Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Atheist evangelism: 'Nothing new under the sun'

By Claude Fischer

Haymarket rally flyer

Atheists are getting evangelical and congregational, bemused press reports would have it. There are the international bus ad campaigns – “Why believe in a God? Just be good for goodness’ sake,” in the U.S., and “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” in Richard Dawkins’ Britain.

More recently, a global effort, perhaps tongue in cheek, landed in the U.S. to provide “Sunday Assemblies” with the music and the community of churches, leaving out the God of churches (here and here).

Haymarket rally flyer

Then, there is the Chicago ceremony that “christened” babies Carl, Heinrich, and Martha in a totally irreligious (and socialist) ceremony. Oh, but that happened in 1884.

Historian Bruce Nelson’s article on ir- and anti-religious working-class movements in late 19th-century Chicago, as well as other research, serves to remind us that widespread irreligiosity, aggressive anti-religious social movements, and even fiercely secular institutions are not new.

The Chicago “crusade”

Nelson describes the tense struggles in Chicago in the 1880s and '90s over labor organizing, punctuated by the 1886 Haymarket bombing, riot, and subsequent hanging of anarchists. Anarchist labor militants campaigned against religion as the enemy of the working man. And they had many sympathizers.

Nelson estimates from census data that about 40 percent of Chicago residents in 1890 were “neither church members nor professed religious affiliation.” Well-placed observers at the time, including local ministers and visiting revivalists, said as much. Many Chicagoans, especially immigrants, were actively anti-clerical, seeing the church as unable to explain, much less meliorate, their misery and as an ally of the wealthy. Anti-religious anarchist rallies drew large crowds. Atheist activists organized “free-thinker” societies and newspapers. Czech immigrants, in particular, formed secular institutions and “offered secular baptisms for their children and secular funerals.” (Other working-class immigrants, notably the Irish, were militantly pro-religion.)

In the end, argues Nelson, the pro- and anti-religious divide was the “fundamental fault line” that fatally undercut labor solidarity.

Yom Kippur banqueting

At about the same time in New York, anarchist organizers mobilized anti-religious feelings among Jewish immigrants. One pugnacious tactic was to stage “Yom Kippur Balls.” This most holy of Jewish holy days entails fasting, somber self-reflection, and all-day prayer starting the evening before. As Rebecca E. Margolis told the story in 2001, Jewish anarchists found a sympathetic Jewish audience to join them in mocking the holiday. (See also this 2009 account by Eddy Portnoy.)

Flier for Yom Kippur Ball

Militants in New York, who had for years issued special broadsides to ridicule the High Holidays, borrowed the  Ball idea from London comrades. In 1889, they hosted a party, 24 hours of food and fun, that was well-attended despite noisy, angry protests from religious Jews. Smaller Yom Kippur balls were held in a few other cities. The 1890 New York event was yet more ambitious, but was eventually shut down by the police, because of large crowds and fighting.

The public tumult nonetheless demonstrated the significant support in New York for the atheists. In 1893 — the New York Times report of September 21 starts “RIDICULED BY UNBELIEVERS: Anarchist Hebrews Made Sport of Yom Kippur with Dancing” — Emma Goldman was due to speak at the ball but left for fear of promoting unrest and arrests. New York’s 1901 Yom Kippur Ball was abruptly canceled because, Margolis says, of President McKinley’s assassination a week before by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz.

In later years, anarchists, still trying to keep a low profile, held quiet Yom Kippur picnics on Long Island, far from the city’s Jewish neighborhoods. Yet, a generation later, an entire system of Jewish secular schools and summer camps served the same anti-religious impulse (see, e.g., here).

Ever thus?

These accounts illustrate the point, made in earlier posts, that thinking of religious history as some global move from deep faith to scientific skepticism is wrong. Early in American history, most Americans were probably ignorant of even Sunday School-level theology and likelier to believe that occult spirits rather than the Christian God operated behind the natural world.

For many of the well-educated, deism explained the existence of the universe but dismissed just about everything else explicitly Christian. The coming of Darwinism and paleontology in the latter half of the 19th century made even the deists’ prime mover seem unnecessary and strengthened sophisticated forms of “unbelief” (see here).

Another notable episode was the Scopes “Monkey Trial,” which gave critics hostile to religion like H. L. Mencken a field day. Yet, Americans became more, not less, religiously active over the subsequent decades. (Earlier posts: herehere, and there.)

Aggressive assertion of atheism and even the creation of parallel institutions thus has precedents. One is reminded — although probably none of the students in Chicago’s secular Czech or New York’s secular Yiddish schools were reminded — “that which was is that which will be, and that which was done is that which will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes [Qohelet] 1:9).

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.