…on why Ralph Waldo Emerson was an atheist

“Our own Ralph Waldo Emerson, although he had a thousand opportunities to hear Methodist clergyman, scorned the means of grace, lived to his highest ideal, gave to his fellow men his best and truest thought, and yet his spirit is the sport and prey of fiends tonight”

~ RG Ingersoll, Eternal Punishment, c. 1885

Ingersoll was a forthright atheist (or as per 19th century parlance: agnostic), who wrote prolifically on the subject; and also a Republican, who was politically vigorous and espoused other candidates; however, a run for the Presidency was put to him as unsustainable, as his atheism would have cost him votes; he affirmed he desired honesty above all.

Emerson was a Minister in his early life, as was his father; therefore, to our perception, the prospect of his being an atheist – outspoken or not – may seem infinitesimal; and his serene deportment being what it was understood to be, would he have kept such sentiments to himself?  Perhaps; a life-long friend, John Lowell Gardner said of him:

“He was so universally amiable and complying that my evil spirit would sometimes instigate me to take advantage of his gentleness and forbearance; but, nothing could disturb his equanimity.  All that was wanting to render him an almost perfect character was a few harsher traits and perhaps more masculine vigour.”

~ Oliver a Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1884


On the subject of religion and indoctrination

The controversial Divinity School Address was delivered on 15 July, 1838 (what I like to call a red-letter day for atheists and Emerson lovers); herein, he cast doubt on the miracles presented in the bible and maintained that one’s morality was borne out of one’s intuition (the primary intellect), and as such, superior to that which is steeped in scripture.

Emerson asserted that Jesus was – to quote my friend, Jackie – “a pretty cool guy,” and that he professed human life to be miraculous (this was unmistakably misrepresented); science palpably controverts the notion that life is a miracle of any kind; that notwithstanding, Emerson’s assessment of Jesus belies the notion of any divine intervention; extraordinary or otherwise.  Furthermore, to influence a worshipper thus is unutterably cruel and Emerson agreed with me, as he estimated it indecent to attempt a conversion with accounts of doubtful miracles; and similarly with veiled threats.  On claims proffered by religion, Emerson upheld – as I, an atheist, do – that he must believe that what is being put forward is valid, lest he cannot accept it.

“He spoke of miracles; for he felt that man’s life was a miracle, and all that man doth, and he knew that this daily miracle shines, as the character ascends. But the word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is Monster.”

“To aim to convert a man by miracles, is a profanation of the soul. A true conversion, a true Christ, is now, as always, to be made, by the reception of beautiful sentiments.”

 “…but you must subordinate your nature to Christ’s nature; you must accept our interpretations and take his portrait as the vulgar drew it.”

~ Divinity School Address

On the subject of why people attend church

Those who visit Emerson House in Concord, MA are regaled with a diverting story of how he fabricated mislaying his hat and gloves so as to avoid attending church.  To Emerson, preaching, religion and attending church were not about the soul; rather, the ceremony and convention (in addition to the cruelty of indoctrination); conceivably even a performance of sorts; many worshippers then become inured to this ritual and habit; they embrace not solitude; yet persist, and perpetually blindly follow.  Their attendance is the product of all these causes as well as an adherence to the supposed morality of religion.

“…it is not the doctrine of the soul, but an exaggeration of the personal, the positive, the ritual.”

“Ah me! no man goeth alone. All men go in flocks to this saint or that poet, avoiding the God who seeth in secret. They cannot see in secret; they love to be blind in public. They think society wiser than their soul, and know not that one soul, and their soul, is wiser than the whole world.”

“I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to say, I would go to church no more. Men go, thought I, where they are wont to go, else had no soul entered the temple in the afternoon.”

“It seemed strange that the people should come to church. It seemed as if their houses were very unentertaining, that they should prefer this thoughtless clamour. It shows that there is a commanding attraction in the moral sentiment, that can lend a faint tint of light to dullness and ignorance, coming in its name and place.”

~ Divinity School Address

On fate

“The one serious thing in nature is a will.  Society is servile for want of will, and therefore the world wants saviours and religions.”

~ Fate

I am in love with these words for they encapsulate indeed by what means religion was conceived, how it has evolved and why it persists.  Some I know who are religious think nothing of yielding entirely to fate; the notion that “it is in God’s hands;” to say nothing of the more precarious renunciation: vast numbers chiding medical interventions for illness in the misguided and unwarranted confidence that gods will intercede and heal.  Further, there exists the notion that one is born into one’s destiny: one is born to be a criminal, etc., and that this condition is unavoidable from the instant one comes into existence.

Emerson recognised fate to be a succession of limitations; restrictions which can be surmounted; there exists a duality: the poles of fate and power; and this power is that of the intellect, which begets freedom.

Every jet of chaos which threatens to exterminate us, is convertible by intellect into wholesome force.”

“Fate is nothing but the deeds committed in a prior state of existence.”

~ Fate

On how to overcome fate

How powerful this reflection!  And how empowering!  Emerson said, “fate, then, is a name for facts not yet passed under the fire of thought; — for causes which are unpenetrated.”  Similarly:  “Behind every individual, closes organization: before him, opens liberty, –the Better, the Best.”

To conquer the limitations of fate is to exhibit the courage to act as one wishes, and that no person can distinguish truth until he or she has been impacted by it.  In the essay Fate, Emerson employs a familiar rhetoric: he defines that which is delineated and posits examples; yet, midway through, the reader is imparted with the command to asphyxiate restrictions – or fate:

“There can be no driving force, except through the conversion of the man into his will, making him the will, and the will him, And one may say boldly, that no man has a right perception of any truth, who has not been reacted on by it, so as to be ready to be its martyr.”

“He who sees through the design, presides over it, and must will that which must be.”

~ Fate


Is it sheer wishful thinking on my part to desire that a person whom I admire deeply (and with whom I am more than slightly obsessed!) had embraced the same world views as I do?  Perhaps.  However, my elucidations of his insights, observations and sentiments bolster my “wish.”  And were I in any doubt; I repeat:

“Our own Ralph Waldo Emerson, although he had a thousand opportunities to hear Methodist clergyman, scorned the means of grace, lived to his highest ideal, gave to his fellow men his best and truest thought, and yet his spirit is the sport and prey of fiends tonight”

~ RG Ingersoll, Eternal Punishment, c. 1885


3 thoughts on “…on why Ralph Waldo Emerson was an atheist

  1. I admire you for your relentless quest to seek answers in the most palpable way as to why you have such a deep connection to Emerson (a.k.a. fancy man). As you brilliantly said, it is only human NATURE that you would want some validation that the both of you would have that commonality. There is no doubt that his spirit is kept alive as you share his great wisdom with others. Long may YOU astonish and fire my friend…xxxx

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for this, Doreen; I asked Geth to read “The Divinity School Address” so we could discuss it, and our discussion started me thinking; all the pieces seemed to fit. You are quite right; the search for the truth interests me; and who knows?; I may be wrong!

      I don’t imagine this is a popular theme, and even when I uploaded the link onto FB, only two people acknowledged it. I make this point to illustrate that some may experience discomfort with talk of not believing in gods; as you know, I don’t seek praise or audiences; so the lack of numbers does not phase me.

      Thanks, as ever, for your thoughtful comments xx


  2. Would it be OK if I cross-posted this article to WriterBeat.com? There is no fee; I’m simply trying to add more content diversity for our community and I enjoyed reading yo5ur work. I’ll be sure to give you complete credit as the author. If “OK” please let me know via email.


    Liked by 1 person

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