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Advocatus Diaboli

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, 198-199)

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 to-day." (203)

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 tflynn@centerforinquiry.net. Letters will be printed with attribution unless you request otherwise.

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This page was last updated 12/04/2003

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