Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Thomas Paine, though discarded somewhat these days, was a seventeenth century philosopher with an interest in the church, the place of God in people’s lives, and an upstart crew of religious people who threw down a challenge to the clergy and their traditions. The latest book to appear on the shelves looks, once again, at church structure that follows Painian philosophy. It has been written by Leigh Schmidt.
Richard Holme quotes the Pew Research Centre as having found that 65% of Americans identify as Christian, and 26% as religiously unaffiliated. This latter group consists of atheists, agnostics, and the fastest growing subgroup ‘the nothing in particular’ subgroup, those who may believe in God or a higher power but has no affiliation with organised religion. The foundation for the ‘nothing in particulars’ group was laid by Thomas Paine in his work ‘The Age of Reason’.
Schmidt divides his work into three major divisions. The first of these he calls ‘Relics of the Secular Saint Thomas’. Robert Ingersoll, a spokesperson for Paine, begins by drawing a forceful contrast between an inherited Christianity and a forward-looking secularism. “The advancement of civilization depended on the methodical displacement of religious materiality, on the thorough demystification of ‘sacred things’” (24).
Before this review develops further, I must express a concern that Paine’s freethinkers would surely be expected to propose alternative paths to virtue, then institutionalise them and seek approval for their actions from the government. It seems unlikely that ‘the religion of duty’, ‘religion of character’ and ‘religion of daily life’ that Paine and Comte spoke about from the pulpit, would have attracted much criticism from Protestant leaders.
By the 1840s, followers of Paine turned his comment from the Rights of Man into something resembling a slogan: The world is my country, and to do good my religion. They saw themselves as superior to their Christian counterparts, and defined Paine through his motto’s repeated invocation. The motto became their mantra – “an epigrammatic conflation of liberal secularism with a religion of humanitarian universalism” (30).
When introducing his second major division Schmidt instances Courtland Palmer, who, in 1881, “presented himself as part of a vanguard of constructive liberals, [who saw] a way to reinvent and re-ritualize religion for a new age of science and progressive reform” (71). This religion of humanity had to “nurture tender feelings and altruistic sympathies as much as expunge outworn theologies and fetishistic superstitions, and it would have to do this through the creative reimagining of ritual” (72). However, as events at Palmer’s own funeral showed, “the mask of universality that the new religion of humanity wore never disguised its sectarian oddity – the social peculiarity of secularist rites performed in the face of Christianity’s deeply etched conventions” (77). Outstanding among secular funeral rites was the monument dedicated to its founder Roman, and sanctified by Edwin H. Wilson, as an embodiment of nineteenth century art made relevant to twentieth century religion.
Schmidt’s third issue was a chapter called Churches of Humanity, in which it appeared that two famous infidels may have ‘gotten religion’. Robert Ingersoll and George Jacob Holyoake came under the influence of The People’s Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan in the form of an independent, liberal congregation, “a universalistic fellowship of Unitarian extraction that was ready to embrace the religious and nonreligious alike in a common humanitarian enterprise” (113). Opposition was spirited but muddled. Attempts were made to make a secular religion, a religion of this world, a religion of humanity, a religion after the loss of religion. Proponents kept trying to negotiate an in-between space for themselves, where they were no longer Christian but not simply nonbelieving or disaffiliated.
Nineteenth century secularism had its own churches and religious societies, just as it had its own relics and rites. Did that mean that secularism was a religion? This question carries considerable legal and cultural consequences. Were there tax benefits? Where did the followers of such a religion stand on conscientious objection?
Schmidt has published a forceful story, but he contrasts the grandiose plans and hopes of the secularists with their miniscule numbers and negligible political clout. Furthermore, Schmidt does not acknowledge the challenge that secularism makes to traditional beliefs, for if he were to do so, his Christian opponents would verge on cardboard cutouts. What’s more, what is disappointing about the book is the reliance on 1980s data.
By Leigh Eric Schmidt
USD 27.95; 272 pp