Friday, April 13, 2012

"Letters from an Atheist Nation" by Thomas Lawson

(cover from

I mentioned this book in October. At the time, it was only available as a Kindle download, but it was later released as a trade paperback.

Letters from an Atheist Nation: Godless Voices of America in 1903 is a collection of letters, from atheists, agnostics, and other freethinkers, which were printed in the Blue Grass Blade newspaper in 1903.

The story of the Blue Grass Blade itself, a freethought newspaper in Bible Belt Kentucky, and of its founder, Charles C. Moore, a former minister, is quite interesting. Lawson writes about that in his 33-page preface.

The rest of the book contains letters from the newspaper's readers, in response to a request for brief articles on "Why I am an atheist" (including "all who doubt or deny the existence of a Supreme Being," whatever they called themselves - after all, we nonbelievers don't follow the same dogma).

I must say that I was surprised at how large the book was: 350 pages, including preface, index, and 17 pages of footnotes. Lawson did a great job with it.

And I found it fascinating, for all sorts of reasons. For one thing, I just liked these people:
I do not believe in being good for fear of being forever damned, but I believe in being good and doing good because it is right to do good. - Margaret Coppock, 28, Indianapolis, Indiana

That we should do right, there appears no question, but it should be to make this life, and the lives of those who should live after we are dead, more worth the living and not that we be rewarded, or for fear of punishment after we are dead. - George W. Hall, Noblesville, Indiana

Atheism says: "The time to be happy is now, the place to be happy is here, and the way to be happy is to make others so." Therefore, I am an Atheist. - Miss Sadie E. Roberts, 22, Bennington, Kansas

But the most damnable and infamous requisition is: Believe what my middle man tells you to believe whether you can or not, or be eternally damned and burnt forever, never to die, but always living in order to be tortured. Did you ever hear of any man so mean, the very embodiment of the fiercest undying tyranny and cruelty? I want such a God to distinctly understand that I would not speak to Him on the highway. - Brooke Bartlett, Crews, Alabama


Most of the arguments are surprisingly modern - pretty much the same things atheists are saying today. Some use an old-fashioned manner of speaking (and one or two include racial slurs which would certainly not be acceptable today), but in most cases, I know exactly where they're coming from. Yes, this is how I see it, too.

As is true today, most of these atheists were raised Christian:
But one day I got to the place where Joshua led his people over the Jordan dry-shod and blew down the walls of Jericho with ram's horns (Goodness, I thought, those were tough horns!),...

But the sequel was what got away with all my preconceived ideas of justice and right. They took Achan out and stoned him to death (good enough for Achan; he belonged to the tribe of Judas), but they went further: they killed his wife and children. What the little innocent children had to do with it was never made plain to me. Alas, they are all dead now and I will never know. But this was not all. They "stoned" to death the old man Achan and his wife, and all the family and connections, including Achan's mother-in-law and his cousins, and his aunts, and all the cattle and sheep and goats and asses. The good book does not say anything about whether they killed Achan's dogs, too, I believe, but I suppose they made a "clean sweep."

Well, all this seemed to a little boy as I read it to have been done by the immediate direction of God, and my boyish sense of justice kicked against it, and my old man's sense of justice is still "kicking." - Frank Burns, Washington, D.C.

Of course, he could number the hairs of a man's head and count the useless sparrows, and could reverse the order of the solar system and hold the sun and moon in check while murder and carnage went merrily on, and the very diadem of all morality, the purity of womanhood, was treated with contempt and fiendishly outraged at his express command.

While the above phase of infinite character was unfolding before my youthful thinker, I was sincerely seeking for information that would throw light on the inconsistencies, but I was ignored, or punished, or given such absurd interpretations that my skepticism was confirmed, and I slowly, but surely, concluded that the whole business was nothing but an exaggerated Santa Clause [sic] - the one for children and the other for adults, and both equally false. - Walter Collins, Los Angeles, California

About 50 years ago, a Presbyterian preacher assured me that God's Bible sanctioned slavery, and he quoted several texts from the Old and New Testaments to prove it. And I said in my heart, if God and His Bible sanction slavery they may both go to hell.

Old God, you are a myth, a creature of the imagination. A good Christian will have a good God, and a bad Christian will have a bad God. And there you are. Good-bye, God. - William W. Martin, Mableton, Georgia

These are all individuals. They're not parroting dogma. They don't just disagree about labels, they think for themselves in other ways, too. Their letters aren't products of cut-and-paste reasoning, barely-understood ideas taken from someone else, but heartfelt words from ordinary people who've actually thought about what they believe.

In most cases, their arguments are just as valid today as they were in 1903. But science has advanced since then, so that's not always the case. I thought it was funny to read the "something can't come from nothing" argument used to argue for atheism, when today it's commonly used by theists to explain the necessity for God (wrongly, in both cases).
And, as space of necessity is eternal, so matter of necessity is eternal also. If at any time in the remote past matter had not existed, it would not exist now; from nothing nothing can come. Being eternal, it could not have been created, hence no "Creator." - Otto Wettstein, LaGrange, Illinois

Of course, the Big Bang theory did not exist in 1903. But this should teach us not be so sure we know what can and can't be true.

On the other hand, the Big Bang theory was developed because evidence that went against existing thinking wasn't just dismissed. When new evidence indicated that existing theories were wrong, science went with the evidence and not with "faith" in their prior "dogma."

As I say, these letters came from ordinary people of all walks of life, mostly men, but many women, from all across America (one letter from here in Nebraska), and of pretty much all ages - the  youngest, only 14:
Lastly, observing everyday life, I can't say that people are made better by religion. Their belief in a God puts them in constant fear of him (if they truly believe), and this makes them cringing cowards. People commit all kinds of sins and then think that by offering prayers to their God they are forgiven. I cannot believe in such a pest as that one preying on the people today - the pest of religion. - Anna Fritz, 14, San Francisco, California

Yes, Anna, I think that was my first observation, too, that people aren't made better by religion.

Many of these atheists and agnostics assumed that religion would lose ground in the world as science advanced. They'd be disappointed if they could see us now, more than a hundred years later. Not only are we still fighting religious wars, but religious superstition has a firm hold on America, itself.

Still, this book is encouraging, if only for the quality of these letters. And the whole thing was interesting. I'll admit that it took some effort to finish, since there are a lot of letters here, and of necessity, the arguments tend to repeat after awhile.

But the very last letter in the book was one I would have hated to miss. I don't think I'll post an excerpt from that one, now. I'll make a separate post of it, sometime. So I'll end with this, instead:
Belief is the effect of evidence upon the mind. It is not under our control, it is involuntary. So how can one be rightly blamed for one's belief? When I was young, they taught me that the Bible is infallible. They said it is the word of God; that it contains the whole and holy truth and nothing but the truth.

Before I read it, I supposed all this was true, but after I perused it for myself I thought I knew it wasn't. I thought I found injustice, crimes, and cruelties upheld by God; some silly ceremonies, some false, absurd, ridiculous, and foolish fairy tales and fables; some contradictions and conflicts with science and with common sense...

I believe in one standard of morality for men and women. I believe in cremation, in free speech and free press, and in liberty and justice. I don't believe that one man can rightly be held responsible for the deeds of another, or that one man can be good for another. I don't believe in the immaculate conception of Christ or in miracles, ghosts, spirits, witches, devils, or hells. Most Christians do. I prefer kindness to cruelty, facts to falsehoods, the demonstrated truth to blind faith, reason to religion, and science to superstition. My religion is help for the living; hope for the dead. - William E. Johnson, McLeansboro, Illinois

Note: I posted an excerpt from the last letter in the book here.

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