The Light We Failed by Catherine Fahringer (May 1997)

It was so many years before I knew anything at all about freethought, freethinkers, or a freethought movement or organization . . . and I was a reader from early childhood.

Now, in my old age, I am reading Annie Laurie Gaylor’s Women Without Superstition and my mind is on fire! Oh, how I wish this book could be in the hands of every young girl and boy before their minds are thoroughly corrupted and co-opted by religion and the educational system (which of course is in thrall to Christianity). Oh, if I could have had this book when I was young! All those years wasted on conformity and feeling uneasy with it! It’s lucky I’ve survived a long time because without doing so I would have had no real life. Had I died at 40 as did Margaret Fuller, I wouldn’t yet have been “born!” At that age I had not even discovered and read Bertrand Russell’s Why Am I Not A Christian.

Although I have read widely throughout my life, I never ran across anything straightforwardly freethought until the Bertrand Russell book which was a Eureka! But aside from having my esteem boosted by the fact that I could identify with one of the world’s greatest minds, I seemed to assume that this one book was all that had ever been said about non-belief. At least I knew that not being a Christian didn’t mean that I was nothing. When I was younger I felt myself to be in a no-man’s land. If I wasn’t Christian or Jewish, what was I? That’s how strongly these two religions permeate our society. I thought I had to be one or the other; I didn’t know that I could just be! Being free from religion had never been an option. And that riles me more when I reflect on the idiotic creationists whining about teaching an alternate “theory” to evolution for “balance.” What we freethinkers ought to be doing is screaming the roof down right now because there is no alternative to religion taught anywhere except for Kaz Dziamka’s course on Humanism at Albuquerque Technical-Vocational Institute. One school in the whole country is “balance” for us?!

When I was 12 or 13 I confided to a little Catholic friend that I thought I was an atheist. I should have believed in myself instead of allowing myself to be pressured by family and society to doubt my judgment for another 45 years! Of course I continued to doubt and to think, but my thoughts were never endorsed by anything I read even though, as I said, I read a great deal in an exploratory way. I simply did not run across any real freethought literature browsing on my own. Sad. What dribs and drabbles there might have been in some of that material was probably so vague as to be over my head, or were edited out. One category I never perused was religion, and that is probably where I made my mistake. Today I find astonishing freethought and philosophical writings catalogued under “religion.”

As I continue to read of these intrepid women of the nineteenth century, I am not only livid with fury about how well covered-over, deleted or ignored their exploits and accomplishments have been, but I am also filled with astonishment that the general public today is less informed about freethought, and freethinkers more timid about expressing their views. What could possibly have gone wrong? We had vivid and bold bearers of the torch of enlightenment. How was that flame extinguished?

Here we are in an era of high technology and rapid travel, and what have inventions and luxuries done for modern freethinkers? We should all blush for shame when we reflect on the accomplishments of these nineteenth century sheroes, getting their message out in what was truly a male-dominated age, and travel conditions so primitive compared to ours. Think what it was to cross the ocean in the 1800s! And land travel? Forget it! Then, too, consider that these women gave speeches in which they pulled no punches, and they gave them without the amplification we have today. How? And who would come? They spoke to hundreds at a time when books such as Stepping Heavenward were the standard reading fare of the day for women and young girls. Everything I ever read about the mid-nineteenth century in particular gave me the impression that people were obsessed with death and dying and heaven and hell. Robert Ingersoll, about whom I learned when in my sixties, came as a stunning surprise to me. And now women! Not in the singular, but in the plural! All of them as well concealed as Ingersoll. I have always thought that freethought has been walled-off from the mainstream, and now I know it. And the wall is even thicker and taller than I’d thought.

Another thing I am learning from this book with astonishment is what a good grasp of science these women seemed to have, far better than the general public today. They knew more about the subject than I had thought would have been likely for those times. Part of this I attribute to their fine, sharp and reasoning minds which could absorb a great deal by their own observation and deductions. In addition to this, it was customary in those times to read more about ancient civilization and their accomplishments before the Dark Dark Ages snuffed out the light.

Ernestine Rose gave her speech, “In Defense of Atheism,” in April 1861. Darwin’s Origin of the Species was published in November 1859. And here I am at the end of the twentieth century listening to grown people snivel about the lack of prayer in the schools, and their failure to teach Creationism! On the whole, ordinary people seem to be much less informed and open-minded today.

How religion got such a hammerlock on society is a mystery, for it would seem logical that scientific advancement would stretch minds, not shrink them. But where today would one find an audience of hundreds lapping up the words of an Ernestine Rose or an Elizabeth Cady Stanton?

A few years ago, I was asked to speak on atheism at the University of Texas-San Antonio. A friend and I prepared what we thought was an informative and entertaining program. We spoke to an audience of 12, three of whom were born-again Christians who protested our lack of “balance” during the question-and-answer period! I thought of our religion-saturated society, with its Robert Schuller, Billy Graham, Robert Tilton, and the vile James Kennedy, preaching his hatred of gays, and I felt sick and discouraged.

All of those brave women of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who dared to proclaim their lack of superstition have been let down by their freethought sisters of today. We who have so many more advantages in communication, travel, and, yes, corsetless, hoopless, bustleless attire, have failed them. How did we let this happen, and what can we do about it?

Catherine Fahringer is a longtime Foundation member and officer from Texas.  

Freedom From Religion Foundation