9 Great Freethinkers and Religious Dissenters in History
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He was a staunch abolitionist who served honorably for the Union in the Civil War, and went on to advocate progressive causes like free speech, women's rights, anti-racism and the abolition of corporal punishment. Though politicians repeatedly sought his endorsement and his rhetorical talents, the highest position that Ingersoll himself ever held was the attorney general of Illinois -- due, no doubt, to his willingness to eloquently express his freethought views. In a eulogy, the New York Times observed that only his outspoken irreligious views kept him from taking "that place in the... public life of his country to which by his talents he would otherwise have been eminently entitled." Not that Ingersoll himself would have wanted it any other way: as he declared, a truly spiritual man "attacks what he believes to be wrong, though defended by the many, and he is willing to stand for the right against the world."
3. W.E.B. DuBois. Contrary to popular impression, the black community in America has a long tradition of involvement with freethought and secularism, as exemplified by one of its most influential racial-justice activists, W.E.B. DuBois. One of the first black men to get a Ph.D. from Harvard, DuBois was one of the founders of the NAACP and a prolific and critically praised writer, educator and historian.
By DuBois' own account, he was raised religious and attended an orthodox missionary college, but his doubts about religion blossomed while studying in Europe. When he returned to America, he taught at a black Methodist college, Wilberforce University, but drew the wrath of school administrators for refusing to lead students in prayer. As Susan Jacoby quotes him in her book Freethinkers, "I flatly refused again to join any church or sign any church creed. From my 30th year on I have increasingly regarded the church as an institution which defended such evils as slavery, color caste, exploitation of labor and war." He also said he wanted "to make the Negro church a place where colored men and women of education and energy can work for the best things regardless of their belief or disbelief in unimportant dogmas and ancient and outworn creeds."
4. Zora Neale Hurston. Like DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston was an influential black freethinker and an acclaimed early 20th-century author. She attended Columbia University on a scholarship, and while living in Manhattan at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, met scholars and artists like Margaret Mead and Langston Hughes. She herself wrote both fiction and anthropological works about the black community. Her masterwork, the 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, was judged one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.
In her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, Hurston makes her freethought views clear and denies that the prospect of nonexistence after death holds any fear for her:
Prayer seems to me a cry of weakness, and an attempt to avoid, by trickery, the rules of the game as laid down. I do not choose to admit weakness. I accept the challenge of responsibility. Life, as it is, does not frighten me, since I have made my peace with the universe as I find it, and bow to its laws... It seems to me that organized creeds are collections of words around a wish. I feel no need for such. I know that nothing is destructible; things merely change forms. When the consciousness we know as life ceases, I know that I shall still be part and parcel of the world. I was a part before the sun rolled into shape and burst forth in the glory of change. I was, when the earth was hurled out from its fiery rim. I shall return with the earth to Father Sun, and still exist in substance when the sun has lost its fire, and disintegrated into infinity to perhaps become a part of the whirling rubble of space. Why fear? The stuff of my being is matter, ever changing, ever moving, but never lost; so what need of denominations and creeds to deny myself the comfort of all my fellow men?
5. Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Although no one person deserves sole credit for laying the groundwork for the 19th Amendment, Elizabeth Cady Stanton comes close. Stanton organized and shepherded one of the pivotal early events in the suffrage movement, the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, and she played a key role in issuing the famous Declaration of Sentiments that first called for women's suffrage (against the wishes of other attendees, some of whom felt that demanding the vote was too radical even for them).