Mar 10, 2013

A theory of famous and forgotten atheists

In the New York Times, in a review of Susan Jacoby's new book on Robert Ingersoll, there's a proposed theory of famous and forgotten atheists, and of why they're famous or forgotten. It's not clear if the theory is Jacoby's or the reviewers' (presumably it's Jacoby's), but this is the theory:
There have been atheists and religious doubters throughout history, but the ones who remain famous after their deaths tend to have been equally famous for something else as well; otherwise, people most notable for their bravery in the face of religious conservatism have to be celebrated by a population equally brave, and that is often too much to ask.
Is this true?

Besides the problem of the question of the definition of "atheist" and whether there have been those "throughout history," and how "atheist" and "religious doubter" are being mushed together, is this true?  Is there really any way to divide public religion-doubters in such a way as to predict their permanence, their public memory?

The model for the remembered atheist/religious doubter that is being proposed here would apparently be Thomas Paine; Ingersoll's the model of the forgotten atheist. Paine had the "something else" of the American Revolution and the French Revolution. But then, it's not like Ingersoll did nothing but doubt at the religious. He fought in the Civil War. He had an active political career.

Maybe it's just the vagueness of "something else as well" I am having a problem with. It seems very unclear what this wouldn't apply to.

Did Ayn Rand do something else? Probably that's how her other political and artistic efforts would be thought of here, though she might not have accepted those distinctions separating her philosophy from everything else. Did Madalyn Murray O'Hair do something besides atheist activism? It wouldn't seem so, but surely she counts as one who's remained famous. Emma Goldman could fit into the Paine model of an atheist who's remembered but who's "equally famous for something else." What about Marcet Haldeman-Julius? She did lots of other things besides doubt, but isn't particularly remembered, I don't think.

Besides, isn't it because one is remembered that multiple aspects of one's life and work are remembered?  Not the other way around.

The proposed theory of why remembered atheists are remembered elides over the many complications of the functions of discourses that publicly preserve a memory. In place of a more nuanced explanation for why some public figures remain that way after death and others do not, it slides into talk of "celebration" and "bravery." Which is to say, it into a case for a kind of hagiography.

The proposed theory seems like it's going to be a historical argument, an interesting explanatory device. But then it  seems like it turns out to be really something else entirely.

This is my concern with Jacoby's history of American freethinkers, and why I'm skeptical about her book on Ingersoll.