Harriet Martineau

1802 - 1876

"...I would not exchange my freedom from old superstition, if I were to be burned at the stake next month, for all the peace and quiet of orthodoxy, if I must take the orthodoxy with the peace and quiet."

Letter to Mr. Atkinson, February 1848

This  is  taken from Annie Laurie Gaylor's  Women Without Superstition "No gods, No Masters"published by the Freedon From Religion Foundation The quotations here are from Harriet Matrtineau's  Autobiography written in 1855 and published posthumously in 1877.

ACCLAIMED BRITISH AUTHOR HARRIET MARTINEAU pronounced herself "a free rover on the broad, bright breezy common of the universe."

The sixth of eight children of a silk manufacturer in Norwich, England, Harriet is called "the first sociologist," mapping out sociological methodology before the word was coined, according to twentieth-century sociologist Alice S. Rossi. Harriet was a significant role model in the woman's movement: a respected female author winning acclaim for her own thought, who supported herself by her nonfiction, writing fifty books and more than sixteen hundred articles, signed by her own name. She boasted of being "probably the happiest single woman in England."

Since she had been raised in a Unitarian family, Unitarians claimed her as one of theirs, provoking her to write at the end of her life: ". . . I hope and believe my old co-religionists understand and admit that I disclaim their theology in toto, and that by no twisting of language or darkening of its meanings can I be made out to have any thing whatever in common with them about religious matters.... they must take my word for it that there is nothing in common between their theology and my philosophy.

"My business in life has been to think and learn, and to speak out with absolute freedom what I have thought and learned. The freedom is itself a positive and never-failing enjoyment to me, after the bondage of my early life."

At age thirty-two in 1834, Harriet took a two-year visit to America, writing the two-volume Society in America, a definitive work on the status of American women, whom she found unhealthily obsessed with religion, as Frances Wright had. Her work was as acclaimed as de Tocqueville's. Her warm reception turned nasty after Harriet endorsed William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolitionists. She spent the final three months of her tour mobbed, condemned, and fearing for her life.

During a period of invalidism, Harriet published a series of essays, including the story "The Hour and the Man," a tribute to Toussaint L'Ouverture. She turned down the first of three offers of a government pension. In 1846, Harriet claimed a "scientific" mesmeric cure, making her "transition from religious inconsistency and irrationality to free-thinking strength and liberty" during this period. (I: 466)

In 1846, Harriet visited Egypt, Palestine, and Arabia with friends, writing Eastern Life, Past and Present (1848), examining the genealogy of Egyptian, He-brew, Christian and Mohammedan faiths. Critics pounced on the "mocking spirit of infidelity." Three years later, her freethought was made clear when On the Laws of Man's Nature and Development, letters between herself and H. G. Atkinson, was published.

In the controversial book, she had written: "There is no theory of a God, of an author of Nature, of an origin of the Universe, which is not utterly repugnant to my faculties; which is not (to my feelings) so irrelevant as to make me blush; so misleading as to make me mourn. I can now hardly believe that it was I who once read Milton with scarcely any recoil from the theology. ..."

Harriet pondered: "I certainly had no idea how little faith Christians have in their own faith till I saw how ill their courage and temper can stand any attack on it."

She wanted to write a book for "the Secularist order of parents ... who could obtain few story-books for their children which were not stuffed with what was in their eyes pernicious superstition." Not confident of her ability to write fiction, Harriet wrote Household Education (1848), and was pleased to learn that "there are a good many Christian parents who can accept suggestion and aid from one who will not pronounce their Shibboleth. .."

She translated and condensed the six volumes of French atheist and philosopher Auguste Comte into two, to his approval, a project completed in 1853. Told she had fatal heart disease in 1855, Harriet wrote her autobiography, but survived until 1876. When Harriet's diagnosis became known, she received correspondence from believers: "One sends me a New Testament (as if I had never seen one before) with the usual hopes of grace &c., though aware that the bible is no authority with me; and, having been assured that I am `happy,' this correspondent has the modesty to intimate that I ought not to be happy, ...

"The lesson taught us by these kindly commentators on my present experience is that dogmatic faith compels the best minds and hearts to narrowness and insolence."

Another correspondent took the liberty of regretting that Harriet's espousal of causes was undermined by her freethinking. Harriet exclaimed: "what signifies the pursuit of any one reform, like those specified, anti-slavery and the woman question, when the freedom which is the very soul of the controversy, the very principle of the movement, is mourned over in any other of its manifestations? The only effectual advocates of such reforms as those are people who follow truth wherever it leads.... My own feeling of concern arises from seeing how much moral injury and suffering is created by the superstitions of the Christian mythology. . . ."

William Lloyd Garrison wrote on July 4, 1876, that "the service she rendered to the antislavery cause was inestimable." Florence Nightingale, on Sept. 29, 1876, wrote that Harriet Martineau "was born to be a destroyer of slavery, in whatever form, in whatever place, all over the world, wherever she saw or thought she saw it."

In women Without Superstition "No Gods, No Masters" Annie Laurie Gaylor publishes several experts from Harriet Martineu's autobiography Volumes I & II, written in 1855 and published posthumously in 1977. Below is part of it and includes her eloquent expression of her feelings as she was approaching death.

"Release from Superstition"

 I had long perceived the worse than uselessness of enforcing principles of justice and mercy by an appeal to the example of God. I had long seen that the orthodox fruitlessly attempt to get rid of the difficulty by presenting the two-fold aspect of God,-the Father being the model of justice, and the Son of love and mercy,-the inevitable result being that he who is especially called God is regarded as an unmitigated tyrant and spontaneous torturer, while the sweeter and nobler attributes are engrossed by the man Jesus,-whose fate only deepens the opprobrium of the Divine cruelty: while the heretics whose souls recoil from such a doctrine, and who strive to explain away the recorded dogmas of tyranny and torture, in fact give up the Christian revelation by rejecting its essential postulates.... I had long given up, in moral disgust, the conception of life after death as a matter of compensation for the ills of humanity, or a police and penal source of "the divine government." I had perceived that the doctrines of the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body were incompatible; and that, while the latter was clearly impossible, we were wholly without evidence of the former. (I:468 - 469)


When I experience the still new joy of feeling myself to be a portion of the universe, resting on the security of its everlasting laws, certain that its Cause was wholly out of the sphere of human attributes, and that the special destination of my race is infinitely nobler than the highest proposed under a scheme of divine moral government,' how could it matter to me that the adherents of a decaying mythology,-(the Christian following the heathen, as the heathen followed the barbaric-fetish) were fiercely clinging to their Man-God, their scheme of salvation, their reward and punishment, their arrogance, their selfishness, their essential pay-system, as ordered by their mythology? As the astronomer rejoices in new knowledge which compels him to give up the dignity of our globe as the centre, the pride, and even the final cause of the universe, so do those who have escaped from the Christian mythology enjoy their release from the superstition which fails to make happy, fails to make good, fails to make wise, and has become a great an obstacle in the way of progress as the prior mythologies which it took tha place of nearly two thousand years ago....To the emancipated, it is a small matter that those who remain imprisoned are shocked a the daring which goes forth into the sunshine and under the stars to study and enjoy, without leave asked, or fear of penalty. (II:45-46)


I have now had three months' experience of the fact of constant expectation of death; and the result is as much regret as a rational person can admit at the absurd waste of time, thought and energy that I have been guilty of in the course of my life in dwelling on the subject of death. ...And now that I am awaiting it at any hour, the whole thing seems so easy, at simple and natural.... I attribute this very much, however, to the nature of my views of death. The case must be otherwise with Christians, -  even independently of the selfish and perturbing emotions connected with an expectation of rewards and punishments in the next world. They can  never be quite secure from the danger that their air-built castle shall dissolve at the last moment, and that they may vividly perceive on what imperfect evidence and delusive grounds their expectation of immortality or resurrection reposes.... An unselfish and magnanimous person cannot be solaced, in parting with mortal companions and human sufferers, by personal rewards, glory, bliss, or anything  of the sort. I used to think and feel all this before I became emancipated from the superstition; and I could only submit, and suppose it all right because it was ordained. But now the release is an inexpressible comfort and the simplifying of the whole matter has a most tranquillizing effect. I see that the dying...naturally and  regularly, unless disturbed, desire and sink into death as into sleep ... We  know, by all testimony, that persons who are brought face to face with death  ny an accident which seems to leave no chance of escape, have no religious ideas or emotions whatever... Under the eternal laws of the  universe, I came into being, and, under them, I have lived a life so full that its fullness is equivalent to length....since I attained a truer point of view: and the relief from old burdens, the uprising of new satisfactions, and the opening of new clearness,-the fresh air of Nature, in short, after imprisonment in the ghost- peopled cavern of superstition, - has been as favourable to my moral nature as to intellectual progress and general enjoyment....(II: 104-107)


... the time cannot be far off when, throughout the civilised world, theology must go out before the light of philosophy...... Precisely in proportion to Man's ignorance of his own nature, as well as of other things, is the tendency of his imagination to inform the outward world with his own consciousness. The fetish worshipper attributes a consciousness like his own to every thing about him; the imputation becomes more select and rare through every rising grade of theology, till the Christian makes his reflex of himself invisible and intangible, or, as he says, "spiritual.". .. About this matter, of the extinction of theology by a true science of human nature, I cannot but say that my expectation amounts to absolute assurance; and that I believe that the worst of the conflict is over. I am confident that a bright day is coming for future generations. Our race has been as Adam created at nightfall. The solid earth has been but dark, or dimly visible, while the eye was inevitably drawn to the mysterious heavens above. There, the successive mythologies have arisen in the east, each a constellation of truths, each glorious and fervently worshipped in its course; but the last and noblest, the Christian, is now not only sinking to the horizon, but paling in the dawn of a brighter time. The dawn is un-mistakable; and the sun will not be long in coming up. The last of the mythologies is about to vanish before the flood of a brighter light.... (II:122-124)

Women Without Superstition "No gods, No Masters"published by the Freedon From Religion Foundation