By Dale Singer Post-shipment Special
Whatever your answer on the tip of your tongue is likely to be altered by this thought-provoking look at the secular humanist movement of the 19th century and its descendants today.
As the title suggests, most followers of secular humanism have taken as their spiritual leader Thomas Paine, the author best known for “Common Sense,” which helped fuel the American Revolution, and “The Rights of Man”.
This last work was the strongest influence on the acolytes known as “Paineites”. His statement that “the world is my country and doing good my religion” became their watchword, and the slogan “Deeds, not beliefs” became their rallying cry. The focus was on this world and this time, not on an unseen realm of heaven and eternal life. He distilled his message and his teaching in these words:
“I believe that religious duties are to do justice, to love mercy and to strive to make our fellow human beings happy.”
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In “The Church of Saint Thomas Paine”, Leigh Eric Schmidt – professor of humanities at the University of Washington, where he is on the faculty of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics – traces the ups and downs of the movement that followed Paine. doctrine. Their beliefs never became widespread, but they never died out either.
Enthusiasm for Paine’s way of life, in measured doses, remained strong, as did the language of humanist supporters. Schmidt quotes Robert Ingersoll, described as an “agnostic orator”, deriding religious relics as “religious garbage” and those who depend on them as “almost fools”.
Yet after Paine’s death, some of his own followers, worshiping him as a secular saint, considered his bones sacred vestiges of the faith he put into good deeds.
Such devotion persisted, usually in a limited way, as groups attempted to revive and spread the word and beliefs of Paine. Several small efforts briefly took root in various places in Missouri, and the Ethical Society, in St. Louis and elsewhere, kept the spirit of Paine and his devotees alive.
The controversy over secular humanism versus a more established religion remains far from settled even today.
After the United States Supreme Court banned school-sanctioned prayer in public classrooms, politicians picked up the slack. Ronald Reagan took aim at the “religion of secularism”, and Mitt Romney said that “the notion of separation of church and state has been taken by some far beyond its original meaning”.
Following ongoing court battles over what precisely constitutes religion, Schmidt quotes conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly as writing in USA Today:
“Whenever a teacher tells a child that he can decide for himself to steal, to lie, to cheat, to throw people out of the lifeboat to drown them, to blaspheme, to fornicate, to covet or to commit abortion, suicide or euthanasia, this teacher teaches the religion of humanism. Whenever a teacher rejects or ridicules the idea that God created man and the earth, this teacher teaches the religion of humanism.
And at the start of this new school year, Harvard University made headlines with its new chaplains chair, Greg Epstein, an atheist who wrote a book called “Good Without God.”
But in the long-running battle between religion and humanism, Schmidt notes, there has never been much doubt about which side is dominant. “The insidious sovereignty attributed to the religion of secular humanism,” he writes, “has always been far beyond anything that the true proponents of religious humanism managed.”
Ultimately, he concludes, his study of Paine and his followers “is about those who have found religion in and through their irreligion. These are those who have cultivated the distinctly precarious and circumscribed enchantments of secularism.
Dale Singer retired in 2017 after a 45-year career in journalism in St. Louis. He lives in western St. Louis County.