From Darwin’s Bulldog to England’s Sage: The Saga of Thomas H. Huxley
When talking about the meaning of modernity, there is a tendency to focus on the interplay between the products of the modern age and the psychological conditions those products give rise to: factories and nervous exhaustion, atomic bombs and existential anxiety, eight dozen different kinds of cereal and world-weary ennui. These products are all very …
Excerpt: “Agnosticism” Thomas Huxley
From The Nineteenth Century, No. CXLIV, February 1889. pp. 181–192. Looking back nearly fifty years, I see myself as a boy, whose education had been interrupted, and who, intellectually, was left, for some years, altogether to his own devices. At that time, I was a voracious and omnivorous reader; a dreamer and speculator of …
Philip Freneau, America’s First Atheist Poet
Although mostly ignored in anthologies of American literature, Philip Freneau is still recognized as “The Poet of the American Revolution.” During the War of Independence, he was unyielding in his criticism of the British and in his praise for the colonists’ patriotism, bravery, and sacrifices. In his poem about the Battle of Eutaw Springs, Freneau …
Hot and Wild Sufficiency: Epicurus, the Mehness of Death, and the Pleasures of Enough
A hunk of cheese. A glass of watered-down wine. The company of a good friend. That, according to the most influential philosopher of the Hellenistic Age, is pretty much the summit of human happiness. Epicurus of Samos (341 bce–270 bce) inherited an Athens that had been broken by the Macedonian might of Alexander the Great …
The Sweet Tyranny of Other People: Virginia Woolf, Bloomsbury, and the World Beyond Belief
Bloomsbury. A century ago that word stood for everything loathsome to the dying Victorian Age. Homosexuality and impiety, infidelity and socialism, all were embraced at one time or another by the roughly dozen figures of the Bloomsbury Group while even the most freethinking of their Imperial elders scratched their heads, wondering what their small acts …
Virginia Woolf Excerpt
From Mrs. Dalloway. (Harcourt Brace and World, Inc., 1953 Paperback edition), pp. 186–192. Yes, Miss Kilman stood on the landing, and wore a mackintosh; but had her reasons. First, it was cheap; second, she was over forty; and did not, after all, dress to please. She was poor, moreover; degradingly poor. Otherwise she would not …
Humanism’s Future Circumstances: The Godless Galaxyscapes of Iain M. Banks
So, what does a purely humanist civilization look like? What do people do and need, when it is taken as given that life is material and beyond it lies nothing?” For decades, the best we could do in answering this question as to the lived-in feel of a prospective humanist society was to point toward …
Excerpt from “Piece,” in State of the Art
It was … 1975, I think; have to check my diaries to be sure. I’d finished at Uni that spring and gone off hitchhiking through Europe over the summer. Paris, Bergen, Berlin, Venice, Rabat and Madrid defined the limits of the whirlwind tour. Three months later I was on my way home, and after staying …
Voices from the Past: Recalling ‘the Good, the Beautiful, and the True’
I have always been struck by the way people go through life oblivious to past struggles to understand life, ignorant of the intellectual tools and creative efforts by which distant or past cultures have benefited. As Bertrand Russell wrote in his 1937 essay “On Being Modern-Minded”: We imagine ourselves at the apex of intelligence, and …
Optimism from the Ashes: The Galactic Humanism of Isaac Asimov
Asimov dared to ask how humanity would be saved from enervation brought on by its own success.
Religion and Science Fiction
Asimov considers science fiction’s obligation toward religious sensitivities.
What God Didn’t and Kant Couldn’t: Richard Rorty and the World after Philosophy
From Plato to Kant to Russell, philosophy has been in the business of describing the mind in a way unavailable to the lesser disciplines.
Private Irony and Liberal Hope
The social glue holding together the ideal liberal society . . . consists in little more than a consensus that the point of social organization is to let everybody have a chance at self-creation to the best of his or her abilities, and that that goal requires, besides peace and wealth, the standard “bourgeois freedoms.”
The Wickedest Man in San Francisco: Ambrose Bierce and Cynicism’s Battling Prime
Ambrose Bierce, the compleat cynic whose insights sear even as they sparkle.
The Devil’s Dictionary
“Pray, v. To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.”
Determinism in the Courtroom: The Other Legacy of Clarence Darrow
“Darrow’s approach remained the same: a full and frank determinism with a boundless empathy t its core.”
“People talk of criminals as though they were utterly different from ‘good’ people.”
Coming Together: How Baron d’Holbach Made Atheism a Movement
“For pure, unadulterated, We-Are-Atheists-Hear-Us-Roar unity and pride, there was one beginning and one place to be: Thursday evenings at Baron d’Holbach’s joint.”
Selections from Le Bon Sens (Good Sense)
In every way the reality of man negates the goodness of God.
Normalizing Blasphemy: Robert Ingersoll and Freethought’s Great Awakening
Above all Robert Ingersoll demonstrated that an exuberant, joyful life without religion was possible.
Some Mistakes of Moses
“Theologians have filled thousands of volumes with abuse of this serpent, but it seems that he told the exact truth.”
The People’s Deist: Thomas Paine
“Paine would suffer for this book, but then he had suffered for every book he had ever written.”
The Age of Reason, Part II
“Take away from Genesis the belief that Moses was the author . . . and there remains nothing of Genesis but an anonymous book of stories, fables, and traditionary or invented absurdities, or of downright lies.”
H.L. Mencken: Scourge of the Booboisie
“He was a cultural commentator who helped usher in a new era of American thought, and then he arbitrarily dug in his heels against any further progress nce he saw his gals achieved.”
Walter Kaufmann: The Man Who Saved Heresy
Walter Kaufmann saved skepticism, almost singlehandedly, from McCarthyite repression and Eisenhoweresque torpor.
Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar unlocked the secrets of dwarf stars and black holes, but never needed the belief in God.
A Century of Main Street: The Freethinking Legacy of Sinclair Lewis
It would be a mistake to consider the works of Sinclair Lewis irrelevant to modern times and freethought’s role.
Lorraine Hansberry: Writing in the Light of Reason
Lorraine Hansberry’s drama stressed both the humanity of humanism and the need for critical thinking.
Critias of Athens
Critias? In the Great Minds series? Have we run out of really great minds already? Who was this guy Critias anyway? (And how do you pronounce his name?) The last question is the easiest to answer. There are two choices in pronounciation: to Americanize or to pseudo-Hellenize. The Americanized form, used even by professional classicists, …
Ashley Montagu: A Commentator on Nearly Everything Human
The resonant voice of Ashley Montagu (1905–1999), London-born anthropologist, social biologist, and anatomist, rang throughout the twentieth century. He was an often controversial, highly influential scientist, humanist, and witness-participant in the world around him. Named Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association in 1995, Montagu sought to demystify the social sciences. His life’s …
Huckleberry Finn, American Secularist
More than one hundred years have passed since the death of one of America’s finest wits, Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain). His characters still live on in the national imagination. They are stark images, as rough and ready as the everyman, and they shine light on the nature of what it means to be American. …
An Epicurean Alternative to Religion
Philosophy and science were invented in ancient Greece by people uncorrupted by the monotheism that has shaped our culture. With the exception of Plato, Greeks tended to be humanists, naturalists, and religious skeptics. Though many of their scientific theories are wrong, there is a wealth of wisdom to be gained from studying their views on …
Andrew Dickson White
Andrew Dickson White (1832–1918) did more than any other American to impress upon late – nineteenth – and twentieth-century thought the idea that science and religion are enemies locked in combat on an almost military scale. Ironically, this was precisely the opposite of his intent. Born on November 7, 1832, in Homer, New York, into …
Robert Frost: Showing Off to the Devil
An obscure New England farmer and teacher until his first book of verse, A Boy’s Will, was published in 1913, Robert Frost (1874–1963) died an international celebrity. He garnered four Pulitzer Prizes and was awarded forty-four honorary degrees. “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “Mending Wall,” “Birches,” “The Road Not Taken,” and other anthology …
Stephen Crane: The Black Badge of Unbelief
Stephen Crane (1871–1900) was a literary prodigy. As a nineteen-year-old freshman at Syracuse University, he drafted the seminal novel Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. This gritty, unsentimental portrait of Bowery lowlifes initiated modern American fiction. It was the first native specimen of literary naturalism. Crane said of the novel: “I tried to make plain …
Emily Dickinson: Pagan Sphinx
That no Flake of [snow] fall on you or them—is a wish that would be a Prayer, were Emily not a Pagan. —Letter to Catherine Sweetser, 1878 When Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) died, she was virtually unknown to the public. Only seven of her poems had been published, a few without permission, and they attracted little …
On the Bicentennial of the Death of Thomas Paine, June 8, 1809
Thomas Paine’s story is the story of America. To understand what happened to the revolutionary experiment that began at Lexington and Concord with the 1775 “sho t heard round the world”—to understand how we ended up in the present financial morass, the legacy of the so-called unitary executive—there is no better model than Paine’s life …
A Great Humanist: William James
One of America’s great humanists was the philosopher and psychologist William James (1842–1910). James served as a vital bridge between the humanism of the transcendentalists and the revival of humanism in the 1920s and 30s. His largest contribution to humanism consisted in his eagerness to champion the individual person and the personal perspective, the direct …
What Makes a Life Significant
The following passages have been selected from the first publication of the essay “What Makes a Life Significant” in Talks to Teachers on Psychology: And to Students on Some of Life& rsquo;s Ideals (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1899), pp. 265–301.—Eds. A few summers ago I spent a happy week at the famous Assembly …
Shelley the Atheist
Though in his lifetime his poetry was seldom praised, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822) is now ensconced in the pantheon of English poets. His “Ode to the West Wind,” “Ozymandias,” “To a Skylark,” “The Cloud,” “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” “Mont Blanc,” “Adonais,” and “Prometheus Unbound” are entrenched in anthologies of literature and studied throughout the world. …