On June 27, 1869, the radical thinker and anarchist Emma Goldman was born in Kovno, Lithuania (then part of the Russian Empire). Her essay “The Philosophy of Atheism“ was published in Mother Earth in 1916, but an earlier version was delivered as a lecture for the Congress of Religious Philosophies on July 29, 1915, as part of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. This locates the essay in the context of Goldman’s extensive lecture tours and of one of the most important radical journals in U.S. history. The journal was edited by Goldman and Alexander Berkman from its founding in 1906 until it ceased publication in August 1917 under pressure from the U.S. government for its opposition to American entry into World War I.
Both the lecture tours and the journal were products of Goldman’s commitment to popular education, a critical component of her anarchist theory. The originality of her theory lay in its synthesis of the two main streams of anarchism prevalent at the time she wrote: the individualism of the Russian philosopher Pyotr Kropotkin (1842–1921) and the German philosopher Johann Kaspar Schmidt (1806–1856), who wrote under the name Max Stirner, and the collective revolutionary action of the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakunin (1814–1876). Goldman saw religion, like the state, as antithetical to liberty. Like Bakunin and the German political philosopher Karl Marx (1818–1883), she also saw it as an indicator of the level of maturity of human thought, and, like Kropotkin and Marx, she approached it in an evolutionary context in which its importance would diminish as human thought evolved. Goldman’s philosophy of atheism draws on Bakunin, and her essay is partly intended to make his ideas accessible to a mass audience.
Read our complete coverage of Goldman’s “Philosophy of Atheism,” including in-depth commentary by the historian Steven Schroeder of the University of Chicago.