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Some secular folks thrill to see the “nones” in North America rising. Maybe you grew up feeling isolated in your atheism. Maybe you’ve been tearing your hair out over policies based on religious edict over empirical data. Or maybe you moved from your family’s faith but never fit in anywhere else. Whatever your backstory, it’s a common human response to feel fortified by having numbers on your side. But the funny thing is, we always did have numbers — over time. And there’s plenty of wisdom to glean from touchstones in our past.

Let’s go for a walk through the West. In the Great Before-Times of pre-New Atheism (a.k.a. the rest of the 20th century), many may only hear about “atheism” in relation to, say, Stalin and Mao, or “Communism” in general. This is a common talking point among strident theists. Stalinist Russia and Mao’s China relied on cults of personality that swapped the Great Leader into pre-existing reverence structures. And that’s as close as many come to envisioning a world outside of faith. Many can only imagine a world where some new, “false” god replaces the old, “true” god — but the love-fear dynamic of authoritarianism remains.

Touchstones among the women

And yet, the 20th century had other atheist movements, and plenty of constituents, many quite open about their views. Yes, a major turn-of-the-21st-century movement was led by male intellectual voices, who together conveyed institutional authority and fell predictable prey to the usual structuralist defenses of Western empire.

Before that, though, atheists were quite sensibly found among progressive activists and trail-blazers. And why wouldn’t they be? Christianity was often weaponized as a counter to women’s general suffrage and Black women’s more wide-ranging freedom movements. Is it any wonder that folks like Katharine Hepburn and Zora Neale Hurston saw no need for god-belief to cultivate wonder and ground worldly action? As Hurston noted in her 1942 autobiography,

“The stuff of my being is matter, ever changing, ever moving, but never lost; so what need of denominations and creeds to deny myself the comfort of all my fellow men? The wide belt of the universe has no need for finger-rings. I am one with the infinite and need no other assurance.”

Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography

Before their era, too, we had Emma Goldman, whose 1916 article, “The Philosophy of Atheism,” shows how little has changed in the fundamentals not just of atheist discourse, but also of the idea that “our time has come!” So, at least, many other generations have also thought, for:

The decline of theism is a most interesting spectacle, especially as manifested in the anxiety of the theists, whatever their particular brand. They realize, much to their distress, that the masses are growing daily more atheistic, more anti-religious; that they are quite willing to leave the Great Beyond and its heavenly domain to the angels and sparrows; because more and more the masses are becoming engrossed in the problems of their immediate existence.

Emma Goldman, Mother Earth (February 1916)

But so what if we’re treading on storied ground? Are we “nones” to be different, or because it feels right? And if the latter, shouldn’t we be embracing whatever lessons we can glean from secular demographics come before?

19th-Century secularism

My own exposure to past atheist thought started with 19th-Century English philosopher and MP John Stuart Mill. His Autobiography (1874) was dear to me, because it illustrated not only a range of atheist discourse in his father’s time, but also that a secular childhood such as mine had been had before. Specifically:

I am thus one of the very few examples, in this country, of one who has not thrown off religious belief, but never had it: I grew up in a negative state with regard to it. I looked upon the modern exactly as I did upon the ancient religion, as something which in no way concerned me. It did not seem to me more strange that English people should believe what I did not, than that the men I read of in Herodotus should have done so.

John Stuart Mill, Autobiography

His father had worried about becoming a “dogmatic atheist,” which speaks to the spectrum of discourse in his day. “Dogmatic” was certainly the position taken by Percy Bysshe Shelley, whose 1811 pamphlet “The Necessity of Atheism” caused quite a stir and informed later writing and social practice. But Mill’s father’s beliefs drew from an earlier source: a reaction to Joseph Butler’s Analogy of Nature, Natural and Revealed (1736). Butler had been trying to draw Deists back to Christianity by arguing that the Book of Nature was fallible, too.

And so on, and so forth, back up through the centuries of Western thought. For every era, secular touchstones: people whose beliefs ranged far afield from the dominant religious dogma. As long as there has been formal religion, there have been people at variance from its cosmologies.

Tougher lessons in our history

And yet, it’s not surprising that we don’t like to talk much about even 20th-century atheist movements. One of the most notable leaders of the mid-century U.S. atheist movement was Madalyn Murray O’Hair, and, whew! Now, there’s a mess of a tale in our Western-secular inheritance. Founder of the American Atheists, a fierce mother fighting against religion in schools, “the most hated woman in America” for her work on church-state separation, Murray O’Hair lived to see her son grow up to become a Christian, and eventually a Baptist minister.

She disowned him for it — the same kind of hardline approach to family we also saw in Ayn Rand, another strong and open atheist, decades earlier. O’Hair also at times advanced Holocaust-denialism and “anti-Semitic attitudes”. In general, her leadership style didn’t win her friends in every quarter, and when she went missing in 1995 with her other son and granddaughter, with significant funds siphoned from the atheist organization, some believed the family must have absconded. The reality was more tragic: a kidnapping, which ended in murder. And although atheists first entertained the idea that a religious fanatic had done this deed, it turned out to be a member of the organization. Over money. A brutal case of basic human greed.

But so what if we’re treading on storied ground? Are we “nones” to be different, or because it feels right?

Silver linings from secular sorrow

There are lessons to be gained even and especially from our most complex touchstones, and we have nothing to lose by facing them head-on. What does the O’Hair chapter of U.S. atheist advocacy share with distorted histories of Stalinist and Maoist states? Easy: They’re all healthy reminders that atheism, as a philosophical position, is just the beginning. It is not enough to say that we are “nones”. Not enough to say that we have “moved away” from the traditions given to us in childhood. Not enough to say that we “don’t believe in the gods of our communities.”

What every secular touchstone come before us stands to teach us is simply this:

We have to choose what it will mean, in our era of atheism, to be part of a secular world.

What values will come first for us? Which goals will we make our own?

What do we plan to do with our one wild and precious life?

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GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.