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Burbank"s Crop of Doubt

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One of America's most beloved scientists was Luther Burbank, who improved the world's food supply. In an era when agriculture still was the chief occupation, he was a brilliant botanist who bred high-yield fruit trees, vegetables, grains and other crops.

As a schoolboy in Massachusetts, Burbank was intrigued by the scientific discoveries of Charles Darwin. He began gardening to support his widowed mother, and experimented with cross-pollination to produce better foods. Eventually he moved to California, where he established an experimental farm.

Like many scientists, Burbank rejected supernaturalism. He kept his skepticism to himself until the notorious 1925 "Scopes Monkey Trial" in Tennessee, in which William Jennings Bryan waged fundamentalism's battle against Darwin's theory of evolution.

In January 1926, while being interviewed by a young newspaper reporter, Burbank "went public" with his disbelief. He said religious dogmas are nonsense, and called himself "an infidel". The disclosure was telegraphed around the world, causing a shock wave. There followed a storm of letters and visits to the aging scientist. Burbank's close friend Episcopal minister Frederick Clampett wrote:

"Poor Luther Burbank, who never injured a fellow mortal in his more than seventy years, the gentlest, purest, kindliest of men, was made the object of a narrow, bitter, religious war of words.... This champion of the poor and the afflicted was pestered by women of the several evangelical churches, who had formed groups of praying circles to supplicate their God that he might grant the deluded and benighted Burbank light, repentance and forgiveness. His home was besieged by self-appointed representatives of the 'faithful' who implored him to recant."

(Frederick W. Clampett, Luther Burbank: Our Beloved Infidel (New York: Macmillan, 1926; reprint Greenwood, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979), pp. 34-35)

The "angry tumult of incarnated fanaticism", as Clampett called it, only strengthened Burbank's resolve. In a follow-up interview, the elderly scientist re iterated: "I am an infidel. I know what an infidel is, and that's what I am."

Several churches asked him to speak, to clarify his views. He accepted one invitation, to San Francisco's First Congregational Church. In his talk to the parishioners, Burbank spoke gently, but insisted that religious concepts such as hell are "superstition gone to seed".

Many people supported Burbank. Ina Coolbrith, California's poet laureate, sent him a book of her poems inscribed "To our beloved infidel".

Burbank died soon afterward. Friends felt that the strain of the tempest hastened his death. His open-air funeral was attended by ten thousand mourners. His eulogy was given by Judge Ben Lindsey of Denver, a freethinker whom Burbank previously had asked to perform this duty. Judge Lindsey told the throng:

"Luther Burbank will rank with the great leaders who have driven heathenish gods back into darkness.... Burbank had a philosophy that actually works for human betterment, that dares to challenge the superstition, hypocrisy and sham, which so often have worked for cruelties, inquisitions, wars and massacres. Thomas Edison, who believes very much as Luther Burbank, once discussed with me immortality. He pointed to the electric light, his invention, saying: 'There lives Tom Edison.' So Luther Burbank lives. He lives forever in the myriad fields of strengthened grain, in the new forms of fruits and flowers, and plants, and vines, and trees, and above all, the newly watered gardens of the human mind."

Burbank's views on religion

"As a scientist, I cannot help feeling that all religions are on a tottering foundation.... I am an infidel today. I do not believe what has been served to me to believe. I am a doubter, a questioner, a skeptic. When it can be proved to me that there is immortality, that there is resurrection beyond the gates of death, then will I believe. Until then, no." - San Francisco Bulletin, Jan. 22, 1926, p. 1

"The idea that a good God would send people to a burning hell is utterly damnable to me - the ravings of insanity, superstition gone to seed! I don't want to have anything to do with such a God." - address to the First Congregational Church, San Francisco, Jan. 31, 1926

"We must not be deceived by blind leaders of the blind, calmly expecting to be 'saved' by anyone except by the kingdom within ourselves." - ibid.

"For the little soul that cries aloud for continued personal existence for itself and its beloved, there is no hope." - ibid.

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James A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia's largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.  Mr. Haught has won two dozen national news writing awards. He has written 12 books and hundreds of magazine essays and blog posts. Around 450 of his essays are online. He is a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine, a weekly blogger at Daylight Atheism, (more...)

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