Monuments to unbelief


Detail of the inscription upon the tombstone of Christian Roman in Sidney, Ohio PHOTO/Leigh E. Schmidt

Atheist museums, Satanic temples and Thomas Paine statues: how secularists push back against religion in the public sphere

In the hospital with severe heart problems, Christian Roman had been told he was dying. Then in his mid-60s, the sometime teacher, travelling salesman, farmer and lawyer from the town of Sidney in Ohio was counting up his regrets from his hospital bed, and the one that gnawed at him the most was that he had done nothing to advance the cause of freethinking secularism. Fearing the damage that an open avowal of unbelief would do locally to his business and reputation, he had kept his irreligious views concealed for decades. With various ministers visiting him uninvited in his infirmity – there were 17 churches in town, and Roman cared for none of them – he decided that he would commission a glorious cemetery monument through which he would finally ‘speak my mind without reservation’.

Roman’s heart did not fail him this time (it would a few years later, in 1951). Still, he wanted to make good on his hospital pledge, and saw no need now to wait for a posthumous testimonial. Why not proactively erect his ‘Agnostic Monument’ in Graceland Cemetery for all to see ‘regardless of public censure’? Investing much of his savings in the project, he wanted it to be the largest monument in the Sidney graveyard, and he pulled off the installation in August 1948. The result was imposing: a giant granite block heralding the freethinking triumvirate of the deistic revolutionary Thomas Paine, the infidel orator Robert Ingersoll, and the Cornell president Andrew Dickson White. ‘READ THEIR WORKS,’ the megalith advised. An anti-sermon in stone, Roman’s monument declared science the ‘SOLE REVELATION’, and repeated Ingersoll’s freethinking thoughts on death and immortality. Also, as his beloved Ingersoll was wont to do, Roman slipped in some bourgeois moralising with his irreligious polemic: ‘EVILS OF MY DAY; USE OF TOBACCO, ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES AND RELIGIOUS SUPERSTITION.’ He wanted his neighbours to know that he could be good – and just as abstemious as a Methodist teetotaller – without God.

The monument certainly got the community talking, attracting ‘a constant stream’ of curious visitors to ponder its bold message. The pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, John W Meister, devoted a whole sermon to the subject of ‘Christian Roman’s Tombstone’, which conjured to him a spectre of infidelity weirdly out of place amid the United States’ postwar religious upswing. ‘I never seriously thought that in my generation there would be cause for argument with a real, live agnostic,’ Meister preached to a crowded congregation. After two world wars and the Great Depression, humanistic self-regard paled before the sterner stuff of neo-orthodox faith and, with the dawning of the Cold War, there was little room for doubting God, Jesus and the Bible without seeming to underwrite Soviet communism and atheism.

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