Leigh Eric Schmidt is Edward C. Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor in the Humanities at Washington University. This interview is based on his new book, Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation (Princeton University Press, 2016).
JF: What led you to write Village Atheists?
LS: The question of how religious belief has been used to define the rights, limits, and norms of American citizenship pulled me in initially. In what ways were the irreligious marked out as deficient? Were they to be barred from holding offices of public trust or from serving as witnesses in court? Was liberty of conscience a preserve for the devout that excluded the ungodly? Did religious freedom include irreligious freedom? Did it include a right to blaspheme and ridicule Christianity? I wanted to see how those questions looked on the ground in the everyday lives of American atheists and unbelievers, to see them as more than abstract legal and political debates but as rough conflicts in which social antagonism and moral outrage ran high. I also wanted to see how those issues shifted over the long haul, how a principle of neutrality—that the state was to treat the religious and irreligious in equal terms—ultimately came into the ascendancy, however disputed that principle remained and however despised atheism continued to be in America’s God-trusting culture.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Village Atheists?
LS: Histories of modern atheism have often kept Christianity at the center of the story, emphasizing the ways in which well-intended theologians abetted unbelief through a series of philosophical, ethical, and naturalistic compromises—in effect, a history of atheism without atheists. By contrast, I put the emphasis squarely on the infidels and freethinkers who created a lively and assertive secularist minority—one that was in no danger of defining the age in exclusively secular or humanistic terms, but one that nonetheless effectively pressed the case for equal rights and liberties for unbelievers.
JF: Why do we need to read Village Atheists?
LS: Those who are interested in American religious history would do well, I think, to attend more to the nation’s irreligious history. Certainly, the back-and-forth between evangelical Protestants and freethinking secularists has been an especially defining struggle. Diehard combatants, to be sure, the two camps are also inseparable partners in a whole series of long-running debates—about God’s existence, about evil, about Darwinian naturalism, about the relationship between religion and the state, about free speech and blasphemy, about the Bible. On one issue after another, it is very hard to study America’s God without studying those who were fervently devoted to undoing that God’s sway over the republic.
At the same time, the book pictures the relationship between religion and irreligion as more than one of only an out-an-out war. Samuel Porter Putnam, one of the figures I concentrate on, tried in the 1890s to write his own comprehensive history of American unbelief. He had about a thousand pages to work with and included dozens upon dozens of biographical profiles of American atheists and freethinkers. And predictably when the reviews came in, most wondered why he had left out one person or another, why he had made the selections he had made. Having himself painfully left the Congregational and Unitarian ministries, he had simply refused to include certain figures when they did not fit his model of the hard-and-fast, wholly converted atheist. He wanted materialist purity for the movement, but I found myself far more interested in the impurity—the times when an infidel lecturer made peace with a Baptist congregation to conduct a funeral or when a golden-boy atheist decided to become a spiritualist and start an occult journal. I wanted to understand the conflicted experiences of an infidel lecturer or a disaffected teacher as they engaged—civilly and uncivilly—their more devout compatriots. I wanted to see the moments of mutual recognition and civic acceptance, alongside the occasions of rioting and book-burning. The former were finally a lot more common than the latter.
It is also important to me that scholarship be readable and publicly engaging. I want to tell good, character-driven stories, so I would hope that the book would be worth reading because it is actually enjoyable to read. I worked to identify colorful characters with complex lives who embodied crucial aspects of American secularist experience. Samuel Putnam stands for the gradual attenuation of the Puritan and evangelical Calvinist inheritance, the creation of an expressly secular identity in opposition to the Protestant model of the pilgrim soul. Watson Heston evokes the power of cartooning and satire within atheist ranks, the urge to ridicule Christianity and the Bible and to offend the devout. Heston’s pugnacious art (he created well over 1000 irreligious cartoons between 1885 and 1900) is a window into an issue that very much remains a life-and-death question. One need only call to mind the global controversy over the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad or the tragedy of Charlie Hebdo.
In turn, another figure I explore, Elmina Slenker, raises the larger question of how atheist dissent related to sexual politics—to ideas about marriage reform, women’s rights, and reproductive control. Atheism and freethought could produce progressive views on gender and sexuality, but they could also reinforce a masculinist culture of bravado and aggression in which women were dismissed for their sentimental piety. Slenker embodied all of those dilemmas and challenges as a self-avowed “woman atheist.” The same quandaries had already been faced by Ernestine Rose, a secular Jewish atheist and a role model for Slenker. Likewise, the racial politics surrounding David Cincore, promoted for a time as “the colored Bob Ingersoll,” reveals how deeply engrained the white male prototype was for enlightened secularism.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
LS: It was in college, especially through the examples of Edwin Gaustad and Robert Hine, both of whom made it abundantly clear to me the demands involved in producing artful historical prose. Both had a keen eye for American dissenters and utopians, and Ed especially trafficked at the same intersections that most captured my curiosity, those of religion and history.
JF: What is your next project?
It’s a little early to say, but I remain drawn to questions that swirl around the relationship between Christianity and secularism, including the efforts of nonbelievers to create humanistic community and ritual out of the ruins of religion. These could merely be loose ends from Village Atheists that I will eventually let go, but I have a series of stories about agnostic brotherhoods, humanist churches, atheist towns, and freethinking liturgists that I continue to ponder.
JF: Thanks, Leigh!