American atheism’s rich history evoked in 1906 Kentucky article

American atheism’s rich history evoked in 1906 Kentucky article March 29, 2019

It was a lovely discovery, a blast from atheism’s rich past.

atheism faith liberal protestantism
Credulolus Congregants’ believe they are tapping into the Holy Spirit at a “Midnight Madness” event in 2009 at the First Church of San Jose, California. (Richard Masoner/Cyclelicious Photostream, Flikr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

I stumbled onto it yesterday on the internet — a very long, quaintly worded article published April 29, 1906, in Lexington, Kentucky’s Blue-grass Blade, which ceased to be in 1910. It was a reprint of a piece by J.T. Lloyd originally published in the London Freethinker, titled “What is human credulity?”

‘Thoughtful reading’

The Lexington weekly was published on Sundays “to give the public thoughtful reading material on a day when it was most needed,” according to a Library of Congress citation about the periodical. Apparently, the public doesn’t care about thoughtful reading material anymore.

What is remarkable about this old-fashioned piece of prose is its clear-eyed and credible defense of religious nonbelief against Protestantism’s so-called “liberal theololgy” of the day, at a time when virtually the entire American population was unabashedly Christian.

Its opening paragraph is unpromising, to say the least, and, expecting excruciating tedium, I had an impulse to flee immediately to something more entertaining. So glad I didn’t. The article begins:

“By reason of the protracted discussion that has been indulged in upon the subject of Atheism and Crime, with all the comments made thereon, the following selections are reproduced as showing the mental attitude of Atheists as concerns phenomena and its bearing on morality.”

You can see why I was initially a little terrified to proceed.

But Mr. Lloyd fairly quickly began to make a lot of sense in his dense argument.

 “Must a man not believe certain alleged facts before it can be said that he possesses or exercises faith? If faith signifies trust in God or Christ for salvation, does not such trust involve certain beliefs about God and Christ? But who is to determine which beliefs are true or not? Myriads of people are convinced that they are not true; and have these not as good a right to charge the liberal divine with credulity as the liberal divine has to bring a similar accusation against his orthodox brother?”

Indeed.

Credulous credulity

This is where Lloyd invokes the “credulity” in his title:

“Credulity is only a matter of degrees. You cannot trust in God without believing that He exists; and the belief in his existence is bound to carry with it some definite belief as to his nature and attributes. The Atheist is without God, and, therefore, without the ability to trust in him, and, consequently, without the pale of salvation.”

How can I not love a guy who uses commas as liberally as I do, whatever his theology or nontheology?

From here on in his long argument Lloyd talks raises and reasonably rejects the standard conceit of believing Christians that heaven is forever unattainable for heathens.

“Now concerning such a faith two things are alleged even by the liberal divine, namely, that in its absence the highest and noblest type of character is unattainable, and that it is a gift of God. Observe the plight of the poor Atheist. The best of life is out of his reach. … He lacks the fundamental, all-essential requisite, faith. But have pity on him because the fault is not his, but God’s. He has not the faith because God has neglected to give it to him. It is to this that the teaching even of the most progressive theologians inevitably leads.

It’s God’s fault?

Raised Catholic, I had, in truth, never heard this supposed Protestant theological generosity of spirit. I had never heard that unbelievers were not judged by the divine, somehow not complicit in their own lack of faith. I had been told in catechism class and in the sneers of adults otherwise, that, in fact, the faithless were doomed to go straight to hell.

But Lloyd questions that on both logical and theological grounds. He contends that,

“[A Protestant clergyman] is willing to admit that avowed unbelievers may possess and exhibit the noblest type of character, although he Is careful to add that when they do so they must be believers without knowing it, which is absurd. But in making such an admission he brands himself as a credulous person.”

Lloyd asks rhetorically,

“If men can both be and do good on the largest scale without any religion whatever, is it not the very quintessence of absurdity to say that ‘no man can realize the purpose for which he exists and attain to his true destiny apart from Christ Christ?’ Can it be shown that men exist for any other purpose than that of being and doing good on the largest possible scale? If not, what becomes of this vain Christian boast.”

A ‘glaring contradiction’

He calls this “a contradiction of the most glaring type.” And indeed it is.

The ethical ideas attributed to Christ, he wrote, “have always existed and do still exist apart from Christ.”

This is the heart of the slogan of many atheist organizations today — “Good without God” — so something old is new again. I just wanted to share this, reminding us that atheism is not a new idea but one perpetually reincarnated in various societies throughout human history. It perseveres because it’s reasonable.

Doubt: A History

For a very thorough historical summary of atheism and other forms of religious doubt through history, I highly recommend one of the most influential books in my life, Doubt: A History — The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson, by historian Jennifer Michael Hecht.

In his conclusion, Lloyd stresses that atheists believe they can achieve a destiny of good and purpose “much more effectively … apart from Christ.” He explained,

“This is the Atheistic position pure and simpIe. Our life is based not upon a denial of the supernatural but upon an emphatic affirmation of the all-sufficiency of the natural.”

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