Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Emma Goldman on Atheism

Emma Goldman was a Russian Jewish immigrant to the United States, a passionate anarchist and atheist, as well as an advocate for the rights of women. While she was critical of some of the aims of first-wave feminism, she was also a vocal defender of contraception, free love, and homosexuality. Goldman was jailed several times for handing out information on birth control. "I demand the independence of woman," she wrote in 1897*, "her right to support herself; to live for herself; to love whomever she pleases, or as many as she pleases. I demand freedom for both sexes, freedom of action, freedom in love and freedom in motherhood."

In her eyes, anarchism was as much about liberating the individual from religion as it was about liberating her from the control of the state. Capitalism leads to exploitation and suffering, she believed, rather than to the social order and economic opportunities she found in her vision of anarchism. In 1923, she would publish My Disillusionment in Russia in reaction to her firsthand experiences with the aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Goldman's atheism, like that of Nietzsche or Marx, was focused on this mortal life here on Earth, and tended to view religion as an impediment to human development. Her short essay, The Philosophy of Atheism, published in 1916, shares many of her thoughts on this subject. "The philosophy of Atheism expresses the expansion and growth of the human mind," according to Goldman. "The philosophy of theism, if we can call it philosophy, is static and fixed... Atheism has its root in the earth, in this life; its aim is the emancipation of the human race from all God-heads, be they Judaic, Christian, Mohammedan, Buddhistic, Brahministic, or what not... 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."

The concept of God has changed substantially over time, she notes, but it originated from our fear of the unknown. As we discover ourselves and learn to shape our own destinies, theism becomes increasingly superfluous, the gods being transformed into something ever more indefinite, obscure, and nebulous. Goldman prematurely celebrates the decline of religion and the rise of atheism, though some of her observations here may sound all too familiar to us today, over a century later.
More and more, the various concepts "of the only true God, the only pure spirit, the only true religion" are tolerantly glossed over in the frantic effort to establish a common ground to rescue the modern mass from the "pernicious" influence of atheistic ideas. It is characteristic of theistic "tolerance" that no one really cares what the people believe in, just so they believe or pretend to believe.
Noting the injustice in the world, and the inaction of a supposedly loving deity, Goldman says that humankind alone can undertake the task of achieving justice on the earth. However, under the promises of an everlasting heaven and an omnipotent god, the human being has become "a will-less creature". "Again and again," she writes, "the light of reason has dispelled the theistic nightmare, but poverty, misery and fear have recreated the phantoms - though whether old or new, whatever their external form, they differed little in their essence." The triumph of atheism is its resistance to the paralyzing effects of religion.

For Goldman, atheism is not only the negation of gods, but the affirmation of man and woman, and in this it is the affirmation of life.

 *Cited in Alice Wexler, Emma Goldman: An Intimate Life, p. 94.

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