originally published April 9, 2014
For those who dance the steps of atheism, agnosticism, Jediism and so on, this world has always been a precarious place. It seems odd that one person’s lack of belief in an established monotheistic principle – even if that person is an otherwise caring, giving, deep-down good dude – can lead to such harsh hatred and judgment by the alleged “moral” majority.
It’s not a big deal these days to forsake the Biblical tenets held dear by so many of this country’s founders. We have lived through the 60’s, through new-age mysticism, through wacky spiritual hoodoo and comet-worshipping cults. To most everyone, a stranger’s religion is not a big deal anymore. But leap back in time to just over a century ago and you’ll find that the best a non-Christian could hope for in this part of the world was tolerance. Not acceptance, not a back-slapping welcome into the community, just tolerance.
One man decided to fight back. He created his own community, a land where atheism was to be the norm and where people could pontificate amid boundless intellectualism. John Lennon said, “Imagine no religion.” 91 years earlier, George Walser made it happen, cranking up the volume on atheism until it achieved the same intolerant, finger-pointing cacophony he had spent his entire life rallying against.
Welcome to Liberal, Missouri.
George Walser was a successful lawyer, a devoted agnostic, and by 1880 he had developed into a staunch anti-religionist. To George, it was offensive for those who do not follow the Christian faith to be branded as amoral, societally detrimental and the cause of all the world’s ills. He yearned for a utopian escape, a place where like-minded folk could go on about their lives without being persecuted by Christians. His solution? Persecute the Christians.
Actually, George’s aim was to ban the Christians entirely. He bought up 2000 acres of Missouri land and advertised his vision around the country. No places of worship were allowed, and no one was allowed to sell their property to anyone who might develop a place of worship. Even praying in one’s own home was a no-no. He called the town Liberal and envisioned that it would grow into a peaceful and intellectual community. He decreed it should be a town with “neither God, Hell, Church nor Saloon.”
In place of Sunday School, the town of Liberal instituted Sunday Morning Instruction School, where children would be taught about physics, chemistry and other sciences. So… I guess you’d just call that another day of school. Lectures were given in Mental Liberty Hall, covering topics such as philosophy, science and religion, with ministers, priests, socialists and atheists taking turns at the podium. Decorum was insisted upon – the religious speakers were to be debated with respect and manners.
George wanted to ensure local schooling was free of religious attachment, a phenomenon that would not have been common in the 1880’s. He formed the Liberal Normal School and Business Institute. After that came Free Thought University, which opened up in 1886 with a staff of seven. An orphanage was opened. Businesses thrived. One might say that George came close to achieving his goal of an intellectual utopia, but for the outright ban on alternative belief systems. Liberal was essentially Atheism, USA.
Naturally, Missouri Christians weren’t happy. And they sought to destroy what George had created.
Why couldn’t the Christians have left the town alone and let the Liberal residents think what they want? If you need to ask that, then you clearly need to read up a little on the history of organized religion. As soon as they learned there was a place where they would not be welcome, Christians began quietly buying local homes and holding their own religious services within. George fought them, bringing them to court as he still owned the land beneath the homes and the purchase contract had explicitly forbidden such activity.
Christians then purchased an 80 acre tract of land to the west of Liberal and set up their own little town called Pedro. The Liberal residents responded with a barbed wire fence to keep them out. According to a Kansas City Star article about the town, the Christians hung a sign that declared: “And the Lord said: Get thee out of Sodom.” George reiterated his desire to “enjoy the full benefits of American citizens without having some self-appointed bigot dictate to us what we should think.”
I can smell the irony from here. George had become precisely what he was fighting against.
Enter Clark Braden, a preacher, author and lecturer who visited Liberal and penned a searing hatchet op-ed piece for an 1885 issue of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Braden observed that alcohol did indeed exist in Liberal and could be attained at no less than three locations. Swearing is “the common form of speech”, and apparently this extends to young people, who display a lack of respect for their parents by cursing on the streets. There is dancing and frivolity – corrupting dances. “There is no lack of loose women at these dances,” Braden wrote.
How tourism in Liberal failed to spike after this article I have no idea. As far as 1880’s small towns go, Liberal sounds like a lot of fun. Clark Braden sounds like a big sloppy buzz-kill, yearning for all merriment and joy to take a back seat to pious adherence to one – and only one – faith. Braden laid out a prediction of doom for the town and its residents. Ultimately it was George’s dream that was doomed.
George’s agnosticism eventually drifted into an interest in spiritualism – the notion that the dead inhabit a spirit world and are able to chat with the living. By the time George joined that spirit world himself, he had travelled full-circle and slipped back into the folds of Christianity, even penning a book called The Life And Teachings Of Jesus. Liberal still exists with a population of around 800, but there are seven Christian institutions within its borders now. Atheism, USA is no more.
So what can we learn from this?
A number of the sources I read through for this article will assert that George Walser and Liberal, Missouri are evidence that people cannot thrive without God. A “good, godless city” is a contradiction. I, on the other hand, call bullshit.
Had Liberal been allowed to thrive without an overt effort on behalf of Christian outsiders to swoop in and “save” the town, we might have a basis for a conclusion on the ability of atheists to survive on their own. But we don’t. Instead we see how the persecuted became the persecutors – just like in any Central American revolution. Yes, there was more swearing, there were more abortions and more “loose women” than the norm for that period, but I’d be willing to bet that any modern city or town – even in a markedly Christian region – would out-perform Liberal on all those fronts. George and his merry gang were just ahead of the curve.
In the end, religion is not inherently evil and neither is atheism. Both would fare a lot better if they’d just leave each other the hell alone.