Our Secular Heritage – Whitman had it right: ‘Argue not concerning God’ – published in the Concord Monitor 8/9/2013
When Judge John Lewis of Stratford County Superior Court ruled in June that the tax credit program for private religious schools was unconstitutional, he relied on Article 83 of the New Hampshire state constitution. That article plainly states, “no money raised by taxation shall ever be granted or applied for the use of schools or institutions of any religious sect or denomination”.
On its face, that language seems clear. However, the case is being appealed to the state Supreme Court. Like so many other church/state issues, there are always two sides. Both sides appealed Judge Lewis’s ruling.
As Judge Lewis noted, the issue has deep historical roots. Really since the very beginning of the United States, separation of church and state, in multiple contexts, has been highly controversial. The threads of secularism and religion have been closely interwoven in American history. Judge Lewis’s decision is just the latest reflection of that tension.
People on the secular side of the divide have often been put on the defensive by religious fundamentalists and biblical literalists. They are derided and demonized as secular humanists, atheists, and elitists.
The fundamentalists have framed the church/state debate as between the believers (themselves) and the non-believers (the godless). Allegedly, they have values and secularists are value-free. I think this framing is grossly unfair to those of us on the secular side. While there certainly are hardcore atheists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris, I would stake out a different position on the secular side. It is what I would call the Walt Whitman viewpoint. I actually think this viewpoint is more consistent with the views of many Founding Fathers who were Enlightenment thinkers.
In Leaves of Grass, Whitman famously wrote:
“This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyranny, argue not concerning God…”
I think there is much wisdom in the advice “argue not concerning God”. Whitman argues for the acceptance and validity of the views of both believers and non-believers. In the face of ultimate mystery, he respects multiple perspectives. In a country as diverse as the United States, Whitman’s perspective makes much sense. Look only as far as Egypt to see the potential for bloodshed and divisiveness when one sectarian religion gains power and tries to consolidate its gains at the expense of others.
The name-calling against American secularists has obscured our secular tradition in America which is honorable and insufficiently appreciated. There is no single repository of this tradition which is part of the reason it is underappreciated.
I wanted to acknowledge some of the contributors to the American secular tradition whom I admire, including a couple who are relatively unknown now. All the secularists I highlight have fought theocracy and have struggled to make America a more egalitarian society. It has to start with Tom Paine. The outstanding propagandist of the American revolution, Paine agitated in both the American and French revolutions and always fought economic privilege. In 1805, John Adams wrote this about Paine:
“I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Tom Paine.”
In the 19th century, secularists played a vital role in both the abolitionist and women’s rights movements. I would mention the Grimke sisters, Sarah and Angelina, who were Quakers but who were fiercely anti-clerical and anti-slavery. They publicly spoke out against slavery before interracial audiences of both sexes, a practice that shocked the public of that day.
I also wanted to mention Lucretia Mott and Ernestine Rose. Both have landed in the forgotten category but they also deserve recognition and appreciation. They fought for equal rights for women in a very tough climate. Mott helped found the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society and she also helped organize the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 which was the first public women’s rights meeting in the United States. Rose was the first Jewish immigrant to campaign aggressively for social reform in the United States. In her book, “Freethinkers”, Susan Jacoby describes Rose as “the Emma Goldman of the 1840’s and 1850’s”.
Robert Ingersoll also deserves special mention. Known as “the Great Agnostic”, Ingersoll may be the most famous man of his time who is unknown now. A lawyer and an eloquent orator, Ingersoll made fun of religion, supported the Bill of Rights, and opposed the death penalty. He has been described as the American Voltaire. He spoke widely around the country in the late 19th century and he had a gift for charming audiences by using humor to disarm opponents. Of the Founders, he wrote:
“They knew that to put God in the constitution was to put man out. They knew that the recognition of a Deity would be seized upon by fanatics and zealots as a pretext for destroying the liberty of thought. They knew the terrible history of the church too well to place in her keeping, or in the keeping of her God, the sacred rights of man. They intended that all should have the right to worship, or not to worship; that our laws should make no distinction on account of creed. They intended to found and frame a government for man, and for man alone. They wished to preserve the individuality of all; to prevent the few from governing the many, and the many from persecuting and destroying the few.”
Moving into the 20th century, I will only mention two names – Clarence Darrow and Eugene V. Debs. I know others might question this choice. Darrow is certainly one of the most famous American lawyers of all time. In the Scopes monkey trial, Darrow represented a Tennessee high school biology teacher accused of teaching evolution. Debs, a labor leader who ran for President five times on the Socialist Party ticket, was extremely charismatic and inspirational. He was a die-hard supporter of working class Americans. Later in his career, he went to jail for opposing World War I and the military draft. At his sentencing hearing in November 1918 when he faced ten years in prison, he stated:
“Your honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
I wanted to put in a plug for Susan Jacoby’s book, Freethinkers, that I had mentioned earlier. Freethinkers is a very comprehensive history of American secularism. It is an entertaining read and it gives great background on a far wider range of characters than I acknowledged in this short piece.
Jacoby makes the point that maybe secular humanists should call themselves freethinkers. It might be harder to demonize that term. I think it is past time for freethinkers to be defensive about arguing for reason and science rather than faith in the supernatural. There is nothing wrong with bringing a rationalist approach to fundamental questions of earthly existence. It is really a matter of intellectual integrity.