REVIEW: Leigh Eric Schmidt, Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation

Disclaimer: Leigh Eric Schmidt may be my favorite historian of American religion. His Hearing Things opened my eyes to new methods of scholarly investigation, and his Heaven’s Bride is the perfect blend of analytical rigor and narrative grasp. (His other books are quite good, too.) So of course I was predisposed to like his latest offering, Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation (Princeton UP). And I was not disappointed. Schmidt’s true gift is in taking seemingly marginal and odd case studies and unveiling how they actually reveal much about American religious culture writ large. In Village Atheists, he demonstrates how the battle over what he calls “irreligious freedom” tells us a lot concerning society, belief, and belonging. It’s a fascinating tale with important lessons. And it’s got lots of pictures!

While there are portions of the book that swing as far back to John Locke and as far forward as the 1950s, the vast bulk of the monograph focuses on the second half of the nineteenth century. This is the period, Schmidt explains, when the image of the “village atheists” entered the scene. Originally a derisive term, it soon became a label of choice for a somewhat endearing—if still perplexing—population. Quixotic, non-conformist, and independent, the village atheist was someone who commanded respect, if not acceptance. These were not the militant threats of the French Enlightenment. Indeed, Schmidt hones in on the label because it captures what he calls “the quotidian qualities of American unbelief”: the saga of American irreligion as played out at the local level, instead of merely amongst educated elite (17). We are familiar with the philosophical debates and high-brow intellectual history, but how was atheism experienced in America’s heartland?

Rather than an exhaustive narrative, Village Atheists is a collection of short biographies. Samuel Putnam, the son of a Congregationalist minister, provides a “Puritan counternarrative”: his spiritual journey included moves from Congregationalism to Transcendentalism to Unitarianism and then to atheism, often with moments of backtracking and reversals. Putnam even had moments of sexual experimentation which challenged the boundaries of his new free thought circles. Elma Drake Slenker, the focus of a later chapter, also demonstrated the close relationship between the atheist imagination and perceived immoral conduct, as she was arrested for distributing “obscene” literature regarding marriage and sex. (All tethered to her sketchy identity as a materialist infidel, of course.) Slenker’s tale is an excellent addition to the corpus because it adds dimensions of gender to the small atheist village. Similarly, New Jersey Adventist minister-turned-secularist Charles Reynolds’s story exemplifies the evolving understanding of and legal protections for blasphemy, as his high-profile tangle with Robert Ingersoll was the climax of a long development worthy of consideration. But for me, the real star of the show is Watson Heston, a Missouri cartoonist who skewered Christianity through his provocative political images and tested the boundaries of toleration, obscenity, and irreverence. The chapter on Heston really strikes at the heart of cultural, political, and philosophical debates concerning irreligious freedom and ethics, as his combative sketches clashed with the basic fact that he lived amongst those he was chastising. And Village Atheists reproduces around fifty of Heston’s cartoons, which entertainingly supplement Schmidt’s witty analysis. 

There are downsides to this organizational approach of individual biographies. Focusing on a small number of case studies makes it difficult to gauge the impact and representative nature of their stories. Schmidt is, of course, careful about drawing conclusions that are too large for his source base, but readers who will want a more exhaustive and systematic overview of atheism’s entrance into American culture will only get part of the story here. But what *is* offered in this book is quite incisive and significant. I plan to use individual chapters in my American religions course in order to help students grasp the declining nature of the Protestant majority during the progressive era, as well as to grapple with the intricacies of religious freedom and disestablishment. In many ways, I see this book as a complementary project to Schmidt’s Ira Craddock biography in addressing these themes. (Anthony Comstock is a recurring figure in both books.) Perhaps if we bribed him with enough money, Schmidt’s next major project could blend the overall narrative together and cover the Twilight of Christian America. 

But Village Arheists makes other sophisticated points about religion and society besides this general overview of the decline of Protestant dominance. One is a very experience-based view of the secular and spiritual in American history. Secularism, in Schmidt’s hands, is not a zero-sum game. Religion doesn’t wane at the expense of secularism’s rise, nor does the latter face full extinction in the former’s wishes. Rather, they are “relationships of tangled complexity, fluctuating rivalry, and constitutive mutuality” (21). Not only have they learned to live together, but in important ways they can’t function without each other. It is tempting to trace a teleological trajectory of one sphere’s triumph, but the job of the historian is to tease out what the uneasy and poignant intersections tell us about the cultural context in which these conversations took place. Even in the epilogue, where Schmidt outlines the legal battles in the mid-twentieth century, victories were less total domination and more begrudging compromise. While there are certainly loud antagonists on either side of this long trajectory (your Richard Dawkins atheists and fundamentalist evangelicals), the real story is everyone between those poles on the spectrum who are trying to develop a workable middle ground between religion and irreligion. 

Which leads me to a broader lesson about American society that kept coming to my mind while reading Village Atheists. The story of irreligious freedom is the story of religious toleration; that is, it is a story about how communities carve out space for the “other.” There were plenty of conflicts, but the thing about “village atheists” is that they often live in a village, which forces both them and their neighbors to develop a working relationship. They debate belief and unbelief, yes, but they also move from intolerance to tolerance. This story, Schmidt explains is more “recurrent friction and negotiation” than it is about theological war. This isn’t a narrative of militant invasion as it is reluctant cooperation. And for obvious reasons, that’s a story many of us in America could really use right now. 

(A quick note on the physical presentation of the book: it’s gorgeous. The cover’s image is playful and provocative, and its font, which captures the jovial yet earnest spirit of the village atheist, is replicated throughout the text. The style, prose, and packaging of this story, coupled with its sixty(!) images, make it a delightful read. Kudos to Princeton University Press.)

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