Village Atheists and Their Fight for Religious Liberty

G. K. Chesterton’s delightful novel The Ball and the Cross begins with a Christian man visiting London for the first time. When he walks down Fleet Street, the center of the then-known publishing world, he comes to a full stop in front of the newspaper office of “The Atheist.” After reading the blasphemous headlines posted in the picture window, he promptly throws his walking stick through the glass, hurls himself inside, jumps on top of the editor’s desk, and demands an old-fashioned duel.

Most of the novel is about these two men trying to find a nice peaceful place to kill each other. Chesterton ends the story with the couple locked up in an insane asylum. His paradoxical point seems to be that these two extremists are the most sensible people on the planet, because they’re most aware of the implications of their view of reality.

The Ball and the Cross in America

Though Chesterton’s story is set in England, his title is a fitting description of Leigh Eric Schmidt’s recent work Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation. Our nation’s founding fathers either believed in the cross or were at least willing to entertain the sort of values necessarily associated with it. Those who saw the cosmos as an end unto itself—the ball—have held a minority position throughout our nation’s history. As Schmidt shows, the relationship between the believing majority and the unbelieving minority is marked by “recurring friction and negotiation.”

Schmidt traces this conflict back to America’s founding: “The number of unbelievers was not inconsequential then—just as it is not inconsequential now.” But though present from the beginning, atheist voices were muted, often forcibly so. In American colonial life, blasphemy was not only looked down upon, but was the target of fierce punishment like “public whipping, tongue-boring, and imprisonment.”

Grassroots Atheism

If you care about religious liberty, this is a story you should familiarize yourself with. Village Atheists is really a religious liberty narrative told from the perspective of grassroots atheists. It’s a survey of “that charged terrain that atheists and unbelievers have long occupied between tolerance and intolerance, civility and incivility, equal and unequal citizenship in American culture.” It’s a profile of atheists in our country who fought for religious liberty on behalf of the irreligious.

This is really a religious liberty narrative told from the perspective of grassroots atheists.

Schmidt, a humanities professor at Washington University, performs a historical survey centered on atheism in the 19th century. He’s more concerned with telling the story of the individuals who challenged and shaped popular culture—the village atheists—rather than focusing on academic or literary elites.

Schmidt outlines how the cultural condescension toward the village atheists began to shift and even soften as the nation moved closer to Civil War. The term “village atheist” slowly moved from one of disgust to one of nostalgia. Schmidt cites the example from 1838 when Ralph Waldo Emerson described the “bold village blasphemer” as one who sees “fear in the face, form, and gait, of the minister.” This transition was marked and accelerated by the publication and popular reception of Charles Darwin’s famous Origins in 1859, the year before the war began.

Golden Age of Freethought

Toward the end of the 19th century there had been a “change in popular beliefs” that Schmidt describes as “greater and more radical” than most recognize. This transition developed into the “Golden Age of Freethought,” the focal era of Schmidt’s work. He organizes the period around four biographical sketches: Samuel Porter Putnam (1838–1896), Charles B. Reynolds (1832–1896), Watson Heston (1846–1905), and Elmina Slenker (1827–1908).

These village atheists used rhetoric, popular literature, and satire to champion the rights of unbelievers. They sought to convince the nation that “the conscience of the ethical humanist counted as much as the conscience of a peaceable Christian.” Their work proved successful. Schmidt points to the message on the cover of the 1966 Time issue—“Is God Dead?”—as evidence that “atheism, existentialism, and humanistic secularism had become serious countercultural alternatives.”

That’s why it’s an oversimplification to describe the village atheist campaign as only concerned with religious liberty. They wanted equality, but they aimed for more than simple social acceptance. They were out to persuade, to establish atheism as a legitimate option. Finding ways to inform and influence the shifting cultural perception was paramount.

Prequel to the New Atheism

Of course, all these changes converged years later on the tragic and fateful day of September 11, 2001. A new brand of atheism emerged from the ashes, a movement known as the new atheism, led by individuals who saw religion as the source of all cultural evil. Though this contemporary brand of atheism is more top-down than the 19th-century atheism Schmidt describes, it too has left an undeniable mark on the culture’s perception of the plausibility of religious belief.

A helpful book in understanding this newer movement is The New Atheist Novel: Fiction, Philosophy and Polemic after 9/11, co-written by a Christian and atheist author. Schmitd’s book Village Atheists is the prequel.

As someone who has tried to keep up with a book market that has been saturated with new atheist authors over the last decade, an academic treatment of the historical roots of unbelief in America is a helpful resource.

Understanding, Empathy, and Asylum

I recommend Village Atheists for anyone looking to better understand the history of atheism in America. The introduction and conclusion of the book alone are worth the price of purchase. You can selectively navigate the biographies that compose the body of the book based on your level of interest.

Beyond getting a better understanding, I hope this work gives you a deeper empathy for those around you who simply find it impossible to believe. Unbelievers have had a challenging history in our nation. They’ve had to fight for the right not to believe. In fact, there are still states in America where atheists are banned from holding public office. Their fight isn’t over yet.

In our secular age perhaps Christians and atheists will share a plot of peculiar common ground. It might even be found in an asylum. As G. K. Chesterton observed, the world will think anyone mad who takes his or her worldview seriously—be it the ball or the cross. “It is still bad taste to be an avowed atheist,” Chesterton once remarked. “Now it is equally bad taste to be an avowed Christian.”


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