Why I Am An Infidel

Luther Burbank

Luther Burbank, naturalist, originator of new fruits, flowers, etc., was born inMassachusettsin 1849. he was always devoted to nature study, especially plant life, with which he early began to experiment. He moved toSanta Rosa,California, in 1875, where he conductedBurbank’s Experiment Farms. He often had several thousand distinct experiments under way — even at the time of his death growing some five thousand distinct botanical specimens from all over the world. He was also a special lecturer on evolution at Leland Stanford, Jr., University. His fame as a botanist and inventor of new plant forms awakened widespread interest in plant breeding throughout the world. In January, 1926, Luther Burbank made a declaration of agnosticism to a newspaper reporter. AlthoughBurbank’s rationalistic convictions were not by any means unknown to readers of his books, or to his friends, the publication of this interview in the newspapers created a furore of criticism throughout the country. Since it then became known generally to the public at large, the facts about Luther Burbank’s agnosticism were news. In spite of criticism from the pulpits, he refused to qualify his unequivocal statements. “I am an infidel,” he said.

About the middle of March Luther Burbank becameIllwith gastro-intestinal complications. He died April 11, 1926. Lest the “last words” of this infidel be garbled in future ages to delude credulous mankind, it should be emphatically stated that Luther Burbank did not recant — even the newspaper accounts of his death made this fact clear. He remained an infidel until the last — an unbeliever, scientifically sure of himself, passing from life into darkness.


Science is knowledge arranged and classified according to truth, facts and the general laws of nature. Our Dr. David StarrJordandefines it more briefly as “organized human knowledge” or “human experience tested and set in order.”

There are always at least two sides of every question which may be suggested to the human mind. Sometimes both views are correct, but far more often one is right, and according to facts and truth, the other wrong. All personal, social, moral and national success depends upon the judicious wisdom of our choices made by the aid of science. Narrow personal prejudices and feelings quite too often becloud the issue and ultimate defeat is the inevitable result.

Life as we see it around us on this planet is usually thought to be confined to man, animals and plants, those organisms which grow and reproduce their kind with more or less precision. Why should we omit crystals which grow as truly as plants and reproduce themselves quite as precisely to type, or the more primitive forms of life which are reproduced by division? Science is proving that the world is not half dead, but that every atom is all life and motion.

Life is self-expression, intricate organized polarity. The lure of happiness and the fear of pain are fundamental qualities possessed by all living things and are the two forces which have through untold millenniums kept what we usually call life from destruction by the ever encroaching outside forces of destruction. Life is heredity plus environment. At birth of a plant, animal or man, heredity has already been fixed. Environment may now call into action only those tendencies which have been experienced in the age long past, yet may recombine and intensify them in a most surprising way. Such a modification is limited, generally, to the individual, but may, if repeated generation after generation, by slow increments at last become fixed and available in the species.

Assimilation and reproduction are, and, of course, must be fundamental and universal. The power of adaptation to various conditions which beset all life may also be considered as fundamental for the continuation of any species. All these various powers of adaptation have to be acquired individually and repeated indefinitely until so fixed in the life stream that they are reproduced. ~Repetition~ is the means of impressing any quality or character in animal life or in man and by just the same means plants are impressed, and their qualities and habits changed as we desire. All life depends upon a series of selections, and repetitions.

The first faint glimmerings of choice may be seen in the polarity of the magnet, next we see it perhaps in plants and the more primitive forms of life, and as we mount higher and higher in the scale of life there is more and more freedom of choice and less dependence upon heredity.

Ancient tribes and nations had many gods, often one for almost every phenomenon of nature. The Hebrews have the credit of inventing the conception of our monotheistic Jewish-Christian God, who however is represented as having most of the weaknesses and bad habits of primitive man; this was a step in the path of evolution toward man’s present conception of God; the God within us is the only available God we know and the clear light of science teaches us that we must be our own saviors, if we are to be found worth saving; in other words, to depend upon the “kingdom within.” The manhood and womanhood which would make the most of life in ~service~ to others is a sublimated form of the best of self which leads the way to a long lifetime of usefulness, happiness, health and peace.

There are without doubt some human beings in every nation, who, according to our present standards of civilization are truly civilized, but grave doubts may be entertained as to any community or any nation who could in any way measure up even to this standard scale of life, where we find more and more ~freedom~, but even man today is far from free. Slaves yet to war, crime and ignorance — the only “unpardonable sin.” Slaves to unnumbered ancient “taboos,” superstitions, prejudices and fallacies, which one by one are slowly but surely weakening under the clear light of the morning of science; the savior of mankind. Science which has opened our eyes to the vastness of the universe and given us light, truth and freedom from fear where once was darkness, ignorance and superstition. There is no personal salvation, there is no national salvation, except through science. There are too few who exploit the inexhaustible forces of nature and far too many who exploit their fellow beings. Useless waste and unnecessary parasitism take at least nine- tenths of the productive capacity of theUnited States.

Will the growing intelligence of man (Science) forever tolerate the wholesale production of the ever-increasing proportion of idiots, morons, mongoloids, insane, criminal, weak, destitute, nervous, diseased half men and women who infest the earth to their own sorrow and disgrace and perhaps the ultimate destruction of our present state of civilization? A knowledge of the fundamental laws of nature, not inefficient palliatives, is the ~first~ step. Is there a problem equal to the building of a better humanity? Our lives as we live them are passed on to others whether in physical or mental forms tinging all future lives forever. This should be enough for one who lives for truth and service to his fellow passengers on the way. No avenging Jewish God, no satanic Devil, no fiery hell is of any interest to him. The scientist is a lover of truth for the very love of truth itself, wherever it may lead. Every normal human being has ideals, one or many, to look up to, reach up to, to grow up to. Religion refers to the sentiments and feelings; science refers to the demonstrated everyday laws of Nature. Feelings are all right, if one does not get drunk on them. Prayer may be elevating if combined with works, and they who labor with head, hands or feet have faith and are generally quite sure of an immediate and favorable reply.

Those who take refuge behind theological barbed wire fences, quite often wish they could have more freedom of thought, but fear the change to the great ocean of scientific truth as they would a cold bath plunge.

Mr. Bryan was an honored personal friend of mine, yet this need not prevent the observation that the skull with which Nature endowed him visibly approached the Neanderthal type. Feelings and the use of gesticulations and words are more according to the nature of this type than investigation and reflection.

Those who would legislate against the teaching of evolution should also legislate against gravity, electricity and the unreasonable velocity of light, and also should introduce a clause to prevent the use of the telescope, the microscope and the spectroscope or any other instrument of precision which may in the future be invented, constructed or used for the discovery of truth.

Luther Burbank Speaks Out

by Joseph McCabe

There were two Pillars of Hercules in theUnited Stateswhom I wished to see. Thomas A. Edison towers on the eastern coast, but I had to rush throughNew Yorkand could not stay for my friend to present me. InSan FranciscoI had the—for so restless a wanderer—unusually long stay of six days, when the imperious voice of E. Haldeman-Julius, vibrating over the wires, roused me from my slumbers and bade me seek the shrine ofSanta Rosa. I responded with alacrity. No, that is not poetry. I rose at 7 a. m. For me that is deadly prose.

And prosy was the journey of fifty miles to see the great master of practical science. TheGolden Gatewas of ancient lead. The hills were sullen. A gray-blue haze screened the fair maidCalifornia. She was just recovering, maidlike, from a prolonged fit of weeping, and seemed cold even to the amorous sun, though the stately palms and rich green oranges bore witness to the warm blood pulsing in the heavy bosom, and the soft sibilants of the Spanish names suggested saints and sinners.San Rafael, San Anselmo, and so on. We have wiped out these superstitions, of course. Now we have St. Riley and St. Straton. Well, Anselmo was at least a conscientious scholar in his time, and Rafael, if tradition be worth aught, was a comely youth. But these modern saints and sages. . . .

We are inSanta Rosaand this is the house of the man who did as much as any to impress on the world the beneficent power of science. He added billions to the wealth of the world, but this is no marble palace softly gleaming through the palms and cypresses. A very plain house, and a very pretty maid looks at me cynically through the mosquito-net door. She is used to visitors, and does not trouble to unfasten the door.

“Is Mr. Burbank in?”

“Yes, he is in,” she says, and she does not add in words, “And you are out.” Even the dog is hostile, silently disdainful. “Another old fool trying to see the master,” it insinuates. But my card throws down all defense and a moment later.I am shaking (very gently) the rather limp hand of the man I would have gone far to see.

Pathetically he points to a pile of opened letters, ankle-deep, on the floor. “Today’s crop,” he says. A smaller pile lies on the desk and must be answered. We must hurry, though there is no mistaking his genuine pleasure to see me.

“Well, what about this recent misconduct of yours?” I ask, sternly.

Candidly he is puzzled, and I have to tell him that the world is shocked or elated, according to the length of its hair, at his recent pronouncement on the future life—I mean, on the absence of a future life. Henry Ford, his friend, had recently declared his belief, not only in incarnation, but in reincarnation. Henry always does things big, and, incidentally, it is always the people who know most about ~machines~—Kelvin, Lodge, Faraday, Ford—who talk most about spirit. Psychologists and biologists, who ought to know, are very shy of spirits.

However,Burbankwas asked what he thought about the matter, and he did not speak in parables. We no more survive, he said, to the representative of theSan Francisco~Bulletin~, than does the automobile you fling on the scrap-heap. Those are his words. We survive only in “the good we have done in passing through.” Souls? Why, saidBurbank, “the universe is not big enough to contain perpetually all the human souls and the other living beings that have been here for their short span.” Very comforting to some people, these religions, he said, but “as a scientist I cannot help feeling that all religions are on a tottering foundation.” God? Well, there is “a great universal power,” but whether it is “a conscious mind” or not, Luther Burbank did not know. What is worse, he did not care. “As a scientist I should like to know, but as a man I am not so vitally concerned.” No wonderCalifornia, the land of saints and angels, wept.

Not much to be added to, or explained, in that,” Mr. Burbank said to me, smiling. He disliked talking. Looking rather frail, pale and artistic—he somehow reminded me at once of my good friend Eden Philpotts, the most artistic of living writers after D’Annunzio—he seemed born to finger a brush or a pen, not a spade. Artist he was, of course: the great artist of modern science. He ~worked~ with its flower. He did not speculate about it.

“There is nothing at all new in this interview,” he said. I had, of course, read his ~Training of the Human Plant~, and had for that enshrined him in my ~Dictionary of Modern Rationalists~, but, on the rare occasions when he does speak in public, he speaks out in a way that goes far to redeem the credit of American science. “Here,” he said to me, “you have the sentiments I lately expressed in the pulpit of a chapel atSanta Rosa.”

It was Just the same outspoken denunciation of theology. “No avenging Jewish God, no Satanic devil, no fiery hell, is of any interest to me,” he said. Jesus? He liked the literary figure, but “the clear light of science teaches us that we must be our own saviors.” God? “The God within us is the only available God we know.” We must come out from “behind theological barbed-wire fences,” into “the great ocean of scientific truth.” “Science, unlike theology, never leads to insanity.” The word “ceremony,” he pungently said, “is derived from cerements” or “grave clothes.” Very topical, in a chapel. Religion is a matter of feeling, and “feelings are all right if one does not get drunk on them.” “Obsolete misleading theologies,” he said, “bear the same relation to the essence of true religion that scarlet fever, mumps, and measles do to education.” But what will become of the children? If there was one thingBurbankwas zealous about it was the training of children, and children are, he said, “the greatest sufferers from outgrown theologies.”

No, there is not much to add to that. Luther II threw his ink- pot at the devil—the parson—with a vigor that surprises when one recalls the fleshy physique of the first Luther, and contrasts it with the gentleness and silver hair of the second. But he is as disgusted as I at the “timidity” of his brother scientists inAmerica. I explain, almost apologetically, that I have entitled an article “The Cowardice of American Scientists.”

“Quite right,” he says. “And it is not only cowardice, but wrong tactics. What is the use of assuring Fundamentalists that science is compatible with religion. They retort at once, ‘Certainly not with our religion.'”

Burbankuses the word religion, but it is never misleading. It is, he says, “Justice, love, truth, peace and harmony, a serene unity with science and the laws of the universe.” It is idealism, and there is not the slightest countenance of any sort of theology inBurbank’s use of the word.

I remind him that Dr. David StarrJordanis popularly supposed to have hinted that his friend went too far. “Not in the least,” he says disdainfully. “Jordanis one of my best friends, and thinks as I do.”

And, in fact, though the language is a little more diplomatic,Jordan’s pronouncement is, substantially, Agnosticism. Mr. Burbank did not believe in knocking a man down when it is not good for him to stand up. He provided a chair. Dr. David StarrJordanis inclined to provide a feather bed. There are physicians who think a wooden chair the most healthful seat. Anyhow, there is no Millikanism or Osbornism about either of these two fine American gentlemen.

“Bryan—a great friend of mine, by the way—had a Neanderthal type of head,”Burbanksays. “As to Riley, he has not even the oratorical skill ofBryan. The whole movement is based on the poor whites of the south.”

I remind him of the ten million religious colored people of theUnited States.

“Yes, another big element in the movement,” he assents. “And to think of this great country in danger of being dominated by people ignorant enough to take a few ancient Babylonian legends as the canons of modern culture. Our scientific men are paying for their failure to speak out earlier. There is no use now talking evolution to these people. Their ears are stuffed with Genesis.”

I almost felt at times as though I were talking toDarwin, and I expected some deprecation of my vigor and lack of diplomacy, such asDarwinused gently to administer to Haeckel. Not a bit. I took courage and remarked that Fundamentalism must be fought “with both fists.”

“Of course it must,” he said, “and our scientific men must be criticized boldly. They will not feel comfortable when you and I are through with them.”

He spoke with envy of the Rationalist Press of England and its honorable company of distinguished men of science and letters. I told him that I am to do a bigger work inAmericathan I have ever done inEngland. “Mr. Haldeman-Julius,” I began. . . .

“Doing splendid work,” he said. “Can we have some of these Little Blue Books to help in the work?”

He lighted up with enthusiasm when I described the plan which Mr. Haldeman-Julius and I have hatched—fifty Little Blue Books covering the entire ground of religious controversy and inquiry, systematically and courteously, but firmly and inexorably. “That will be magnificent help,” he said. “And let us have some of the Big Blue Books too.”

I explained that some of the latter are already in circulation and more of a Rationalist nature will come. The old man was visibly delighted. Almost alone in his scientific world he outspokenly disdained creeds and ceremonies. Undermining ancient dogmas is not enough. The people, who begin to see the power of science, must know what men of science, with their trained minds and their grasp of realities, think about man and the universe.

So out I went, to continue my mission inCalifornia, with the hearty “good-speed” of this wonderful man.Santa Rosa, nayCalifornia, is proud of him, and there must be some temptation to avoid friction. What, no danger inCalifornia? Why, here in a suburb ofSan FranciscoI hear of an audience of five thousand Fundamentalists rocking with laughter at some of the elementary truths of science. Even the educated run after iridescent verbiage and shun facts. Hindu word-spinners dig gold here.

As I sped away my eye caught a board in a field by the road: “Jesus is the way, the truth and the life,” it said. This after 1900 years experimental verification of his efficacy! And in the heart ofCalifornia, where Luther Burbank showed that the only way and truth and life is science. All honor to him that he did not leave it to such obtuse minds to “draw their own conclusions,” as so many do. “Science is the only savior,” he said to people. He said it in church one memorable day.

“I very rarely speak in public, and, curiously, my two addresses are in churches,” he said, eyeing me, I thought, apprehensively.

“I know no better place to say such things,” I retorted, and I thought sadly of the very different things which American men of science had recently, been saying in the churches of Kansas City during the convention of the American Association ~for~ the Advancement of Science.

Luther Burbank, Infidel

by Edgar Waite

When Luther Burbank, disciple, prophet and high priest of nature, announced himself as an infidel he loosed a shot in the hierarchy of orthodox thinking that was destined, like another shot before it, to be heard around the world.

On the morning of Friday, January 22, 1926, beforeBurbank’s avowal of disbelief was broadcast through the press,California’s gentle patriarch went about his experimental labors with the serenity of one who knows that he has harbored no evil thoughts of his fellowman and that in seventy-seven years of life he has never consciously hurt a living being. He was the revered, kindly old gentleman of an admiring world. No voice had ever been raised against him. How could any voice be raised against a man who had done only good, who had filled the world’s gardens with more beautiful flowers than they had ever known before, who in times of hunger and war had helped replenish the world’s granaries by his genius, and who had given mankind meaty vegetables and gorgeous fruits such as nature, working blindly, had never before visioned?

At noon of that day the ~San Francisco Bulletin~, shielding its sensational “beat” against the buccaneering plagiarisms of rival papers, rent wide its pages to make space for my copyright interview in which the famous horticulturist described himself fearlessly as an infidel, expressed disbelief in immortality, and of course scornfully dismissed Henry Ford’s recently pledged adherence to a fantastic theory of reincarnation.

And before nightBurbank, wrested violently from his calm nature-lore in the thriving little city ofSanta Rosa, became the center of the most exciting philosophical and theological discussion of our era. Letters and telegrams began pouring in, first from nearby cities, but, as the days passed, from an ever- widening circle that finally took inCanada,England,Germanyand a score of other countries. From scientists and laymen who with Tennyson believe that “there is more faith in honest doubt than in half the creeds,” came messages of commendation. From the orthodox clergy, and from cranks of all conditions of mental servitude, there came an avalanche of expostulation, reproof, and sibilant recrimination for the man who had the temerity to tell what he thought In the face of established doctrine.

Ministers in Luther Burbank’s own town, whose churches he had attended at times and for whose congregations he had more than once spoken on scientific subjects, winced, looked first askance, then scandalized. With wry faces religious leaders pecked at his words, outraged orators enveloped him in the gases of withering, trenchant criticism, and fanatics lashed him with biblical platitudes. Like kernels of popcorn, livid defenders of the faith, scorched by the heat of what a great man sees as Truth, jumped high into the air, and with quavering voices went into convulsions. Sententious champions of the gospel squared off to engageBurbankin Quixotic jousting, and fanatics ran amuck with anonymous threats of every dire punishment known either to God or the evil eye. One writer, addressing his protest to the newspaper that had first interviewed Burbank on the subject, consigned the plant wizard to no less a tropical climate than hell itself, where it was promised he would meet Conan Doyle and Sir Oliver Lodge.

And for many days thereafter, the furore, drawing fuel into the vortex with tentacles that encircled the earth, continued unabated. Rather was it marked with increased intensity, for many things were happening after that first interview was published.

But through all the fury and the flailing of a fetid atmosphere Burbank himself remained unperturbed. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union in Santa Rosa, of which he was an honorary life member, held a meeting of prayer (which only ten women attended! ) for the misguided scientist — a meeting that became not so much a time of prayer as an indignation council — yet Burbank refused either to have his soul saved or to recant. They could pillory him for the leering stares of a morbid public. They could burn him, figuratively, at the stake. They could unroll eternal thunder to peal out threats of everlasting damnation, butBurbankremained inflexible on his original platform.

From the outset the storm that blew so suddenly to rattle the holy eucharist became a battle of the dictionary.

Burbankhad said he was an infidel. Self-constituted apologists, as represented by the newspapers that had missed the story and by zealous ecclesiastics, insisted at once that Burbank had been misunderstood, that he had meant agnostic or something else less offensively noxious than infidel. Churchmen and newspapermen invadedBurbank’s home grounds in hordes, all apparently bent on the determination to substitute a less inflammatory word.

ButBurbankevidently had consulted the dictionary before employing the word “infidel” in the first place, or in any event he peeked into its confiding pages after the first storm clouds began to break.

He had found that an agnostic is one who professes ignorance as to the beginning of things and the power behind them. He had found that an atheist is one who denies the existence of God. And he had found, in Webster’s New International Dictionary that an infidel is:

  1. In respect to a given religion, one who is an unbeliever; a disbeliever; especially a non-Christian or one  opposing the truth or authoritativeness of the Christian Church.
  2. One who does not believe (in something understood or implied).

Thus the harried, lovable old man, met his well-wishers with unflinching eye, and was able to say: “I am an infidel. I know what an infidel is, and that’s what I am.”

I heard these words with keen relish, for doubtless it would have gone hard with me had Burbank squirmed out of an unpleasant situation by declaring what so many wanted him to declare — that he had been misquoted, that his sentiments had been garbled and distorted as the words and deeds of Christ himself.

I had been sent toSanta Rosato quizBurbankas to his theories on immortality and reincarnation. Burbank had that day been quoted in a brief dispatch as disputing the theory of his old friend, Henry Ford, that we return to earth after death to live again in some other form — perhaps a maple tree or a fox terrier.

“All right,” said the managing editor, “Burbankhas told us what he doesn’t believe. Now it’s your job to have him tell us what he does believe.”

Burbankanswered the question first by an epigram, and he asked that the Interview begin with the thought it contained.

“Most people’s religion,” he said, “is what they would like to believe, not what-they do believe. And very few of them stop to examine its foundations.”

Then, going on to tell why he does not believe in a resurrection: “The universe is not big enough to contain perpetually all the human souls and the other living beings that have been here for their short spans. A theory of personal resurrection or reincarnation of the individual is untenable when we but pause to consider the magnitude of the idea. On the contrary, I must believe that rather than the survival of all, we must look for survival only In the spirit of the, good we have done in passing through. This is as feasible and credible as Henry Ford’s own practice of discarding the old models of his automobile. When obsolete, an automobile is thrown in the scrap heap. Once here and gone, the human life has likewise served Its purpose. If it has been a good life, it has been sufficient. There is no need for another.”

The scientist, who thus took exception to theories of a man whom he had but recently described as “one of the living geniuses who can truly typify our age,” then went on to his adopted principle, true in his plant world as in human life, that there is no repetition in nature.

“The theory of reincarnation,” he said, “comes, like all other religious theories, from the best qualities in human nature, even if in this as in the others its adherents sometimes fail to carry out the tenets in their lives.

“Religion grows with the intelligence of man, but all religions of the past and probably all of the future will sooner or later become petrified forms instead of living helps to mankind. Until that time comes, however, if religion of any name or nature makes man more happy, comfortable, and able to live peaceably with his brothers, it is good.

“But as a scientist I cannot help feeling that all religions are on a tottering foundation. None is perfect or inspired. As for their prophets, there are as many today as ever before, only now science refuses to let them overstep the bounds of common sense.

“The idea that a good God would send people to a burning hell is utterly damnable to me. I don’t want to have anything to do with such a God. But while I cannot conceive of such a God, I do recognize the existence of a great universal power — a power which we cannot even begin to comprehend and might as well not attempt to. It may be a conscious mind, or it may not. I don’t know. As a scientist I should like to know, but as a man, I am not so vitally concerned.

“As for Christ—well, he has been most outrageously belied. His followers, like those of many scientists and literary men, have so garbled his words and conduct that many of them no longer apply to present life. Christ was a wonderful psychologist. He was an infidel of his day because he rebelled against the prevailing religions and government. I am a lover of Christ as a man, and his work and all things that help humanity, but nevertheless just as he was an infidel then, I am an infidel today.”

There it is, the hated word buried deep in the philosophical folds of a few candid remarks to a reporter. But let us go on:

“I do not believe what has been served to me to believe. I am a doubter, a questioner, a skeptic.

“However, 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.”

One might think that these words would be accepted as the reasoned thoughts of a sane man. But in this age of bigotry they were not accepted.Burbankwould have been the last man concerned to object to a calm, rational refutation of his views.

Instead of any such well ordered rebuttal, those of narrow vision and intolerant hatred for free thinking sought to crucify him, with stinging words.


So it becomes necessary for me (since I have talked with Burbank many times on many subjects) to tell more about him as a man and as a thinker in order that the hysterical clamor that rent the air may not be accepted for more than its face value.

Burbankstudied life at its fountain head—in the marvelous little buds and shoots and leaves that burgeon forth each spring to fill us anew with the awe for nature. He was a naturalist, no less than Thoreau. Nature was his teacher and he recognized her as a symbolism of that mysterious power which he was willing to have called God but which suited him as well if it was called merely Force. He saw nature, with Goethe, as the living, visible garment of that same mysterious power—God or Force, and faith in nature won him the eminent place he occupied in the world.

Why, then, did he lack faith in the accepted doctrines of religion? Why did he see all religions on a tottering foundation? Because religions are based on a promise of immortality, and a threat of divine punishment for sin—two things to which this nature man could not reconcile himself.

For the hope of immortality, he believed, is the refuge of cowards, and he could appropriately quote the Bible itself in pointing out that the commonly accepted faith is merely the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen but for which puny man, striving selfishly to improve his position, to increase his goods, always reaches out a grasping hand. Voltaire pictured faith as “deferential credulity.”Burbanksaw that incredulity may rob us of our smug complacence, but in recompense gives us a sense of sincerity in our efforts to arrive at the truth. The philosophy of the infidel, he knew, may not be the philosophy best suited to the, masses, held in subjection by a tempting promise of good things to come, but to the thinker who wishes to tear aside the veil of false promises this philosophy must, after all, be the only acceptable one.

All this having been true toBurbank, if I caught his thought correctly, the great scientist’s tolerant, yet withal inflexible, attitude toward those who were disparaging and excoriating him is entirely understandable.

When the Women’s Christian Temperance Union of Santa Rosa called its meeting to pray for Burbank, he only smiled, as much as to say that prayer at least was harmless, even if it couldn’t do any good.

Burbankhad been a contributor to and a member of the organization for many years because he believed in its efforts toward bringing about prohibition. But he was not in the least perturbed when the very woman who had proposed him as an honorary life member five years ago joined in the call to save his soul. This call concluded with the following paragraph:

“All mothers and women who believe that irreparable injuries have been done to the cause of religion by the utterances of Luther Burbank, and who believe in the efficacy of prayer, are invited to join together for a season of prayer for Luther Burbank that his eyes may be opened and our youth may not be led astray from the religion of the fathers.”

The meeting was not so well attended was to be expected. Only ten women ofSanta Rosa, whereBurbankhad developed practically all the marvels of the fruit, vegetable and grain worlds for which his name has become known throughout the nations of the globe, turned out to lift their eyes in solemn supplication that his soul might be redeemed, that he might be forgiven for his blasphemy.

But in some inexplicable manner their prayers seem to have been unanswered. ForBurbankcontinued to smile urbanely—and he stuck to his guns. On the other hand, Mrs. Burbank, the scientist’s young wife, flashed defiance. In announcing that she and her celebrated husband had declined invitations to attend the meeting, she said of her fellow townsmen: “It is simply an effort by the people ofMain Streetto get a little publicity. If these misguided, impertinent people would confine their activities to persons of their own caliber they would be much more logical and perhaps accomplish some good. It is all quite in line with the efforts frequently made to get rain by praying for it.”

And then, further to complicate an already vexed situation,Burbankaccepted an invitation to speak from the pulpit of the First Congregational Church inSan Francisco. He had been so invited some time previously by the Rev. James L. Gordon, a modernist type of minister who leans more to the sensational and to the attractions of immediate public interest than toward the old-fashioned, conservative line of church programs. Now, with the discussion of immortality, resurrection and infidelism at the boiling point throughout the country, but particularly inCaliforniabecause its centrally distributing element was located here,Burbankphilosophically consented to address the fashionableSan Franciscocongregation on his beliefs in divinity and eternity.

The church, of course, was crowded to the vestibule. Hundreds stood outside hoping to get in long after the doors were closed, and then stood an hour or more longer to see the white-haired infidel come forth from the church, where he had explained simply why he could not accept many of the commonly accepted beliefs.

It was a trying situation, no doubt—both for Burbank and for Dr. Gordon—but a congregation that had assembled in the huge stone edifice, forewarned of what it would hear, did not march out in indignant protest at Burbank’s sacrilege, but stayed to hear him out in respectful silence, then left, some of them perhaps with the feeling that they had enjoyed a most entertaining hour.

But even that did not close the incident, althoughBurbankexpresses hope, not without fervor, that the matter might be allowed to drop and he be allowed to get back to his work.

Letters continued to stream in from all points of the compass — 538 of them in a single day, with the temperature steadily mounting. In all this febrile rush of things, however, the scientist was not too busy to write a reassuring letter to his newspaper friend, who in the midst of the furore had sent him a solicitous note expressing hope that his story and its reaction would not forever depriveBurbankof a zest for living.

“To be sure,” the scientist wrote, “I have had my hands full the last few days, as I am receiving some five hundred or more letters a day, but the publication of our interview made my life happy, not miserable.”

And then, doubtless with a mischievous sparkle in his eyes, he returned with sardonic glee to the word around which the whole controversy has ranged, subjoining, “~Faith~fully yours, Luther Burbank.”


In the meantime, the orthodox clergy ofCaliforniajoined with that of other sections in soundly beratingBurbankfor being so courageous as to voice his views.

Said the Rev. Fred A. Keast of the First Methodist Episcopal Church inSanta Rosa, whereBurbankhad attended services sporadically: “Mr. Burbank, in a time when the youth of the land are jazz crazed and breaking away In large numbers from religious teachings, has voiced foolish utterances.” And he went on, according to press dispatches, to scoreBurbankas an uneducated man.

Whereat the latter replied: “Although I went to college as a youth, I never considered it necessary to steep oneself in academic learning, in order to learn how to think. I welcome a fair and square, open and above-board fight on any subject, including this, but I despise a man who sneaks around under a cloak or cover of any society or clique to strike his blows.”

Said the Rev. E. E. Ingram, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church atSanta Rosa: “If words can be made to mean anything that one wants them to mean, we are bordering on linguistic anarchy. I regard Mr. Burbank’s statement as most unfortunate and not worthy either of Mr. Burbank’s head or heart. Mr. Burbank does not seem to know the meaning of the words and terms he used.”

ButBurbankmerely smiled, pointing his finger suggestively toward the dictionary, and replied: “I said I am an infidel in the true sense of that word. Look it up, if you don’t believe it.”

In addition to these critics, others presented themselves from near and far. One suggested kindly that “the gardener should stick to his cabbages,” another that “the cobbler should stick to his last.”

Archbishop Edward J. Hanna ofSan Francisco, who was mentioned in press dispatches fromRomeas a likely candidate to be elevated to the rank of cardinal, entered into a lengthy dissertation to prove that there is a God—a premise, or conclusion, as you will, thatBurbanknever denied. He merely said that for all of him the power called God might just as well be called Allah, Force, or by any other name deemed fitting.

On this point he elucidated further: “I believe in a supreme ruler of the universe, no matter what name one applies to it. The chief trouble with religion has been too much dependence upon names or words. People fail to discriminate. They do not think. Generally people who think for themselves, instead of thinking according to the rules laid down by others, are considered unfaithful to the established order. In that respect I, too, differ with the established order and established designations.”

Nor didBurbankstand alone in his fearless tearing away of old veils.

Dr. Ray Lyman Wilbur, president ofStanfordUniversity, had this to say: “The great accomplishment of science has been to place much of superstition in the discard. Science deals with ascertainable facts. Religion goes farther than science in that it deals with personality and persons. The great difficulties that science has had with religion have come largely from the fact that there has always been a strongly dogmatic quality in organized religion. A race grows with accumulated experience, just as does a child, and with a racial growth there come new conceptions of religion. There is evolution in religion and religious thought that is as evident as the evolutionary processes in other phases of the world.”

Of the western ministers, only one, Rabbi Jacob Nieto, spoke up in partial defense ofBurbank’s views. “While not going so far as to say that religion today is on a tottering foundation,” he told interviewers, “I do believe that it is in a state of transition and that Tom Paine’s ‘age of reason’ is dawning upon the world. If Mr. Burbank meant that he is an agnostic rather than an infidel I can understand his position, for neither do I believe everything that is told me. It is true that the Bible has been edited and re-edited many times, in each case to suit the spirit of its particular age and occasion, but I would not say that Christ’s words have been garbled. As to immortality, let us remember the verse in Ecclesiastes: ‘Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.'”


The battle of the dictionary, and, for that matter, the eternal battle of the ages—almost as old as the battle of the sexes—continued to ebb and flow.

Burbank, rising as ever at six o’clock and putting in a hard day’s work in his experimental gardens fifty miles from San Francisco, lent a not too attentive ear to the conflict, going on serenely about his labors, his conscience clear, his mind keenly alert, but willing to wait for Death itself to show whether there is anything beyond.Burbankknew that the reason of weak men staggers before the thought of immortality, and that through appetite for it “imagination folds her weary pinions.”

As for himself, let the curtains draw aside when they might. He knew he would continue to believe that Christ was but a man, and that when we quit this life we lie down to rise no more.

Nor had he any apologies to make for his heresy. If anyone asked him, there were always the words of Carlyle:

Pin thy faith to no man’s sleeve. Hast thou not two eyes of thy own?


Burbank the Infidel
by Joseph Lewis (1927)
from the book “Atheism and other Addresses”

Address delivered on May 22, 1927, inCentral Park,New YorkCity, at the Tree-Planting Memorial Exercises, conducted by Freethinkers of America, in honor of Luther Burbank, who was a member and First Honorary Vice-President.

On April 11, Luther Burbank died.

His death was not only a bereavement to his family and friends, but the entire country, aye, the whole civilized world mourned his passing.

The world mourned because a man had died who had brought happiness to the human race; had added to the sum total of knowledge, and had made the world better for his having lived.

Luther Burbank was a rare spirit, a tender soul. He was a noble son of the earth and his death was an irreparable loss to mankind.

We honor Luther Burbank today not only for his independence of thought, although that alone would entitle him to our homage, but also because of his achievements as a scientist and his accomplishments in the realm of Nature.

Stone and marble do not seem to be fit attributes for this lover of Nature and so we plant a tree to his memory. It symbolizes more appropriately his life and work.

Flowers and plants and trees were his intimates and formed part of his family.

He loved them as we love human beings and they became as much a part of his life and existence as if he were born one of them. This close intimacy gave him a familiarity possessed by no other man. He learned the secrets of the plants and spoke the language of the flowers. So remarkably intimate was he with life in the flower kingdom that he became known as “The Wizard of Plant Life.”

He moved in a mysterious way among them his wonders to perform. He nurtured a flower as we do a child and it seemed to love him for it. A broken branch of a tree touched him to pity, and the wanton destruction of flowers was a grievous hurt to him. He cured sick flowers, brought beauty to ugly ones and sweet odors to all.

From early life he manifested a kinship with them and often when provoked by pain to tears his mother would place a flower in his hands and a smile would appear on his tear-stained cheeks. He took the rough and uncouth of plant life and brought beauty and charm to them by the magic of his touch. Flowers seemed to obey him like good children a kind parent. No man had greater love for them. And no man was more tenderly revered by them.

Burbankalso loved children, his country and mankind. His life was one continuous romance. He lived like a man forever falling in love with his wife and child and family. What a glorious feeling to be in love and happy and live!

He gave as freely of his work as flowers their perfume. He made the earth a better, brighter, and more beautiful place than he found it, and the world is healthier and happier for his having lived. More cannot be said of any man. Even a god would be proud of such a record.

It is even impossible to calculate the value in health and the amount of enjoyment his creations of fruits, flowers and vegetables have been even to this generation.

Millions are enjoying the fruits of his labors without the slightest knowledge of their benefactor.

Laws of selection, variation and heredity which he discovered and applied are in themselves invaluable instruments of knowledge with which to accomplish among human beings what he so marvelously achieved with plants.

Burbank’s work is not done, it has really just begun. His death ended his own labors but placed a tremendous responsibility upon the living. Thousands are now required to do the work that he alone performed.

On March 7, 1849, Luther Burbank was born.

Twenty-six years later he enteredSanta Rosa,California, the little town which he made his home and which he has since immortalized.

He lies buried there beneath a tree he planted.

It is said that he came to this little town with but ten dollars, ten potatoes and few choice books.

Three authors of these books inspired him in his life’s work. They were, Henry Thomas Thoreau, Charles Robert Darwin, whom he loved to call “Master,” and Alexander Von Humboldt, who imbued him with the spirit of the importance and worth of his work.

These three men inspired him with a burning desire to accomplish, a confidence that only one genius can impart to another, and with an idealism known only to the few heroic men and women who have been mankind’s benefactors.

And it is most fitting for us to plant this tree as a memorial toBurbankthat it may grow and spread its verdant leaves as a shade over the magnificent head of this “Columbus of Science.”

His material equipment was indeed poor, his body was not overstrong, and his heart was broken. He had been unsuccessful in love. He tried to mend his broken heart by lavishing his love upon his beautiful garden and upon the flowers he loved as his children. And what an abundance of love he had, and with what abandonment he lavished it!

He added strength to his body by living close to Nature, and following the advice of Mother Earth.

Enraptured in his work he began his labors of more than a half of a century.

AlthoughBurbankcame toSanta Rosaunknown and in poverty, the world made a beaten path to his door. The celebrated and the famous the world over came to pay homage to this “Gardener touched with genius.”

By the fruits of his labor he gave incalculable wealth to others.

Do not let it be said, however, thatBurbank’s accomplishments were the result of a magic wand. he labored assiduously and found competition most keen.

There may be room always at the top, but there is always a crowd that must be pushed aside in the middle of the road so as to clear the passage for the ascent.

Burbankfound many botanists, and horticulturists, and plain gardeners who were doing things a bit above the ordinary, and he realized early in life that if he was to distinguish himself he must do something that had not been done before.

The obstacles that he found in his path did not prove to be millstones around his neck, but rather milestones on his road to fame.

Each difficulty proved a new experience, and a new experience toBurbankmeant more knowledge with which to work. He built his knowledge upon experience and experiments.

He had a keenness of perception not surpassed by any man. He watched for the slightest variation to wrest a secret from Nature. Experience is the only knowledge we possess and is the basis for the development of our mind. InBurbank’s experiment with the cactus he discovered how intelligence is gradually formed through experience and manifests itself through what we call instinct.

As withEdison, perspiration was the predominant part of his inspiration. No task was too arduous for him and he permitted no obstacle to stand in his way. He knew the ends he wished to accomplish and determinedly set about his work.

He did not always work from appearances. Appearances, he found, were as deceiving in flowers as in human beings, and he often went back many generations to correct a fault.

A changed environment invariably changed the character of the flower, but to eradicate a deep-seated fault it was sometimes necessary to operate upon the roots.

Once he learned the secrets of Nature, once he learned to talk to Nature in her own language,Burbankbecame proficient in conversation. A more brilliant conversationalist the plants have never known. Once on speaking terms with Nature he established a friendship never to be broken. His loyalty never wavered.

He was also an apt pupil. He studied her alphabet, mastered her grammar, punctuation and rhetoric and wrote many pages in the book of Life which only a few are privileged to do.

“I took Nature’s mind and added it to my own,” saidBurbank, “and by so doing bridged centuries of time in adding sweetness and charm and color to Nature’s products.”

He married beauty and strength and sweetness to produce the Ideal.

He took Nature by the hand so to speak, and led her into paths of beauty that she had not dreamed existed. With his help he made Nature excel herself and sit and marvel at her wonders.

Burbankdid not claim occult powers. He did not pose with a halo around his head. He did not boast that he was “divinely inspired.” He performed no miracles, although he accomplished marvels.

He gladly, freely and generously gave his knowledge to others. He was an intellectual spendthrift. “What I have learned, you may learn,” are his words.

His soul was the heart of a true scientist.

Where didBurbanklearn the great truths that he applied so effectively and so ardently wanted man to follow? Why was he so sure that they would be as successful in the human realm as they were in the plant kingdom?

Surely his own academic education was not sufficient to give him this grasp of Nature, nor was his technical training sufficient to enable him to perform his wonders.

His early schooling was the barest rudiments that the little Red School House had to offer.

The secret of his marvelous intellect and his ability to apply the knowledge he acquired are told in his own words.

He received a scholarship which anyone with a desire for knowledge may secure also. He said: “My school has been theUniversityofNature. I matriculated in theCollegeofHorticulture, Department of Market Gardening, but I finished that course in short time and entered the laboratory where Nature teaches Plant Breeding. I cannot say that I graduated from that branch of the Institution even yet — there is so much to lean! But in the years that I have been a student I have spread out considerably and taken something pretty nearly of every course my Alma Mater offers except Football and Public Speaking. I was not taught everything, but was taught the fundamentals behind everything!”

In the University of Nature, Burbank not only learned about plants and flowers and trees and vegetables, but also about rocks and soil and mountains and rivers, about birds and fish and horses and cows and dogs and men.

He was told by the great Humboldt that “the Universe was governed by law, ” and in theUniversityofNature,Burbankverified this great truth!

Burbankwanted others to enter the University from which he was graduated with such high honors and in these words differentiated it from any other college in existence.

“The great difference between my favorite University and the schools men build is that the ambitious and the interested student can enroll for life and take every course offered, and each fact he adds to his store, and semester work he does, fits him precisely and definitely for the next subject ahead without any loss of motion and without a line that is superfluous to him.”

TheUniversityofNaturemight well be proud of the distinguished career of her pupil and above the portals of her entrance should be inscribed these words of his.

“Nature is not personal. She is the compound of all these processes which move through the universe to effect the results we know as Life and of all the ordinances which govern that universe and that make Life continuous. She is no more the Hebrew’s Jehovah than she is the Physicist’s Force; she is as muchProvidenceas she is Electricity; she is not the Great Pattern any more than she is the Blind Chance.”

A great artist was once asked by a lady admirer what he mixed his paints with to get such marvelous results, and he answered: “With brains, madam.”Burbank’s brain bore the same relation to flowers as did the artist’s to his paints.

With an almost uncanny touch the artist can, with a daub of paint, change the perspective of his picture; and so sensitive wasBurbankto the pulse of the flower, that he could, with the slightest touch, make it perform wonders for him.

In his own words he defines this unusual characteristic. “It was with this instinct for selection that I was gifted. It was born in me, and I educated and gave it experience, and have always kept myself attuned to it. I have particularly sensitive nerves — that accounts partly for my unusual success in selecting, as between two apparently identical plants and flowers or trees and fruits. I have always been sensitive to odors, so that I could detect them, pleasant or disagreeable, when they were so slight that no one about me was conscious of them.”

Burbanknever grew old in mind or body. He was as ready to accept a new truth as to discard a wrong impression.

This attitude of mind is the first requisite of knowledge. It is the first principle of an alert intellect.

And these words ofBurbankshould become an axiom in our language:

“Intolerance is a closed mind. Bigotry is an exaltation of authorities. Narrowness is ignorance unwilling to be taught.”

That he did not consider the Bible a divine revelation can be attested by these words of advice:

“Let us read the Bible without the ill-fitting colored spectacles of theology, just as we read other books, using our own judgment and reason, listening to the voice within, not to the noisy babel without. Most of us possess discriminating reasoning powers. Can we use them or must we be fed by others like babes?”

No dogmatism hamperedBurbank. No theology prevented him from peering into the unknown. He never permitted himself to become set in his opinions.

“Folks wonder how I keep so young!” he said. “I am almost seventy-seven and still can go over a gate or run a foot race or kick the chandelier. That is because my body is no older than my mind, and my mind is adolescent. It has never grown up. It never will, I hope. I am as inquisitive as I was at eight.”

To those who ask us “what will you give us in exchange” when we free them from their superstitious religion, how pertinent and precious are these words ofBurbank. I wish they could be impressed upon the mind of every living person. “I have seen myself,” he says, “lose intolerance, narrowness, bigotry, complacence, pride and a whole bushel-basket of other intellectual vices through my contact with Nature and with men. And when you take weeds out of a garden it gives you room to grow flowers. So, every time I lost a little self-satisfaction, or arrogance, I could plant some broadness or love of my own in its place, and after a while the garden of my mind began to bloom and be fragrant and I found myself better equipped for my work and more useful to others as a consequence.”

“I have learned from Nature that dependence on unnatural beliefs weakens us in the struggle and shortens our breath for the race,” said Burbank, and in the twilight of life, when he knew that the end was approaching, he said that “the time had come for honest men to denounce false teachers and attack false gods” and with a courage characteristic of this great and grand man he proclaimed to the world that he was an infidel!

WhenBurbankmade this declaration, the theological hyenas were ready to tear the flesh from his body. They maligned and vilified him, and tried to inter the good that he did with his bones.

When he made that statement, however, he classed himself with Franklin, Jefferson, Paine, Lincoln and Ingersoll.

Burbankrefused to accept the dogma and religion of his time because he knew that they were poisoning the brain and mentality of man. They were paralyzing the intellect. He looked upon them as weeds that must of necessity be rooted out before man could think freely and act properly upon the problems of life.

Because of his fame, and despite his open declaration, the religious world is making an attempt to claim him as one of their members. What hypocrisy!

Luther Burbank was not religious!

His name cannot be mentioned in the same breath with that impulse, with that conviction which produces religious mania, religious strife, religious hatred and religious prejudice.

Religious love is clannish.

Christian loves Christian.

Jew loves Jew.

Luther Burbank loved everybody. He said: “I love everything. I love humanity. I love flowers. I love children. I love my dog.”

Luther Burbank was not religious — he was too human for that.

He was a humanitarian, a lover of mankind.

A religious person loves his God. He loves his God so vehemently that he has no love left for man.

Burbankhated the idea of an all-powerful God and said: “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.”

And in a letter from him shortly before he died, in response to my request for a statement indicative of his belief, he wrote, “This should be enough for one who lives for truth and service to his fellow passengers on the way. No avenging Jewish God, no satanic devil, no fiery hell is of any interest to me.”

A religious man attends church, observes feast days and fast days. He takes part in religious ceremonies and pays the priest to pray for him.

“Prayer,” saysBurbank, “may be elevating if combined with work, and they who labor with head, hands or feet have faith and are generally quite sure of an immediate and favorable reply.”

To pray for that which you have not labored for is the most selfish impulse in life.

A religious man is one who has sold his brain, and who has mortgaged his intellect. He believes in a heaven and in a hell.

Burbankasked for no heaven because he knew that it did not exist, and he feared no hell because he knew that there was none.

No, Luther Burbank was not a religious man. He was a good man. He was a grand man — one of the grandest that ever lived on this earth.

Moses, and Jesus and Torquemada were religious. So were John Calvin and John Knox and John Wesley and Martin Luther and Cotton Mather. The pope is religious.

Hypatia and Bruno and Galileo were infidels. So were Ernest Haeckel and Herbert Spencer and Charles P. Steinmetz and Voltaire and Thomas Paine and John Burroughs and Mark Twain. Clarence Darrow was an infidel.

Luther Burbank is dead.

His lips were sealed in death with the same conviction that was his philosophy while he lived.

And now that he is gone we seek to honor his memory with the fullness of our love.

We have come not to honor a soldier or a statesman. No bugle is to sound taps for his military triumphs. We are honoring a simple, lovable man.

One who was a saver of life, a benefactor, a creator of joy, a dispenser of happiness.

One who was not revengeful or vindictive.

One would rather have made a mistake on the side of mercy than to have a single human being suffer because of his mistake.

Those who were privileged to know Luther Burbank have lost a friend. Our country has lost one of her chosen sons, one who helped to make her famous and added lustre to her name.

The world has lost one of its great benefactors.

In the heart of the flower and in the beauty and sweetness of the world he has perpetuated himself.

And in the starry firmament of immortality is seen a new star — and there appears this illustrious son ofAmerica– this great and good man — this Scientist, Naturalist, Humanitarian and Infidel — Luther Burbank.


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