The Revolution of Reason: Literatures of American Freethought
“The liberty of man is not safe in the hands of any church. Wherever the Bible and sword are in partnership, man is a slave.” – Robert Ingersoll
“I believe God wants everybody to be free. And that’s a part of my foreign policy.”
– George W. Bush
Syllabus and Course Overview
Mi 14:15 – 15:45
Instructor: Timothy Robbins
Office Hours: Do. 10:00 – 12:00 and by appointment
The American nineteenth century has of late been described as “The Golden Age of Freethought.” While contemporary “freethinkers” continue to advocate for a secular philosophy based upon reason, skepticism and empiricism opposed to God, authority, and tradition, this course is more concerned with locating “Freethought” historically, as a uniquely American undertaking.
We aspire to trace the long nineteenth century literary tradition of U.S. Freethought. In addition to Paine, Jefferson, and the antebellum contributions of abolitionists and suffragettes, we will examine the fiery orations of “American infidel” Robert Ingersoll, the destructive satire of Mark Twain, the “cosmic” poetry of Walt Whitman, the unrepentant anarchism of Emma Goldman and more! The course will conclude by interrogating the modern-day return of religious fundamentalism in the face of secularist consensus; and the subsequent, often violent, reactions of the so-called “new atheists.”
In addition to expanding the knowledge of U.S. cultural history, the course aims to cultivate critical analysis through class discussions, regular responses, group presentations, and a short essay.
Packet available at The Copy Shop
Schedule of Assignments
Introduction: From the Puritan to the Secular to the PostSecular?
17 October: Syllabus, Introductions; Phillip Appleman, “Day One Through Six, etc.”
24 October: Charles Taylor Introduction to A Secular Age; Susan Jacoby, introduction to Freethinkers
Revolutionary Foundations and Antebellum Revolts
31 October: Thomas Paine from The Age of Reason; James Madison, “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments”; Thomas Jefferson, “Wall of Separation letter.”
7 November: Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Divinity School Address”; Achsa Sprague, “The Ruined Church.”
14 November: Martin Delany, from Conditions and “Letter to Garrison.”
The Gilded Age of Capitalism; The Golden Age of Freethought
21 November: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, from The Women’s Bible.
28 November: Mark Twain, Letters from the Earth.
5 December: ¬ Robert Ingersoll, “The Devil”; Walt Whitman, “Chanting the Square Deific.”
12 December: Asa Gray, Review of Origin of Species; Robert Ingersoll, “Orthodoxy”
19 December: Robert Ingersoll, “Centennial Oration” and “How to Reform Mankind”; Response paper due.
HOLIDAY: December 20 – January 8
Modern Freethought: Secularisms New and Old
9 January: Clarence Darrow & William Jennings Bryan, transcript from the Scopes Trial.
16 January: Emma Goldman, “The Philosophy of Atheism”; Hubert Henry Harrison, “The Negro a Conservative”; Cornel West, “Prophetic Religion”
23 January: Walter Rauschenbusch, “The Social Aims of Jesus”
30 January: Bill Maher, Religulous. Film Screening, date and time to be determined.
6 February: Conclusions, Terry Eagleton, “Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching”
Active Participation: This course will be guided by classroom dialogue—not lecturing (please, I can’t stand my own voice!). Therefore, you can participate only by attending class prepared. To be ready for the seminar you must read the assigned texts, videos, or images completely, carefully, and critically. Take notes, develop questions, and isolate passages for discussion.
Journal Portfolio: Journal responses offer an opportunity to engage in close readings of an image, line, idea, character, or word in each week’s reading assignment. Weekly prompts will typically ask students to connect texts to the course’s broader ideas and classroom discussions in one to two paragraphs. Journals will be collected throughout the semester and on the final day of class. Keep in mind that responses could provide the basis for future writing projects.
Short Presentation: Throughout the term, groups/individuals will present brief (5-10 minute) introductions to the week’s reading and lead discussion by providing three to four journal prompts that analyze formal, cultural, or historical elements of the text. Students can choose to contextualize the reading in any way they see fit (for example, a larger discussion of the Scopes-Monkey Trial would seem apropos for our Darrow reading, while a reminder of the history of the suffragist movement would nicely support the Stanton text, etc.).
Response Paper: Each student will write one short (3-4 page) analytical essay engaging one or two texts from the reading list. You are encouraged to meet with me during office hours in late November/early December to discuss your topic. The essay is due December 19.
Final Project/Exam: For the final project—that is, for those of you who need it—I’m open to all kinds of ideas that involve the course materials. Students who plan to write a term paper should hand in a one paragraph abstract and meet with me during office hours to discuss their topic. The essay will be a critical argument of several of the assigned texts. The hope is that the class discussions, presentations, and journal entries will have prepared you to plan, research, and compose a final essay of ten to twelve pages. For those who require a final exam, a test date will be determined early in the term.
Policies and Procedures
Classroom Conduct: This course is led by passionate and thoughtful discussion. Please refrain from texting (I know it’s difficult), checking Facebook (even harder), talking (talk to me instead!) or sleeping (just stay home).
Plagiarism: It’s quite simple, don’t do it. I am always available (via email or office hours) to discuss the guidelines and requirements of proper citations.
Late Work: There is always a deal to be made. If you have trouble meeting a deadline, please inform me beforehand and we will (almost always) be able to reschedule. No harm done.