Thursday, February 9, 2017

An Atheist Manifesto by Joseph Lewis

An eloquent secular sermon
Joseph Lewis
Author, activist, and publisher Joseph Lewis was one of the most eminent American atheists of the early 20th century. He was founder and president of The Freethinkers of America, as well as the publisher of the organization’s newsletter of the same name. He actively wrote and published atheist literature from the 1920s through the 1950s. Though I am unfamiliar with his earlier writings, An Atheist Manifesto, published in 1954, very much has the feeling of a late-career summation of his thought and ideals.

The prose of the manifesto is written with the flavor of soapbox oratory. Each sentence is its own paragraph, calling to mind lines of poetry or a volume of aphorisms. In fact, almost every line in the work is quotable, and would be suitable for use as the headline of an atheist propaganda poster. As you follow the text, you can imagine some orator reading it aloud as the liturgy in some atheist induction ceremony. If you are already an atheist, this manifesto won’t likely provide you with any new information or perspective that you haven’t already thought of yourself. It does, however, take familiar arguments in favor of atheism and encapsulate them in a very eloquent and concise package. This work would make a good source of rhetorical ammunition for anyone about to engage in debate with a clergyman. If you’re not sympathetic to freethought, however, this essay is unlikely to convert you. If you are on the fence, Lewis just might win you over.

At about the halfway point, Lewis goes off on an extended tangent, building on the statement that more scientific progress has been made since the signing of the Declaration of Independence than was made in the previous history of mankind. He supports this thesis with a list of scientific accomplishments, mostly medical, and how they destroyed previous unhealthy and injurious superstitions. Though he may have successfully made the point that scientific discovery has advanced at an exponential rate since the Age of Enlightenment, he fails to make a firm connection between this phenomenon and the establishment of the American Republic. Progress was not a uniquely American accomplishment, and America is hardly the exemplar of secularity. Statements like, “The more intelligent a person is, the less religious he is,” are music to a freethinker’s ears, but are too absolute to stand up to scrutiny. That may be the whole point of a manifesto, however. It is intended as an inflammatory proclamation. Unlike an essay or treatise, one can make broad claims without backing them up.

Like many atheist texts, Lewis takes a little too much pleasure and spends a bit too much time poking fun at the falsehoods of religion. Chances are if you’re reading An Atheist Manifesto, he’s just preaching to the choir. Though he does discuss evolution to some extent, I would have preferred that he put a little more effort into propounding a rationalist, scientific justification of natural phenomena, like Spinoza or Haeckel might have done. A pro-atheist argument is always more interesting than an anti-theist one. Still, for the most part I enjoyed Lewis’s manifesto. If you are inclined toward a godless worldview, it instills a sense of pride to hear someone elegantly express that view in pithy and articulate discourse. For freethinking readers, An Atheist Manifesto can be intellectually invigorating and, dare I say it, inspirational.
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