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The Failure of American Secularism

How the secular movement underestimated the endurance of religion.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
A 1770 portrait of the philosopher Thomas Paine

Long before New Atheists stalked the earth, the cause of secularism possessed a peculiar missionary zeal. In part, this was thanks to the broader mood of social uplift that accompanied the rise of modern skepticism: Loosing the surly bonds of superstition and myth was, by the lights of rationalist dogma, all but certain to deliver humanity into a golden age of liberty, equality, and sober self-improvement. With this sort of serene confidence propelling the great cause of secularism, it’s little wonder that its apostles cribbed a pronounced millennial fervor and evangelical certitude from their Christian foes.

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

But as historian Leigh Eric Schmidt shows in his lively tour through the expansionist heyday of the secular creed, the longed-for golden age never really got off the ground. The initial cohort of secularists overestimated their own world-transforming powers, while also dismissing the endurance of believers. And more pressingly, as Schmidt observes, the brave new rationalists didn’t produce very much in the way of coherent doctrine or ritual observance. “Even in the hands of its most illustrious proponents,” he writes, “the religion of humanity was often little more than pleasant bromides, refined in tone and short on detail.” Take, for example, the secular movement’s most widely quoted (and misquoted) maxim, Thomas Paine’s signature aphorism that “the world is my country, and my religion is to do good.” Global citizenship and universal goodwill are far easier to proclaim in the abstract than to pin down in the world; there’s a reason, after all, that the freethinking Paine himself died far from his English homeland, a thinker widely (and unfairly) dismissed as a naïve-at-best adherent of the most rigid and Olympian brand of Enlightenment rationalism.

With its Sunday School lesson plan so short on specifics, the religion of humanity was wide open to entrepreneurial innovators. The doomed labors of its prophets furnish Schmidt’s narrative. It all starts, fittingly enough, with the legacy of Paine himself—and more precisely, his mortal remains. The never-resolved quest to find the exhumed contents of Paine’s casket marked the secular cause’s first major movement toward something like cultic observance.

The saga of Paine’s missing bones began when William Cobbett, the cantankerous agrarian radical, hatched a plan to repatriate Paine’s remains from America to England. Formerly a fierce Tory detractor of Paine’s, Cobbett had started to see Paine as a freethinking saint; he robbed Paine’s grave in 1819 and contrived to ship his bones back to England for erection as shrine to the triumph of reason and radical self-determination. “Every hair of that head, from which started the idea of American Independence, would be a treasure to the possessor; and this hair is my possession,” Cobbett proclaimed in a manner that wasn’t entirely becoming to the cause of universalist, cosmopolitan reason. But he also forecast that Paine’s English tomb would touch off its own millennial-style revival of the religion of humanity: “These bones will effect the reformation of England in Church and State.”

Instead, Cobbett’s crusade was greeted with torrents of public ridicule, castigating him as “the political radical turned resurrection man.” So before long, the chastened Paineite quietly shelved his ambitious scheme for a reformation of reason, and Paine’s remains vanished, destined to have their own quasi-spiritual half-life as the fodder for centuries of gossip, speculation, and conspiratorial lore. To this day, no one can account for their whereabouts, though one particularly dogged secular Paineite, Moncure Conway, unearthed and proudly exhibited what appeared to be a certified segment of Paine’s brain. Conway arranged an exhibition for the relic in London in 1905 before ferrying it back to Paine’s original burial site on the former grounds of Paine’s farm in New Rochelle, New York. He even ascribed healing properties to this relic, noting that two formerly orthodox ministers who’d come across it had since succumbed to humanist skepticism.

As the unlikely tale of Paine’s empty sepulcher shows, freethinkers often quickly find themselves creating new forms of religious observance. All tend to follow the same basic arc. Principled skeptics gather in a mirror image of churchlike devotion that lacks many of the essential moving parts of actual religious observance. After an experimental honeymoon, the new initiative dissipates. Its members start looking for spiritual communion and community, and they persistently fail to translate Paine’s numbingly broad “do good” mandate into a readily recognized and replicated set of cohesive rituals, practices, and social directives.

As Schmidt makes clear, none of these failures was the result of a lack of trying. The creation of funeral and memorial rites was an urgent priority for the promoters of the religion of humanity. In a maddening pattern, the religious families of departed skeptics would enlist Christian pastors to conduct them into a Protestant version of the hereafter. More than that, though, Christian counterpropagandists eagerly seized on the faintest suggestion of a skeptic’s deathbed conversion as a demonstration of the bankruptcy of secular reason before the momentous hour of our passing—and, of course, as a major symbolic victory for the apostles of the One True Faith.

Auguste Comte, the French founder of positivism, was among the first to work out his own set of religious rites for rationalists. Comte modeled his system of worship on the devotional rites of Catholicism, replete with designated saints of reason and catechistic formulations of doctrine. He even supplied a Virgin Mary figure, Clotilde de Vaux—a much younger woman Comte became infatuated with later in life, after the breakup of his marriage. As it happens, one of the co-founders of The New Republic, the Progressive-era reformer Herbert Croly, was actually enrolled in Comte’s idiosyncratic rationalist faith as a child; both his parents were founding members of the First Positivist Society of New York. Croly’s father, the journalist David Goodman Croly, was an enthusiast of the religion of humanity who cooled on its precepts over time. When Herbert came of age, he advised his child to “go to Catholic and Episcopal churches”; while the positivist model of secularized devotion might make for diverting reading, he wrote, it was not the setting to “learn the secret of tears and ecstasy.” While the elder Croly still prescribed a wholly secular memorial service for his passing, the glum epitaph on his gravestone served as its own verdict on the failed transplantation of Comtean ritual observance in the New World: “I meant well, tried a little, failed much.”

The bulk of secular memorials and funeral rites didn’t land on the grim coda that the senior Croly’s did—but the ritual side of the religion of humanity continued to be distinctly anemic, appealing to enthusiasts on the fringes of American religious life. Chiefly they boasted of their own rejection of the discredited props of mainline worship and their austere resignation to the blankness of eternity. The main run of “secular ceremonies,” Schmidt notes, “were defined by what they eschewed: scripture, hymns, and clergy.… There were no prescribed gestures, no rubrics for the orchestration of grief and burial, only a short oration framing death from ‘a Secular point of view.’” Small wonder that critics of the movement came to the same conclusion that the elder Croly did—that they “succeeded in excluding every element of sentiment and imagination from their solemn ceremonies.”

Movement visionaries remained captivated by the idea of replicating the full institutional experience of Christian worship in a wholly secular setting, founding new temples of rationalist communion and societies of ethical culture. But the larger pattern still held: As a subordinate form of organized religion, secularism lacked devotional and spiritual power; as principled skepticism, it tended to come off as wan and platitudinous. In a revealing irony, one early secular foray into formal worship was dubbed the Society of Moralists—and took root in Hannibal, Missouri, the famed boyhood home of the great scourge of self-appointed moralism, Mark Twain. Twain need not have spent much energy lampooning the Society’s pretensions to this-worldly wisdom, though, since it soon mimicked yet another notorious feature of Protestant worship in America: a fatal sectarian split.

The pragmatic founders of the Society had originally joined forces with Hannibal’s heterodox community of Spiritualists, who shunned Christian dogma but still believed in an afterlife. Hard-headed materialists within the group took umbrage at the alliance: “I would just as soon believe in the real presence of the ‘body and blood’ of a God in the Romish sacramental wafer and wine,” one declaimed, “as accept as truth the fanciful spook developments palmed off as communications from the dead!” Soon enough, a breakaway arm of the Society formed to unite the materialist faction, initially called the Society of Agnostic Moralists, in yet another turn of confusing institutional christening—presumably the Spiritualists could also call themselves agnostics of a sort. (Indeed, a Spiritualist adherent complained that the new faction should have called itself the Death Ends All Society.) The materialists sought once more to clear things up by denoting the Society a convocation of “non-spiritual Freethinkers,” but by that time, the whole project had collapsed into cross-factional recriminations and organizational chaos.

Over the next century-plus, the secular rationalists continued seeking stable institutional shelter in Protestant America, but mostly continued oscillating between wan liberal religiosity and strict atheistic materialism. By the postwar surge in religious observance, the main action before organized secularism was in the courts—and here a still greater irony was poised to overtake the movement. In a series of test cases, the secular temples of the religion of humanity sought tax-exempt status under the free religious expression clause of the First Amendment. One stalwart plaintiff was the Oakland, California, Fellowship of Humanity, which sought tax-exempt status as a center of “religious humanism.” In the landmark appellate case Fellowship of Humanity v. Alameda County, First District Judge Raymond Peters forcefully assented to the Fellowship’s case, transforming the ragtag Oakland congregation overnight into “the organized exemplum” of the secular movement’s many “bookish redefinitions of religion,” as Schmidt observes.

But that wasn’t all. In the Supreme Court’s 1961 decision in Torcaso v. Watkins, a follow-up case concerning a nonbelieving notary public’s refusal to assent to a state of Maryland religious test for officeholders, Justice Hugo Black—a longtime exponent of church-state separation—argued that all manner of nontheistic, and indeed counter-theistic, faith should come in for protection under the freedom of religion provisions of the First Amendment. In a now-notorious footnote in the decision, Black stipulated that “among religions in this country which do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God are Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism and others.” This last reference was initially something of a puzzlement, but based on the legal citations in the note, it became clear that Black and/or his clerks had flubbed a reference to the Fellowship of Humanity—“now misidentified as an embodiment Secular Humanism, a designation that [church founders] had never used to describe themselves.”

In a long and meandering career of institutional drift, inelegant nomenclature, and unintended ironies, this was the capper for the American secularist movement: a Supreme Court decision based on a mistaken identification gave American secularists a whole new identity, as an all-purpose, and all-powerful, villain in the right-wing culture wars. Over the next two decades, militant evangelicals of the right seized upon Black’s slip of the pen, together with the overarching logic of the ruling that granted formal religious status to groups like the Fellowship of Humanity, to conjure an all-out secular humanist takeover of the American nation. The transformation in public discourse was as sweeping as it was hallucinatory: “Religious humanists were no longer part of small fellowships subject to discrimination, but instead they represented a massive conspiracy to take over American public life and establish their religion of secular humanism as an unchecked hegemon, especially in education, but really everywhere,” Schmidt writes. “They were the dangerous and powerful enemies of a Christian nation.”

It was a heady transformation indeed for a movement that remained largely ossified in the Victorian village-atheist mindset of famed secular orators such as Robert Ingersoll and T.H. Huxley. No doubt more than a few arch-secularists fondly wished they wielded the world-shaping powers that the Christian right ascribed to them, since that meteoric upward leap in status would have lavishly borne out the prophecies of the movement’s founding theorists.

Yet in what may be the cruelest irony of all, secularists still cling to the outermost margins of cultural influence. For all the hectic press raised by the “New Atheist” movement, its leading lights have sunk into bitter postures of reaction, extolling crude Islamophobic politics while splaying their outsize egos across social media. Meanwhile, opinion surveys show an unprecedented lurch of Americans into the “Nones” category of religious affiliation—i.e., professing some vague New Agey inclinations toward personal belief but a deep aversion to traditional institutional worship. They are, in other words, veering to a position not unlike the Spiritualist allies of the Hannibal Society of Moralists, but they’re just as likely to be bounced from the rolls of any purist-minded secularist coalition of freethinkers, as their forebears were in the 1880s. But in the utopian bid to conscript this clamorous republic of believers into the vanguard of the Age of Reason, it was ever thus.