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9 Great Freethinkers and Religious Dissenters in History

Here are some non-believers who left a profound mark.

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Despite a lifetime of organizing and lobbying for women's suffrage, Stanton was often shunted aside by her own movement for her controversial, outspoken freethought views and her attacks on religion as a major justification for the continued oppression of women, including her scathing The Woman's Bible. On one occasion, she wrote, "I have endeavoured to dissipate these religious superstitions from the minds of women, and base their faith on science and reason, where I found for myself at least that peace and comfort I could never find in the Bible and the church."

Some of Stanton's spiritual descendants in the feminist movement had similarly irreligious views. One of the most famous was Margaret Sanger, one of the founders of Planned Parenthood and a fearless crusader in the fight to make birth control available and legal to American women. Sanger's motto was "No Gods, No Masters," and her newsletter had the memorable title The Woman Rebel.

6. Asa Philip Randolph. The 20th-century American civil rights movement is often identified with Christianity, which is almost single-handedly due to the influence of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But secular humanists played almost as important a role. One of them was Asa Philip Randolph, a trailblazing labor organizer whose career spanned the 20th century and who was one of the pioneers of the strategy of nonviolent civil disobedience.

Randolph entered the civil-rights movement by way of the labor movement, beginning by organizing mainly black railroad workers. But he soon set his sights higher, especially as the country was drawn into World War II and the defense industry was booming. He took the lead in organizing civil-rights marches that convinced presidents Roosevelt and Truman to issue executive orders ending segregation in defense contractors and the armed services. As his star rose, he served as vice president of the AFL-CIO and helped organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech.

In addition to all this, Randolph was a lifelong freethinker. He was the founder of a literary magazine, The Messenger, whose masthead declared that "Prayer is not one of our remedies... We consider prayer as nothing more than a fervent wish." He was also one of the signers of the Humanist Manifesto in 1970.

7. Robert Frost. New England's most famous poet is justly immortalized for his poetic tributes to nature and rural life, but his religious skepticism is lesser known. Frost's views on God are complex; for much of his life, he grappled with a deep-seated superstitious fear he could never fully shake. But after 20 years of marriage, his wife said that he was an atheist, and he didn't deny it.

What's interesting is that this comes through inadvertently in his poetry. When speaking of his fellow human beings and their relationships, Frost is warm, welcoming, thoroughly humanist. But when he turns to the subject of God, he more often than not becomes dark and terrifying, depicting the idea of a deity as a savage force of nature more than a worthy object of reverence. His famous poem "Design" calls the suffering and predation in nature a "design of darkness." The poem "Once by the Pacific," Frost's vision of the apocalypse, has the poet looking out at crashing ocean waves and envisioning them as a harbinger of doomsday. The poem "A Loose Mountain" envisions God as a cosmic destroyer waiting to hurl a meteor at the Earth, like a stone thrown from a sling, biding his time so he can release it when it will cause the maximum amount of devastation.

 
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