American humanism has always benefited from its trailblazers, the radicals whose revolutionary ideas moved the progress of freedom, equality, and justice forward. One almost without peer was Emma Goldman, the anarchist philosopher and public intellectual; her unique perspective on atheism constantly challenged the status quo. Goldman, a Lithuanian immigrant to the United States, toiled in the sweatshops of upstate New York before coming to political consciousness after the Haymarket Riot, a massacre that left countless dead and implicated labor activists as scapegoats for the violence. This event pushed her out of her first marriage and into New York City, where she met fellow-anarchist Alexander Berkman and fell in love. She used her new-found freedom to study the ideas of anarchism, socialism, and atheism, which influenced all of her later activism and writing.
Authorities followed Goldman her entire life. They attempted to charge her with involvement in the near-murder of Carnegie Steel manager Henry Frick, which had been carried out by Berkman as a response to the bloodshed at Homestead. While she was involved in the plot, she was never charged due to lack of evidence. In 1901, she was wrongly arrested for alleged involvement in the assassination of President William McKinley; but, like the case involving Frick, she was later released. In 1919, after speaking out against World War I, the government convicted her of violating the Alien and Sedition Acts and deported her from the United States. She lived in multiple countries during her exile before her death in 1940.
During her many years of activism, Goldman wrote for a variety of publications, including Mother Earth, a magazine she founded in 1906. Her writing championed free speech and expression, free love and open relationships, anarchism, the rights of labor, education, birth control, and criticisms of religion. This essay will explore Goldman’s ideas about atheism and how they fit into her larger ideological framework. As her writings will show, three core themes permeate Goldman’s work: strong advocacy for individual freedom, rejection of Christianity, and the defense of atheism. In all, Emma Goldman’s radical atheism was rooted in her love of humanity, and while the term didn’t exist then, that made her a deeply committed humanist.
Women as "Victims of Morality"
In 1913, Goldman published a lecture entitled, “Victims of Morality,” where she argued that religious puritanism had, like a disease, infected the moral compass of America, with significant consequences for the lives of women. “Through the medium of religion they have paralyzed the mind of the people, just as morality has enslaved the spirit. In other words, religion and morality are a much better whip to keep people in submission than even the club and the gun,” Goldman wrote. She was speaking in reference to Anthony Comstock, the overzealous social reformer who used his position as a special agent of the U.S. Post Office Department to enforce strict laws against the purported transfer of “obscene” literature via the mail. In fact, the “Comstock Act,” which prohibited the passage of obscene literature in the mail, is named after him.
Goldman believed that Comstock’s style of Victorian puritanism violated the rights of women. “It is Morality,” said Goldman, “which condemns woman to the position of a celibate, a prostitute, or a reckless, incessant breeder of hapless children.” Now, why would she capitalize “morality?” Was she speaking in reference to a specific kind of morality? In the context of this article, her capital-M morality referred to “Property Morality,” her view that the capitalistic United States was beholden to property. “Woe to anyone that dares to question the sanctity of property, or sins against it,” she declared. In this passage, we see Goldman’s critique of morality as part of a greater critique of capitalism itself. To her, capitalism and its slavish devotion to property created the conditions under which those who were oppressed by its machinations barely understood their own servitude. In this milieu, religion (specifically Christianity) and Victorian moralism served as a major contributor to false consciousness. In turn, Goldman estimated that “until the workers lose respect for the instrument of their material enslavement, they need hope for no relief.”
As indicated above, this condition wreaked havoc on the rights of women. For Goldman, the celibate was created by the morality of marriage, the prostitute was created by the morality of property and money, and the mother was created by the morality of socially-sanctioned reproduction. All these moralities amounted to the same consequence: the lives of women were preordained by social roles, at the expense of their liberty and freedom. Goldman’s solution to this problem was for women to throw off the social bonds of “Morality” and embrace a moral individualism that is consummate with a person’s own desires and needs. “Woman is awakening, she is throwing off the nightmare of Morality; she will no longer be bound,” Goldman wrote, “Her love is sanction enough for her.” She believed if people lived their lives without any regard for gratifying oppressive structures of the church, the state, and the market, they would live full lives of meaning and purpose.
Christianity and the Denial of Life
To further her critique of society’s “Morality,” she produced another pamphlet lambasting its fundamental support structure: Christianity. In “The Failure of Christianity,” also published in 1913, Goldman saw herself as the rightful heir of such notable German iconoclasts as Friedrich Nietzsche and Max Stirner. Goldman declared that they “hurled blow upon blow against the portals of Christianity, because they saw in it a pernicious slave morality, the denial of life, and the destroyer of all the elements that make for strength and character.” The concept of “slave morality,” as articulated by Nietzsche, understood Christianity as an oppressive system buttressed by the values of humility, obedience, and deference; by contrast, the concept of “master morality” prized power, confidence, and self-expression. Goldman agreed with Nietzsche’s framing in this pamphlet, writing, “I believe, with them, that Christianity is most admirably adapted to the training of slaves, to the perpetuation of a slave society; in short, to the very conditions confronting us today.” Christianity, in Goldman’s eyes, ripped away our human potential by stripping us of our strength, courage, and agency.
She’s also not forgiving to Christ as a teacher; she saw his religion as “the embodiment of submission, of inertia, of the denial of life; hence responsible for the things done in their name.” Now, she differentiated the concept of “Jesus Christ” into three distinct categories: the theological, the ethical, and the poetic. The theological Christ is the one presented by the Bible, a divine-human figure, with all the miracles and supernaturalism. The ethical Christ, like the one depicted in the Jefferson Bible, is stripped of supernaturalism and miracles to focus on his ethical teachings. Finally, the poetical Christ focuses on the story of Christ as a metaphor for life, a story that helps a person understand their place in the world. In her view, the theological Christ was refuted long ago, by such luminaries as Thomas Paine, Ernest Renan, Richard Strauss, and Ferdinand Christian Baur (she spells as Bauer). Her main contention, which she saw as more important to the culture of her time, was the influence of the ethical and poetic Christs: “the ethical and poetic Christ-myth” Goldman argued, “has so thoroughly saturated our lives, that even some of the most advanced minds make it difficult to emancipate themselves from its yoke.”
Goldman’s frustration was less with the fundamentalists of Christianity (who would be refuted over time by scientific and theological inquiry) and more with the liberals, whose dedication to the myth led to widespread ethical contradictions. They couldn’t see how the metaphor of life represented by the poetical Christ turned them into slaves for social and political ideologies requiring subservience and intellectual sacrifice. For instance, Christians who decried slavery lacked self-awareness of their own religion, for while it taught them ethical responsibility, it also taught them “slavish acquiescence in the will of others” and encouraged “the complete disregard of character and self-reliance, and [was] therefore destructive of liberty and well-being.” Thus, well-meaning Christians actually propelled and sustained the slave trade for centuries, despite the ethical call to “love thy neighbor.” In order for a society to truly achieve progress, it must reject Christianity, in any form. It is a religion which prizes the allure of heaven over the concerns of the here and now. It teaches that to be “poor in spirit” is to be virtuous, that those who toil on this earth need not bother with their current status or the political state of the world in which they find themselves. The rich will suffer in hell while the poor live in heaven. And most of all, it reinforces subjugation as a virtue.
This is Goldman’s central problem with Christianity; like “Morality’s” assault on women’s rights, Christianity’s insistence on meekness becomes “the whip, which capitalism and governments have used to force man into dependency, into his slave position.” Furthermore, Goldman observed, “Righteousness grows out of liberty, of social and economic opportunity, and equality. But how can the meek, the poor in spirit, ever establish such a state of affairs?” In order for society to truly promote and preserve individual rights, freedom, and equality, the institutions of social cohesion (the state, market capitalism, organized Christianity) must crumble before the working classes.
Goldman's Audacious Atheism
Alongside her critiques of religion, Emma Goldman articulated her alternative worldview in the February, 1916, issue of her magazine, Mother Earth. Called “The Philosophy of Atheism,” this short essay has become her best-known writing on the subject (and included in Christopher Hitchens’s edited omnibus, The Portable Atheist). It’s fairly surprising how prescient she was in this essay, laying out ideas that have become common themes in our modern discourse on atheism. For example, she writes early in the piece that “the God idea is growing more impersonal and nebulous in proportion as the human mind is learning to understand natural phenomena and in the degree that science progressively correlates human and social events.” Decades later, the physicist Richard Feynman laid out this problem in ways that echoed Goldman’s view:
God was invented to explain mystery. God is always invented to explain those things that you do not understand. Now, when you finally discover how something works, you get some laws which you're taking away from God; you don't need him anymore.
Like Goldman, Feynman understood that the advancements of science limited religion’s attempts to explain the natural world and our place in it. This critique is still used today to refute “God of the Gaps” arguments for theism, which posits that current gaps in knowledge shows support for the existence of God.
Another clear influence on her own atheism was the anarchist philosopher Mikhail Bakunin, whose own work God and the State she quotes at length in “The Philosophy of Atheism.” Bakunin argued that gods were the product of “the prejudiced fancy of men who had not attained the full development and full possession of their faculties,” which led to the “abdication of human reason and justice” and “necessarily ends in the enslavement of mankind, both in theory and in practice.” If this sounds familiar to you, it should, because Goldman also viewed religion as slavery and wrote about it at length in the aforementioned “Failure of Christianity.” In accepting Bakunin’s thesis, Goldman declared that “In proportion as man learns to realize himself and mold his own destiny theism becomes superfluous. How far man will be able to find his relation to his fellows will depend entirely upon how much he can outgrow his dependence upon God.”
One instance in which she presaged a modern intellectual was with her critique of what she called “theistic tolerance.” Goldman noted that as religious belief wanes in the public square, denominations of all stripes will “combine variegated religious philosophies and conflicting theistic theories into one denominational trust” in a “frantic effort to establish a common ground to rescue the modern mass from the ‘pernicious’ influence of atheistic ideas.” Therefore, “It is characteristic of theistic ‘tolerance’ that no one really cares what the people believe in, just so they believe or pretend to believe.” With this analysis, she anticipated the philosopher Daniel Dennett’s concept of “Belief in Belief,” from his 2006 work, Breaking the Spell. In the chapter of the same name, Dennett argues that many view the belief in a god or gods as essentially valuable to society, regardless of whether or not the god(s) exist or religious doctrines are empirically true. Like Goldman, Dennett is firmly convinced that as societies forge evermore robust secular systems of justice and social harmony there will no longer be any need for this “belief in belief.” Now, Dennett wouldn’t go along with Goldman’s anarchism, but would definitely sign on to her diagnosis. This makes her a pretty prescient prognosticator of some of mainstream atheism’s most prevalent ideas.
After clearing away religions under the lash of her pen, Goldman spends the rest of this essay articulating her view of atheism. She begins with an excellent definition:
The philosophy of Atheism represents a concept of life without any metaphysical Beyond or Divine Regulator. It is the concept of an actual, real world with its liberating, expanding and beautifying possibilities, as against an unreal world, which, with its spirits, oracles, and mean contentment has kept humanity in helpless degradation.
Her definition reaffirms her commitment to the real world, not the promise of heaven or the fear of hell. In fact, she even says as much in a further passage:
The philosophy of Atheism has its roots in the earth in this life . . . . Man must break his fetters which have chained him to the gates of heaven and hell, so that he can begin to fashion out of his reawakened and illumined consciousness a new world upon earth.
Atheism allows a person to fully embrace their humanity for the betterment of themselves, others, and the world they live in. When one is dedicated to self actualization, social betterment, and scientific discovery, religious notions are easily pushed aside.
Atheism and the Affirmation of Humanity
Finally, Goldman turns to moral questions. One of the oldest and most-common questions unbelievers get is, “How can you be good without God?” First, she dismisses the idea of Christian morality outright, as it “has always been a vile product, imbued partly with self righteousness, partly with hypocrisy.” Goldman never thought much of the traditionally Christian notions of fixed moral states set by a god; they don’t reflect what morality is really all about, which is creating a framework of human interaction based on social norms of freedom, solidarity, and discerning a shared reality. In all times, she declared, the freethinkers were the ones who fought for these principles:
They knew that justice, truth, and fidelity are not conditioned in heaven, but that they are related to and interwoven with the tremendous changes going on in the social and material life of the human race; not fixed and eternal, but fluctuating, even as life itself.
This could be interpreted as moral relativism, but that wasn’t Goldman’s intent. She actually believed in some moral universals such as freedom, choice, and empathy. She just couldn’t stomach a morality disconnected from real-world human needs that predicated its universals on unknowable gods and their indecipherable whims.
For Goldman, Atheism gives humanity agency in a way that theism doesn’t; it compels us to show up for the tasks of life, to make the hard choices, to benefit from our successes, and to learn from our failures. In a sense, it allows us to be fully human. As she writes at the end of her essay, “Atheism in its negation of gods is at the same time the strongest affirmation of man, and through man, the eternal yea to life, purpose, and beauty.”
In our own time, atheism is still a radical position, despite being an eternal “Yes” to humankind. Paradoxically, we try to make our view more palatable by obscuring it, as when we tell an acquaintance that we’re “not religious” instead of explicitly atheist or humanist. While this position is rightly applied to those who don’t fully grasp our intentions, it is far better to foist our ideas in the public discourse in the hope that someone might agree with us. This is exactly what Emma Goldman did with her writings on atheism. Raw, rancorous, and always controversial, Goldman’s iconoclasm reads nearly as modern as anything from someone like the late journalist Christopher Hitchens or author Michael Parenti. It’s this boldness—a desire to own one’s radicalism—that electrifies her writing. This disregard for pleasant spectacle in the service of radical truth reaffirms Goldman’s rightful place in the pantheon of American humanism.
Justin Clark is a Marxist public historian and activist. He holds a B.S. in History/Political Science from Indiana University Kokomo and a M.A. in Public History from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. His graduate research focused on orator Robert Ingersoll and his contributions to Midwestern freethought. You can contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Instagram at @justinclarkph.
This essay was first published in Justin's Blog.