study: the Center for Inquiry Libraries. Despite
the untimely demise of Gordon Stein, the Center for Inquiry's director of
libraries, our determination to build the world's finest humanist and freethought
collection continues unabated. (Parallel collections, focusing on American philosophical
naturalism and science and the paranormal, have similarly lofty but attainable ambitions.)
We are already entering our entire catalogue on OCLC, the world's largest interlibrary
database. Soon after that it will be directly accessible over the Internet.
If you possess - or know of - a freethought or humanist library, especially one whose
future seems uncertain, I know no better way to assure its preservation than to gift it to
the Center for Inquiry. Contact the Center in confidence at P.O. Box 664,
Amherst NY 14226 to explore a tax-deductible gift of books.
Many of the issues Ingersoll faced remain controversial today. Though the terms of our
confrontation with religion have changed little in more than a hundred years, it's
inspiring that freethinkers managed not to be bulldozed, and that we continue to project a
voice disproportionate to our numbers. In the Center for Inquiry
Libraries we have the means to insure that the literature in which that voice is expressed
will be preserved for future readers.
I'd also like to add a good word for a plucky historian who, against all odds,
continues to do original spadework in the history of freethought. Fred Whitehead of Kansas
City, Kansas has devoted hundreds of hours and far too much of his own money to studying
freethought history, nationally and regionally. (He's the co-author, with Center for Inquiry - Midwest
director Verle Muhrer, of the fascinating study Freethought on the American
Frontier.) Fred's journal, Freethought History, presents perspectives
on our heritage you won't find anywhere else. Incredibly, it's a measly $10 a year.
Subscribe at P.O. Box 5224, Kansas City, Kansas 66119.
What do you think? Write Advocatus Diaboli, P.O. Box 664, Amherst NY 14226-0664. If you
prefer, fax (716) 636-7571 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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