Were 19th century individualist anarchists in America inherently atheistic? Certainly freethought – a common term for atheism in that day – exerted a strong influence on such significant figures as Moses Harman and E.C. Walker who co-edited Lucifer, the Light Bearer. Their freethought was rooted in a deep desire to remove Church authority from marital and sexual matters; too often this authority went beyond moral suasion and was translated into laws that violated the peaceful actions of consenting adults. In short, the Church tended to become the State.
On the other hand, the individualist anarchism of Lysander Spooner and Benjamin Tucker was rooted, at least in part, in the radical pacifism of the Quakers, especially in their anti-slavery crusade from the early 1830s through to the Civil War. In an obituary of Spooner written for the Boston Daily Globe (May 18, 1887), the Catholic radical John Boyle O’Reilly stated, “In 1835 he [Spooner] published a pamphlet entitled, “A Deist’s Reply to the Alleged Supernatural Evidences of Christianity,” and another entitled, “The Deist’s Immortality and an Essay on Man’s Accountability for His Belief”….Though a disbeliever in all the accepted systems of religion, including Christianity, Mr. Spooner was not an atheist…”
Throughout his political career, however, the prototypical individualist anarchist Benjamin Tucker clearly was. Of his first periodical, the Radical Review(1877-1878), Tucker proudly declared, “I once published a magazine called the Radical Review, which many competent judges pronounced…the handsomest freethought magazine ever published in America.” Tucker’s subsequent periodical, Liberty, reprinted articles from leading freethought papers such as the Boston Investigator and The Index throughout its publishing span (1881-1908).
There is no reason to believe Tucker’s atheism wavered during the Liberty years but his focus upon religion as a primary and irredeemable enemy of human freedom noticeably waned. Part of this was circumstantial. From his youth through to middle-age, Tucker observed the legal clout of the church receding as a result of events such as the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species. Meanwhile the State grew in scope and authority. Tucker came to believe that the majority of people were merely transferring their blind obedience away from the church and toward the secular state. He wrote passionately about “those who have lost their faith in gods only to put it in governments, those who have ceased to be church-worshipers only to become state-worshipers.” Such people had “changed their battle ground, but none the less are foes of liberty still.”
But his view of religion itself seemed to soften as well. Tucker had come from a liberal but religious background with a Quaker father and a Unitarian mother. Educated at a Quaker academy, the younger Tucker may well have rebelled against these influences by taking a harder line than a slightly older Tucker would. At first, he railed against both Church and State as drawing upon unjust authority, which he defined as “any coercive force not developed spontaneously and naturally out of the constitution of the individual himself or herself.” The dual buttresses of “society by force” were the mixed authority of the Church and the State that constituted a “double-headed monster.” Instead he wanted to establish the self-jurisdiction of the individual within a “society by contract.”
A year later, his tone had altered. In Liberty, he explained, “We intend no disrespect to God as an ideal that an individual may hold dear provided such God assumes no authority over others…. It is God the office-seeker and office-holder with whom we take issue.” He opposed the sort of religion that sought to impose its authority through law and political office. When divorced from the State, however, Tucker conceded that personal religion could be a
benevolent factor. For example, if the principle of brotherly love were consistently applied, then it would result in a crime-free society based on cooperation. But to enforce brotherly love by law
would be a contradiction in terms – “the utter denial…a perversion of the word ‘love’.”
By contrast, the State could never operate along the principle of brotherly love. In his collection of essays entitled Instead of a Book, Tucker explained the primary feature of the State; “[t]he anarchist defines government as invasion nothing more or less.” (Tucker used the word “government” interchangeably with “the State.”) Its secondary feature was territoriality, “the assumption of authority over a given area and all within it, exercised generally for the double purpose of more complete oppression of its subjects and extension of its boundaries.” A State claimed a monopoly of force and of jurisdiction over a given territory; for example, it flexed a monopoly over the resolution of disputes through a police and a court system. Tucker considered such ‘protections’ to be outright invasions of person and property.
A Church, however, could operate without violating rights. Therefore, unlike some other individualist anarchists, Tucker did not denounce the mere act of joining a Church nor the acceptance of religion as a personal code. His conditional tolerance toward Churches was not based upon whether their doctrines were true, but upon whether those doctrines were enforced.
For years I have embraced Tucker’s approach and viewed the active scorn with which many libertarians and anarchists view any religious belief to be a waste of time. I see no contradiction in being an anarchist and a Quaker, a Unitarian, or Presbyterian. The only relevant political question is whether the beliefs are being imposed. Interestingly, Tucker himself turned against former freethought mentors when he though they were seeking to impose moral standards upon religionists. For example, the Boston Investigator’s conservative editor Horace Seaver refused to extend religious freedom to Mormons on the issue of polygamy. A hostile exchange with Tucker ensued. Seaver predictably accused him of advocating polygamy (he didn’t); Tucker called Seaver a peevish old man.
Religion and liberty are not intrinsic enemies. Historically, in many fights for personal freedom, they have been good companions. The point at which the two part company is the same one at which Tucker parted with free-thinker Seaver: when liberty is being denied. Otherwise libertarianism and individualist anarchism is strengthened by showing tolerance if not respect to non-violent religions like Quakerism.