100 Year Old Letters From Ordinary Atheists Explaining Their Atheism

(Image via Friendly Atheist)

So, last week I happened to stumble upon an old Unreasonable Faith post celebrating the firebrand atheism of Charles Chilton Moore, whose turn of the century Kentucky newspaper, The Bluegrass Blade, was like the Pharyngula of its time. (Moore even did a stint in jail for scandalously claiming that “Jesus Christ was a man exactly like I am and had a human father and mother exactly like I had.”) Little did I know at the time that just a week later, Thomas Lawson would publish a book of letters to The Bluegrass Blade, called Letters from an Atheist Nation in which everyday atheists from every walk of life in 1903 explain in their own words how and why they became atheists. (No-God must have guided me to this most serendipitous coincidence because No-God would clearly want a book like this to be widely read.) I have not read the book yet, but the publishers’ product description sounds really interesting and worth recommending to your investigation:

In 1903, the “Blue Grass Blade,” a Kentucky/Ohio-based freethought newspaper, which started as the only Prohibition newspaper edited by “a Heathen in the interest of good morals,” requested letters from its readers describing how and why they had become atheists. Lawson has meticulously transcribed these letters from the digitized copies available at the Library of Congress’s “Chronicling America” website and has edited them for a 21st-century audience. He touches on the stigma that has been placed on atheism in America and why atheists feel they have to hide their true personalities from their closest friends and family. Like today’s atheists, the writers of these letters hid behind initials and “nom de plumes,” and Lawson has done us a great service by deciphering many of the letter writers’ mysterious pseudonyms to reveal their true identities. Will you find a branch of atheism in YOUR family tree?

The phrases and voices in these letters are over one hundred years old, but the thoughts and sentiments have changed very little, unlike the dogmas and doctrines they were hoping their descendants would have abandoned by now. Their thoughts could be pulled from the latest blogs of non-believers, but these are not merely letters from scientists, scholars, or intimidating intelligentsia, no, these are personal revelations from physicians, lawyers, dentists, veterans, pioneers, settlers, farmers, tradespeople, teenagers, and housewives. These letters are ironically Bible-like in that they are lyrical, repetitive, prophetic, and poetic, but the “revelation” will be left to the reader. If these century-old thoughts sound familiar, it would appear that there is nothing new about OUR century’s “new” atheism.

The book is here.

UPDATE (10/8/11): PZ has been inspired by this book to solicit your letters about why you are an atheist and publish them on Pharyngula as a regular feature.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • The Lorax

    After looking at that comic, I’m thinking that things haven’t changed much…

    At the same time, rational thought doesn’t change much either. It remains rational. New information arrives, yes; but rationality is rationality, all the way through. Perhaps that’s why one could post that comic in a modern newspaper, and no one would know the difference.

  • savoy47

    I just took a look at the New York Times historic archives and did a search on “Atheists” from 1840 to 1907.

    There were quite a number of articles returned. The few I read so far were very entertaining.

    New York Times Jan 8, 1884;

    We have had female acrobats, female bicyclists, and female ball-players. That we now have a female atheist is what might have been expected.

    Great article and she pulls no punches.

  • http://www.facebook.com/pages/Letters-from-an-Atheist-Nation/252536341450603 Thomas Lawson

    Thanks for the mention!

    It’s unfortunate that most of these letter writers’ families might have no clue that their relatives were atheists. Let’s hope that all of those ancestry fans out there hit their own personal branches of atheism in their family trees. And let us also hope that the mysteries of atheism begin to dissolve.

    For the happiness of the human race.

  • john

    crazzy. interesting post. do you think atheism is something that is becoming a consistent ideology in most americans?? i just read

    Is Atheism the new trend in America? http://goo.gl/ss7ZM

    and couldn’t help but think some things…
    what do you think??
    check out the article and let me know your thoughts..


    • quidam

      Why the hidden link John? Could it be because you wish to hide that the destination is “Christmesh”

      Christian Mesh
      Christian Mashup of the Web Home
      Christian News
      Christian Entertainment
      Christian World
      Christian Persecution
      Christian Ministry

      And frankly while you couldn’t help but think some things, it seems that all I learned is that it’s God who creates rush hour traffic. Oh and that “Obama is Ignoring You and Bypassing Congress to Radically Transform America”

      How enlightening.

    • bezboznik

      just like a xtian: be a snake in the grass & try to poison the well, because if they’re honest and open everyone will see them for the parasites they are

  • http://www.facebook.com/pages/Letters-from-an-Atheist-Nation/252536341450603 Thomas Lawson

    I personally like the idea of requesting modern “Why I Am An Atheist” letters, but I’m biased.