How Small Our Wants

Tom Flynn

If it seems that I’ve been living in the past lately, maybe there’s good reason. I recently spent two years collaborating with filmmaker/historian Roderick Bradford on American Freethought, the Council for Secular Humanism’s new four-part video series. American Freethought explores the history of unbelief in religion American-style from Thomas Paine until the 1930s, when the Golden Age of Freethought flickered out. While serving as executive producer of the series (and as one of its on-screen experts), I reacquainted myself with one of the Golden Age’s most durable manifestos. Let’s look back at The Nine Demands of Liberalism and reflect on the differences between what freethinkers wanted circa 1870 and what many in our movement want today. You might be surprised to see, in some cases, how small our wants have become.

What Was The Nine Demands of Liberalism?

In 1870, the Golden Age of Freethought had begun. Nonreligious Americans went by many names—“atheist,” “infidel,” and “freethinker,” to name a few. Another widely favored label was “liberal,” not so much in the sense of being left-of-center politically as of being radically open-minded in evaluating religious truth-claims. In 1870, Octavius Frothingham and Francis Abbot founded a weekly freethought paper, The Index. Today, we might call Frothingham and Abbot “religious Humanists.” Although they dedicated The Index to the cause of “free religion,” it quickly grew into a general freethought newspaper, subordinate in importance only to The Truth Seeker and The Boston Investigator. In particular, it played a leading role in catalyzing opposition to a then-powerful effort by Christian conservatives to amend the U.S. Constitution to proclaim Jesus Christ “the Lord of America.” (Compared to that, “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance is mild stuff.)

In 1873, Frothingham and Abbot authored a proposed “mission statement” for the growing freethought community. Published in The Index as “The Nine Demands of Liberalism.” it was enthusiastically embraced throughout the movement. How enthusiastically? When a broad cross-section of freethinkers launched a new national organization on the occasion of the national centennial in 1876, they called it the “National Liberal League” and adopted the three-year-old Nine Demands as its own declaration. (The League—known after 1885 as the American Secular Union—was until the early twentieth century the nation’s most influential freethought organization.)

Other freethought organizers and publishers, too, endorsed The Nine Demands as a movement-wide manifesto. Superstar agnostic orator Robert Green Ingersoll once resigned the vice presidency of the American Secular Union, pledging to return only if the organization rededicated itself to advocating The Nine Demands and them alone, unembroidered by side concerns. Individual freethinkers frequently framed The Nine Demands and displayed it on the walls of their homes until around the time of World War II. For some seventy years, then, The Nine Demands summed up nonreligious Americans’ secularizing agenda.

With that in mind, it’s instructive to read The Nine Demands afresh and reflect on what is different today—and what is little changed. Of the nine, just two demands have arguably been met. Two have been partially met. On two more the situation is ambiguous. One demand unquestionably has not been met, while in two cases the contemporary situation is actively deteriorating.

Overall, I come away from this exercise wistful. The freethinkers of 1873 hoped for far more—more reform, more radical change, a more thoroughgoing disempowerment of religion—than many in the movement dare to seek today. Alongside the bold demands of Frothingham and Abbot, some of our current wants indeed seem small. Does that mean that the movement is maturing—that contemporary freethinkers have learned by experience? Or does it signify instead that we have lost vigor and focus—that we have been worn down by too many decades of swimming against the current?

I look forward to your comments. And now we present The Nine Demands of Liberalism, each followed by a comment from the world of 2014.

The Nine Demands of Liberalism

1. We demand that churches and other ecclesiastical property shall be no longer exempt from taxation.

Not met. Religious properties remain defiantly exempt from taxes. By one estimate, tax preferments benefiting religious organizations cost the rest of us $71 billion per year. (Some have suggested the toll is even higher.) See Ryan Cragun, Stephanie Yeager, and Desmond Vega, “How Secular Humanists (and Everyone Else) Subsidize Religion in the United States,” FREE INQUIRY, June/July 2012.

2. We demand that the employment of chaplains in Congress, and in the legislatures, in the navy and militia, and in prisons, asylums, and all other institutions supported by the public money, shall be discontinued.

Not met, and (at least from Froth­ingham and Abbot’s point of view) the situation is deteriorating. Several unfortunate twentieth-century court decisions extinguished any near-term hope of abolishing legislative chaplaincy on church-state grounds. Meanwhile, on the strength of activism to create a role for humanist chaplains in the U.S. military, opposition to military chaplaincy among freethinkers seems to be eroding precipitously. In the American Secular Census, an ongoing Internet survey of nonreligious Americans, 67.2 percent of respondents said that religious and secular chaplains should serve the armed forces side-by-side. Only 18.1 percent stood with Frothingham and Abbot (and, for that matter, with me) foursquare against any chaplains in the military. See the April/May 2013 FREE INQUIRY cover feature, “Army of God: America’s Armed Forces vs. Their Nontheists” and also my “Humanist Chaplains in the Military: A Bridge Too Close?” FREE INQUIRY, October/November 2011.

3. We demand that all public appropriations for educational and charitable institutions of a sectarian character shall cease.

Not met, and from almost any secularist point of view the situation is deteriorating. Witness the continuing agitation for school vouchers around the nation, as well as the nonpreferentialist approach toward church-state matters adopted by both the George W. Bush and Obama White Houses, especially their broad efforts to increase government funding of, and reliance upon, faith-based social service providers.

4. We demand that all religious services now sustained by the government shall be abolished; and especially that the use of the Bible in the public schools, whether ostensibly as a textbook or avowedly as a book of religious worship, shall be prohibited.

Partly met. The U.S. Supreme Court decisions of 1962 and 1963 on school prayer and Bible reading revolutionized the way public schools accommodated students of minority religions and of none. See my “Celebrating Fifty Years of Separation,” FREE INQUIRY August/September 2013. Even the situation pre-1962 was greatly improved from conditions in the nineteenth century when many schools overtly used the Bible as a textbook. Still, some “religious services . . . sustained by the government” remain. Thanksgiving and Christmas remain federal holidays; there’s that pesky National Day of Prayer; traumatic national events seem increasingly likely to resu
lt in “interfaith” religious events overtly presided over by public officials. (If something like the events of September 11, 2001, had happened while John F. Kennedy was president, I think he would have known better than to take part as president in an interfaith service at the National Cathedral.)

5. We demand that the appointment, by the president of the United States or by the governors of the various states, of all the religious festivals and fasts shall wholly cease.

Ambiguous. Presidents no longer proclaim Thanksgiving Day (most early ones did, and when James Madison refused to do so on church-state grounds, it was very controversial), but that’s mostly because this day reserved for thanking a nonexistent deity for America’s bounty now recurs automatically. But presidents still proclaim the National Day of Prayer (there it is again). Especially in the South, governors are still wont to ask the people to pray for rain—or an end to rain, depending what the weather is up to.

6. We demand that the judicial oath in the courts and in all other departments of the government shall be abolished and that a simple affirmation under the pains and penalties of perjury shall be established in its stead.

Partly met. While judicial oaths still persist, the option to affirm rather than swear is almost universally available. Perhaps even more important, the choice by a defendant, plaintiff, witness, or juror to affirm rather than swear in a judicial proceeding almost never carries stigma any longer.

7. We demand that all laws directly or indirectly enforcing the observance of Sunday as the Sabbath shall be repealed.

Met. Few so-called “blue laws” remain in effect. In most parts of the country, business and cultural institutions are free to open their doors on Sunday and operate substantially as they would on any other day. Scattered restrictions on, say, Sunday-morning liquor sales remain, but religious justifications are almost never put forward in their defense.

8. We demand that all laws looking to the enforcement of “Christian” morality shall be abrogated and that all laws shall be conformed to the requirements of natural morality, equal rights, and impartial liberty.

Met. From Griswold v. Connecticut to the aforementioned decline of blue laws, laws seeking overtly or implicitly to enforce Christian morality are (for now, anyway) things of the past.

9. We demand that not only in the Constitution of the United States and of several states but also in the practical administration of the same that no privileges or advantage shall be conceded to Christianity or any other special religion; that our entire political system shall be founded and administered on a purely secular basis; and that whatever changes shall prove necessary to this end shall be consistently, unflinchingly, and promptly made.

Ambiguous. While overt privileging of Christianity is far weaker than it was in 1873, and while some public officials give lip service to the rights of atheists in ways unimaginable before the turn of the twenty-first century—and while the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the law must not prefer Christianity over other faiths or religion in general over nonreligion—in fact instances of sharp preference toward Christianity or toward religion in general remain numerous. We have a long way to go on this one.


Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).

Let’s look back at The Nine Demands of Liberalism and reflect on the differences between what freethinkers wanted circa 1870 and what many in our movement want today.

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