2000 Years of Disbelief: Thomas Edison

2000 Years of Disbelief: Thomas Edison June 8, 2020

By James A. Haught

This is the seventeenth segment of a series on renowned skeptics throughout history. These profiles are drawn from 2000 Years of Disbelief: Famous People With the Courage to Doubt, Prometheus Books, 1996.

America’s supreme inventor – creator of the electric light, the phonograph, the movie projector, the carbon telephone transmitter and a thousand other devices – was also a whimsical skeptic who laughed at supernatural beliefs.

Thomas Edison (1847-1931), “the wizard of Menlo Park,” was a revered American celebrity in the early years of the twentieth century. But he stirred national wrath in 1910 by giving blunt answers in news interviews.

In one, a reporter asked: ”What does God mean to you?” Edison replied: “Not a damn thing.” The hypothesis of an invisible deity is merely “an abstraction,” he said, adding that “billions of prayers” had been uttered with no discernible effect on disasters or wars.

In another interview, Edison stated: “So far as religion of the day is concerned, it is a damned fake…. Religion is all bunk…. All bibles are man-made.”

A full-page article in The New York Times said of Edison: “A merciful and loving Creator he considers not to be believed in. Nature, the supreme power, he recognizes and respects, but does not worship.”

The news reports caused a storm: Angry ministers protested from their pulpits. Thousands of irate letters arrived at Edison’s New Jersey laboratory. A Catholic cardinal wrote in Columbian Magazine that Edison’s views on profound questions carried no weight because he was, after all, “a mere mechanic.” Edison’s business investors begged him not to taint Edison Industries by further blasphemy.

Edison tried to explain away his earlier statements by saying he believed in “a supreme intelligence.” But the controversy lingered for years.

Occasionally, the inventor played games with his detractors. In 1920, he announced that he was working on an electronic device to communicate with departed souls: “It will give them a better opportunity to express themselves than Ouija boards or tilting tables.”

When a minister inquired about installing lightning rods on his church spire, Edison replied: “By all means, as Providence is apt to be absent-minded.”

Edison had been an agnostic since boyhood, and he was unorthodox in other ways. He attended school only three months in his entire life. Teachers labeled Edison retarded, but his mother knew better and taught him at home, where his keen mind flowered. By age twelve, he had read Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, and other classics. He read Paine’s famed attack on Christianity, The Age of Reason, and later recounted: “I can still remember the flash of enlightenment that shone from his pages.” According to biographer Matthew Josephson, “the skeptical writings of Darwin, Huxley and Tyndall were the favorite reading of Edison’s youth.” Biographer Wyn Wachhorst states, “Edison rejected three fundamental tenets of Christianity: the divinity of Christ, a personal God, and immortality.”

Science became Edison’s obsession. Even while working as a newsboy on a passenger train, he conducted experiments in a private comer. At age twenty-one, he repaired a broken telegraph ticker in a New York gold market office and landed a job as an electrical technician. Later, he struck out on his own, creating the world’s first industrial research laboratory. Success followed upon success. Fame and wealth came to him. Nor did growing deafness deter him.

After his first wife died, Edison courted Mina Miller, a devout Methodist, with whom he clashed over religion. In 1898, when President McKinley publicly thanked God for victory in the Spanish-American War, Edison wrote to her: “But the same God gave us yellow fever, and to be consistent McKinley ought to have thanked him for that also.”

After they were married, Mina invited clergymen to dinner, to pressure her agnostic husband. Once she entertained six Methodist bishops, triggering a ferocious theological debate that ended when Edison said, “I’m not going to listen to any more of this nonsense!” and stormed out.

Afterward, the Edisons agreed not to discuss religion, and so lived happily until his death at age eighty-four.

Edison’s views on religion

“I cannot believe in the immortality of the soul. … No, all this talk of an existence for us, as individuals, beyond the grave is wrong. It is born of our tenacity of life ­ our desire to go on living – our dread of coming to an end as individuals. I do not dread it, though. Personally, I cannot see any use of a future life.” – interview in The New York Times, Oct. 2, 1910, sect. 5, p. 1

“We do not know the gods of the religions…. No, nature made us – nature did it all – not the gods of the religions.” – ibid.

“I have never seen the slightest scientific proof of the religious theories of heaven and hell, of future life for individuals, or of a personal God…. I work on certain lines that might be called, perhaps, mechanical. … Proof! Proof! That is what I have always been after. I do not know the soul, I know the mind. If there is really any soul, I have found no evidence of it in my investigations…. I do not believe in the God of the theologians; but that there is a Supreme Intelligence, I do not doubt.” – statement issued amid the public controversy generated in 1910, in Edison: A Biography, p. 438

“When a man is dead, he is dead! My mind is incapable of conceiving such a thing as a soul. I may be in error, and man may have a soul; but I simply do not believe it.” – Do We Live Again?

“I do not believe that any type of religion should ever be introduced into the public schools of the United States.” – The Great Quotations by George Seldes

“My conscience seems to be oblivious to Sundays. It must be encrusted with a sort of irreligious tartar.” – entry in his diary

“I wish to thank you for Mr. Lewis’ book on ‘Lincoln the Freethinker.’ This is another of the many publications brought out in late years which are dispelling the clouds of superstition and breaking our bondage to a mythical religion.” – letter to Lincoln Publishing Co., Nov. 19, 1924

“The great trouble is that the preachers get the children from six to seven years of age, and then it is almost impossible to do anything with them. Incurably religious – that is the best way to describe the mental condition of so many people. Incurably religious.” – conversation with Joseph Lewis on Dec. 3, 1929, reported in Joseph Lewis, Atheism and Other Addresses (reprint New York: Arno Press, 1972)

“Thomas Paine… has been called an atheist, but atheist he was not. Paine believed in a supreme intelligence, as representing the idea which other men often express by the name of deity. His Bible was the open face of nature, the broad skies, the green hills. He disbelieved the ancient myths and miracles taught by established creeds. But the attacks on those creeds – or on persons devoted to them – have served to darken his memory, casting a shadow across the closing years of his life. When Theodore Roosevelt termed Tom Paine a dirty little atheist, he surely spoke from lack of understanding.” – from an introduction Edison wrote for a book on Paine in 1916

“The endeavor to change universal power by selfish supplication I do not believe in.” – Views of Religion by Rufus Noyes

“Why we come here, and where we are going, is beyond my ken.” – ibid.

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