"One of the
embarrassing problems for the early nineteenth century champions of
the Christian faith was that not one of the first six presidents of
the United States was an orthodox Christian." Thus the compiler
of this book quotes a famous educator and Christian philosopher (p.
11). Indeed, most of the book is a collection of quotations by
unbelievers on skepticism and doubt. It is clearly a labor of love
by a secular humanist and journalist to bring this information
together in a kind of reference book. For, so he tells us:
"Disbelief has always remained partly hidden, because it
entails risk. During eras when religion was supreme, nonconformists
lived in peril."(p. 12) From 399 BCE when the Athenians
condemned Socrates for not worshiping the national gods, til 1766
when the French executed the last person for being irreligious, most
men and women kept their doubts to themselves.
The volume is divided into 77 sections in
seven parts according to historical periods. The first part quotes
authors of classical antiquity and ends with Omar Khayyam
(1048-1131). There is nothing between then and the Renaissance. The
other parts are: The European Enlightenment and the American
Rationalists; the Nineteenth Century; and the Early and the Mid to
Late Twentieth Century. Many sections are devoted to individual
famous unbelievers. The names of most of these are familiar,
although some might not come immediately to mind as doubters,
William Shakespeare for instance, or Napoleon Bonaparte. As the
author puts it in his opening sentences: (p. 11)
Intelligent, educated people tend to doubt
the supernatural. 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--people usually called great. 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 this progress was impelled by men and women who didn’t
pray, didn’t kneel at altars, didn’t make pilgrimages,
didn’t recite creeds. Since disbelief remains a taboo topic,
this pattern is rarely mentioned. Churchmen generally contend
that great figures in history, such as America’s founders,
were conventional worshipers. That is not true.
Some of these thoughts
had repercussions and impacts. The philosopher John Locke
(1632-1704) had major influence on Thomas Jefferson. Here he is, for
instance, on separation of church and state: "However, that
some may not color their spirit of persecution and un-Christian
cruelty with a pretense of care of the public weal ... I esteem it
above all things necessary to distinguish exactly the business of
civil government from that of religion, and to settle the just
bounds that lie between the one and the other." (p. 47).
Here are some scientists of the
Enlightenment: "The religion of one seems madness unto
another." Thomas Browne (1605-1682). "When miracles are
admitted, every scientific explanation is out of the question."
Johannes Kepler (1571-1630). "Life is a purely physical
phenomenon." Jean Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829). "After
all, is our idea of God anything more than personified
incomprehensibility?" Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799).
This reference book belongs in the library
of every true secular humanist.
— Wolf Roder