Top Menu

Six Prominent American Freethinkers

“Our community is expanding: MRZine viewers have increased in number, as have the readers of our editions published outside the United States and in languages other than English.  We sense a sharp increase in interest in our perspective and its history.   Many in our community have made use of the MR archive we put online, an archive we plan to make fully searchable in the coming years.   Of course much of the increased interest is from cash-strapped students in the metropolis, and from some of the poorest countries on the globe.  For those of us able to help this is an extra challenge.   We can together keep up the fight to expand the space of socialist sanity in the global flood of the Murdoch-poisoned media.  Please write us a check today.” — John Bellamy Foster

To donate by credit card on the phone, call toll-free:

You can also donate by clicking on the PayPal logo below:

Donate Today!


If you would rather donate via check, please make it out to the Monthly Review Foundation and mail it to:

Monthly Review
146 W. 29th St., #6W
New York, NY 10001

Donations are tax deductible. Thank you!

An article in the March 2008 issue of Aufklärung und Kritik1 described four “new atheists” in the USA (Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens); the present article describes some earlier prominent American freethinkers.  We won’t go back as far as the deists (Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Thomas Paine) among the leading 18th-century founding fathers of the USA, and we will leave aside (a) Mark Twain (the genial humorist, who merits an essay all to himself and whose atheism was not part of his public persona during his lifetime but became evident in writings published many years after his death), (b) Ralph Waldo Emerson (a freethinker in his own somewhat mystical way, but not clearly an agnostic, let alone an atheist) and (c) Henry David Thoreau (a radical whose ideas had, however, far less impact in the USA than upon Mahatma Gandhi in southern Africa).  We will focus instead on the following six figures:

  • Col. Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899), in his day famous throughout the USA as an attorney, a top-level political figure, a great orator, a colorful writer and, most saliently, a public spokesman for agnosticism.
  • Felix Adler (1851-1933), who founded The Ethical Culture Society, a rationalistic, humanist, non-theist religion promoting ethical conduct as its central aim and sponsoring an historically important social-work NGO.
  • George Santayana (1863-1952), a sophisticated philosophy professor well known in the USA for a best-selling Bildungsroman and fairly well known also as an atheist, but also a lifelong admirer of Roman Catholicism.
  • John Dewey (1859-1952), an eminent pragmatist philosopher whose outlook was avowedly naturalistic and non-theist but who proposed to retain much of the traditional language of religion while redefining many of its traditional concepts to make them compatible with a scientific outlook.
  • Ayn Rand (1905-1982), an outspoken atheist who considered altruism and all other forms of social concern to be “anti-human” and whose advocacy of laissez-faire capitalism provided to her close personal disciple, Alan Greenspan, the ideological platform upon which he, as executive head of the central banking system in the USA from 1987 to 2006, played a leading role in pumping up the financial bubble which is currently in the process of bursting.
  • Michael Harrington (1926-1989), an atheist who was in his day the best known Socialist in the USA.  One of his books, The Other America, motivated the national government to conduct in the latter half of the 1960s a “war on poverty.”  Another of his books, The Politics at God’s Funeral: The Spiritual Crisis of Western Civilization, is in our opinion equally notable.

After describing each of these six we will offer a few remarks about them as a remarkably motley set of agnostics and atheists and about how the historical background which they constitute illuminates some aspects of the “New Atheism.”


1.  Robert Ingersoll (1833-99) was an attorney who became famous as a political orator and highly-placed political “insider” and as a lecturer expounding religious freethought.  His father was a Protestant clergyman who vigorously supported the movement to abolish slavery in the USA.  In the Civil War (1861-65) Ingersoll recruited and organized a cavalry regiment (serving at the rank of colonel); after the war he was appointed Attorney General of the State of Illinois, and seemed to be on the way to a brilliant career in electoral politics; but this hope was dashed by his refusal to keep quiet about his unorthodox views in regard to religion.  He remained active at the highest levels of the Republican Party (the party of Lincoln in the 1860s; later becoming the party representing mainly the interests of big corporations) and as a friend and confidante of a series of presidents from Grant to McKinley; and in that political role he supported various progressive causes, including the securing of rights for the former slaves as well as for immigrants and for women in general.  He meanwhile attained great fame throughout the USA as an outspoken public exponent of freethought and agnosticism.  In extremely popular public lectures2he debunked literalist interpretations of the Bible and promulgated the findings of historical investigations about it.3  A century earlier, Thomas Paine in a famous book entitled “The Age of Reason” had tried to make deistic freethought readily comprehensible to readers with only modest education; Ingersoll regarded Paine as a hero but was influenced also by more modern thinkers (e.g. Charles Darwin, August Comte, Ernst Haeckel, Herbert Spencer)4 and instead of adhering to Paine’s deism adopted the agnostic view that questions like whether a god exists or whether man has an immortal soul are ultimately unanswerable.  The following  excerpts from one of his last books (Why I Am an Agnostic, 1896)5 will suffice to show the quality of his thinking and his rhetoric:

Is there a supernatural power — an arbitrary mind — an enthroned God — a supreme will that sways the tides and currents of the world — to which all causes bow?  I do not deny.  I do not know — but I do not believe.  I believe that the natural is supreme — that from the infinite chain no link can be lost or broken — that there is no supernatural power that can answer prayer — no power that worship can persuade or change — no power that cares for man. . . .

When I became convinced that the Universe is natural — that all the ghosts and gods are myths, there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood, the sense, the feeling, the joy of freedom.  The walls of my prison crumbled and fell, the dungeon was flooded with light and all the bolts, and bars, and manacles became dust.  I was no longer a servant, a serf or a slave.  There was for me no master in all the wide world — not even in infinite space.  I was free — free to think, to express my thoughts — free to live to my own ideal — free to live for myself and those I loved — free to use all my faculties, all my senses — free to spread imagination’s wings — free to investigate, to guess and dream and hope — free to judge and determine for myself — free to reject all ignorant and cruel creeds, all the “inspired” books that savages have produced, and all the barbarous legends of the past — free from popes and priests — free from all the “called” and “set apart” — free from sanctified mistakes and holy lies — free from the fear of eternal pain — free from the winged monsters of the night — free from devils, ghosts and gods.  For the first time I was free.  There were no prohibited places in all the realms of thought — no air, no space, where fancy could not spread her painted wings — no chains for my limbs — no lashes for my back — no fires for my flesh — no master’s frown orthreat — no following another’s steps — no need to bow, or cringe, or crawl, or utter lying words.  I was free.  I stood erect and fearlessly, joyously, faced all worlds.

And then my heart was filled with gratitude, with thankfulness, and went out in love to all the heroes, the thinkers who gave their lives for the liberty of hand and brain — for the freedom of labor and thought — to those who fell on the fierce fields of war, to those who died in dungeons bound with chains — to those who proudly mounted scaffold’s stairs — to those whose bones were crushed, whose flesh was scarred and torn — to those by fire consumed — to all the wise, the good, the brave of every land, whose thoughts and deeds have given freedom to the sons of men.  And then I vowed to grasp the torch that they had held, and hold it high, that light might conquer darkness still.


2.  Felix Adler (1851-1933) was born in Germany but at the age of six was brought to New York City when his father was appointed head rabbi at the most eminent Reform-Jewish temple there.  Upon earning in 1870 his undergraduate degree at Columbia University, he was sent to Germany to prepare for the rabbinate by studying with Abraham Geiger (one of the founders of Reform Judaism) at the incipient Berlin Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums; but upon finding that the opening of that school was to be delayed for two years, he pursued graduate studies at the University of Berlin and then at Heidelberg where he received in 1873 his doctorate, summa cum laude, in Semitics.  His main professor in Berlin was Hermann Cohen, who was to become a leading figure not only in Reform Judaism but also in neo-Kantian philosophy (of the Marburg School).

For Adler, belief in Kant’s categorical imperative came to displace belief in a personal god.  His social consciousness was meanwhile so profoundly influenced by Friedrich Albert Lange’s Die Arbeiterfrage in ihrer Bedeutung für Gegenwart und Zukunft (1865 and later editions) that the condition of workers became one of his chief concerns for the rest of his life.  The subjects he studied in Germany included Biblical criticism, anthropology and evolutionary biology.  Altogether his religious views moved so far beyond those of some of his father’s congregants at Temple Emmanu-El (he advocated for instance a kind of Judaism which would for all practical purposes abandon the chosen-people claim) that he was obliged to pursue his vocation elsewhere.  So he founded in1876 the New York Society for Ethical Culture, which took as its main slogan “Not by the Creed but by the Deed” and which sponsored the first important social-work NGOs in that city.  In due time he served (for thirty years) at Columbia University as Professor of Political and Social Ethics and held various other significant academic and political positions.

Adler sifted wheat from chaff in the thinking of the most eminent American Transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson:

As in the case of Kant, a strong attraction drew me toward Emerson with temporary disregard of radical differences — although the spell was never so potent or so persistent in the latter instance as in the former.  I made Emerson’s acquaintance in 1875.  I came into touch with the Emerson circle and read and re-read the Essays.  The value of Emerson’s teaching to me at that time consisted in the exalted view he takes of the self.  Divinity as an object of extraneous worship for me had vanished.  Emerson taught that immediate experience of the divine power in self may take the place of worship.  His doctrine of self-reliance also was bracing to a youth just setting out to challenge prevailing opinions and to urge plans of transformation upon the community in which he worked.  But I soon discovered that Emerson overstresses self-affirmation at the expense of service.

For a time indeed I reconciled in my own fashion the two contrary tendencies.  The divine power, I argued, flows through me as a channel — hence the grandeur which attaches to my spiritual nature.  But the divine power manifests itself in redressing the wrongs that exist in the world, and in putting an end to such violations of personality as the sexual and economic exploitations which disgrace human society.  So for a time I continued to walk on air with Emerson, and had my head in the clouds — the clouds in which Emerson enveloped me.

Out of this false sense of security, this quasi-pantheistic self-affirmation, the experiences of the next few years effectually roused me.  I came to see that Emerson’s pantheism in effect spoils his ethics.  Be thyself,  he says, not a counterfeit or imitation of someone else.  Be different.  But why!  Because the One manifests itself in endless variety.  Penetrating below the surface, however, one finds that in this kind of philosophy the value of difference, to which I attach essential importance on ethical grounds, is nothing more than that of a foil.  According to Emerson life is a universal masquerade and the interest of the whole business of living consists in the ever-renewed discovery that the face behind the different masks is still the same.  Difference is not cherished on its own account.  And here, as in the case of the uniformity principle of Hebraism, I found myself dissenting.6

In addition to taking from his Jewish heritage an emphasis on the value of living an ethical life and a quasi-prophetic sense of social justice, Adler regarded Jesus as having promulgated (1) a method for overcoming the spiritual effects of oppression by seeing it as due to lust, greed, willfulness and pride and by seeing that while everyone has such impulses, one can by confronting them in oneself overcome the spiritually destructive effects of oppression even if one’s objective situation remains unchanged, and (2) a concept of human spiritual power prompting people to respect as holy the personality inherent in themselves and in others.  According to Adler this power leads people to try to expel impure impulses that may lead them to violate the sacredness of the personality of their fellow men, and he hoped that the impulses which cause injustice to be perpetrated could thus be overcome.7 He felt that theology had come to flourish at the expense of religion itself, which he regarded as being embodied in the ways that people actually live their lives rather than in the verbal formulas of creeds and doctrines.

He was of course familiar with Kant’s idea that belief in (a) the existence of God, (b) personal immortality and (c) free will constituted postulates of practical reason, i.e. that these beliefs could not be demonstrated on the basis of either scientific empiricism or pure reason, but could nevertheless be justified on the grounds that they were necessary postulates of the moral life.8  Adler sympathized with that view, and certainly believed in free will, but otherwise differed in regard to some important nuances.9 He upheld the possibility of immortality but insisted that we cannot know whether it is real.  He thought science could not explain consciousness and he drew from this premise the conclusion that human consciousness might somehow survive the death of the body; yet he criticized traditional religions for overemphasizing the idea of immortality, citing harmful social consequences which he thought such a belief can lead to:

[B]elief in immortality should not be inculcated as a dogma in our schools of religion, and . . . the dictates of the moral law should in no wise be made to depend upon it for their sanction.  The moral law is the common ground upon which all religious and in fact all true men may meet.  It is the one basis of union that remains to us amid the clashing antagonisms of the sects.  While dogma is, by its nature, open to attack, and its acceptance at all times a matter of choice, the principles of morality have a right to demand implicit obedience, and should rest as everlasting verities in the human heart.  Let us reflect well before we imperil the latter by the undue prominence which we give the former. . . .  How often has it occurred that when the riper reason of the man has rejected the tenets of the church in which he was educated, he has been tempted to cast aside all the religious teachings of his youth, the moral with the rest, as idle fable and deceit.10

He held that the kind of immortality which we should most concern ourselves with is the this-worldly kind whereby people live on (a) in the memories of their loved ones and (b) via the worldly consequences of their deeds even after their deaths.

And, while declining to call himself an atheist he nevertheless rejected the belief (which Kant had apparently embraced) in a personal god:

[S]omeone called me a “suppressed atheist.”  That was a mistake.  I did not believe in his God, nor do I now.  Someone may say at present that I am a suppressed theist.  But let us not debate about a word.  I will try to state distinctly what I believe in order that now, if not before, you may understand that I have been driving at, nay, what has been driving me all these years.  I believe that Nature is but the outside surface of things, that it is the painted drop curtain behind which the real play is enacted, that there is divinity, that the essential life of the universe is perfect and therefore divine. . . .

I draw a sharp distinction between divine being and divine life.  All the theistic religions insist on divine existence, the existence of a divine being — perfection, eternity, divinity, being contracted into a single individual being.  That being is called God.  If you believe in that being, you are religious; if not, you are an atheist, they say.  I draw the distinction between existence and life.  There have been endless attempts to prove the existence of the individual named God.  All these attempts have failed — the argument from design, the argument from evolution, etc.

The attempt to prove by logical argument the existence of an individual deity is foredoomed to failure.  And if it succeeded it would not avail.  The logical outcome of such a logical argument would be what Aristotle described — a self-sufficient, self-contemplating, self-enclosed perfection, between whom and ourselves there could be no relation.  If I cannot taste divinity, if I cannot experience it, I have no use for it.  Now it is otherwise if I anchor on the conception of divine life.  If the perfect life quickens in the universe, then it may quicken in me who am a part of the universe, and of this quickening life I can have actual experience.11


3.  George Santayana (1863-1952) was born in Madrid of Spanish parentage but was brought at the age of eight to Boston and graduated there from an elite secondary school (Boston Latin) and from Harvard College.  One of his teachers at Harvard was William James, whose writings include The Will to Believe (1897) and The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902).  After earning his undergraduate degree at Harvard, Santayana studied for two years in Berlin and in Cambridge (England), and then back at Harvard took his doctorate with a thesis on Rudolf Hermann Lotze and in due time became a professor of philosophy there.  He remained a lifelong Spanish citizen and spent nearly half of his adult life in Europe, but his work was addressed mainly to Americans and he is generally thought of as an American philosopher and man of letters.  (He coined many brilliant aphorisms,12and his writings include a very successful Bildungsroman,13 an appealing three-volume autobiography and a good deal of rhythmically soporific poetry.)  His philosophical works include The Sense of Beauty (1896), The Life of Reason (5 vols., 1905-1906), Skepticism and Animal Faith (1923) and Realms of Being (4 vols., 1927-40).  His most sustained and interesting discussion of religion is in Volume III of The Life of Reason, entitled “Reason in Religion,” where he said:

The Life of Reason is the seat of all ultimate values.  Now the history of mankind will show us that whenever spirits at once lofty and intense have seemed to attain the highest joys, they have envisaged and attained them in religion.  Religion would therefore seem to be a vehicle or a factor in rational life, since the ends of rational life are attained by it.  Moreover, the Life of Reason is an ideal to which everything in the world should be subordinated; it establishes lines of moral cleavage everywhere and makes right eternally different from wrong.  Religion does the same thing.  It makes absolute moral decisions.  It sanctions, unifies, and transforms ethics.14

Santayana held that religion aims to realize the “life of reason” but largely fails to do so:

What is the secret of this ineptitude?  Why does religion, so near to rationality in its purpose, fall so far short of it in its texture and in its results?  The answer is easy: Religion pursues rationality through the imagination.  When it explains events or assigns causes, it gives imaginative substitute for science.  When it gives; precepts, insinuates ideals, or remolds aspiration, it is an imaginative substitute for wisdom –I mean for the deliberate and impartial pursuit of all good.  The conditions and the aims of life are both represented in religion poetically, but this poetry tends to arrogate to itself literal truth and moral authority, neither of which it possesses.  Hence the depth and importance of religion become intelligible no less than its contradictions and practical disasters.  Its object is the same as that of reason, but its method is to proceed by intuition and by unchecked poetical conceits.15

He was far from scorning religion, however.  He said:

Religion remains an imaginative achievement, a symbolic representation of moral reality which may have a most important function in vitalising the mind and in transmitting, by way of parables, the lessons of experience.  But it becomes at the same time a continuous incidental deception; and this deception, in proportion as it is strenuously denied to be such, can work indefinite harm in the world and in the conscience.

On the whole, however, religion should not be conceived as having taken the place of anything better, but rather as having come to relieve situations which, but for its presence, would have been infinitely worse.  In the thick of active life, or in the monotony of practical slavery, there is more need to stimulate fancy than to control it.  Natural instinct is not much disturbed in the human brain by what may happen in that thin superstratum of ideas which commonly overlays it.  We must not blame religion for preventing the development of a moral and natural science which at any rate would seldom have appeared; we must rather thank it for the sensibility, the reverence, the speculative insight which it has introduced into the world.”16

According to Santayana, religion though not literally true presents in metaphorical form important truths about the human condition.  So he was critical of superficial debunkers of religion, who while correctly pointing out its falsehoods failed to appreciate its psychological and social functions in human life.  Though himself clearly an atheist, he was reluctant to do anything to actively undermine religion and religious faith.

He held that while it is unfeasible to distinguish between religions in terms of their truth-value (since all of them are false), there are better and worse religions in terms of their usefulness in helping people to attain the Life of Reason.  He felt that Christianity was to be preferred over its rivals — and Catholicism over Protestantism, which failed, in his opinion, to take into account the mythopoeic nature of religious beliefs and thus (as a leading scholar of Santayana’s philosophy has put it) “impoverished the symbols of Christianity without discarding its falsehoods.”17  He also thought, however, that it was unwise of some of the more liberal Protestants to jettison in Christianity that was inconsistent with modern science.

This preference of Santayana’s harmonized with his political outlook.  The Roman Catholic Church was an extremely conservative institution.  Santayana as a political conservative admired it in part because of his own conservatism.  (But there was nothing mean about him.  When, for instance, it seemed in 1937 likely that Bertrand Russell, whose philosophical views he strongly criticized, was about to have severe monetary difficulties in the USA, Santayana was willing to support Russell for five years if need be.)


4.  John Dewey (1859-1952) was more prominent as a philosopher than Adler or Santayana, and played a leading role in the one originally American school of philosophical thought, “pragmatism,” which C. S. Peirce had initiated (at Harvard) and William James had developed to broader scope.  Dewey’s brand of pragmatism, which he called “instrumentalism,” challenges the “quest for certainty”18 which he saw as underlying most traditional philosophy and which he thought had caused the failure of traditional philosophy to solve its problems.  He regarded philosophy as having originated in ancient Greece, when, in the fifth century B.C.E., the rise of science had begun to threaten the traditional religious and ethical beliefs and customs which the Greeks had inherited from earlier times.  Men like Plato had regarded many of those beliefs and customs as necessary for the maintenance of social order and had therefore tried to shore them up by providing them with intellectual foundations and reconciling them with science; and in that effort they had developed speculative philosophy rationalizing certain revered traditional beliefs by partitioning reality into (1) a realm of absolute and transcendental Forms, as in Plato’s system, and (2) the physical realm in which humans dwell.  The first of the two realms was held to be superior and more real than the other one; Plato said that entities in the second realm were instantiations of the Forms in the first one.  Dewey saw important epistemological implications in this metaphysical dualism: knowledge of Forms was regard as superior to worldly knowledge, which Plato branded as mere belief or opinion, and thus the metaphysical dualism nourished an unfortunate epistemological dualism whereby presumed knowledge in the guise of broad academic abstractions (i.e. theory pertaining to Forms) was regarded as more secure than practical knowledge (i.e. pertaining to the “lower” realm of particulars).

Dewey, making use of a somewhat Marxian sociological analysis, regarded these metaphysical and epistomological dualisms as being rooted in the emergence of social classes, with the allegedly higher kinds of knowledge, i.e. theoretical knowledge, being seen as the province of the leisured classes while issues of practice were seen as the province of the less privileged, toiling classes:

After a distinctively intellectual class had arisen, a class having leisure and in a large degree protected against the more serious perils which afflict the mass of humanity, its members proceeded to glorify their own office.  Since no amount of pains and care in action can ensure complete certainty, certainty in knowledge was worshipped as a substitute.  In minor matters, those that are relatively technical, professional ‘utilitarian’ men continued to resort to improving their methods of operation in order to be surer of results.19

According to Dewey, the growth of the sciences, threatening to destabilize society by undermining traditional religious beliefs and moral norms, motivated the development of a concept of the nature and role of philosophy according to which “Reason was to take the place of custom as a guide of life; but it was to furnish rules as final, as unalterable as those of custom.”20  He thus considered metaphysics to have been “a substitute for custom as the source and guarantor of higher moral and social values,” and he said that this was “the leading theme of the classic philosophy of Europe, as evolved by Plato and Aristotle — a [kind of] philosophy [which was], let us always recall, renewed and restated by the Christian philosophy of Medieval Europe.”21

Dewey considered this paradigm to have dominated philosophy through most of its history and to have led philosophers astray as they channeled their energies into trying to answer unanswerable questions like “What is the nature of knowledge in general?” and “What is ultimate reality?” rather than directing their attention to the “problems of men,” to questions that could be answered if only philosophers would pay them heed.  He said that the modern era, especially since the Industrial Revolution, had seen an erosion of the dualism between theory and practice in various technological fields, and that philosophy had therefore become, to the extent that it adhered to its ancient dualisms, increasingly out of step with the needs of the day.

Dewey rejected not only the metaphysical and epistemological dualisms, but also the dualism between ends and means.  He said:

Means and ends are two names for the same reality.  The terms denote not division in reality but a distinction in judgment.  Without understanding this fact we cannot understand the nature of habits nor can we pass beyond the usual separation of the moral and non-moral in conduct.  ‘End’ is a name for series of acts taken collectively — like the term army.  ‘Means’ is a name for the same series taken distributively — like the soldier, that officer.  To think of the end signifies to extend and enlarge our view of the act to be performed.  It means to look at the next act in perspective, not permitting it to occupy the entire field of vision.22

Dewey’s views concerning religion are perhaps best understood in the light of his rejection of the traditional philosophical dualisms.  We may note also that he did not start out as a pragmatist and a naturalist, but arrived at those positions after a long period of intellectual evolution.  He began his philosophical career (at John Hopkins University, where he earned his doctorate with a thesis entitled “The Psychology of Kant”) as a Hegelian idealist, but over time his general philosophical outlook shifted from idealism to naturalism.  This shift, as a number of commentators have noted, seems to have begun when he began to take up a study of how to improve education.  One might say that he altered his conception of what philosophy should be about when he began to become interested in the “problems of men.”  But while rejecting idealism he retained many of the insights that he had gleaned from Hegel, especially the notion that the world has to be understood holistically.  A major of concern of Hegel’s had been to show how to overcome the dualisms in Kant’s philosophy, and most notably the dualisms (a) between the phenomenal realm (knowable empirically through science) and the noumenal realm and (b) between “ought” and “is.”  Kant held that the practical knowledge of morality (oriented to the noumenal world) exceeds the scope of theoretical knowledge of phenomena, but Hegel considered it both possible and necessary to unite theoretical with practical knowledge and thus overcome those metaphysical and epistemological dualisms that he discerned in Kant’s philosophy.23  Dewey was in agreement with Hegel onthese points; but whereas Hegel sought to work out the synthesis of theoretical with practical knowledge within the framework of an idealist metaphysics, Dewey in his maturity believed that this could only be achieved within a naturalist framework.  As a young philosopher he had regarded himself as a Christian, but as he grew older his religious outlook shifted to a naturalistic humanism (broadly consonant with his conception of philosophy as outlined here) and he firmly rejected supernaturalism, which he now regarded as a major obstacle to scientific inquiry and to social progress and as an unnecessary basis for both morality and knowledge.  The dualism posited in traditional religion between the natural and the supernatural was, he thought, of a piece with the other dualisms that he had rejected.  But still he wanted to retain what he saw as the more positive or benevolent aspects of religion, so he tried to redefine the concepts of “religion” and of “religious experience” by stripping them of their traditional supernatural connotations.  He held that religious experiences cannot be taken as evidence or proof of the existence of a supernatural realm, but may nevertheless still have value as indicators of or motivators for our striving for the realization of our moral ideals.  So, while he was not in any meaningful sense a theist, he was critical of what called “militant atheism.”  He rejected all traditional Western concepts of God, but believed it might be acceptable to retain the term “God” while redefining it in a way that would be consistent with naturalism.  In his book entitled A Common Faith he explained:

The idea of God, or, to avoid misleading conceptions, the idea of the divine, is one of ideal possibilities unified through imaginative realization and projection.  But this idea of God, or of the divine, is also connected with all the natural forces and conditions — including man and human association — that promote the growth of the ideal and that further its realization.  We are in the presence neither of ideals completely embodied in existence nor yet of ideals that are mere rootless ideals, fantasies, utopias.  For there are forces in nature and society that generate and support the ideals.  They are further unified by the action that gives them coherence and solidity.  It is this active relation between ideal and actual to which I would give the name ‘God.’  I would not insist that the name must be given.24

In defense of this “God-talk” he said:

One reason why personally I think it fitting to use the word ‘God’ to denote that uniting of the ideal and actual which has been spoken of, lies in the fact that aggressive atheism seems to me to have something in common with traditional supernaturalism. . . .  What I have in mind especially is the exclusive preoccupation of both militant atheism and supernaturalism with man in isolation.  For in spite of supernaturalism’s reference to something beyond nature, it conceives of this earth as the moral center of the universe and of man as the apex of the whole scheme of things.  It regards the drama of sin and redemption enacted within the isolated and lonely soul of man as the one thing of ultimate importance.  Apart from man, nature is held either accursed or negligible.  Militant atheism is also affected by lack of natural piety.  The ties binding man to nature that poets have always celebrated are passed over lightly.  The attitude taken is often that of man living in an indifferent and hostile world and issuing blasts of defiance.  A religious attitude, however, needs the sense of a connection of man, in the way of both dependence and support, with the enveloping world that the imagination feels is a universe.  Use of the words ‘God’ or ‘divine’ to convey the union of actual with ideal may protect man from a sense of isolation and from consequent despair or defiance.25


5.  Ayn Rand (1905-1982) was the eldest child in an agnostic Jewish family in St Petersburg, Russia, where her father owned and operated a pharmacy that was confiscated in the wake of the 1917 revolution.  As a youngster she found delight in reading Romantic novels (by writers like Victor Hugo and Walter Scott); as a teenager she became an atheist, studied history and related topics (including some philosophy) at the University of Petrograd, and read Schiller, Rostand, Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche, whose concept (set out in Thus Spake Zarathustra) of an ideal individual “superman” she deeply admired.  Upon graduating from the University in 1924 she studied screen-writing for a year at the State Institute for Cinema Arts, and then, after helping to make a film of propaganda-soaked Bolshevik fiction, emigrated in 1926 to the USA and became an American citizen in 1931.  After toiling for years on the fringes of the film industry in Hollywood, she achieved fame as a novelist with the publication in 1943 of The Fountainhead, a tale of a superbly virile and brilliant architect whose magnum opus, a housing complex, he blows up with dynamite because his artistic integrity has been compromised by design-changes due to a mediocre architect whose former wife he, the genius, has won over to himself.  The two most famous scenes in the book are the depiction of their first coupling (later described by Rand as “rape by engraved invitation”) and the culminating trial-scene in which the genius is, of course, acquitted.

Rand moved to New York in 1950 and in the next few years wrote her other big novel, Atlas Shrugged (about a supremely brilliant and virile capitalist), and built up a small coterie of devoted and unquestioning disciples, including a 28-year-old (in 1954) dropout from Columbia University’s graduate program in economics, Alan Greenspan, who was to become the main proponent and implementor of her ideology in regard to technical aspects of economics.  Greenspan was the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board from 1987 to 2006 and played a leading role in fostering the great financial bubble of the early 21st century.

Though not a professional or academic philosopher, Rand regarded herself as the creator of a rational, atheist philosophy (“Objectivism”).  She attempted — unlike Adler, Santayana, Dewey and most of their Anglophone colleagues after the death of Herbert Spencer — to develop a complete philosophical system encompassing metaphysics, epistemology and ethics as well as economics and political theory.  In 1963 she explained that Objectivism was intended to support the same vision of an ideal man that her fiction projected.26

To describe it all would be too much for here.  A few samples may suffice to indicate the quality of the philosophical thinking: The fact that “existence exists” follows directly from the Aristotelian Law of Identity (“A is A”).  The existence of reality is thus an objective absolute; facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.  Meanwhile, “consciousness” is “the faculty of perceiving that which exists”:

If nothing exists, there can be no consciousness. . . . :A consciousness conscious of nothing but itself is a contradiction in terms: before it could identify itself as consciousness, it had to be conscious of something.  If that which you claim to perceive does not exist, what you possess is not consciousness.

“Reason” — the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses — is his only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action and his basic means of survival; whereas “mysticism” — the acceptance of allegations without evidence or proof, the claim to non-sensory, non-rational, non-definable and/or non-identifiable means (such as “instinct,” “intuition,” “revelation” or “just knowing”) of obtaining knowledge — provides, unfortunately, the epistemological basis for religion and religious faith.  Inreality each and every individual man is an end in himself, and not the means to the ends of others; he must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself; the pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest possible moral purpose of his life.  And so the ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism, whereby men deal with one another as traders by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit; no one initiates the use of physical force against anyone else; the government acts only as a policeman protecting men’s rights, using physical force only in retaliation and against those (such as criminals or foreign invaders) who have initiated its use; and there is a complete separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.

Rand fiercely opposed the concept of the welfare state as well as all forms of socialism and all kinds of altruism that involve sacrifice.  She held that the most coherent defense of capitalism required subscribing to an egoist ethic with a firm rejection of altruism as destructive and anti-human.  She criticized free-market economists like Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek, with whose views (especially those of von Mises) she was otherwise sympathetic, because those Viennese economists rooted their defenses of capitalism in a utilitarian ethic: they assessed the desirability of social institutions and of public policies in terms of which ones they thought would tend to augment most the sum of human benefit as measured in terms of happiness or pleasure or the satisfaction of human desires.  Rand contended that such thinking is profoundly mistaken because it is more naturally suited to provide a moral basis for socialism than for capitalism; it could be used to defend capitalism only by means of special pleading and distorted reasoning.

Rand had likewise a paradoxically contentious relationship with the burgeoning libertarian movement in the USA during the 1970s and 1980s.  Her books were among the most widely read by American libertarians, but she was nonetheless highly critical of the libertarian movement, arguing that it was philosophically incoherent.  She said that the libertarians had “plagiarized” her arguments in defense of individual liberty and free-market economics while combining those arguments with other ideas which she regarded as incompatible with Objectivism.  Many libertarian thinkers had, she lamented, embraced subjectivist and even relativist premises that were completely anathema to her.

While generally rejecting religion as contrary to reason, Rand in her later years distinguished between (a) “mystical” forms of religion denigrating reason and (therefore) promoting altruism and (b) “non-mystical” forms respectful of reason and not promoting altruism.  She regarded Thomas Aquinas as having stood for a non-mystical and hence benign form of religion.  And, by 1961 it seemed clear to her that religion in the USA was “relatively non-mystical”:

Religious teachers here are predominantly good, healthy materialists. . . .  There are many historical and philosophical connections between altruism and religion, but the function of religion in this country is not altruism.


6.  Michael Harrington (1926-89) was brought up in a conservative Roman Catholic family, but turned as a young adult to the Leftism of the “Catholic Worker” social-work NGO founded in 1933 by Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day.27  He then gradually became disillusioned with religion and, as his thinking became atheistic, was drawn towards Marxism and a group of dissident Trotskyites, and eventually joined the Socialist Party of Norman Thomas.28

Harrington wrote quite a few books.  The most influential one was The Other America (1962), an account of contemporary poverty in the USA which became a best-seller after being favorably reviewed in The New Yorker magazine.29  The review caught the attention of President Kennedy, who decided, shortly before his assassination, to launch a “war on poverty.”  After Kennedy’s assassination President Johnson included the program in his “Great Society” scheme.  (The program had some significant effect for a while, but was wound down in the 1970s.)

Having attended Jesuit schools at both the secondary and tertiary levels, Harrington remained interested in theology even after becoming an atheist.  That interest is on display in his The Politics at God’s Funeral: The Spiritual Crisis of Western Civilization, which offers an analysis of the fate of religion in Western societies on the basis of insights from Marxist thinkers, non-Marxist sociologists (such as Weber and Durkheim) and 19th- and 20th-century theologians (including Kierkegaard, Karl Barth, Tillich and Hans Kung) whose work wittingly or unwittingly deconstructed traditional concepts of God.  Harrington emphasized the extent to which such theologians drew upon the work of atheistic thinkers like Feuerbach, Nietzsche, Freud and Marx, and he argued that they (the theologians) have provided some of the most profound modern critiques of traditional religious ideas.

As Harrington saw it, the Western world since the beginning of the modern era has been experiencing a process of secularization which in many countries has slowly but surely undermined religious faith.  In Chapter 1, entitled “A Book Crying Wolf,” he described how this process of secularization has been going on for more than three hundred years.  Consciously echoing Nietzsche, he described the process as the “dying” of God, and he saw it as having profound consequences not only for religions and religious institutions but also for the social fabric of Western societies inasmuch as religion had often contributed substantially to social coherence:

With a few lapses into liberalism, or even radicalism, God has been a leading conservative in Judeo-Christian society.  His death not only means empty churches and bereft individuals but also marks the rending of the social fabric.30

He saw the decline of religion, and thereby the historical loss, in the West, of the sense of divinity, as having entailed a loss of

that [kind of] philosophy for non-philosophers that made an intolerable life tolerable for the great mass of the people and thus contributed both to civil peace and to the passive acceptance of injustice; God the conservative, who legitimized established institutions, and the much rarer persona, God the radical, who legitimized the overthrow of those institutions; transcendent symbols and sacraments of the human community; spiritual dimension for the pursuit of daily bread; [and a] major source of personal and social identity.31

Drawing upon Hegel and Marx, Harrington saw the decline of traditional religion as being rooted in the development of capitalist society.  He said that capitalism has, in effect, entailed an “agnostic economy.”  In this regard he stressed the commonalities shared by sophisticated Marxist analysts of religion and the followers of Max Weber.  Although it is easy to contrast the “materialist” analysis perpetrated by vulgar Marxists with the “idealism” of Weber, the most sophisticated Marxists, such as Antonio Gramsci and Franz Borkenau, reached, on the basis of Marxist analysis, conclusions quite similar to Weber’s,32as their analyses of the transition from feudalism to capitalism emphasized the role of Protestant theology as a means for articulating the interests of the rising bourgeoisie.  In Harrington’s view, the rise of Protestantism had not been simply a reflection of the rise of a capitalist bourgeoisie or vice versa.  Rather, “Protestantism and capitalism were reciprocally interacting causes and effects in a gigantic social transformation,”33 and now, the more recent loss of faith in the traditional Judeo-Christian had not — or at least not yet — given rise to a new humanism capable of performing the functions which religion used to play:

There is indeed a de facto atheism in the West today, but it did not come about as a result of a heroic struggle to create a new type of human consciousness.  God is dying, but without an heir.  Or, more precisely, the heir is not the heroic, this-worldly consciousness of Marx’s communism but the this-worldly consciousness of a hedonistic capitalism which wallows in an eternal, spiritless present.  This is part of the price being paid for the failure of that socialist transformation Marx sought.34

I left the Catholic Church almost thirty years ago.  It is relevant to my present attitudes that even though I rejected the Church, it provided me with my original idea of what religion is.  And I clearly remain a ‘cultural Catholic,’ much as an atheist Jew is culturally Jewish. . . .  To complicate matters further, I consider myself to be — in Max Weber’s phrase — ‘religiously musical’ even though I do not believe in God. . . .  I am, then, what Georg Simmel called a ‘religious nature without religion,’ a pious man of deep faith, but not in the supernatural.

And to move now from autobiographical to the political, I think that in the late twentieth century serious atheists and serious believers have more in common with one another than with mindless, de facto atheists (who often affirm some vague and sentimental God) and routine churchgoers.  Both have looked into the same void at the center of this incredible age.  So it is, for instance, that the contemporary Catholic theologian Jürgen Moltmann concedes, even as he affirms the existence of a nontraditional God, that the tragedies of contemporary history corroborate the atheist argument from disorder, rather that the theistic argument from design.  More to my point, the committed believers and unbelievers now have the same enemy: the humdrum nihilism of everyday live in much of Western society.35

For Harrington, the fact that both serious atheists and serious religious believers have a common enemy, namely a capitalism which has engendered an alienated and alienating amoral social order, provides a basis for a possible alliance between them.  Harrington pointed out (correctly in our view) that Marx was not a militant atheist in the sense of someone calling for a war on religion.  In Marx’s view, people turned to religion in large part because it offered succor in a dehumanizing world.  Therefore, for Marx (and for Harrington) people could not be expected to abandon their religious beliefs until the social structures that oppressed them had been overturned or radically modified.  But as Harrington well realized (in part from his experiences in the Catholic Worker movement), there are many religious believers who are just as concerned with battling social injustices as any atheistic socialists might be.  The battle against social injustice could in Harrington’s view bring atheists and religious believers together in a common struggle on behalf of humanity.  He therefore welcomed the moves that most European social democratic parties made after World War II when they dropped rules that had either barred religious believers from joining the parties or had blocked them from leadership positions.

Harrington was, however, skeptical of traditional Marxist appeals to history and the supposed inevitability of the triumph of the proletariat.  He saw that to appeal to history in this way was to make history into a kind of substitute God, and that ersatz-Gods such as History were no more substantive than the traditional Judeo-Christian God whose plausibility had been undermined by the progress of science and philosophy on the one hand and by the momentous events of 20th-century history (including events such as the Holocaust and the Soviet gulags) which called into question the notion of a good and loving God who intervenes in history.  He drew upon sophisticated Marxist writers such as Lucio Colletti36 to challenge the validity of orthodox dialectical materialism.  In Harrington’s view, dialectical materialism (as developed by writers like Engels, Plekhanov, and Lenin) belied its atheist pretensions by smuggling Hegel’s god into Marxism.37  In this and in some other ways, Harrington was not what might be called an “orthodox Marxist” in the sense of someone who uncritically subscribes to dialectical materialism as laid down by Engels, Plekhanov, or Lenin.  But his thinking concerning the sociology of religion was very much in tune with what has become known as the Western Marxist tradition, associated with such thinkers as Gramsci, Lukacs, the Frankfurt School and Habermas.  (All these thinkers are cited in Harrington’s his book.)  He departed from so-called orthodox Marxism by suggesting that religion deals with certain existential questions, especially those concerning death and the meaning of life, which are of concern to human beings in all societies, and which would, he thought, still be of concern even in a future communist society.  While largely subscribing to Marx’s view that saw much of conventional religion as a product of and a reaction to an alienated and alienating social order, and therefore liable to wither away in the future under socialism, Harrington conceded that socialism by freeing people from having to be overly concerned about meeting their basic material needs could create conditions under which a certain kind of religious renaissance might occur.


When we initially decided to describe these six prominent agnostics and atheists of late-19th- and 20th-century America, we had not noticed that two of them were from Jewish, two from Roman-Catholic and two from Protestant Christian families, nor that the political “Left”-vs-“Right” differences within each of those pairs were considerable.38  These coincidences suggest to us that the fact that someone is a freethinker in the sense of being agnostic or atheist reveals very little about any other aspect of his or her views and/or interests.

Our six did all exhibit in various ways a certain American “can-do” spirit, and they all had high regard for science as one might expect of 19th- and 20th-century opponents of supernaturalism.  It is notable, however, that they tended not to be very anti-religious, but to see in religion many elements of continuing value if only the traditional supernaturalist metaphysics could be dispensed with.  This is one of the main differences between them and the more aggressive of the New Atheists — another big difference being, of course, that none of the New Atheists has settled for mere agnosticism.  The “New Humanists” referred to at the end of the essay to which this one is a sequel accept the view that religion, even when outmoded in various particulars, is nevertheless always capable of being in some sense a profound expression of the human spirit which atheist Humanists ought, in a display of mutual respect and human siblinghood, to appreciate as such.  Such a stance would tend to wash away from New Atheism the traces of overheated hostility which some of its critics think they have perceived in it.  There is a vast difference between honorable disagreement and demagogues preaching hatred.



1  James Farmelant, “‘Neuer Atheismus’ (und ‘Neuer Humanismus’) in den USA,” Aufklärung und Kritik (March 2008).

2  Ingersoll’s Complete Lectures were published in 1930 in Chicago by Regan Publications.

3  See for instance Ingersoll’s Some Mistakes of Moses (republished in 1986 by Prometheus Books).

4  See for instance Ingersoll’s “Preface to Professor Van Buren Denslow’s Modern Thinkers (1880) in The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll (C. P. Farrell, 1901), pp. 7-23.

5  The text of Ingersoll’s Why I Am an Agnostic is available in vol. iv of the Dresden Memorial Edition of The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, pp. 5-67.

6  Adler, An Ethical Philosophy of Life: Presented in Its Main Outlines (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1918), pp. 27-28.  Adler had once been a member of the Free Religious Association and had even served as its president before leaving to found his own organization.  Emerson was also a member of the Free Religious Association.

7  Ibid., pp. 14-26 and 30-42.

8  Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, Book II (“Dialectic of Pure Practical Reason”), Chapter 2, (“Of the dialectic of pure reason in defining the conception of the ‘summum bonum'”).

9  Adler, Creed and Deed: A Series of Discourses (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1880), pp. 1-36.

10  Ibid., pp. 33-34.

11  Adler, “On the Occasion of the Fifty-Fifth Anniversary of the founding of the Ethical Mov­ment,” (10 May 1931).

12  See websites.

13  Santayana, The Last Puritan, A Memoir in the Form of a Novel (1935).

14  Santayana, Reason in Religion (1905), pp. 6-7.

15  Ibid., pp. 10-11.

16  Ibid.,  pp. 12-13.

17  Dilworth, op. cit.

18  Dewey, The Quest for Certainty: A Study of the Relation of Knowledge and Action (1930).

19  Ibid., pp. 10-11.

20  Dewey, The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy and Other Essays in Contemporary Thought (1910), p. 48.

21  Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957), p. 17.

22  Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct. An Introduction to Social Psychology (1922), pp 34-36.

23  Hegel, Phänomenologie des Geistes (1806).  (A. V. Miller, tr., Phenomenology of Spirit [Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1998], pp. 453-492.)

24  Dewey, A Common Faith, pp. 50-51.

25  Ibid., pp. 52-53.  While Dewey does not name names here, he seems to have had in mind atheists like Bertrand Russell, who in an essay entitled “A Free Man’s Worship” pictured man as a being fated to struggle to maintain his moral ideals in the face of an indifferent or even hostile universe.  Dewey did not think that our moral ideals are entirely without support from Nature.

26  Rand, “The Goal of My Writing,” The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature (New York: World Pub. Co., 1963).

27  Dorothy Day’s book-length account of the Catholic Worker movement is Loaves and Fishes (1963).  According to Chris Hedges, an eminent, uncompromising and engaged investigative journalist:

The coals of radical social change smolder here [in the USA in 2008] among the poor, the home­less and the destitute.  As the numbers of disenfranchised dramatically increase, our hope, our only hope, is to connect intimately with the daily injustices visited upon them.  Out of this contact we can resurrect, from the ground up, a social ethic, a new movement.  Hand out bowls of soup.  Coax the homeless into a shower.  Make sure those who are mentally ill, cruelly cast out on city sidewalks, take their medications.  Put your muscle behind organizing service workers.  Go back into America’s resegregated schools.  Protest.  Live simply.  It is in the tangible, mundane and difficult work of forming groups and communities to care for others and defy authority that we will kindle the outrage and the moral vision to fight back.  It is not Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson who will save us.  It is Dorothy Day. (“Fueling the Fire of Real Change,” TruthDig, 28 September 2008)

28  Max Shachtman (1904-1972) became in the 1920s a Communist and, after Lenin’s death, a Trotskyite leader in the USA, but then broke with Trotsky over the issue of the nature of the USSR, where Trotsky saw a “degenerated workers’ state” — socialist — but Shachtman saw a “bureaucratic collectivism” with a new mode of production neither socialist nor capitalist.  Harrington agreed with that view.  It was when their anti-Stalinism evolved later into anti-Communism that they joined the Socialist Party under Norman Thomas.  Harrington believed that the best strategy for achieving fundamental social change in the USA was for Socialists like himself to collaborate with the Democratic-Party “liberals” (in the modern American sense of that term).  Following the death of Norman Thomas, the Socialist Party moved rightwards and renamed itself the Social Democrats of America.  When they came out decisively in favor of the Vietnam War, Harrington broke with them and formed his own organization, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, which subsequently merged with another group to form the Democratic Socialists of America.

29  Dwight MacDonald, “Our Invisible Poor,”  The New Yorker (19 January 1963).

30  Harrington, The Politics at God’s Funeral: The Spiritual Crisis of Western Civilization (NY: Penguin Books, 1983), p.1.

31  Ibid. p. 198.

32  Ibid., pp. 108-109.

33  Ibid., pp. 109-110.

34  Ibid., p. 81.

35  Ibid. pp. 10-11

36  Lucio Colletti, Ideologia e societB (1969), translated by John Merrington and Judith White as From Rousseau to Lenin; Studies in Ideology and Society (Monthly Review Press, 1975).

37  Ibid., pp. 224-225.

38  The political differences between the two Protestants in this group (Ingersoll and Dewey) were less salient than between Santayana and Harrington on the one hand or between Adler and Rand on the other.  George Novack’s Pragmatism versus Marxism: An Appraisal of John Dewey’s Philosophy (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1975) describes Dewey as a philosopher whose work provided in effect a defense of the interests of the American middle class by emphasizing class collaboration rather than class struggle (which Novack believed offered better prospects for achieving lasting radical social change).  Novack saw the American middle class as predisposed, because of its intermediate degree of status and power, to view the apparent clash of interests between the top capitalists and the working class as a gap which can be bridged by citizens of good will.

James Farmelant (B.S., Physics, University of Massachusetts) is a software engineer by profession.   His main interests are natural and social sciences, technology, philosophy, and political science.  Click here to read his article “‘Neuer Atheismus’ (und ‘Neuer Humanismus’) in den USA.”   Mark Lindley is a noted musicologist and an historian of modern India.  Among his most recent publications is J. C. Kumarappa: Mahatma Gandhi’s Economist.  Click here to read his article on Kumarappa: “Kumarappa: A Giant or a Midget?”

Comments are closed.