Reason Revolution founder Justin Clark gives a lecture on the Freethinker Society of Indianapolis at the Society for German American Studies Conference in Indianapolis, Indiana.

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 In the second article in our “Humanist Histories” series, we will unpack the life of Hoosier freethinker, W. H. LaMaster. His freethought newspaper, the Iconoclast, became a staple of Indianapolis thought through the 1880s, where he continued writing columns until his death in 1908. LaMaster advocated for religious skepticism, scientific advancement, and was a staunch anti-temperance proponent. LaMaster, alongside notable freethinkers like Ambrose Bierce, Clemens Vonnegut, and Robert Ingersoll, helps us understand the rich religious diversity in the Midwest during the late nineteenth century.

 

Listing of W. H. LaMaster and his family, 1850 Census. Ancestry Library.

William Hammon LaMaster was born on February 14, 1841 in Shelbyville, Indiana, to Benjamin and Elizabeth LaMaster. His early life is mostly unknown to us, but we do know that he lived for a time in Missouri on the family farm, according to the US Census. From there, LaMaster served for the Union army in the 89th Indiana Infantry and the 146th Indiana Infantry during the Civil War. After the war, he returned home to Shelbyville (and later Liberty), passed the bar exam, and began his law practice. As early as 1868, he was beginning to make a splash within Republican Party circles. As the Daily Ohio Statesman reported, LaMaster was a “rising young lawyer of that city [Shelbyville, Indiana], a gentleman and a scholar, and hitherto was the main hub in the Republican Party in that county. He was in the war, and bears honorable scars.” In 1868, he advertised his law practice in the Connersville Examiner, and described his credentials as “Attorney at Law, and Deputy Common Pleas Prosecutor. Will practice in the Courts of Union and Fayette Counties.”

Connersville Examiner, February 10, 1869. Newspaper Archive.

Also in 1868, LaMaster began writing a regular newspaper column for the Connersville Examiner called “Liberty Items.” In it he shared his thoughts on local happenings in Liberty Township, Union County, Indiana. In personal affairs, he married Harriet Reed on December 26, 1866, with the usual proceedings of a “Minister of Gospel,” as described on their marriage record. LaMaster’s iconoclastic views had not yet bubbled to the surface, at least with regards to his nuptials.

Terre Haute Weekly Gazette, May 1, 1879. Hoosier State Chronicles.

From here, LaMaster’s story is unclear until the late 1870s, when his religious skepticism was in full force. However, by May 1879, his public life as a freethinker emerged in a lecture entitled “The God of the Bible” that he delivered at Terre Haute’s Dowling Hall. The Terre Haute Weekly Gazette described, “From the way he states his subject something of an idea of his manner of treating it may be learned.” Unfortunately, research has yet to uncover the text of this lecture. An advertisement published in an 1884 issue of the Index suggests that it might have been akin to known-agnostic Robert Ingersoll’s critical lecture, Some Mistakes of Moses.

Index, October 2, 1884. Google Books.

Later that year, LaMaster published an investigative piece in the Indianapolis People critical of spiritualism and spirit mediums. LaMaster wrote:

Being a skeptic, so far as spiritualism is concerned in any form, whether manifested through ignorant mediums or otherwise, I must say that I saw nothing on my late experience among spirits in Terre Haute to convince me of the truth of modern spiritualism.

LaMaster’s expose criticized local mediums Anna Stewart, Laura Morgan, and the ever-popular Dr. Allen Pence, concluding rather jokingly that “in the future I shall try very hard to steer clear of the ‘loving and affectionate’ embraces, or even the touch, of such familiar creatures as ghosts.”

Indianapolis People, May 31, 1879. Newspaper Archive.

When LaMaster was not debunking spiritualism in Terre Haute, he was trying to debunk another popular notion during the period: temperance. The movement, which called for the curtailing or elimination of alcohol consumption, gained steam during the late nineteenth century. LaMaster viewed the ideology as he did most creeds—as an overzealous dogma used to control people’s lives. He did not parse words when he wrote in the Indianapolis People that the first temperance lecturer was the Devil, who “taught a very remote grandmother of ours the art of using, in a very temperate manner, a certain kind of ‘fruit,’ to her ‘mental’ advantage, before any wicked distiller ever thought of solving the difficult problem, how to convert its juice into intoxicating beverages.” Now, it is important to clarify LaMaster’s personal view; while he supported any individual or personal efforts to be temperate with drink, he was opposed to using laws to move people in that direction, a distinction the Indianapolis News made sure to print.

Indianapolis News, June 16, 1879. Hoosier State Chronicles.

In the summer of 1879, LaMaster gave an anti-temperance lecture at Indianapolis’s Grand Opera House, where he criticized the “intemperance of temperance orators and temperance people.” He gave another anti-temperance lecture in Lebanon, Indiana in November, where a correspondent to the Indianapolis Journal of Freedom and Right criticized LaMaster’s “shot gun principle” of oratory. The critic concluded, “I would advise him to quit lecturing as it is certainly not his fort [sic].” Nevertheless, LaMaster continued to criticize temperance reforms and reformers in the press, specifically his problems with the 1895 Nicholson Law, which “provided that all persons applying for a license had to specifically describe the room in which he, she or they desired to sell liquors along with the exact location of the same.” LaMaster believed the law was not “in the interest of temperance” but was rather “a measure to increase liquor drinking and drunkenness in our state.”

“What Agnosticism Is?,” in the Improvement Era, December, 1898. Google Books.

While temperance was one of LaMaster’s political hobby horses, his dedication to freethought and secularism was his main contribution to the growing diversity of Indiana’s religious thought during the late nineteenth century. In an 1898 article for the Improvement Era, “What Agnosticism Is?,” LaMaster outlined his own view regarding theological matters. He wrote:

Agnosticism as an applied theory or doctrine may therefore be said to be one which neither asserts nor denies the existence of the infinite, the absolute. Or, it may be defined as a “theory of the unknowable which assumes its most definite form in the denial of the possibility of any knowledge of God.” And so the agnostic may be said to be one who does not claim or profess to know of the existence of a supreme being called God.

Biologist Thomas Henry Huxley. Known as “Darwin’s Bulldog,” Huxley was a early champion of evolutionary theory and coined the term, “agnosticism.” Getty Images.

Regarding agnosticism, LaMaster’s view mirrored the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley (who coined the term) as well as the other titan of Midwestern freethought, Robert G. Ingersoll.  Conversely, LaMaster’s agnosticism under-girded his poor estimation of Christianity, which he believed rested on a shoddy foundation of “faith.” He declared:

To state the proposition more tersely we will say that while Christianity is willing to rest on “faith” alone in arriving at any one or more objective religious truths, agnosticism demands something more—it demands evidence of the highest character before accepting as very truth any kind of a religious belief or dogma. Hence we find Christianity standing for a bare and empty faith and agnosticism for the strongest and the most indisputable of testimony. And so it must be admitted that as between the Christian and the agnostic there is an impassable gulf.

For LaMaster, the use of reason, in conjunction with evidence, provided a person with the clearest picture of the world and their place within it.

Seymour Times, August 20, 1881. Newspaper Archive.

LaMaster promulgated his ideas in a newspaper he planned in the fall of 1881 and began publishing in 1882 called the Iconoclast. First published in Noblesville, LaMaster later moved printing operations to Indianapolis. As the Seymour Times reported, “Mr. LaMaster is a bold and fearless writer, [and] infidelity right in our own midst even in its most unsavory forms to the tastes of Christians may be expected to be advocated by him.” LaMaster published his own essays as well as works from the “world renowned orator and noble defender of free thought and mental liberty, Col. R. G. Ingersoll.” During his time in the capital city, LaMaster undertook his most enduring publishing effort, at least in regards to historical scholarship. He published a series of answers that Ingersoll had given to four Indianapolis clergy on matters concerning the historical accuracy of Jesus’s life, the beginnings of the universe, and pertinent moral questions. LaMaster subsequently printed Ingersoll’s Answers to Indianapolis Clergy as a pamphlet form in 1893. Another notable freethought newspaper, the Truth Seeker, reprinted the essays in 1896.

Ingersoll’s answers to Indianapolis Clergy, as published by W. H. LaMaster, 1893. Indiana State University.

In the introduction to the 1893 version, LaMaster further explained his worldview and the impetus for publishing Ingersoll’s answers. He wrote:

It is for the good and well-being of the whole people that a natural religion should take the place of a supernatural one. With the imaginary or idealistic, progressive thought can have nothing to do, since it is the real, and not the ideal, that men and women should crave to find. The world is in need of a religion of humanity—one of philosophy and good deeds—and not one of creeds.

A lithograph of Robert Ingersoll, Iconoclast, March 10, 1883. Indiana State Library.

The idea of a “religion of humanity” recalls the proto-humanistic philosophy of Auguste Comte, who argued for a natural religion based on altruistic impulses and mutual affection among individuals without the need for supernaturalism. LaMaster also published with these letters an essay that he likely prepared for the International Congress of Freethinkers in Chicago entitled, “The Genesis of Life.” In it, he argued for a naturalistic explanation for life on earth, noting that “whilst there may be no particular source of life in the universe, there is always to be found a general or universal one from which it may emanate and become an active, moving, and expressive energy in organic nature.”

Mind & Matter, April 22, 1882. IAPSOP.

His years publishing the Iconoclast were difficult, especially in a city like Indianapolis, where its community of freethought was “without organization,” according to the Index. “With the Iconoclast,” wrote B. F. Underwood in the same paper, “existence is yet a struggle, as it necessarily is with all young liberal journals.” Despite its success with Ingersoll’s Answers to Indianapolis Clergy, the Iconoclast ceased publication in 1886.

Over the next 20 years, LaMaster continued writing and publishing a variety of essays and pamphlets, both in journals and newspapers. In 1896, he published, “The Growth and Magnitude of the Sidereal Heavens,” in Popular Astronomy, where he speculated on the existence of extraterrestrial life. “Let us then, in our magnanimity,” declared LaMaster, “rise above the compass of our human selfishness and allow our minds to be inspired with the thought that there are other worlds than ours in the starry vaults of heaven, which are the abode of even more sentient beings than ourselves.” These ideas would be echoed nearly a century later by astronomer and science communicator Carl Sagan, in his television series, Cosmos.

“How Do We Think,” Improvement Era, June, 1898. Internet Archive.

In another piece, “How Do We Think?,” LaMaster speculates on the interaction of language and human minds, and whether language is necessary for human thought. LaMaster mused:

If it be true, then, that mind is one of the endowments of matter, even in its organized forms, and one of its functions is that of thinking, it cannot be denied that it will think independently of words actually spoken or disguised . . . . Words themselves presuppose some kind of thought; in fact, words are the natural and legitimate offspring of thought.

Again, LaMaster was extremely prescient about this point. The hypothesis that thought comes before language and that our brains are hard-wired for language has been buttressed by cognitive scientists like Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker. Despite his training as an attorney, it is evident that LaMaster was a man whose interest in ideas, particularly of the sciences, was well-rounded, especially for the nineteenth century.

Indianapolis News, February 26, 1895. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, he continued writing newspaper columns, including authoring pieces for the Indianapolis News. In one article from February 26, 1895, he wrote about the enduring legacy of American revolutionary and freethinker Thomas Paine. In one of his final columns, written for the August 16, 1907 issue of the Indianapolis Star, LaMaster shared his thoughts about the human soul:

The soul per se, unlike other forms of matter, can have neither growth nor decay. It having therefore its own eternal place and fixity in the universe, it can be neither born nor can it die. And whatever then may be its form or shape it possesses potential being, and one, too, of the highest order.

This nascent spiritualism should not be taken to mean that he had changed his mind. LaMaster believed that the “soul” was likely an emergent property of humanity’s natural place in the universe. In other words, he viewed the “soul” as a manifestation of our unique personality that only develops within our physical bodies. It doesn’t exist outside of us, but comes from within us.

Indianapolis News, July 31, 1908. Newspapers.com.

In 1906, he and his family moved to Westphalia, Knox County, Indiana, away from the hustle of Indianapolis, where he continued his intellectual pursuits until the end. LaMaster died on July 28, 1908, at the age of 67. In his obituary from the Indianapolis News, he was described as a “frequent contributor to the Indianapolis News and other Indianapolis newspapers,” and was a “vigorous writer.” In that last remark, they were certainly correct. In his lifetime, LaMaster had written for numerous newspapers, journals, and pamphlets on a wide-range of topics. His newspaper, the Iconoclast, helped cement a growing freethought community in Indianapolis. His speculations on science are still noteworthy today. In this regard, LaMaster was a classic, nineteenth century “polymath.” In his explorations and religious unorthodoxy, LaMaster contributed much to our understanding of freethought in the Midwest during the late nineteenth century.

W. H. LaMaster’s death certificate, 1908. Ancestry Library.

 

American humanism has always benefited from its trailblazers, the radicals whose revolutionary ideas moved the progress of freedom, equality, and justice forward. One almost without peer was Emma Goldman, the anarchist philosopher and public intellectual; her unique perspective on atheism constantly challenged the status quo. Goldman, a Lithuanian immigrant to the United States, toiled in the sweatshops of upstate New York before coming to political consciousness after the Haymarket Riot, a massacre that left countless dead and implicated labor activists as scapegoats for the violence. This event pushed her out of her first marriage and into New York City, where she met fellow-anarchist Alexander Berkman and fell in love. She used her new-found freedom to study the ideas of anarchism, socialism, and atheism, which influenced all of her later activism and writing.

Portrait of Emma Goldman, circa 1911

Portrait of Emma Goldman, circa 1911, Library of Congress.

Authorities followed Goldman her entire life. They attempted to charge her with involvement in the near-murder of Carnegie Steel manager Henry Frick, which had been carried out by Berkman as a response to the bloodshed at Homestead. While she was involved in the plot, she was never charged due to lack of evidence. In 1901, she was wrongly arrested for alleged involvement in the assassination of President William McKinley; but, like the case involving Frick, she was later released. In 1919, after speaking out against World War I, the government convicted her of violating the Alien and Sedition Acts and deported her from the United States. She lived in multiple countries during her exile before her death in 1940.

During her many years of activism, Goldman wrote for a variety of publications, including Mother Earth, a magazine she founded in 1906. Her writing championed free speech and expression, free love and open relationships, anarchism, the rights of labor, education, birth control, and criticisms of religion. This essay will explore Goldman’s ideas about atheism and how they fit into her larger ideological framework. As her writings will show, three core themes permeate Goldman’s work: strong advocacy for individual freedom, rejection of Christianity, and the defense of atheism. In all, Emma Goldman’s radical atheism was rooted in her love of humanity, and while the term didn’t exist then, that made her a deeply committed humanist.

The front cover of Mother Earth magazine, February 1916. This volume contains Goldman's essay, "The Philosophy of Atheism."

The front cover of Mother Earth magazine, February 1916. This volume contains Goldman’s essay, “The Philosophy of Atheism.” Google Books.

Women as “Victims of Morality”

In 1913, Goldman published a lecture entitled, “Victims of Morality,” where she argued that religious puritanism had, like a disease, infected the moral compass of America, with significant consequences manifesting particularly in the lives of women. “Through the medium of religion they have paralyzed the mind of the people, just as morality has enslaved the spirit. In other words, religion and morality are a much better whip to keep people in submission than even the club and the gun,” Goldman wrote.[1] She was speaking in reference to Anthony Comstock, the overzealous social reformer who used his position as special agent at the U.S. Post Office Department to enforce strict laws against the purported transfer of “obscene” literature via the mail. In fact, the “Comstock Act,” which prohibited the passage of obscene literature of the mails, is named after him.

Pamphlet, "Victims of Morality and The Failure of Christianity," 1913.

Pamphlet, “Victims of Morality and The Failure of Christianity,” 1913. Google Books.

Goldman believed that Comstock’s style of Victorian puritanism violated the rights of women. “It is Morality,” said Goldman, “which condemns woman to the position of a celibate, a prostitute, or a reckless, incessant breeder of hapless children.”[2] Now, why would she capitalize “morality?” Was she speaking in reference to a specific kind of morality? In the context of this article, her capital-M morality referred to “Property Morality,” her view that the capitalistic United States was beholden to property. “Woe to anyone that dares to question the sanctity of property, or sins against it,” she declared.[3] In this passage, we see Goldman’s critique of morality as part of a greater critique of capitalism itself. To her, capitalism and its slavish devotion to property created the conditions under which those who were oppressed by its machinations barely understood their own servitude. In this milieu, religion (specifically Christianity) and Victorian moralism served as a major contributor to false consciousness. In turn, Goldman estimated that “until the workers lose respect for the instrument of their material enslavement, they need hope for no relief.”

As indicated above, this condition wreaked havoc on the rights of women. For Goldman, the celibate is created by the morality of marriage, the prostitute is created by the morality of property and money, and the mother is created by the morality of socially-sanctioned reproduction. All these moralities amount to the same consequence: the lives of women were preordained by social roles, at the expense of their liberty and freedom. Goldman’s solution to this problem is for women to throw off the social bonds of “Morality” and embrace a moral individualism that is consummate with a person’s own desires and needs. “Woman is awakening, she is throwing off the nightmare of Morality; she will no longer be bound,” Goldman wrote, “Her love is sanction enough for her.”[4] She believed if people lived their lives without any regard for gratifying oppressive structures of the church and the state, they would live full lives of meaning and purpose.

Christianity and the Denial of Life

To further her critique of society’s “Morality,” she published another pamphlet lambasting its fundamental support structure: Christianity. In “The Failure of Christianity,” also published in 1913, Goldman saw herself as the rightful heir of such notable German iconoclasts as Friedrich Nietzsche and Max Stirner. Goldman declared that they “hurled blow upon blow against the portals of Christianity, because they saw in it a pernicious slave morality, the denial of life, and the destroyer of all the elements that make for strength and character.”[5] The concept of “slave morality,” as articulated by Nietzsche, understood Christianity as a system that reinforced moralities that enslaved by making humility, obedience, and charity virtues as opposed to the master moralities that prize pride, power, and nobility. Goldman agreed. As she wrote in a further passage, “I believe, with them, that Christianity is most admirably adapted to the training of slaves, to the perpetuation of a slave society; in short, to the very conditions confronting us today.”[6] Christianity, in Goldman’s eyes, ripped away our human potential by stripping us of our strength, courage, and agency.

Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche, circa 1910-1915. His notion of "Master and Slave Moralities" influenced Goldman's view of Christianity.

Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche, circa 1910-1915. His notion of “Master and Slave Moralities” influenced Goldman’s view of Christianity. Library of Congress.

She’s also not forgiving to Christ as a teacher; she saw his religion as “the embodiment of submission, of inertia, of the denial of life; hence responsible for the things done in their name.” Now, she differentiated the concept of “Jesus Christ” into three distinct categories: the theological, the ethical, and the poetic. The theological Christ is the one presented by the Bible, a divine-human figure, with all the miracles and supernaturalism. The ethical Christ, like the one depicted in the Jefferson Bible, is stripped of supernaturalism and miracles to focus on his ethical teachings. Finally, the poetical Christ focuses on the story of Christ as a metaphor for life, a story that helps a person understand their place in the world. In her view, the theological Christ was refuted long ago, by such luminaries as Thomas Paine, Ernest Renan, Richard Strauss, and Ferdinand Christian Baur (she spells as Bauer). Her main contention, which she saw as more important to the culture of her time, was the influence of the ethical and poetic Christs: “the ethical and poetic Christ-myth” Goldman argued, “has so thoroughly saturated our lives, that even some of the most advanced minds make it difficult to emancipate themselves from its yoke.”[7]

Goldman’s frustration was less with the fundamentalists of Christianity (who would be refuted over time by scientific and theological inquiry) but the liberal wing, whose dedication to the myth led to widespread ethical contradictions. They couldn’t see how the metaphor of life the poetical Christ represented had made them slaves to social and political ideologies requiring subservience and intellectual sacrifice. For instance, Christians who decried slavery lacked self-awareness of their own religion, for while it taught them ethical responsibility, it also taught them “slavish acquiescence in the will of others” and encouraged “the complete disregard of character and self-reliance, and [was] therefore destructive of liberty and well-being.”[8] Thus, well-meaning Christians actually propelled and sustained the slave trade for centuries, despite the ethical call to “love thy neighbor.” In order for a society to truly achieve progress, it must reject Christianity, in any form. It is a religion which prizes the allure of heaven over the concerns of the here and now. It teaches that to be “poor in spirit” is to be virtuous, that those who toil on this earth need not bothered with their current status or the political state of the world in which they find themselves. The rich will suffer in hell while the poor live in heaven. And most of all, it reinforces subjugation as a virtue.

This is Goldman’s central problem with Christianity; like “Morality’s” assault on women’s rights, Christianity’s insistence on meekness becomes “the whip, which capitalism and governments have used to force man into dependency, into his slave position.”[9] Furthermore, Goldman observed, “Righteousness grows out of liberty, of social and economic opportunity, and equality. But how can the meek, the poor in spirit, ever establish such a state of affairs?” In order for society to truly promote and preserve individual rights, freedom, and equality, the institutions of social cohesion (the state, market capitalism, organized Christianity) must crumble before the working classes.

Goldman’s Audacious Atheism

Alongside her continued appraisals of religion, Emma Goldman also articulated an alternative in the February, 1916, issue of her magazine, Mother Earth. Called “The Philosophy of Atheism,” this short essay has become her best-known writing on the subject (and was recently included in Christopher Hitchens’s edited omnibus, The Portable Atheist). It’s fairly surprising how prescient she was in this essay, laying out ideas that have become common themes in our modern discourse on atheism. For example, she writes early in the piece that “the God idea is growing more impersonal and nebulous in proportion as the human mind is learning to understand natural phenomena and in the degree that science progressively correlates human and social events.”[10]

Emma Goldman, "The Philosophy of Atheism," Mother Earth Magazine, February, 1916.

Emma Goldman, “The Philosophy of Atheism,” Mother Earth Magazine, February, 1916. Google Books.

Today, this critique is heavily used against the “God of the Gaps” style arguments for theism, which use current gaps in knowledge to posit the existence of God. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson echoed Goldman when he said that “God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance that’s getting smaller and smaller and smaller as time moves on – so just be ready for that to happen, if that’s how you want to come at the problem.”[11] While their views are separated by nearly a century, it’s remarkable how parallel they are; this reinforces my view that American freethought goes back much farther than we often think.

Another clear influence on her own atheism was the anarchist philosopher Mikhail Bakunin, whose own work God and the State she quotes at length in “The Philosophy of Atheism.” Bakunin argued that gods were the product of “the prejudiced fancy of men who had not attained the full development and full possession of their faculties,” which led to the “abdication of human reason and justice” and “necessarily ends in the enslavement of mankind, both in theory and in practice.”[12] If this sounds familiar to you, it should, because Goldman also viewed religion as slavery and wrote about it at length in the aforementioned “Failure of Christianity.” In accepting Bakunin’s thesis, Goldman declared that “In proportion as man learns to realize himself and mold his own destiny theism becomes superfluous. How far man will be able to find his relation to his fellows will depend entirely upon how much he can outgrow his dependence upon God.”[13]

Mikhail Bakunin, photographed by Felix Nadar. His book, "God and the State," heavily influenced Goldman's views on atheism.

Mikhail Bakunin, photographed by Felix Nadar. His book, “God and the State,” heavily influenced Goldman’s views on atheism. New York Public Library Digital Collections.

One more instance in which she presaged another well-known intellectual was with her critique of what she called “theistic tolerance.” Goldman noted that as religious belief wanes in the public square, denominations of all stripes will “combine variegated religious philosophies and conflicting theistic theories into one denominational trust” in a “frantic effort to establish a common ground to rescue the modern mass from the ‘pernicious’ influence of atheistic ideas.” Therefore, “It is characteristic of theistic ‘tolerance’ that no one really cares what the people believe in, just so they believe or pretend to believe.”[14] With this analysis, she anticipated the philosopher Daniel Dennett’s concept of “Belief in Belief,” from his 2006 work, Breaking the Spell. In the chapter of the same name, Dennett argues that many view the belief in a god or gods as essentially valuable to society, regardless of whether or not the god(s) exist or religious doctrines are empirically true. Like Goldman (and me), Dennett is firmly convinced that as societies forge evermore robust secular systems of justice and social harmony there will no longer be any need for this “belief in belief.”[15] Now, Dennett wouldn’t go along with Goldman’s anarchism, but would definitely sign on to her diagnosis. This make her a pretty damn good prognosticator of some of mainstream atheism’s most prevalent ideas.

After clearing away religions under the lash of her pen, Goldman spends the rest of this essay articulating her view of atheism. She begins with an excellent definition:

The philosophy of Atheism represents a concept of life without any metaphysical Beyond or Divine Regulator. It is the concept of an actual, real world with its liberating, expanding and beautifying possibilities, as against an unreal world, which, with its spirits, oracles, and mean contentment has kept humanity in helpless degradation.[16]

Her definition reaffirms her commitment to the real world, not the promise of heaven or the fear of hell. In fact, she even says as much in a further passage:

The philosophy of Atheism has its roots in the earth in this life . . . . Man must break his fetters which have chained him to the gates of heaven and hell, so that he can begin to fashion out of his reawakened and illumined consciousness a new world upon earth.

Atheism allows a person to fully embrace their humanity for the betterment of themselves and the world they live in. When one is dedicated to processes of self and scientific discovery, religious notions can be easily pushed aside.

Atheism’s Moral Affirmation of Humanity

Finally, Goldman turns to moral questions. One of the oldest and most-common questions unbelievers get is, “How can you be good without God?” First, she dismisses the idea of Christian morality outright, as it “has always been a vile product, imbued partly with self righteousness, partly with hypocrisy.”[17] Goldman never thought much of the traditionally Christian notions of fixed moral states set by a god; they don’t reflect what morality is really all about, which is creating a framework of human interaction based on shared norms of freedom, flourishing, and facts. In all times, she declared, the freethinkers were the ones who fought for these principles:

They knew that justice, truth, and fidelity are not conditioned in heaven, but that they are related to and interwoven with the tremendous changes going on in the social and material life of the human race; not fixed and eternal, but fluctuating, even as life itself.[18]

This could be interpreted as moral relativism, but that wasn’t Goldman’s intent. She actually believed in some moral universals such as freedom, choice, and empathy. She just couldn’t stomach a morality disconnected from real-world human needs that precidated its universals on unknowable gods and their indecipherable whims.

Atheism gives humanity agency in a way that theism doesn’t; it compels us to show up for the tasks of life, to make the hard choices, to benefit from our successes, and to learn from our failures. In a sense, it allows us to be fully human. As she writes at the end of her essay, “Atheism in its negation of gods is at the same time the strongest affirmation of man, and through man, the eternal yea to life, purpose, and beauty.”[19]

Nevertheless, it is a radical position: atheism is the eternal “Yes” to humankind.[20] Paradoxically, we try to make our view more palatable by obscuring it, as when we tell an acquaintance that we’re “not religious” instead of explicitly atheist. While this position is rightly applied to those who don’t fully grasp our intentions, it is far better to foist our wares on the counter in the slim hope that some passerby might delight in our goods. This is exactly what Emma Goldman did with her writings on atheism. Raw, rancorous, and always controversial, Goldman’s iconoclasm reads nearly as modern as anything by O’Hair or Hitchens. It’s this boldness—a desire to own one’s radicalism—that electrifies her writing. This disregard for pleasant spectacle in the service of radical truth reaffirms Goldman’s rightful place in the pantheon of American humanism.

Emma Goldman, likely before her deportation from the United States, 1919.

Emma Goldman, likely before her deportation from the United States, 1919. Library of Congress.


[1] Emma Goldman, Victims of Morality and the Failure of Christianity (New York: Mother Earth Publishing Association, 1913), 2, Google Books.

[2] Ibid., 3.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 6.

[5] Ibid., 7.

[6] Ibid., 8.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 9.

[9] Ibid., 11.

[10] Emma Goldman, “The Philosophy of Atheism,” Mother Nature Vol. 10, No. 12 (February, 1916): 410, accessed June 27, 2017, Google Books.

[11] The Science Network, The Moon, the Tides and why Neil DeGrasse Tyson is Colbert’s God, Interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson, directed by Roger Bingham (2011, The Science Network), Online Video.

[12] Mikhail Bakunin, in Goldman, “The Philosophy of Atheism,” 410.

[13] Goldman, “The Philosophy of Atheism,” 410.

[14] Ibid., 412.

[15] Daniel Dennett, “The Folly of Pretense,” The Guardian, July 16, 2009, accessed March 15, 2018, Guardian Online.

[16] Ibid., 414.

[17] Ibid., 415.

[18] Ibid., 415.

[19] Ibid., 416.

[20] By contrast, Karl Barth, one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century, declared in 1918 that God speaks an eternal “No!” to man. https://postbarthian.com/2017/11/21/wrath-god-karl-barth-said-name-god-know-not-say/