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Bubble on the Ocean

On Thomas Paine.


The Church of Saint Thomas Paine: A Religious History of American Secularism
Leigh Eric Schmidt
Princeton, pp. 272, $27.95

What kind of relic could a freethinker adore? One might be the two-inch-long flake, resembling a scrap from an old boot sole, which went on display at the Manhattan Liberal Club in 1902. Its label explained its power: this was “a portion of the brain of Mr. Thomas Paine.” Moncure Daniel Conway, a minister to a secularist Ethical Society, had bought it in London, and in taking his piece of Paine in New York, reversed an early nineteenth-century mishap. That occurred in 1819 when the radical pamphleteer William Cobbett visited Paine’s home at New Rochelle and found that his hero had been hurriedly interred in a nondescript grave. He had his bones dug up and took them back to London, where he hoped to use them as a mascot in his efforts to effect “the reformation of England in Church and State.” Alas, the Protestant public, wary of sedition and popish frauds, mocked these relics of “putrid Paine.” Cobbett schlepped the remains from place to place and then, in the end, lost them.

It was only decades later that American freethinkers, who had kitted out Paine’s grave as a shrine-cum-picnic spot, complete with a marble column, started hankering for more tangible links to their hero. Anything would do: not just locks of hair but even such contact relics as fragments from seats on which he had sat or from the house in which he was born. They solemnly buried Conway’s bit of brain beneath Paine’s column, but never did recover his skeleton, although hope sprang eternal: rumors spread that his skull had traveled to Australia and that the Cobbett family kept the secret of a word engraved upon it for its authentication. No matter: like the believers in the Catholic cult of the saints whom freethinkers ridiculed, the tiniest part of a spiritual hero could stand for a whole. Because Paine was “incarnated” in his brain, it could still help them; Conway joked that he knew of two Protestant ministers who went heterodox after handling it.

The story of Paine’s brain grotesquely illustrates the argument of Leigh Eric Schmidt’s new book, which is that it is both feasible and instructive to write a “religious history of American secularism.” Because the secularization of modern societies has often been imagined as a process of subtraction, historians have assumed that secularists were—of all people—secular and as such devoted to the elimination of religion. And even if secularists could be pious, then Paine looked like an odd focus for piety. He may have been a philanthropic deist, but his infamous claim that “my mind is my own church” expressed a sovereign individual’s contempt for the props on which religions depend: churches, liturgies, Scriptures. Yet if nineteenth-century secularists inherited Paine’s vehemence against Christianity, then many of them nonetheless claimed to have a religion: a “surrogacy” for theism “that was also a supersession” of it. Their first reason for doing so was tactical. Precisely because many of them had embraced atheism, they saw the dangers of being pegged as irreligious in cultures which maintained that a shared faith was a basic principle of social cohesion. Freethought, atheism, unbelief: these were labels for scary negations. The British freethinker George Holyoake therefore coined the expression “secularism” to stand for an affirmation. Secularism was the “religion of humanity,” which was “the only religion that gives Heaven no trouble” because it focused on improving the lot of people on Earth. The infamous Robert Ingersoll adopted the same tactic across the Atlantic, interspersing his anti-clerical rockets with assurances that “secularism is the religion of humanity.” Paine was a plausible saint for this engaged faith. Had he not claimed that “my country is the world, and my religion is to do good”? A vapid gospel, but one which was soon emblazoned across the music halls that secularist organizations often hired for their conventicles.

The second motive for secularist religion was psychological. Historians and philosophers who have worked on secularism have often understood it primarily as an event in the history of ideas and concentrated on the canon of heterodox texts which made it thinkable to banish God from the world and to live within an “immanent frame.” Others have followed the anthropologist Tal Asad in presenting secularism as an episode in imperial state formation. They see secularism as a process imposed by elites on religions, which shrank them to the private convictions of individuals, the better to regulate them. But alongside these intellectual and authoritarian definitions of secularism, we also need existential understanding of secularity. As the historian Joseph Blankholm has put it, we need to ask how it felt to live as a secular person. In the nineteenth century at least, the lived experience of secularists involved constant, tense dialogue with theists, which made it impossible for them to quit the religious field. Schmidt shows that rites of death and mourning were especially potent sites of religious contestation. Enemies of freethinkers had always scrutinized their deathbeds, looking for evidence of unmanly despair or panicked capitulation to the God who awaited them in the afterlife they had vainly denied. They alleged that Paine had breathed his last as a friendless drunk. Because death tested secularist religion in extremis, secularists began to tell stories which minutely described the clear-eyed heroism of the dying godless. They also published numerous orders of service for secularist funerals, designed to offer unillusioned consolation to the community of nonbelievers who remained behind. Schmidt, who analyzes these grim texts at perhaps excessive length, notes that they were relentlessly austere in their language or imagery. Having often been reared in or having shuttled through such rationalist Protestant movements as Unitarianism or Universalism, secularists already had a dread of disingenuous prayer. They had to be particularly careful not to concede the existence of an afterlife. “Improbability does not imply impossibility” was the most that one of Holyoake’s funeral services would allow. The result was a barebones poetry which, in speaking of human life as a “bubble on the ocean” and of Earth as a “vast cemetery,” cannot often have cheered mourners.

If secularist religion resembles emaciated Protestantism, then in a smaller number of cases it looks more like a gelded Roman Catholicism. The creation of Paine’s shrine and the display of his relics is a case in point, but secularist ritual too sometimes modeled itself on Rome. One reason for this was the allure in the English-speaking world of Auguste Comte’s Positivist religion. Comte had combined an atheist epistemology with a conviction that it still took a religion to restructure society on scientific grounds. In planning his godless religion of the future, Comte was as a Frenchman drawn to the institutional prowess and universal reach of Rome, while he appropriated its Marian devotions to commemorate Clotilde de Vaux, his dead mistress. When his Positivist congregations assembled to venerate not God but humanity, they did so in front of Clotilde’s portrait, who emulated and displaced the Virgin. Comte was just as deft in his appropriation of the saints: Positivists adopted a baroque calendar, which dedicated every day in the year to the individuals who had advanced the progress of humanity. They included Saint Paul and Bonaparte, but neither Jesus nor Luther. Comte’s religiosity struck many Britons and Americans as a bastardization of science and religion. Thomas Henry Huxley, the pugnacious agnostic and naturalist, yanked his sideburns in exasperation at what he termed “Catholicism minus Christianity.” But Huxley’s formula inadvertently defined Comte’s appeal. “Positivising Catholicism” found some ardent followers in England, where the cultural dominance of the established church often caused secularism to become perversely clerical. Schmidt tells the tale of Malcolm Quin, a lapsed Anglican whose journey from secularist lecturer to priest in Comte’s church expressed a sad yearning for Catholic plenitude. As a humanist speaker in Leicester, he had decompressed between anti-clerical tirades by going to Mass or visiting a Trappist monastery. When he moved to Newcastle in the 1880s, he snapped up a disused Anglican church and tacked on side chapels, which he dedicated to Comte and Clotilde. Like any good Catholic, he put a crucifix over his altar and a relic—Comte’s writings—beneath it. Quin refused to follow other Comtist ministers who had the sober, diminished appearance of defrocked vicars. He designed colorful vestments, which he donned for such ceremonies as a Festival of Machines and the Festival of Saint Francis of Assisi. Quin’s autobiography records that his freethinking hearers were oddly tolerant of this “orgy of ritual,” but they fell away all the same and in 1910 he had to shut up shop. It suited his flamboyant eclecticism that a Roman Catholic priory inherited his vestments, while a synagogue took over the chapel.

The sincerity of Quin’s ersatz Catholicism makes him an outlier in Schmidt’s story. Secularist religion usually took its coloration from the majority culture, which in the United States was rambunctiously Protestant. Secularists were heirs to Protestantism’s enormous ambivalence about whether and how far to embody religion. Protestants qualified their intense concern for how worship looked, smelled, and sounded with a fierce insistence that it was idolatrous to regard material things as reservoirs of religious power. Christianity may have been an incarnate faith, but they attacked Roman Catholics for failing to understand that its highest forms were disembodied and invisible, its most resonant symbol an empty tomb. Ingersoll agreed with them, thundering that “Sacred relics are religious rubbish.” When it came to Paine, many secularists were ultimately glad that Cobbett’s bungling had bequeathed to them an empty tomb. “Like his dust,” wrote Conway, or the coat buttons some said had been manufactured from his bones, Paine’s ideas had now been “blown around the world” and this was what counted. Despite occasional lapses in language, secularists felt that relics were sacred only for their associations: Paine’s brain mattered only as a metonym for the humanist ideas that it had hatched and which were now gaining ground everywhere.

Secularists therefore conformed to the Christian cultures they were fighting. American secularists could not kick the habit of founding churches, even if theirs bore such names as the Church of Humanity, Great Bend, Kansas. British secular organizations ended up resembling the Dissenting sects which pullulated under the canopy of the established church and benefited from the commitment of liberal governments to religious equality. Secularist movements in places where church-state relationships were differently configured got wedged into different kinds of ecclesiastical nooks. As the historian Todd Weir has argued, the secularist movement became a “fourth confession” in the later nineteenth-century German Empire. The Imperial state already regulated the relationships between the Protestant and Catholic confessions. It therefore treated rationalist Christian rebels against the churches, freethinkers, and monists somewhat as it did the Jews, the “third confession”: as a group outside the confessions and denied their civic rights but which still had a juridically defined religious status. Even as German secularists drifted towards an atheistic monism, they were reluctant to give up that status, which allowed them to lobby the state for fiscal and other privileges. When, after the First World War, the Weimar state renewed the privileges that religious corporations had enjoyed under the Kaisers, it even ruled that they could even be extended to corporations which “cultivate a world view.” If German unbelief had not quite become a religion, the state still placed it in the religious domain, meaning that groups which preached the root and branch negation of churches were regulated alongside them.

The religious, even ecclesiastical genealogy that Schmidt and other historians have sketched for secularists robs them of both their historical agency and their menace. Behind the anti-clerical and universalizing roar of their rhetoric was a mouse: a clutch of preachers and pressure groups often at odds with each other about how far they wished to cultivate the arts of veneration. It was just very hard to thrive in an aggressively Christian America as anything other than a church or as a grouping in alliance with liberal Unitarian and Universalist churches. One flop can stand for many: in 1880 the utopian town of Liberal, Missouri had been founded without a church or a saloon, but a decade later Methodists had taken over its freethought hall and spiritualists were camping at the city limits. Our revised understanding of the balance of power between secularists and Christianity makes it harder to claim that they advanced the cause of secularization, either in America or elsewhere in the Western world. They were actually the victims rather than the agents of secularization. By the later twentieth century, Weir’s German secularists were not rejoicing in complaints by churches about the waning commitment from their members: they were echoing them, because they too had been captured by the state and turned into vehicles for the delivery of education and welfare.

Why then did we ever come to believe that secularism was a dangerous enemy to American religion, rather than one of its most piquant expressions? For Schmidt, this belief is an artifact of fateful decisions taken by the mid-twentieth century Supreme Court, most notably the Torcaso decision of 1961. In deciding that the state of Maryland’s refusal to appoint the atheist Roy Torcaso as a notary public was unconstitutional, Justice Hugo Black led the Court in likening “Secular Humanism” to Buddhism and Taoism as a religion without a God, but a religion all the same, whose adherents should not face religious discrimination from the state. These decisions gave secularists what they had always wanted, but the victory was pyrrhic. It suggested to commentators as various as the apocalyptic fundamentalist Tim LaHaye and the Catholic activist Phyllis Schaffly that secularism had morphed from a minority faith into a “massive conspiracy to take over American public life.” In particular, these voices began to reinterpret the secularity of the public school system not as a guarantee of its neutrality in the face of competing Christianities but as a sign of its surrender to the new religion of humanism. Alarmed by this rhetorical counter-barrage, secularists who had often been unhappy with the devotional adventures of their colleagues now firmly denied that their movement was in any way a religion. They concentrated on maintaining existing lines of separation between church and state. Even if some secularist organizations still claim to be religious organizations, they tend to do so during court battles, in efforts to manipulate legal definitions of religion to their advantage.

The idea that secularism might be one last manifestation of what John Henry Newman called the “religious weaknesses of Protestantism” is as attractive as it is ironic. To write the genealogy of modern unbelief, as many excellent recent scholarly books have done, is in a sense to perform its exorcism, allowing us to view it as a ghost which mainly haunted Protestantism. Ethan Shagan lately argued that Luther and his successors inadvertently created atheism, by making it impossibly hard to have saving belief in God. Alec Ryrie has concentrated on the emotional wellsprings of unbelief, arguing that it derived not so much from metaphysical reflection or scientific discovery as from a Protestant cauldron of intense anxiety about salvation, combined with fits of anger at a cruel God. In describing how secularists sought to reconcile unbelief with religion, to reject the saints but to venerate Saint Tom Paine, Schmidt offers further confirmation for the hypothesis that overt unbelief is the angry problem child of Protestantism. Yet that finding should intensify rather than allay our curiosity and disquiet about the causes and future of secularization in the present. In the 1890s, Katie Kehm Smith founded the First Secular Church, Portland because she wanted to “overthrow and destroy the Christian religion,” to “kill it dead.” Nothing could be better calculated to stir it into new life.

The question today is why a religious battlefield which was thickly peopled and fought over in Smith’s time keeps shrinking. Perhaps the growing number of people not just in Europe but in the United States who say they have “no religion” faintly resemble Smith, because they remain locked in disapproval of what they disown. Discerning sociologists of the “nones” like to argue that religion has not simply vanished from their minds or subsided into a fuzzy indifference. They prefer to see them as “substantively secular” people who retain concrete ways of affirming their indifference—an ironic display of Catholic kitsch on a mantlepiece, say, or a copy of Sam Harris on the coffee table. Yet when we compare their tasteful distaste with the splenetic, worshipful energy of Schmidt’s secularists, founding godless churches and compiling fastidiously faithless prayer books, it becomes clear that there has been a change of kind, not just degree. An older sociology of secularization was closer to the truth when it argued that the functional differentiation of work, education, and leisure broke the mechanisms which once socialized people in religion and thereby created modern secularity, a form of indifference which is increasingly
an expression of ignorance.

The Church used to know where it was with its overt rivals: in 1965, the Vatican even created a Secretariat to study and speak with “non-believers” and held symposia on their “culture.” But a culture which once richly affirmed and justified a negation now expresses an absence, one which it is difficult to reason with, or even to mock. It almost makes one nostalgic for the times when Tom Paine’s body did not lie in the grave, and his soul went marching on.

Michael Ledger-Lomas is a historian and writer from Vancouver whose most recent book is Queen Victoria: This Thorny Crown (Oxford, 2021).

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