To believe or not to believe: Schmitz discusses Chautauqua and atheism

To believe. To have faith. It can be difficult.

H.L. Mencken said “Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable.”

St. Francis of Assisi said, “Where there is hatred let me sow love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith.”

So much for the gray area: Now consider atheists.

To put a historical perspective on the enigma of belief, Jon Schmitz, archivist and historian for Chautauqua, will present “Atheism at Chautauqua” at 3:30 p.m. today in the Hall of Christ.

Schmitz said that it is a challenge to figure out atheism at Chautauqua. At the time Lewis Miller and John Vincent founded the Institution at Fair Point, they took on all ideas of the day. But as 18th-century rational philosophy devolved and 19th-century science evolved, the Institution was quiet about unbelief, atheist and agnostic thought; and the silence lasted until the 1970s.

“It is a challenge, because Chautauqua has developed very much on religious lines. It is difficult to talk about non-religion. Moreover, atheism is a difficult community to account for,” Schmitz said.

There is no singular approach to atheism. And the practice took on negative overtones. In the early 20th century, atheism became associated with being anti-American.

“People equated atheism with attempts to overthrow the government, and the Chautauqua platform would have none of that — especially as atheism became associated with communism,” he said.

But in that understanding, ideas were lost — among them, the ideas of Sartre, Freud and Marx. And the mission of inclusion was hindered.

“Insofar as it is important to include all religious persuasions, atheism is a philosophical belief; those who hold that view should feel a part of the conversation at Chautauqua.”

Robert Browning said, “I show you doubt, to prove that faith exists.”

Although atheists are not represented as are other denominations and faiths, they are still very present on the grounds through their participation at Chautauqua.

In that spirit, Schmitz encouraged atheists to arrive early and sit in the front rows of the Hall of Christ. First come, first served.