There was a time in our nation’s history when “village atheist” was a term of endearment. It introduced a note of affection for the vocal unbelievers in our midst. In 1943, Time magazine referred to the journalist H. L. Mencken, of Scopes Monkey Trial fame, as America’s “outstanding village atheist.”

Still, the term quietly conceded that flat-out unbelievers have historically been a rare breed in the United States—so rare that you were likely to find only one in any given community. In America, it takes a village to raise just one atheist. Even today, just 3.1 percent of Americans identify as such, according to Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study.

When a village did manage to raise an atheist, it was almost always a boy. In his lively, informative study, Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation (Princeton University Press), historian Leigh Eric Schmidt includes a chapter on Elmina Drake Slenker, a 19th-century woman from Upstate New York. Many readers today disapprove of books solely about men, but organized atheism hasn’t always been terribly concerned with gender parity. Slenker confessed that every place she went, she was the first woman atheist anyone there had ever seen. When the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism (4As) surveyed its membership in 1930, it was 93 percent male.

Churches, by contrast, have been a model of balance, with women even outnumbering men in terms of membership. So it is ironic that one of the traditional ways that atheists attacked Christianity was for allegedly being anti-women. When 4As founder Charles Lee Smith debated evangelist and Foursquare Church founder Aimee Semple McPherson, one wonders whether he noticed that only the Christian camp could boast a prominent female leader. The freethinking newspaper The Truth Seeker was officially in favor of women’s rights, but its editors would sometimes let down their guard, admitting that they actually dreaded women getting the vote because that would mean more Christian political influence.

Why Women Stayed Away

Schmidt, professor at the John C. Danforth Center of Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis, does not focus on the question of why atheism alienates women. But a few answers suggest themselves in his accounts of various key figures. First, it was clear enough for those with eyes to see that defying the community’s religious values often came with defying its sexual standards.

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The first chapter is on Samuel Porter Putnam, author of the encyclopedic 400 Years of Freethought (1894). Putnam tried to conceal his real reasons for leaving the pastorate. Although he had been attracted to freethought for much of his adult life, his rejection of faith was less a heroic quest for truth than a smokescreen for abandoning his wife and children to chase after a young woman in his congregation. Despite “hypocrisy” being another standard charge against Christians, Putnam himself opted for “free love” in practice but wouldn’t dare defend it in theory. He would habitually lie about whether a woman he was with was his wife. Even the editor of the Free Thought Magazine was disgusted to learn that Putnam had died at age 58 while alone with a 20-year-old woman in her hotel room.

Slenker herself was no exception when it came to defying moral standards. She decided that the best way to liberate sexual discussions was to use “short, emphatic, clear” words. This led her to adopt the foulest slang terms in the English language, what a century later were famously described as “Seven Words You Can Never Say on TV.” Slenker went so far as to suggest that bestiality might be an acceptable way for women to get their sexual needs met. Nevertheless, her efforts often paralleled the propaganda techniques of evangelicals. She even wrote dreary, didactic novels. Anyone interested in reading The Darwins: A Domestic Radical Romance (1879)?

The second reason women might have avoided the atheist movement was its aggressive, bitter tone. Schmidt’s second chapter is on the cartoonist Watson Heston. Atheists relished his coarse attacks on Christianity. They extolled Heston for making as great a contribution to the human race as Galileo or Newton. They fantasized about building a monument to his glory greater than any cathedral. They named their sons after him, sealing them with a kind of baptism of unbelief. The cartoons strengthened their fledgling lack of faith: “Seeing was disbelieving.”

Schmidt suggests convincingly that for many of these men, the need to earn a living weighed against publicly expressing their own skeptical thoughts. Therefore, they took vicarious pleasure in unmeasured attacks upon faith. Heston presented the cross as “a piece of worthless theological driftwood” that could not save someone from drowning. A man who would never dare to make such a comment to his boss or customers might snicker all the louder at home.

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Heston’s work was fraught with ironies. The cartoons had the power only to offend, not to persuade. But freethinkers who prided themselves on rationalism evidently preferred emotive images to reasoned argument (the very charge they made against Roman Catholics). They even asserted that cartoons were a superior medium because the age was too “fast” for reading. They apparently had forgotten all the humble Christians reading through the Bible without much trouble.

One has to get up close to experience just how bitter the early US atheist movement was. Some freethinkers developed their own, secular calendar to separate the counting of years from the birth of Christ. Instead, they marked the years from the execution (in 1600) of Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno by the Inquisition—an attempt to inscribe resentment, rather than celebration, into the fabric of time. The 4As actually lobbied Congress for an official holiday called “Blamegiving Day.” Given a choice between Thanksgiving and Blamegiving, it’s no wonder that most Americans opted for faith over atheism.

Threats and Mobs

Some of this bitterness, however, is on the heads of Christians for treating unbelievers unjustly. Schmidt demonstrates convincingly that “obscenity” was often a trumped-up charge used to prosecute people for promoting atheism. Likewise, the “blasphemy” tag might get pinned on unbelievers who merely expressed their convictions. The most sympathetic figure profiled is Charles B. Reynolds, a Seventh-day Adventist preacher who became an atheist. Reynolds traveled across 19th-century America as a tent evangelist for unbelief, declaring his own views in the face of threats, mobs, and travesties of law. If Christians want to find lessons in this book, one of them is the categorical wrongness of treating your nonbelieving neighbors this way.

There are grace notes even on this front, however. Unlike Europe (not to mention the Middle East), the United States has never executed someone for blasphemy. Despite being a professional anti-Christian provocateur, the cartoonist Heston was never even brought before the law, let alone harmed in any way by vigilantes. (By contrast, in our own century we have seen cartoonists in Denmark and France murdered for depicting Muhammad.)

The merchant Edward Ross caused grave offense in his hometown of Montezuma, New York, for sponsoring one of Reynolds’s atheist campaigns there. Yet when Ross’s infant child died one week after he had thrown the town into polemical agitation, Christians did not gloat about God’s supposed judgment. Instead, the Baptists offered their church as a venue for a proper freethinking funeral. The church’s choir volunteered to sing at the service, allowing the Ross family to select the secular songs that they found most comforting. One hopes that every village atheist would be met by a village church like that one.

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Timothy Larsen is McManis Professor o f Christian Thought at Wheaton College. His books include Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth-Century England (Oxford University Press).

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Village Atheists: How America's Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation
Our Rating
4 Stars - Excellent
Book Title
Village Atheists: How America's Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation
Princeton University Press
Release Date
October 4, 2016
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