Agnostic Monuments and Other Forms of Secular Commemoration


As Washington University-St. Louis religion professor Leigh Eric Schmidt points out, religion, patriotism, and lost causes are not the only things people in America commemorate.

Here is a taste of his Aeon piece, “Monuments to Unbelief

Materialising secularism, giving it ritual shape and monumental expression, has picked up again as the ‘new atheists’ – Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and company – have become bestsellers, and as the number of Americans claiming no religious affiliation has grown dramatically in the past decade and a half. Defenders of scientific rationality and free enquiry have mounted new festivals such as International Darwin Day on February 12 and International Blasphemy Rights Day on September 30 to keep up the battle against superstition. This past summer, the Freedom from Religion Foundation orchestrated the dedication of a seven-foot-tall bronze statue of Clarence Darrow in Dayton, Tennessee, the site of the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925. (His anti-evolution opponent, William Jennings Bryan, had already been memorialised some years earlier with a statue outside the courthouse, but now Bryan’s likeness – thanks once more to Frudakis the sculptor – must share public space again with his infidel adversary.)

Atheists and nonbelievers have also launched new congregational ventures – most prominently, the Sunday Assembly and Oasis – in several cities across the country, and humanist chaplaincies have flowered on a number of college campuses to afford a community for openly secular students. The UK-based philosopher Alain de Botton has crystallised much of this recent ritual creativity in Religion for Atheists (2012), in which he expressly reimagines Comte’s religion of humanity for contemporary nonbelievers. Restaurants and art museums, de Botton suggests, are potential sites for humanistic liturgies of communal solidarity and unbuttoned conviviality. Whether in Sunday gatherings or funeral rites, the new secularists court temple, sacrament and monument much as the old secularists long did.

Perhaps the most successful instance of that courtship has been the Satanic Temple – a group of freethinking activists, led by the pseudonymous Lucien Greaves, which has puckishly deployed an occult statue of Baphomet to challenge a monument devoted to the Ten Commandments at the State Capitol in Oklahoma. Winning its case before the Oklahoma Supreme Court in 2015, the troupe forced state officials into the bind of removing the Decalogue or having it share space with a winged, goat-headed, pagan idol – a topsy-turvy symbol to these ‘Satanists’ of equal liberty, rational enquiry and free expression. Reluctantly, the state’s Republican leadership decided that it was better to take down the Ten Commandments than to make room for such sacrilege. Deprived of a space in Oklahoma’s public square, the statue of Baphomet went instead to Michigan where it has been installed as the showpiece of Detroit’s chapter of the Satanic Temple, the latest US monument to blasphemy, infidelity and strict church-state separation.

Read the entire piece here

A Secular Thanksgiving?

villageatheistsLeigh Eric Schmidt, the author of the recent Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation, turns to the pages of The Atlantic to remind us that the religious nature of Thanksgiving has long been a contested one.

Here is a taste of his piece “Thanksgiving, a Celebration of Inequality“:

To secularists, that holiday, sanctified by the story of the Pilgrims and by solemn invocations of divine blessing, was definitely worth fighting over. As one freethought editorial proclaimed in 1889, “We hope to live long enough to see a purely human thanksgiving day, with no hint of God in it, with no religious meaning ascribed to it.”

The debate over what tone presidents should set with their Thanksgiving proclamations was as old as the nation itself. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had famously split over the issuing of such civic religious pronouncements during their presidencies (Adams assented; Jefferson refused). But the conflict escalated during and after the Civil War, as the holiday was promoted as a national rite of reconciliation and patriotic concord. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln had proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving in language replete with religious allusion, imagining the Union under the “the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God” and imploring “the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation.”

Freethinkers and secularists—a small but vocal and vigilant minority—watched with disappointment as American presidents thereafter made an annual routine of such exhortations, effectively fusing Thanksgiving with the politics of religious nationalism. “The American people,” President Grover Cleveland typically intoned in 1885, “have always abundant cause to be thankful to Almighty God, whose watchful care and guiding hand have been manifested in every stage of their national life.” He encouraged all citizens to assemble in their respective houses of worship for prayers and hymns in order to give thanks to the Lord for the nation’s innumerable bounties.

Liberal secularists could not stand to let this recurring presidential call for devotion go unchallenged. It fundamentally violated their sense of strict church-state separation—they believed that elected representatives, from presidents to governors to mayors, should not be in the business of enjoining religious observance upon Americans. They maintained that the government should not elevate believers over nonbelievers, whether by employing state-funded chaplains, granting tax exemptions to churches, inscribing “In God We Trust” on coinage, instating bans on buying liquor on Sundays, establishing religious tests for public office-holding, or by sanctifying fast and thanksgiving days. To these secularists, all the ways, big and small, in which the government signaled preference for a Protestant Christian nation over a secular republic had to be combatted.

Freethinkers, as the irreligious editors of the Boston Investigator explained, wanted instead “eternal separation” between church and state, a breaking of all the “politico-theological combinations” that they saw sullying American public life. They wanted, in short, the full secularization of the state. Hence Thanksgiving was, to them, nonnegotiable: “If ministers desire a religious festival, let them appoint it in their churches,” the Investigator further editorialized. The president had “no constitutional right” to set apart a sacred celebration and entwine good citizenship with ecclesial supplication.

Read the entire piece here.


The Author’s Corner with Leigh Eric Schmidt

villageatheists.gifLeigh 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!