Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Responding to Ames Tribune > Archives > Ames Tribune > Opinion > Douglass a secular humanist?

Dr. Hector Avalos has written an argue where he argues that one of the heroes of American history should be considered a secularist - Frederick Douglass. Given that it's Black History month I'm sure that many of today's atheists would love to find proof of African-American heroes who were also atheists - given that as a culture that African Diaspora in so many of it forms is highly theistic - even given that Europeans have used religion to oppress us. Avalos' argument is based on some correspondence with atheist abolitionist Ottilie Assing (1819-84). He uses words she wrote about him to assert that he gave up on religion and embraced the same ideas as Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72)and Robert G. Ingersoll. I've actually read Frederick Douglass' autobiography and one of my professors at UC Berkeley, Waldo E. Martin Jr. - that I took a class from, is an expert on Frederick Douglass. He wrote the book The Mind of Frederick Douglass. And given these sources, I find no reason to think that Frederick Douglass was an atheist. Did he believe in separation of Church and State? Yes. Did he think that American Christianity is hypocritical? Yes. Was he right? I think he was. Truth be told some of American Christianity is still unbiblical and hypocritical. Was Frederick Douglass anti-religion? No. But read Avalos' article and see how he tries to leave the impression that Douglas was an atheist without saying it because he knows that a secularist and an atheist are not the the same thing, yet he wants to claim them anyway.

Avalos even tries to use quotes from Frederick Douglass himself to prove his point. Let's take a look at just what Douglass said and see if it proves that he rejected religion.

A good example of this shift is a speech titled “It Moves,” delivered on Nov. 20, 1883, in Washington, D.C.

In the speech, Douglass expresses his sympathy with the historical criticism of the Bible and new scientific discoveries that cast doubt on the Bible’s reliability. Douglass remarks: “Men are compelled to admit that the Genesis by Moses is less trustworthy as to the time of creating the heavens and the earth than are the rocks and the stars.”

Near the end of “It Moves,” Douglass becomes more emphatic that humans must rely on themselves, not on gods, in the quest for equality:

“It may not be a useless speculation to inquire when(ce) comes the disposition or suggestion of reform; whence that irresistible power that impels men to brave all the hardships and dangers involved in pioneering an unpopular cause? Has it a natural or a celestial origin? Is it human or is it divine, or is it both? I have no hesitation in stating where I stand in respect to these questions.

“It seems to me that the true philosophy of reform is not found in the clouds, or in the stars, or any where else outside of humanity itself. So far as the laws of the universe have been discovered and understood, they seem to each that the mission of man’s improvement and perfection has been wholly committed to man himself. So is he to be his own savior or his own destroyer. He has neither angels to help him nor devils to hinder him.”

Think about the people Frederick Douglass was talking to. Douglass was attempting to rouse people out of their complacency. He wanted to remind people who claimed to be Christians that they were responsible for their own actions as to whether or not they were going to continue their bigotry against Negros and Women or were they going to reform and improve. I don't see this as denying the existence of God. I see Douglass reminding his audience that they can't just sit back and wait on someone else - human or divine - to do the right thing when they can do it themselves. This message resonates today.

Avalos also wrote:

Indeed, Douglass was one of the first to question the oft-stated claim that reliance on biblical authority was a main factor in the abolition of slavery.

Really? Where? He offered no documentation.

Avalos also wrote the following. I've continued to quote his words.

Douglass explicitly exalted the racial ethics of Robert G. Ingersoll, the famed agnostic, over those of Dwight L. Moody, the celebrated fundamentalist leader.

Is Avalos pointing out that some Christians of the time were racist and there were no racist atheists? I hope not because this isn't true. There were were Christians who had a consistent and Biblical Christianity and still happened to be White. There were also Black Christians who didn't have a Christianity consistent with the Bible. Let's be honest the only black person who would completely agree with the racial ethics of Dwight L. Moody (or many of the leading white Christians of their time) would be someone like Uncle Ruckus from the show The Boondocks. I mean, "Duh!" So what is the point being made here

The history of blacks is diverse, with both Christians and non-Christians participating in the heroic struggle for the abolition of slavery.

No argument there. And I appreciate all of their efforts. I have directly benefited from God working through all of them!

Given the new information about Douglass, some will now place him among the secular humanist luminaries who fought for equality and abolition in the 19th century.

Sure would like to see someone defend that. There are several quotes that Avalos did not bring out that give a much better view of Frederick Douglass' views on religion. Let us see what the man has to say for himself.

I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.

Is Douglass really saying that there is reason to pray? No. I have found the much the same thing in my own life. In waiting on something miraculous things to happen, sometimes we don't see that God has already answered our prayers. We expect God to do something over-the-top like he did when he took the Hebrews from the Egyptians when instead He is dealing with us like He did with Israel when he helped them conquer and occupy Canaan. They had to fight for it and God helped them. Douglass used the legs and opportunities God blessed him with. And God protected him and blessed him in the things he had no control over.

I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, the grossest of all libels. [Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself]

I totally agree. You can't claim to mistreat and oppress people like my people were treated, claim to do it in the name of God, and then expect God to let it go. It's in effect lying on God.

I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the South is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes-- a justifier of the most appalling barbarity, a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds, and a dark shelter under which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection. Where I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me...I...hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. [Frederick Douglass, "After the Escape"]

This is an indictment against the hollow religion practiced in the United States - not against the Bible or God. And I agree with him.

We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support the gospel, and babes sold to purchase Bibles for the poor heathen, all for the glory of God and the good of souls. The slave auctioneer's bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the relgious shouts of his pious master. Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave trade go hand in hand. [Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself]

Again Douglass was not talking about Biblical Christianity - but the dross practiced by those who enslaved our people.

Ames Tribune > Archives > Ames Tribune > Opinion > Douglass a secular humanist?

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  1. So Avalos doesn't claim that Douglass was an atheist... and that's correct. Avalos doesn't claim that secularism and atheism are the same thing... and that's correct. Your "disagreement" with Avalos isn't with anything he wrote, it's with some view that you're just positive he holds, but never actually expresses.

    Because he just couldn't be possible that you're reading things that aren't there.

    Would it really be so difficult to focus on what's written and admit that what's written is correct? Or do you feel compelled to attack Avalos because he doesn't share your religion?

  2. I did focus on what's written. He suggested that Frederick Douglass rejected religion and Douglass did not.

    As for attacking Avalos...where? I said I disagreed with him and why I disagree with him and I think he has the bias of trying to claim Frederick Douglass for his side because "secularist" is a term that would have meant nothing in the context of America in late 19th century. It's like claiming Jesus was a Calvinist.