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The world of the paperback the University of Chicago invites you to join us for this series of 15 minute programs dedicated to the discussion of literary topics and the review of significant paper bound books each weekly program will bring to the microphone a different author or authority or educator with his particular viewpoint towards the topic for discussion. The book selected for today's discussion is the infertile Freethought and American religion. Our guest is the author of this book Martin Marty professor of theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School and associate editor of The Christian century. Here is your discussion host from the University of Chicago Robert C. Albrecht. You call your book the infidel Freethought an American religion what is an infidel. Well I use the name the churches gave a certain figure in the American past. Anyone who made a complete attack on the church's system of beliefs or their view of society or at least anyone that the churches thought was making such an attack.
So this doesn't mean other words that an infidel of 1789 would have been in for the lovely 1850. Yes not necessarily. In fact in American history by a rather interesting irony of history. Quite often positions once upon a time held by infidels are appropriated by the church people. Even the idea of separation of church and state which one part of American religion excepted in the 1770s. But now almost all parts exempt was often thought to be an infidel idea by the majority of the religious people in that time. There's a really seem as though the infidels. I wouldn't say they always win. Some part of their point usually gets me. That is most of the infidels points are themselves locked into systems and the system itself isn't always believable or plausible. That is in order to get their whole point made they'd like to start a community.
They'll buy a farm they'll get all their followers out there and that breaks down in a hurry. In that sense the infidel doesn't usually win but he usually sees something that the larger society doesn't see. He sees something to attack. He sees something in which the churches are misusing people or he sees some embarrassment in their belief system and attacks it. And while you can't while he's alive thank him for it. Later when passions cool you can often absorb his insight. Has it been characteristic for the American infidel always to be on the attack and in turn to be attacked by the some established sect. Yes in Europe it's been somewhat different because in Europe you have a strong anti clerical anti church tradition. Everyone is innocents in the churches and yet it's a lot easier not to be religious. In Europe and in America in America in public life there's a lot of pressure put
upon presidents judges senators to express their religion publicly. It's just not the thing to be anti-religious in the infidel therefore has to drive a wedge or get a megaphone. Make a lot of noise somehow. Attack and. Usually most of the people in my book at least are a rather witty people. They learn a few arts from Voltaire. They are sarcastic. They're quick on their toes. They are usually profound and I have a hunch that if we'd explore a different book could be written on this. The really effective criticism of religion has come from an entirely different set of people. The infidel is it is a luxury that the American churches could afford. It was not respectable to be anti-religious in America. I think in America the way to be anti-religious is to be non-religious. That is the American who doesn't know what to do with religion much more effectively dismisses it with a shrug of the shoulders and with the thumb of the nose.
But this is not characteristic of the infertile is it and that is he is not non-religious. Usually he is against something he's against the current forms of religion. Usually he was speaking in the name of what he would consider to be a superior religion for example the Roosevelt called Time Pain a filthy little atheist. I think Roosevelt was speaking there for American religion of his time but Paine I don't know if he was filthy or not when he was little but he was an atheist and he knew it and he was fighting for a certain kind of a deist conception of God and fighting against what he thought to be theism. I suppose it's easy for the layman to confuse the two terms in federal and atheist. Could you clarify this distinction. Well infidel would just come from the words which mean he is faithless and you can be faithless over against. Many things inherited religious patterns established churches custom and the
infidel could be anyone who radically wants to change them or is faiths to them. The atheist if he really is an atheist has thought out and come to the conclusion that given the evidence that presents itself to him he is quite confident. And indeed he is even sure that there is no God that either the universe is not the universe of order or that its order can be expressed without a reference to God. So a theist has to be non God Anti God. The infidel doesn't. Well then the. In this what to me is a new movement of Christian atheism. Anyone who. Part of this is not done an infidel according to the terms you use it in the book. Well he's probably going to get called that. And I think you're referring to a group of Protestant theological professors who have been contending that you can do Christian theology without reference to beyond
and that you concentrate on Jesus Christ or the church or events in our history and you simply don't bother with beyond this transcendence metaphysics and therefore God has to go. This is sometimes called Christian atheism and we'll hear a lot of debate about that soon. You know he doesn't play the part I would say he's the kind of man that makes it hard for infidelity to exist in the 20th century because it really is quite difficult for an outsider to think of any criticism of religion more devastating than those thought up by people inside the churches. It's it is true isn't it that it's been more and more difficult for us to exist in America and that he would say he would have to in order to gain attention he would have to shout louder and louder and louder he shouts the more likely he would lose his audience. I would say a much quieter type. Of person who simply argues his case without any kind of reference for or against God or church has been a much more problematic.
Figure to the church in the twentieth century and infidel would be in some sense you see the history of the infidel in America as you've written it as a complete history then that is the infidel exist primarily from 1790 or so into the 20th century. Yes he would have taken new form to be I think and really wouldn't fit into this as some people would say the secularist. And by this they would mean. Let's see Madeline Marie. She probably comes as close as anyone in public today to playing the role of the infidel because she wants tax exemption removed from the churches. She's critical of their social program. She is an atheist etc. and she sees to it that she's not a sufficiently attractive. Personality that people rally around her and this makes it easy for the clergy to rally people against her. So Madalyn Murray would come as close as you can come to that. But I don't think that she really
comes up with any devastating criticism again that isn't being argued for the head of the Presbyterian Church the United States thinks that churches shouldn't have tax exemption. So it's pretty hard for her to be more radical than that. On that point did the work of the infidel in the 19th century usually result directly in a reform of the church or a sect. I don't think so I think it was much more indirect he pointed toward a future that eventually had to come. But the church is usually closed ranks against him and it took some time before you'd admit that this had been the history of the Christian relation to the heretic. He's been burned or left behind or repudiated and it's often centuries later before people start saying well maybe there was something to it. Perhaps you could give a specific example of someone who is a recognized infidel. Well yes I would use the illustration in the 1920s and 30s of a number of brilliant social planners from Europe socialists before Marx and
Socialist had been formed. Robert Owen. Philanthropist humanitarian manufacturer from England and Scotland or Francis write a slightly more scandalous figure and numbers of people came over for a numbers of communities were developed in the name of European social planners and in each case I think they had a vision of utopia that simply wasn't workable in the American scene. And if anything Americans closed ranks against them and laughed them out of existence and went about carrying on their kind of reform. I think largely unmoved by the lessons they want to teach. It would be an illustration. Can you give an example of a of a reformer who is not an infidel and yet had and yet had great success in changing a sect or organization or a set of ideas. Yes let's talk about change. Reform is a word that involves a
lot of values that we have to pursue too much more time. But American Unitarianism would be an illustration of a radical change in a religious movement that happens within a period of years. There are some stimulus the infidel prods the Unitarian into expressing himself more clearly and so on. And yet without the infidel on the scene I think that in the American Unitarians developed in this environment a doctrine of man which is different from the one that had gone before the doctrine of the environment. And then the doctrine of God and brought about a change that was a reform not directly instigated by infidel and the infidel played a little part in that he could constantly point to the embarrassment that the old creeds had presented in the Unitarian could always say Now look it's the old creeds that are producing infidels our new creeds will remove them. And in that sense he played a part right. Another thing which is seems remarkable about the infidel is that while it has never
been acceptable in America to be anti religious There seems to always have been a place for the infertile. Do you suppose that somehow there's always has been a place for him is it not respectable but expected. Yes for one thing we don't like total boredom and if everyone in the community accept all the tenets of community life it is very plain. So I think that sometimes people have been exaggerated into status. Sometimes I suppose it could be perceived psychologically a person is a little bit of a misfit looks for an outlet for non-conformity and finds that this is one of the few places where he can attack the mores of the community and yet not be an ultimate threat. He's a luxury that has to be tolerated in a society that doesn't permit actual burning of heretics. Now you can't do that quite so easily over against the national religion and you or you could be a traitor. You can get excommunicated in the national religion. But in the three religions
inside the nation it's a luxury we can tolerate. So in order to find interest I think the preachers have often developed infidels or forced people into a logic of a position that they might have otherwise. They certainly have added a little salt and color to Americans and it says that the infidel is perhaps always a son of the church. Well many of them devoted themselves much more to Christian themes almost nobody that I discuss here. He's a profound thinker. I don't think we can pretend that these are the people who are bringing in the modern world. Their headline makers their popular lectures their witty man their poets. These people were bugged by religion they were obsessed by these themes. There are many students of atheism who say Christianity can only thrive when it does have an alternative vital religion of any sort needs at someone to stimulate it into thinking. And there must have been something wistful in a lot of these infidels. They were drawn to the character of Jesus. Often they didn't
World of the Paperback
Martin E. Marty's "The Infidel"
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University of Chicago
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University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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This program features Martin E. Marty discussing his own "The Infidel."
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This series is dedicated to the discussion of literary topics and of the publication of significant paperbound books.
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Guest: Marty, Martin E., 1928-
Host: Albrecht, Robert C.
Producing Organization: University of Chicago
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University of Maryland
Identifier: 66-23-4 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
Duration: 00:14:26
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Chicago: “World of the Paperback; Martin E. Marty's "The Infidel",” 1966-06-26, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed October 16, 2021,
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