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Sep 05 2012

Ernestine Rose: “Geology speaks…”

During my time away, I had a gallop through the index of Doubt: A History. It’s been a while since I read the book, and all the women who doubted were scattered amongst the men who doubted, so I figured I’d list out the ladies. The basic method was finding their names in the index, then searching for their writing online. And in doing so, I rediscovered Ernestine Rose.

Ernestine Rose. Image courtesy National Museum of American Jewish History.

So here’s a woman born in 1810, a rabbi’s daughter, who started doubting by age 5 and rejected the Torah by 14. When her dear old dad betrothed her against her will, she took her case to court and won. That was Ernestine – if life threw her something she didn’t like, she found a way to fix it. She wasn’t about to accept tradition and authority as excuses.

She supported herself by inventing a new kind of room deodorizer, reached England by way of a shipwreck and started from scratch. Nothing seemed to daunt her. She fought for women’s rights, civil rights, abolition, public education, and woman’s suffrage. She was an unabashed atheist in a time when being an atheist was far more damaging than it is now. If she couldn’t get the support she needed, she went on with what she had until she’d won that support. When her health knocked her down, she took just enough time to heal and was right back into the fray.

She was an awesome woman, someone who’s fast becoming one of my personal heroines of the past, but I really became starstruck when I stumbled across her lecture “A Defense of Atheism.” I love it when geology gets a shout-out! And this one’s gloriously eloquent:

The question arises. Where shall we begin? We have been told, that “by searching none can find out God,” which has so far proved true; for, as yet, no one has ever been able to find him. The most strenuous believer has to acknowledge that it is only a belief, but he knows nothing on the subject. Where, then, shall we search for his existence? Enter the material world; ask the Sciences whether they can disclose the mystery? Geology speaks of the structure of the Earth, the formation of the different strata, of coal, of granite, of the whole mineral kingdom. It reveals the remains and traces of animals long extinct, but gives us no clue whereby we may prove the existence of a God.

Natural history gives us a knowledge of the animal kingdom in general; the different organisms, structures, and powers of the various species. Physiology teaches the nature of man, the laws that govern his being, the functions of the vital organs, and the conditions upon which alone health and life depend. … But in the whole animal economy—though the brain is considered to be a “microcosm,” in which may be traced a resemblance or relationship with everything in Nature—not a spot can be found to indicate the existence of a God.

Mathematics lays the foundation of all the exact sciences. It teaches the art of combining numbers, of calculating and measuring distances, how to solve problems, to weigh mountains, to fathom the depths of the ocean; but gives no directions how to ascertain the existence of a God.

Enter Nature’s great laboratory-Chemistry. She will speak to you of the various elements, their combinations and uses, of the gases constantly evolving and combining in different proportions, producing all the varied objects, the interesting and important phenomena we behold. She proves the indestructibility of matter, and its inherent property-motion; but in all her operations, no demonstrable fact can be obtained to indicate the existence of a God.

Astronomy tells us of the wonders of the Solar System-the eternally revolving planets, the rapidity and certainty of their motions, the distance from planet to planet, from star to star. It predicts with astonishing and marvellous precision the phenomena of eclipses, the visibility upon our Earth of comets, and proves the immutable law of gravitation, but is entirely silent on the existence of a God.

In fine, descend into the bowels of the Earth, and you will learn what it contains; into the depths of the ocean, and you will find the inhabitants of the great deep; but neither in the Earth above, nor the waters below, can you obtain any knowledge of his existence. Ascend into the heavens, and enter the “milky way,” go from planet to planet to the remotest star, and ask the eternally revolving systems, Where is God? and Echo answers, Where?

The Universe of Matter gives us no record of his existence.

One hundred and fifty-one years later, there’s still no record. Yet science has progressed in leaps, bounds, and long hard trudges. We’ve even discovered the Goddamn Particle, but no trace of God. Funny, that. You’d think this God person might be a figment of the imagination or something.

I think Ernestine would be delighted with science now. Not so pleased with where we are on women’s rights, though – I expect she’d expect us to have achieved actual equality by now, and not have to be fighting things like unequal pay, the dearth of women in STEM careers, and for the basic right to birth control. It’s been one hundred and fifty-one years. Why are we still fighting for basic rights and respect?

6 comments

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  1. 1
    richardelguru

    Neat. I wonder why she chose to give Chemistry alone a gender? Was she particularly into it … um … her? :-)

  2. 2
    rq

    I just realized that I miss your historical posts. I love them because (1) they’re a glimpse into history by people who were truly mesmerized and awed by the world around them and were able to transfer some of that emotion to posterity; (2) they remind me that history is full of little-recognized, great people, all of whom should be better-known not only for their contributions to science but also to the general advancement of humanity as such (rational thought, etc.); and (3) for all those who keep saying that women have never done much in history, they’re a big FUCK YOU and proof that women weren’t actually incapable but silenced. Makes me feel proud and wistful at the same time. Elucidating.

  3. 3
    Gregory in Seattle

    The Wikipedia has a nice article about her. Very impressive! She was a colleague of Susan B. Anthony, and was one of the forces behind New York passing a law that allowed married women to own property in their own name. And a dedicated atheist as well.

  4. 4
    Trebuchet

    I’d never heard of her before. What an awesome woman!

  5. 5
    Socio-gen, something something...

    Ernestine Rose! I discovered her a couple years ago by doing a search for “famous women atheists” because I wanted to do a presentation on someone who would annoy my Women’s History instructor (who was also an ordained minister).

    Her accomplishments are really amazing, given she was an immigrant, a woman, an advocate of free love and socialism, and an atheist. She was lecturing in front of large crowds for years before the Seneca Falls convention, although there was the typical pushback from religious leaders.

  6. 6
    jflcroft

    Ernestine Rose is fantastic! I’ll try to find my favorite record of her speaking. In one lecture protesters shut off the power to the hall, leaving everyone in darkness. Quick as a whip she fired back with some biblical reference which had the crowd roaring.

    There were many great freethought scions around at that time.

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