Bill Cooke


Springtime in Boston. April 1861. The United States is bitterly divided. Cultural wars have festered for several decades around questions of how American democracy should look. What were the limits of democracy? Should blacks be able to participate in the democratic process. What about women? What role should religion play in government and in society? In only a few days the most explosive of these faultlines would plunge the country into the worst disaster of its history. This was the question of slavery. For more than twenty years a vocal minority had energised the sluggish majority in the northern states to recognise that slavery was wrong. It was wrong morally and it was wrong socially. Whether it was wrong religiously was still the most divisive and vexed aspect of this most difficult issue. Foremost among these campaigners was Ernestine Rose (1810-1891). But unlike the majority of abolitionist campaigners, Ernestine Rose saw the bigger picture. Freeing women from oppression was linked intimately to freeing slaves from oppression. And any freedom from oppression meant nurturing a free mind.

From her earliest days as a child in the short-lived Grand Duchy of Warsaw, Ernestine Potowska was made aware of the contest between progress and reaction. The Grand Duchy was created by Napoleon out of the western parts of Poland seized by Prussia in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Ranged against this promise of progress and freedom were the forces of reaction, championed by the twin pillars: autocracy and organised religion. And few people valued the comparative freedoms of Napoleonic Europe more than Jews. For centuries subject to Christian anti-Semitism, for a brief few years, Jews could dream of a future free from hatred.

The Hebrew Bible of her upbringing and the Christian Bible of the societies she spent her adult years in pulsed with restrictions: restrictions on how to behave, on what to think, and on who to associate with. Rose’s latest biographer is correct to say that, for someone raised an orthodox Jew there was no serious option between full observance or atheism. (Anderson, pp 14-15) Potowska chose atheism. Atheism meant emancipation from the most fundamental of the restrictions which hemmed in her, and everyone else’s, life. The Bible clearly presupposes the subservience of women and the existence of slavery. Rather than urging reform of injustices, the New Testament in particular, counsels those in menial roles to accept their lot. With the Second Coming of Christ just around the corner, it was not felt necessary to revise social conditions on an earth about to change fundamentally.

To this day, many Christians remain in denial about the extent of support given to slavery by followers of Jesus. Even during Rose’s lifetime Christian apologists were airbrushing any taint of heterodoxy out of the story of emancipation. One of the most influential of these was Charles Loring Brace (1826-1890), who declared in the 1880s that no one ‘who knew anything of the anti-slavery reformers in the United States, will doubt that their career was begun and carried on under the purest influence of Christ’s truths.’ (Brace, p. 382) But, as Brace must have known full well, supporting slavery, along with the refusal to countenance equality for women, could and was done in the full odour of sanctity. Rev Henry Jackson van Dyke (1822-91) was one of many pro-slavery apologists who defended slavery on specifically Christian grounds. Abolitionism, van Dyke argued, was inherently evil. In front of a large New York audience towards the end of 1860, van Dyke declared

I am here tonight in God’s name, and by His help, to show that the tree of abolitionism is evil and only evil, root and branch, flower and leaf and fruit; that it springs from, and is nourished by an utter rejection of the Scriptures; that it produces no real benefit to the enslaved, and is the fruitful source of division and strife and infidelity in both Church and State.’ (van Dyke, p 6)

The link between abolitionism and infidelity was made so frequently, and often with a strong streak of intolerance, that it continually exercised the abolitionist movement. Many Southern clergymen were content to discredit the case for abolition simply by claiming one could only be an infidel to make such an outlandish claim. So corrosive was this charge that many convinced abolitionists were anxious to deflect it by distancing the movement from any suggestion of links to distinctly non-religious, let alone atheist, arguments.

So for Ernestine Rose to rise to prominence in the American abolitionist movement is something remarkable. Because Ernestine Rose was a Jew, a woman, a foreigner, and an infidel: the worst nightmare of many a defender of slavery. It is important to recognise that these were not incidental qualities; they were seen by many of her opponents as root and branch the reason she argued as she did. In the face of provocations such as this, some opponents of Rose did not scruple to inflate still further the abuse. The best known of these was a clergyman in Maine who, under the cloak of anonymity, declared “it would be shameful to listen to this woman, a thousand times below a prostitute.” (Bangor Mercury Nov 3 1855, quoted in Suhl, p 176)

When not being openly abused, other critics preferred to condescend. Rose’s accent, her gloves, the ringlets in her hair; anything was commented on as a means to belittle her and keep the focus on her otherness. Even among supporters of abolition, many were nervous about being linked in public with infidels like Ernestine Rose. It is to the great credit of Susan B Anthony and other leaders of the movement, that this timid counsel of excluding Rose from the speaking platform was ignored. (Suhl, p 198)

The reason Ernestine Rose retained her prominent position in the movement was a simple one: she was an outstanding communicator, and spoke with the authenticity that makes connections. Rose had, wrote her biographer, the ‘happy faculty of being able to illuminate a subject with the bright light of logic without sacrificing the quality of human emotion.’ (Suhl, p 121) Year in and year out, Rose defended, extended and articulated the related causes of abolitionism and women’s rights. The abuse and condescension was constant, and not infrequently her meetings were disrupted by violence, often stirred up by the tabloid press of the day.

In the face of provocation over such a long period, it is hardly surprising that Rose did not speak on atheism more often. But she knew that speaking in such a way before the battle against slavery and for women’s rights had gathered momentum would be to embolden her calumniators. The freethought movement was only just finding its way and did not meet that often. But when a freethought meeting was convened at the Mercantile Hall in Boston in 1861, Rose thought it time to speak openly about her atheism. A Defence of Atheism turned out to be one of the most authentic, cogent and convincing expressions of atheism ever written.

Atheism before 1861

Before we look at what Rose said, we need first to survey the intellectual world she would have been exposed to. Who had Rose read to produce a work like this? The core principles of Rose’s atheism were set before she emigrated to the United States in 1836. Rose’s biographers all emphasise the influence of Robert Owen (1771-1858) on Rose’s life and thought. Her years in England were a time of freethought ferment, and she quickly immersed herself in the Owenite movement. This will have offered her a rich, passionate and varied education. Owen’s book, A New View of Society (1816) was a radical call for a new set of values around education, social care, bans on child labour and alleviating the worst forms of inequality. The following year, in a speech in London, Owen announced his independence from religious belief. A public declaration of this sort was a scandal to many, an inspiring act of courage to many others. This address can, in several ways, be seen as a model for Rose’s subsequent career. Owen outlined the obstacles to the effective and permanent relief of the poor. Chief among them was an impoverished outlook on the world. It will be futile, Owen said,

to erect villages of union and mutual cooperation; for it will be vain to look on this search for inhabitants to occupy them, who can understand how to live in the bond of peace and unity; or who can love their neighbour as themselves, whether he be Jew or Gentile, Mahomedan or Pagan, Infidel or Christian. Any religion that creates one particle of feeling short of this is false and must prove a curse on the whole human race! Robert Owen, speech delivered at the City of London tavern, August 21 1817, reprinted in A New View of Society and Other Writings, p 217). And when Owen spoke of the whole human race, he really meant the whole human race, taking care specifically to include non-white people in his vision.

But while Owen’s influence was certainly great, it would be wrong to see Rose as just another Owenite. Without doubt Owen supplied much of the ethical motivation for her atheism, but the actual arguments came from a broader field. So, too, did the examples. Outside the Owenite movement, prominent among the freethought champions of this period was Richard Carlile (1790-1843), who spent altogether more than nine years in prison between 1817 and 1835, defending the rights of free speech. The longest spell was a three-year term of imprisonment for republishing Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason. Unable to pay the impossibly high fine of £1500, Carlile’s term was doubled from three to six years. Carlile’s atheism, no less than Robert Owen’s, was linked with a strong sense of the need for social reform, as was Ernestine Rose’s.

Closely bound up with Carlile was the presence of heroic female freethinkers who cannot but have inspired the young Polish refugee. While Carlile was incarcerated, his common-law wife Eliza Sharples Carlile (c. 1805-1852) courageously held the fort in his absence. She became a prominent freethought lecturer in her own right. Also active at this time was Emma Martin (1812-1851), whose thoughts on women’s rights mixed easily with her freethought principles.

From higher up the social ladder, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was a fierce critic of religion. His works The Church of England Catechism Explained (1818), Analysis of the Influence of Natural Religion on the Temporal Happiness of Mankind (1822) and Not Paul, but Jesus (1823) were scathing indictments of organised religion as a blight on happiness, monuments of inconsistency and a parade of folly. The direct influence of these works is less clear, but at the very least, Rose is likely to have known of them. The indirect influence of these works, via Robert Owen, however, is profound, as Owenism is a practical application of Bentham’s utilitarianism.

Still further up the social ladder Percy Bysshe Shelley had produced some explosively influential poems and essays that reverberated around radical circles for decades. Pirate publications of Shelley’s poem Queen Mab denunciation of tyranny and religion’s sordid role as an abettor to tyranny were widely read. Less widely read, but widely known about, was Shelley’s short essay ‘The necessity of atheism’, for which he was expelled from University College, Oxford on March 25 1811.

As well as these current publications and lecturers, older freethought material was available. Works by, and summaries of, the writings of radicals like Spinoza, d’Holbach, Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft were circulating. While in France Rose may well have come across the story of Olympe de Gouge (1748-1793). This remarkable woman wrote a play called Negro Slavery in 1774 which was far too radical to be published in the ancien regime. It was first performed only in 1789. De Gouge quickly became disenchanted with the limitations of the emancipatory rhetoric of the French revolutionaries, and so in 1791 penned the Declaration of the Rights of Woman, a passionate appeal for equality of the sexes. She was guillotined in 1793 for satirising the revolution. Olympe de Gouge was every bit the forerunner of Ernestine Rose.

Once Rose was in the United States, she would have come across the American radicals: people like Ethan Allen, Elihu Palmer and Philip Freneau. All these men were deists, though, so it’s not clear how far Rose would have learned from them that she had not already he learned in England. The deist we know Rose responded warmly to was Thomas Paine, whose memory she passionately defended for her entire life.

Later influences include Victor Hugo, whose poems Rose discovered while in Paris in 1856. One of which, in Judgment she called ‘sublime thing, and as bold and strong as beautiful.’ (Suhl, p 184) It is also unlikely Rose was not at least familiar with the new scholarship of David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874) and Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872).

Ernestine Rose’s atheism

A very good case can be made that Ernestine Rose was influenced by some other thinkers every bit as much as she was by Robert Owen. One influence that stands out is that of the German polymath Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859). Of the very few names specifically mentioned in the Defence of Atheism, the most significant is ‘Humboldt’, who alone is praised as a man of unusual courage. (p 16) But was Rose referring to Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835), the great Prussian educator, or his younger brother Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) the explorer and scientist? Either one would qualify as someone Rose would hold in high esteem, but it was clearly Alexander who she had in mind. Alexander von Humboldt had visited the United States in 1804, where he was feted by Thomas Jefferson and became an instant celebrity after his heroic adventures in South America exploring volcanoes, collecting a vast range of plant specimens and measuring everything. Though Humboldt and Jefferson got along famously, and had a lot in common, one area they did not agree on was slavery. After seeing Spanish mistreatment of slaves in South America, Humboldt was a lifelong abolitionist. He saw, before anyone else, the link between slavery and colonialism and, quite apart from the moral objections, also understood slavery as a limiting and self-defeating way to manage an economy. Though adapted differently to the challenges of geography and climate, Humboldt insisted that all races of ‘a common type’. (Wulf, pp 106-8)

Decades later, Humboldt became a household name in the United States after the publication in 1845 of his enormously influential work, Cosmos. This was Humboldt’s magnum opus, his big-picture account of the workings of nature, and our place in it. After a long introduction which outlined his weltanschaunng, the book was divided into three parts: celestial, terrestrial and organic, where Humboldt stressed the inter-connections of all things. It was hard not to notice the complete absence of any mention of God in the book. Instead, Humboldt spoke of the ‘wonderful web of organic life.’ (Wulf, p 246) The second volume, which appeared in 1847 then gave a magisterial history of humanity, placed in its natural surroundings. It was available in English in the United States after 1849 and was enormously influential.

It’s when one looks at the structure of Rose’s Defence of Atheism that Humboldt’s impact is most clear. The 39 paragraphs of Rose’s address follow the schema of Cosmos, which moved from the heavens, through the physical sciences to the social sciences and on to humanity’s account of its situation.

Paragraphs 2-7: physical sciences do not endorse theism

Paragraphs 8-11: an account of social sciences and religion

Paragraphs 11-16: Biblical account of creation

Paragraphs 17-18: Christ’s sacrifice and what it tells us

Paragraph 19: summarises case so far.

Paragraph 20: is her case unreasonable?

Paragraphs 21-22: metaphysical arguments for God

Paragraphs 23-26: argument to design

Paragraphs 27-28: laws of nature, not Natural Law.

Paragraph 29: superstition the enemy of knowledge.

Paragraphs 30-32: universality of religion denied.

Paragraphs 33-34: consequences of eliminated superstition.

Paragraphs 35-37: morality does not depend on religion.

Paragraphs 38-39: what atheism is.

The advantage of structuring an argument for atheism in this way is that everything is seen as a property of nature. It is not, as many religious apologists like to claim, a titanic contest between supernaturalism and naturalism. Supernatural thinking, like beetles, or battles, is just another property of the natural world.

Though not specifically named, traces of two other important thinkers on Rose’s address can be spotted. The first of them is Baron Paul d’Holbach. A strong indicator of d’Holbach’s influence is the fundamental role Rose gives to motion as the inherent property of an indestructible matter. (pp 4-5) Early on in his classic work, A System of Nature, d’Holbach speaks of motion in precisely this way. Of materialist metaphysics D’Holbach writes: ‘Everything in the universe is in motion; the essence of matter is to act: if we consider its parts attentively, we shall discover that not a particular enjoys absolute repose.’ (d’Holbach, p 18) In many ways, A Defence of Atheism can be seen as a summary of A System of Nature.

It is interesting that Rose begins her survey of the sciences with geology. Since the publication of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology in three volumes between 1830 and 1833, geology was propelled into the forefront of the culture wars of the time. All of a sudden, people realised the vast antiquity of the earth, the natural forces that had fashioned it, and the many species that had perished along the way. As Rose put it: ‘Geology speaks of the structure of the Earth, the formation of the different strata, of coal, of granite, of the whole mineral kingdom. It reveals the remains and traces of animals long extinct, but gives not clue whereby we may prove the existence of God.’ (Defence, p 4) A great deal of Lyell’s early inspiration came from Alexander Humboldt, and Rose speaks of the uniformity, regularity and interdependence of nature that was so central a feature of Humboldt’s thinking. Rose then proceeds through the hard sciences, arriving in each case at the same conclusion. Chemistry, for example (‘Nature’s great laboratory’) reveals the ‘indestructability of matter, and its inherent property – motion’ (Defence, p 5)

The next clear, though unnamed, influence becomes apparent when Rose moves on to the social sciences. Here the influence of Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72) shows itself. In paragraphs eight to ten, having established, in a d’Holbachian way, the primacy of the natural order, Rose proceeds from the ‘universe of matter to the universe of mind’. Whether beneficent or malevolent, mankind made God is its own image. ‘In describing his God, he delineated his own character: the picture he drew represents in living and ineffaceable colours the epoch of his existence – the period he lived in.’ (Defence of Atheism, p 5) This reflects very closely large sections of Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity where, for example, he writes: ‘The personality of God is nothing else than the projected personality of man.’ (Feuerbach, p 226) Some of Rose’s more memorable aphorisms have a Feuerbachian flavour as well, as when she says ‘Ignorance is the mother of Superstition.’ (Defence of Atheism, p 6

Only after this account of the natural world and the place of religion within it, does Rose venture into biblical criticism and responses to traditional theistic arguments for the existence of God. Here the influence of the English freethinkers and, indeed, her upbringing by an educated rabbi, are apparent. Elements of Rose’s critique of the Bible and of the standard arguments for the existence of God can be found in Carlile, in Charles Southwell and George Jacob Holyoake. But the moral fire that inspires these passages comes straight from Robert Owen, and from her own experience of the injustice of the biblical view of the world.

After outlining the Christian claim that we are saved through Christ’s sacrifice, Rose ponders the problem of evil:

Is the world saved? Saved! From what? From ignorance? It is all around us. From poverty, vice, crime, sin, misery and shame. It abounds everywhere. Look into your poor-houses, your prisons, your lunatic asylums; contemplate the whip, the instruments of torture, and of death; ask the murderer, or his victim; listen to the ravings of the maniac, the shrieks of distress, the groans of despair; mark the cruel deeds of the tyrant, the crimes of slavery, and the suffering of the oppressed; count the millions of lives lost by fire, by water, and by the sword; measure the blood spilled, the tears shed, the sighs of agony drawn from the expiring victims on the altar of fanaticism;–and tell me from what the world was saved?’ (Defence, p 10)

The refutation of the classical arguments for the existence of god are relatively straight-forward and conventional. Rose begins with the cosmological argument, then moves on to the first cause argument before spending most of her time on the argument to design. Nothing especially original is said here. She is at her best when she exposes the theistic claims to begin from an argument from personal incredulity.

The mere fact of its existence does not prove a Creator. Then how came the Universe into existence? We do not know; but the ignorance of man is certainly no proof of the existence of a God. Yet upon that very ignorance has it been predicated, and is maintained. (pp 11-12)’

Rose also dispenses with the presumption that the inter-connected web of the universe presupposes a designer, something that would deny and break that very inter-connectedness.

What is intelligence? It is not a thing, a substance, an existence in itself, but simply a property of matter, manifesting itself through organisations.’

Humboldt would have loved that. So would Bertrand Russell. Rose also dispatches effectively the hoary old canard that the choice is between design and chance.

Everything is wonderful, and wonderful just in proportion as we are ignorant; but that proves not ‘design’ or ‘designer’. But did things come by chance? I am asked. Oh no. There is no such thing as chance. It exists only in the perverted mind of the believer, who, while insisting that God was the cause of everything, leaves Him without any cause.’ (p 15)

Rose denies that morality depends somehow on God. Morality, Rose writes,

depends on an accurate knowledge of the nature of man, of the laws that govern his being, the principles of right, or justice, and humanity, and the conditions requisite to make him healthy, rational, virtuous and happy.’ (p 18)

In few passages of Rose’s Defence of Atheism do the shades of Robert Owen burn more brightly than here.

The nature of Ernestine Rose’s atheism

What, then, can we say about Ernestine Rose’s atheism? We can perhaps begin to answer this question by moving forward a few years, to 1869, the year Thomas Henry Huxley felt the need to coin the term ‘agnosticism’. Huxley was unwilling to go as far as he felt his contemporaries had in attaining a solution to the ‘problem of existence’. As against their confidence ‘gnosis’ to this most intractable problem, Huxley felt sure he had not arrived at so safe a destination. But, more than that, he declared a ‘pretty strong conviction’ that the problem was insoluble. ‘And with Kant and Hume on my side, I could not think myself presumptuous in holding fast by that opinion.’ (Huxley, ‘Agnosticism’ 162) Ernestine Rose’s address was only eight years before the arrival of agnosticism. Can Rose’s Defence of Atheism be seen as symptomatic of the problems that so worried Huxley? Is Rose’s atheism an exercise in hard-nosed dogmatism?

In a word, no. At no point does Ernestine Rose presume levels of knowledge unavailable to her, or contrive some grand metaphysical sweep of the arm. Replying to the transcendentalist, Rose is clear that the qualities of ‘devotion and reverence, ideality and sublimity’ are all available to the atheist. Indeed the simple appreciation of nature is more readily appreciated by the person who does not contrive some uber-natural explanation.

As well might we use the terms Episcopalian, Unitarian, Universalist, to signify vice and corruption, as the term atheist, which means simply a disbelief in a God, because finding no demonstration of his existence, man’s reason will not allow him to believe, nor his conviction to play the hypocrite, and profess what he does not believe.’ (p 20)

Rose also avoided the temptation of spiritualism, then sweeping the heterodox world. Spiritualist thought was very popular among other campaigners for women’s rights. It was thought to empower women, and so provide avenues for enterprise free from the sway men held over all conventional ecclesiastical channels. Even Rose’s mentor Robert Owen succumbed to spiritualism in his last years. But Ernestine Rose was never tempted. Spiritualism, she said in 1858, was as ‘foolish in sentiment as it is false in principle and pernicious in practice.’ The whole subject was slippery, ‘like a live eel.’ (Anderson, p 114)

Is Rose vulnerable to a charge of scientism? Only to those unwilling to accord science a significant place in our understanding of the universe.

Only at the very end of her address does Rose engage in language that can now be seen to read badly. As part of a rhetorical conclusion, Rose lapses into what now can be seen as unhelpfully anthropocentric eulogy, using the language of faith.

Though I cannot believe in your God whom you have failed to demonstrate, I believe in man; if I have no faith in your religion, I have faith, unbounded, unshaken faith in the principles of right, or justice, and humanity. (p 21)

A few sentences later, Rose displays what now can be seen as unwarranted confidence that atheists could be free of the sort of errors committed by the religious. The ‘monstrous crimes’ of the believer, she wrote, could not be perpetrated by the atheist, because ‘knowing that belief is not voluntary, but depends on evidence, and therefore there can be no merit in the belief of any of the religions, not demerit in a disbelief in all of them, could never be guilty of.’ (p 21). Here Rose shows herself too sanguine. We have seen too much in the twentieth century to agree with Rose on this point. (Hecht, 388)

These final flourishes to her address undo somewhat the more grounded statements of the previous paragraphs. Here, and only here, is there an unsatisfactory tone to Rose’s address. In the twenty-first century, we see anthropocentrism, making use of the language of faith, and sanguine progressionism as mistakes, but it needs a large dose of hindsight for that to be seen clearly. And seeing these traits as faults presupposes the greater range of freedoms we enjoy, largely due to the efforts of people like Ernestine Rose, who had to sustain their life’s efforts with a confidence of this sort. A century and a half after her courageous address, humanists are still groping for the right means by which to express an outlook on the world and of humanity that eschews both anthropocentrism on the one hand and progressionism on the other. It is hardly a mark against Ernestine Rose that she did not foresee these issues before the conditions that give rise to them had risen.

These minor, post facto, faults notwithstanding, Rose cannot be seen, therefore, as an example of hubristic overreach that worried Huxley and prompted his invention of agnosticism. Rose’s atheism is grounded soundly in nature and makes no large claims. Only when declaring a faith in man does she inveigle the use of religious language in a way that can now be seen as unsuccessful. Rose’s Defence of Atheism understands well the limitations of atheism. Atheism is no more than the unwillingness to accept human testimony as to the existence of a God or supernatural realm. How we proceed from that foundational insight must be the preserve of something else. The least unsatisfactory word that has arisen to express this approach is humanism.

Emphasis here has been given to the intellectual context of Rose’s address, and on the thinkers who influenced her. Can it be concluded from this that her work is derivative and therefore uninteresting? Though one can spot influences in her work, it would be wrong to conclude that it is diminished by this in any way. No work emerges without any predecessors. What Rose did was to synthesise, creatively and intelligently, into 39 paragraphs, a massive range of thinking.

With the quibbling exception of the final rhetorical flourish, the main impression of A Defence of Atheism is how contemporary it feels. Rose’s talk reads well a century and a half after it was written. It understands the limitations of atheism, which means it is remarkably free of the anthropocentrism that blights much of the transcendentalist agnosticism of the day. It is informed by science without in any way unweaving the rainbow. And it is the result of wide reading. And it was produced by someone with significant restrictions on her leisure to indulge in wide reading and deep thinking. Both these things happened, but in the context of a busy life – one that eventually ruined her health – in the service of others. Rose’s atheism was an integral part of her life’s work on behalf of women’s rights and the abolition of slavery. She was not merely an abolitionist and feminist who happened to be an atheist. She was an abolitionist and feminist because she was an atheist.

Bill Cooke is an historian of atheism and humanism. His books include Dictionary of Atheism, Skepticism and Humanism (2006) and A Wealth of Insights: Humanist Thought Since the Enlightenment (2011). He is a senior editor of Free Inquiry and a columnist of the Secular Humanist Bulletin. Cooke is a Trustee of the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists and an Honorary Associate of the Rationalist International. He teaches philosophy in Warrington, in the United Kingdom.


Breakdown of Ernestine Rose’s A Defence of Atheism.

Paragraph 1

Fears of addressing the question. Error, from whatever source, is pernicious. 3

Paragraph 2

First quote: ‘by searching none can find God’. Agrees, but from atheist perspective. Science as the vehicle to offer an objective account. Geology mentioned first. 3-4

Paragraph 3

Natural history (physiology, phrenology [understood as psychology]) shows that there is ‘not a spot can be found to indicate the existence of a God.’ 4

Paragraph 4

Neither does mathematics. 4

Paragraph 5

Neither does chemistry (‘Nature’s great laboratory’). Posits ‘indestructability of matter, and its inherent property – motion…’ (Holbach?) 4-5

Paragraph 6

Neither does astronomy. 5

Paragraph 7

Wraps up survey of the sciences, with reference to Echo. 5

Paragraph 8

Moves from Universe of Matter to the Universe of Mind. ‘In describing his God, he delineated his own character: the picture he drew represents in living and ineffaceable colours the epoch of his existence – the period he lived in’ [Feuerbach?] 5

Paragraph 9

Reiterates that man made God in his own image, whether the image was beneficent or malevolent. 6

Paragraph 10

Why has man behaved in this way? ‘Ignorance is the mother of Superstition.’ 6

Paragraph 11

Introduces the Bible account of creation and contrasts that with the scientific account. Mentions Copernicus and Galileo. Asserts that nothing can be created from nothing. 6-7

Paragraph 12

Brief mention of division of waters above from waters below. 7

Paragraph 13

The creation of man in the image of God as the reason for all of God’s previous creative work. 7-8

Paragraph 14

Man placed in Eden. 8

Paragraph 15

Temptation of Eve suggests problem of evil. If God did not know what was to happen his knowledge was at fault. If he knew but chose not to intervene, his goodness was at fault. ‘Choose which you please, and it remains alike fatal to the rest.’ 8-9

Paragraph 16

Discussion on implications of creating perfection in humans and finding them very imperfect. 9

Paragraph 17

Longest paragraph so far. In face of continuing imperfection of man, God sends his son to redeem fallen humanity. Long list of incidents of continuing misery which has not been redeemed. ‘Why does God still permit these horrors to afflict the race? Does omniscience not know it? Could omnipotence not do it? Would infinite wisdom, power, and goodness allow his children thus to live, to suffer, and to die? No! Humanity revolts against such a supposition.’ 9-11

Paragraph 18

Continues on same theme: if a parent neglected his children, promising a ‘fortune at some time hereafter’ he would be justly condemned. So it should be with God. 11

Paragraph 19

Summarises the case so far. 11

Paragraph 20

Responds to objection of being unreasonable. Turns it back on the believer who is more unreasonable to expect one to believe what cannot be demonstrated to exist. 11

Paragraph 21

Moves to more metaphysical arguments. Created universe must have a creator. Assumes the universe is infinite. 11-12

Paragraph 22

Applies same argument to the First Cause. 12

Paragraph 23

Argument to design. Thinks in terms of Great Chain of Being. 12-3

Paragraph 24

Design argument continued. Paley’s watchmaker argument. Responds by noting the contradictory objects of design. 13

Paragraph 25

Watchmaker argument continued. If we were designed for wellness, how come illness, etc. 13-4

Paragraph 26

Design argument continued. Cases of Providential design rebutted. 14-5

Paragraph 27

Denies that, by virtue of rejecting design, the atheist believes in chance. Everything in the universe ‘is governed by laws.’ 15

Paragraph 28

Some of the laws itemised. Naturalistic humility espoused. 15

Paragraph 29

Superstition the enemy of knowledge. 15

Paragraph 30

Religion is natural and belief in God universal. Both notions denied, citing Livingstone and Humboldt. 15-6

Paragraph 31

Natural religion continued. We are born atheists, not believers. 16-7

Paragraph 32

The corrupt priesthood, who profit on the belief that without religion the world would descend into chaos. 17

Paragraph 33

Sweep away all the superstition and nature would be unchanged. Mankind would also be as capable of noble thoughts and actions as now. 17-8

Paragraph 34

Sweep away all the superstition and mankind would in fact prosper. 18

Paragraph 35

Morality does not depend on religious belief. Cites pro-slave Northern churchman Rev. Van Dyke and [Morris Jacob] Raphall (1798-1868) pro-slavery Rabbi. And fact that the South cited Infidelity as the reason for anti-slave attitudes. 18

Paragraph 36

Belief in God has not produced a desirable end. Fear should give way to learning, etc. 19

Paragraph 37

Responds to claims by ‘refined and transcendental religionists’ that religion nurtures all the most elevated human motivations and feelings. Denies this, saying they can be nurtured just as much by reverencing ‘justice and truth.’ 19-20

Paragraph 38

Decries the way religionists seek to besmirch the term ‘atheist’. Criticises ‘some of the Infidels who stretch and force the term Atheist out of its legitimate significance.’ Defines atheism as ‘simply a disbelief in a God, because finding no demonstration of his existence, man’s reason will not allow him to believe, nor his conviction to play the hypocrite, and profess what he does not believe.’ 20-1

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The atheist believes not in God but in man. Has ‘unbounded, unshaken faith in the principles of right, of justice, and humanity.’ ‘Whatever good you would do out of fear of punishment, or hope of reward hereafter, the Atheist would do simply because it is good; and being so, he would receive the far surer and more certain reward, springing from well-doing, which would constitute his pleasure, and promote his happiness.


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