Village Atheists: How America's Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation
by leigh eric schmidt
princeton university press, 360 pages, $35
Can atheists be good citizens? James Madison and other founders certainly thought not, and many state constitutions originally excluded atheists from public office. Yet the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, which Thomas Jefferson wrote, declared that “our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry”; Jefferson later explained that he intended to protect not only the “Jew and the Gentile,” but also the “infidel.” Though Madison’s account of religion in the public sphere prevailed for at least a century, Jefferson’s radical tolerance remained latent. America was founded not religiously, and certainly not secularly, but rather ambiguously.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Jeffersonian secularism had emerged from the margins of the American political culture. For the first time, critics of religion founded newspapers and societies, and they advocated overturning anti-atheist legislation, reducing governmental support for religion, and secularizing American politics. In Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation, Leigh Eric Schmidt tells the story of these unbelievers (who also went by “infidels,” “atheists,” “secularists,” “freethinkers,” and other names) through extended portraits of four “public atheists,” who “built infidel personas of far-flung notoriety upon their religious ruptures.” Through these accounts, Schmidt intends to give us a popular, social history of American atheism, one that tells stories of local, concrete fights over religion and the public sphere, rather than a grand history of ideas about belief and disbelief. Moreover, Schmidt complicates clear-cut characterizations of American religious history as defined by either “Protestant hegemony” or “secular inevitability.” Atheists, Schmidt thinks, have long been a vocal minority in America, their relations with the dominant Protestant culture defined by consistent, unresolved antagonism, unexpected ideological affinities and interdependencies, and the back-and-forth movement of individuals between atheism and belief.
To explore the permeable boundaries between liberal Protestantism and atheism, Schmidt turns to the life of Samuel Porter Putnam. The son of a strict Calvinist preacher, Putnam was ordained as a Congregational minister in 1868, before eventually becoming a freethinking lecturer and author of such pamphlets as Religion a Curse, Religion a Disease, Religion a Lie. Putnam later styled himself as “the secular Pilgrim,” who journeyed, in an atheist parody of John Bunyan’s Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress, from religious illusion to secular enlightenment. As Schmidt notes, his pilgrimage thus drew its basic plot from the Christianity it was rejecting. When Putnam heard the great atheist orator Robert Ingersoll, he heard “the interpretation of myself, like the glory of a summer day,” that announced, “The confusion of thought and feeling [is] at an end.” In other words, he heard a secular gospel.
But as Schmidt demonstrates, Putnam’s self-described pilgrimage was a deliberate distortion of his actual life. Putnam repeatedly backslid. Not only did the atheist lecture circuit prove unprofitable, driving him to liberal, Unitarian pulpits, but well after he had rejected Christianity intellectually, he felt tempted by waves of religious emotion. He omitted this wavering from his 1891 memoirs, My Religious Experience. He omitted as well his expulsion from a Massachusetts church for espousing “marriage reform” and putting his theories into practice with a young member of his congregation. Free love threatened the atheist movement’s precarious claims to respectability, and Putnam learned to avoid the subject.
Putnam’s ideological and sexual experimentation clash logically with his desire to craft a straightforward conversion narrative. Schmidt interprets this conflict as reflecting the messy entanglement of liberal Protestantism and atheism. Though Putnam wanted to portray his faith and his disbelief as opposed, in fact they were hard to disentangle. But I think they underscore as well the impossibility of genuine atheist pilgrimage. Christian conversion narratives accommodate and even expect backsliding. The flesh, after all, is weak. Books like Bunyan’s autobiographical Grace Abounding or Augustine’s Confessions are full of reversals, which indeed provide evidence of human frailty and thus bolster the narrative. By contrast, Putnam’s wavering threatened his claim that atheism represented a clear, indisputable rational truth; absent a doctrine of original sin, such weakness has to be expunged. Moreover, atheism in his day was torn between the abolition of churches—a radicalism that would encourage free-flowing personal change and render impossible the safe teleology of pilgrimage—and the desire to erect a single, standard community of “Enlightened” unbelievers. Putnam preached the latter atheism, but he practiced the former.
While conversion narratives had to be awkwardly borrowed from Christians, satirical cartoons were an art-form uniquely suited to desecration. To be sure, as Schmidt’s chapter on the poor but prolific cartoonist Watson Heston notes, evangelical Christians pioneered the religious use of comic books and religious cartoons. But Heston, who started drawing in 1884, quickly crafted an irreverent new iconography. An early example, titled “The Modern Balaam,” shows a mitered cleric riding and scourging “the people,” and blocked by the angel, Reason. Whereas Putnam reached for the central Christian plot of individual salvation, Heston exploited a marginal moment of Pentateuchal satire. Applied to religious questions, as Schmidt suggests, humor proved inherently “desacralizing,” since it deflated ideals and substituted vulgar materiality.
Schmidt uses Heston to explore the ambiguous politics of atheism. As Heston mocked powerful churches and the American religious consensus, he often punched down. While some cartoons grouped freethinkers with Jews and Mormons, or portrayed how (he thought) Christianity oppresses women or African Americans, just as often, the Old Testament was mocked as Jewish, Mormon polygamy as a barbarity, and religion itself as effeminizing and womanish. More profoundly, the profusion of sinister miters in his cartoons betrays the Protestant roots of his atheism. Many of his critiques of ritual, magic, and superstition drew on deep American suspicions about Popery.
While Heston’s arguments were derivative, he pioneered a caustic, disenchanting humor. When he represents priests and parsons as oinking pigs gathered at the bedside of the dying freethinker, his point is less to argue that clergy are parasites than to strip them of their dignity. Enthusiastic letters praised Heston’s “honest bluntness,” which permitted beleaguered and socially isolated atheists across America to indulge in some old-fashioned ressentiment. The cartoon, as well as his self-taught draftsmanship, pushed Heston toward caricature and crudity, but these also implicitly advanced his materialism more compellingly than his familiar arguments. His cartoons depict a world so nasty, venial, and ridiculous that it has no place for religious ideals.
The other chapters of Schmidt’s book provide similarly rich, textured accounts of key atheists’ lives and works. Schmidt is at his best in drawing out social history from the fine details of biography. He instinctively complicates and nuances, and he has a sharp eye for the contradictions between Putnam’s real and reported lives, or the tensions in Heston’s comics between sympathy for the downtrodden and ridicule of them. But by the same token, no broad theory or sharp thesis animates Village Atheists. Surveying the centuries-long battle between the Madisonian majority and the Jeffersonian dissent, Schmidt’s analysis basically boils down to: It’s complicated.
Indeed, his epilogue, which traces the path of “village atheists” in the twentieth century and makes the book’s major controversial causal claim, is the one moment in which his usually precise historical sense slips. After reviewing the apparent collapse of the freethinking movement after 1900, Schmidt turns to the post-war shift in Supreme Court jurisprudence: the rejection of blasphemy laws, limits on the school-supported study of religion, and the overturning of theistic requirements for public office or jury service. Schmidt understands this shift as the logical continuation of the history he has been telling: “Through a long drawn-out process of secularist activism, a tiny minority of atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers had managed to gain explicit judicial acknowledgement.”
The trouble here is that, as social scientists say, you cannot explain a variable by reference to a constant. Atheists had been petitioning courts for half a century before the courts started paying any attention. What changed? In part, as Noah Feldman’s Divided By God suggests, the “legal secularism” of the Warren Court emerged precisely because of the failure of a secularist program for the broader culture. As Schmidt concedes, the first decades of the twentieth century witnessed the institutional collapse of atheism. Further, as the Cold War began, Christianity was unquestionably in control of American culture, so much so that religious organizations initially felt unthreatened by the new Supreme Court decisions. The newly weak status of atheists changed how the Court saw them. Instead of imagining atheists as a vanguard, legal secularism imagined them as a beleaguered, harmless minority, like Jews. After the Holocaust, and in view of the cultural hegemony of Christianity during the early Cold War, the Court saw itself as bound to protect minorities. To explain the success of the secularist challenge to religious America, we need to understand social changes and movements far larger than a few village atheists.
Raphael Magarik is a Ph.D. candidate in English literature at the University of California, Berkeley.