One topic that heats up debate involves a family of concepts like “liberal” or moderate religious communities and what interactions non-theists might have with them. Are moderate religions as bad as fundamentalist varieties? It’s not exactly a new topic but perspectives may change with the times especially as they involve strategic and tactical action. I thought it interesting to provide some snapshots on circumstances that humanists have faced in the US over time. This is just a smattering, but part of the story.
Early fundamentalist American colonizers like the Puritans were neither liberal, not easy to converse with, or moderate. They were not admirers of intellectual enlightenment. John Cotton, wrote 1642:
"The more learned and witty you bee, the more fit to act for Satan will you bee".
Over 50 years late the rigid, faith-guided atmosphere in Boston drove out a young, pragmatic and freethinking Ben Franklin to the more tolerant climes of more tolerant Quaker in PA (not that he was wholly enamored with them). There he developed a more humanist view of an ethical society and built institutions to support this vision. He founded the very secular Philadelphia library & in 1744 set up the very intellectual American Philosophical Society. Franklin finding few minds to stimulate his thought found a way to spark more reflective thinking in others. His letters show engagement with all sorts of believers, but in an enlightened way that suggests he had a Franklin Bible in mind that twined Jefferson's later version.
While intellectualism grew in the East with the help of a variety of Susan Jacoby's freethinkers. an anti-intellectual atmosphere was spreading on the early 19th century frontier. Baynard R. Hall, wrote in 1843 about his Indiana neighbors:
"We always preferred an ignorant bad man to a talented one, and hence attempts were usually made to ruin the moral character of a smart candidate; since unhappily smartness and wickedness were supposed to be generally coupled, and incompetence and goodness."
The civil war and a reaction to the Gilded Age's plutocracy and poor social conditions came under harsh attack from what would later bloom as the Social Gospel movement. These preachers implicitly allied with reformers in the Progressive Era. Should we not give some respect to the Social Gospel movement? I like it better than the Gospel of Wealth....Mark Twain, for example, engaged issues of Christianity and the Social Gospel, as documented in Mark Twain and the Spiritual Crisis of His Age.
While Twain's writing and large progressive movements changed things a bit around the turn of the century, Robert Ingersoll, a leading figure in the Free Thought movement writing in1896, could still say of the religious fundamentalism:
“I heard hundreds of these evangelical sermons—heard hundreds of the most fearful and vivid descriptions of the tortures inflicted in hell, of the horrible state of the lost. I supposed that what I heard was true and yet I did not believe it. I said: ‘It is,’ and then I thought: ‘It cannot be.’”.
I would add that Ingersoll's genius and the times of a Social Gospel allowed him to be one time the most popular speaker on the U.S. speaking circuit at that time. According to Rachel Ozanne in ‘Heretics’ or ‘Atheists’? A Response Ingersoll was:
“ well known for being a loving family man and an ethical leader in his community—as a public unbeliever. Though he criticized Christianity and religion in general, he did so from a place of sincere engagement with its ideas. And while he was a self-styled agnostic rather than an atheist, his positive leadership is something all of us doubters and unbelievers could aspire to.”
There was a progressive spirit in the air riding on the recent experience of combating right-wing fanaticism. There was the often delayed hope of a more modern, progressive & democratic world - one that would be free, tolerant & open to inquiry. Secular leaders after World War II included the likes of Corliss Lamont and Paul Kurtz, with a broad vision of an enlightened society where people peacefully and cooperatively manage group differences.
But this vision hardened to a defensive Cold War mentality. For the US the adversary was an expansive, atheist communism. Richard Hofstadter writing about Anti-Intellectualism in American Life could look back in 1963 on these roots finding fertile ground to grow in Joseph McCarthy's 1950s. To an intellectual like Hofstadter (who saw a The Paranoid Style in American Politics) post war intellectuals like Dean Acheson were disdain as academic "eggheads." As to learning from them ceremonial president of Columbia university Dwight Eisenhower (or his speech writer) spoke disdainfully of them 1954 - an intellectual is "a man who takes more words than are necessary to tell more than he knows.” Not exactly an opening for deep conversations.
To a disappointing degree this cold war climate has continued. The rise of militant, fundamentalist efforts, such the Moral Majority, which was at the height of their power in the 80s and 90s, often embed themselves in a primitive nationalism. This mixture makes it hard to attack and encourages defensive posture by non-believers. Paul Kurtz writing back when new, modern American fundamentalism used it growing power to massively assaults humanism, noted that it was also an attack on the humanities and modernism itself:
“They are opposed to modern science and the scientific revolution of our day. They are opposed to modern literature — everyone from Shakespeare to writers as diverse as Kurt Vonnegut, D. H. Lawrence, and Vladimir Nabokov. ...The fundamentalists are attacking modern education, including science, literature, the arts and philosophy. We must grant that the curriculum of modern education expresses secular values. But that is the nature of the modern world; it is not secular humanism per se that is at the root of all evil, as fundamentalists define it.”
These are still modern things under attack and which we still might reach out to others including the Social Gospel style Christians that Michael Ruse was talking about in his July 27, 2012 article: Should Atheists Reach Out to Christians?
The article was linked to in previous blogs on New Atheist but it is interesting to actually read what he said in that article.
“I live in a country – a country of which a couple of years ago Lizzie and I voluntarily and with joy became citizens – where at least half of the people are genuine, believing, practicing Christians – and with others sympathetic or as committed to other faiths like Judaism. My neighbors go to church on Sundays and believe that Jesus died for their salvation. So did the teachers of my kids and many of the folk that we interact with every day. Lizzie’s closest friend is the youth coordinator at First Presbyterian and I am co-teaching a course this fall with one of my good friends, an ordained Presbyterian minister.
I don’t believe what they believe and they know that and most of them respect it. Nevertheless we want to get along as neighbors and as parents and as teachers and as friends. I don’t want – they don’t want – differences to lead to hatred and suspicion and working against rather than with.
The great tragedy in America today is that we do have these uncompromising differences. Look at politics and at the damage that the Tea Party has done, not only to the country but to its own party. There is massive unemployment. Economists know full well what needs to be done. Remember the New Deal? But we are paralyzed because of the ideological rigidity of people in power.
A smart way of finding allies on some shared values that is perhaps not so different from what Kurtz was talking about earlier in defending humanism against its Fundamentalist critics, where he could find some agreement about the problems to be dealt with. We need to find the signal of commonality that can stand out from even the most extreme noise of radical positions.
As Kurtz said earlier “we cannot simply reject the Moral Majority and say that nothing they claim is meaningful.” What they and their latest incarnations say speaks to problems that confront people. It is there approaches to problems and with the way they reason that we disagree with. It is important to take on these errors, but in ways that others besides us (freethinkers etc.) and them (fundamentalists) understand.