The Chronicle Review

Devout Atheists

International Association for the Preservation of Spiritualist and Occult Periodicals

A cartoon by the 19th-century freethinker Watson Heston
February 05, 2017

My Great-Great-Aunt Kit might have been, in the parlance of her times, an infidel. In the 1890s, she loaded her scrapbook with the blasphemous speeches of the era’s most famous agnostic, Robert Ingersoll, marking them up with apparent appreciation.

A student of American religious history, I was surprised to find such interest in unbelief among these ancestors because that side of my family is a long line of Ohio farmers. The instincts of my discipline recommend for them a quiet but dogged Methodism, maybe a flash of revivalism here and there. "Ignorance is the soil of the supernatural. … The miraculous is false" wasn’t the first thing I would have expected to find circled and starred in a family heirloom.


Village Atheists: How America's Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation By Leigh Eric Schmidt

(Princeton University Press)

But it’s clear from Village Atheists, by Leigh Eric Schmidt, a professor of religion and politics at Washington University in St. Louis, that I shouldn’t have been surprised. Schmidt constructs a vision of "the quotidian qualities of American unbelief" in the late 19th century, depicting a cultural landscape in which "the struggle over God, revelation, and religious affiliation unfolded at the grassroots, rather than in universities or literary bohemias." Through the lives of four little-remembered infidels, Schmidt gestures toward the "everyday lives of America’s unbelievers," tracing the media networks, personal relationships, and habits of thought that might enable a young, rural woman to be conversant with the rejection of religion.

Schmidt wants to neutralize some of the polemicism surrounding the topic. The very words by which we name this strand of American religious history are negations, inherently adversarial: atheist, nonbeliever, irreligious. Even freethinker is a provocation, if one is just a thinker. Schmidt, though, discovers gray areas and blurred lines between belief and unbelief. "Certainly many freethinkers and evangelicals saw this as a war without a middle ground, but forbearance and mutual recognition nonetheless frequently emerged amid the Manichean opposition."

This is complicated, however, by Schmidt’s own title character, a composite "cultural figure" drawn from the lives of his four contrarians. Samuel Porter Putnam once published a pamphlet called "Religion a Curse, Religion a Disease, Religion a Lie" (1893). Charles B. Reynolds co-opted the methods of evangelicalism and traveled the country holding tent revivals, preaching a gospel of freethought. Elmina Drake Slenker defied obscenity laws to spread advice about sex and the body, taking particular pride in using "short, emphatic, and clear" words — i.e., four-letter ones. Watson Heston drew cartoons demonstrating the absurdity of belief and the unfairness of religion’s hold on the nation’s institutions. A typical Heston cartoon mocked common Protestant imagery about "clinging to the cross" by labeling the suffering soul’s supposed life-saver "a piece of worthless theological driftwood." A "Freethought Life-Boat" offers rescue as the sharks of priestcraft close in.

Schmidt wants the lives of these characters to "capture the dilemmas of a quotidian secularism — the tensions between combat and courtesy, candor and dissembling, irreverence and respectability that marked the everyday lives of America’s unbelievers." He succeeds to the extent that these public atheists wrote and spoke to audiences of everyday nonbelievers living amid the assumptions of belief. His four main subjects do not appear to have dissembled much, though, and most of the book is about court cases and public controversies, moments not easily thought of as part of their normal daily lives.

The fact is that much of the everyday 19th-century atheism Schmidt set out to chronicle might have been characterized by silence. Proclaiming oneself an atheist has been — and still is in many circles — simply considered rude. Schmidt chronicles a recurrent argument among freethinkers themselves about how impolite to be, but does not reflect on the constant violence of self-censorship that this implies. Self-censorship in the face of overwhelming cultural pressure is as much a part of the American atheist experience as irreverent provocation. Family members who knew her — she lived to be 99 — have no memory of Aunt Kit ever discussing religion.

Beyond the risk of social stigma, atheists have been subject to violence, imprisonment, and the denial of political rights. True, they are not exactly like other persecuted religious minorities in American history. For one thing, they have not been powerless. Contemporary surveys indicate that they tend toward the white, male, and educated, and that is not a new trend. Even in the 19th century, the self-consciously irreverent edge of so much atheist rhetoric came from a place of relative privilege. Compared with the violence wrought along lines of race, gender, and class, the challenges faced by atheists can seem minor, or quaint, or even funny. Schmidt recounts the story of a one-armed Kansan named Jacob B. Wise who was prosecuted in 1895, under the Comstock obscenity laws, for mailing a minister a postcard with a single line on it about eating and drinking human waste. The joke was that the line was from the Bible (Isaiah 36:12).

Schmidt is mostly mindful of this tension, punctuating stories of relative tolerance toward atheists with the real consequences of persecution. (Wise spent a month in jail and was fined $50, all for sending a postcard with a Bible verse on it.) Even as the religious right has wrapped itself in the rhetoric of victimhood, claiming to feel oppressed in a secular nation, surveys continue to suggest that it is atheists who might feel most compelled to hide their commitments of conscience. Americans feel coldest about atheists and Muslims, and admit that they are less likely to vote for members of these groups than any others. In 2005, Justice Antonin Scalia — may the God he worshiped rest his soul — argued in a dissent "that the Establishment Clause permits … the disregard of devout atheists."

Nevertheless, the irreverent work of the village atheist goes on in a public arena radically changed by high-profile 20th-century Supreme Court cases. The Satanic Temple is easily the most entertaining avatar of the village atheist’s spirit today. They are atheists who claim Satan as a metaphor, not a deity, and they recently announced an "After School Satan" program as a counter to Christian programs permitted to evangelize in public schools. And the University of Miami will soon run a search for an endowed chair in "the study of atheism, humanism and secular ethics." It took the donor more than 15 years and $2.2 million to get the university to agree to use the word "atheism" in the title, but the term might soon be an everyday presence.

Seth Perry is an assistant professor of religion at Princeton University.