Atheists in the Pantheon

Atheists, infidels, unbelievers. Humanists, materialists, naturalists. There are a lot of terms for the nonreligious, and many only tell us what people don’t believe. But what do nonbelievers ...
Two Heston Two Ways to Go

Atheists, infidels, unbelievers. Humanists, materialists, naturalists. There are a lot of terms for the nonreligious, and many only tell us what people don’t believe. But what do nonbelievers actually believe? This is a tough question. The first three terms don’t help much because they all negate. They deny the reality of a Christian deity, and they announce a lack of faith in what Christians believe. The second set of terms names a positive presence, but these labels are less popular, and their meanings can be obscure. They make claims about human agency, the composition of the universe, and the natural laws that restrict what’s possible in a material world. They tell us about some of the things that nonbelievers actually believe.

Focusing on what individuals believe is probably a pretty Christian thing to do. Scholars of religion associate this belief-centered perspective with Protestants, who tend not to emphasize rituals or icons and who often denigrate the physical senses. But in the English-speaking world, at this point in the 21st century, what a person believes has become nearly synonymous with what religion a person is. So even if people believe in things, if they don’t believe in religious things, they might as well be called nonbelievers—right?

There’s a lot at stake in the answer to this question. It signals what kind of people nonbelievers are, and it shapes how we try to learn about them. Do they believe in their way of seeing the world, or are they merely naysayers? Is their identity positive, or is it negative? If it’s negative, then nonbelievers live in the shadow of religion. Their beliefs are leftovers—the scraps that remain after religious beliefs are proven wrong.

If their identity is positive, then we need to answer some more questions. What ideas do nonbelievers share? Where do these ideas come from? How far back can we trace them, and do they constitute a tradition? If nonbelievers share positive beliefs and have a positive identity, they step out from religion’s shadow and occupy a space of their own. We can begin to trace the outline of that space and understand where it came from. When we see nonbelievers this way, they become more than mere naysayers. They begin to seem like a minority of believers.

Leigh Eric Schmidt, the eminent historian of American religious liberalism, has published what is now the best history of nonbelievers in the United States. Entitled Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation, the book rewards a careful read. In four biographical sketches, Schmidt recovers four 19th-century nonbelievers of varying importance. Observing rightly that most histories of atheism have focused on the ideas of intellectual elites, Schmidt has uncovered “the quotidian qualities of American unbelief,” and aimed for “the grassroots” rather than the “universities and literary bohemias.”

Schmidt describes the family lives that shaped these nonbelievers and the hardships they faced for avowing atheism. Though relatively few in number, 19th-century nonbelievers were diffuse, and there seemed to have been at least one or two in every county. These “village atheists,” as Schmidt calls them, were a persistent thorn in the side of America’s Christians.

Schmidt’s first chapter focuses on Samuel Porter Putnam, the best known and most influential of the four. Putnam was an itinerant lecturer and one-time president of the American Secular Union, as well as editor of a freethought journal and the author of many books and pamphlets. Raised in an evangelical Calvinist home, Putnam’s religious exploration led him out of the Congregational Church of his youth and into its liberal offshoot, Unitarianism. Later, Putnam joined with the Unitarians who espoused Free Religion, a name for the right to pursue any and all religions at once. Though he explored Buddhism, Theosophy, and Spinozan pantheism, he eventually settled on scientific materialism, making him an atheist. For Schmidt, Putnam is the quintessential “secular pilgrim,” whose spiritual peregrinations led him down “The Freethought Road” and away from religious faith.

Well-traveled, well-read, and well-spoken, Putnam makes for an odd sort of “village atheist.” Better fits are the subjects of Schmidt’s second and third chapters: the cartoonist Watson Heston and the freethought lecturer Charles B. Reynolds. Populist and pulling few punches, Heston’s illustrations “made secularism visible” while taking aim at evangelical preachers like Dwight Moody and moral enforcers like Anthony Comstock. Picking so many fights took its toll on Heston, and he died in poverty in 1905 after a decade of illness.

Clever and skillfully drawn, Heston’s cartoons established an unlikely iconography for organized atheists, who still today favor iconoclasm and avoid decoration. Schmidt’s analysis of these cartoons is deeply insightful. Their visual polemics addressed nearly all of the issues that concerned late 19th-century secularists, and they provide Schmidt with grist for discussing everything from slavery and antisemitism to chaplains in the military.

What ideas do nonbelievers share? Where do these ideas come from?

In Charles B. Reynolds, the subject of the third chapter, Schmidt finds “a back-and-forth exchange” between Christianity and secularism. Reynolds’s early life as a traveling preacher for the Seventh-day Adventist Church inspired him to purchase a meeting tent for holding lectures on the freethought circuit. His experiences in an oft-persecuted Christian tradition also prepared him for the travails of being an itinerant freethought “preacher,” and he continued to preach against alcohol long after abandoning the Bible as a moral authority. Unlike Putnam, who followed a more linear path to freethought and free love, Reynolds held on to Christian ethics and aesthetics even as he disavowed its God.

Elmina Drake Slenker is the subject of Schmidt’s fourth chapter, and, like Putnam, she fits awkwardly as a “village atheist.” Raised a Quaker, as an adult she followed her father out of the faith and eventually adopted an intellectually robust materialism. A novelist, children’s book author, and essayist, Slenker exchanged ideas with a wide range of late 19th-century progressive reformers. She fell into Comstock’s crosshairs for obscenity—despite being a teetotaler and committed monogamist—because she advocated for frank discussion of sex as a way to promote sexual health and women’s equality. Identifying as a “woman-Atheist” by the age of 28, Slenker walked a lonely path until late in her life, when more women became leaders in the freethought movement.

Schmidt’s final chapter is an epilogue that explains how American secularism grew from a 19th-century fringe movement to its present-day efflorescence, in which roughly a quarter of Americans claim no religious affiliation. This lengthy coda is a welcome addition that makes the book a more complete history and more relevant for contemporary readers. It also builds important scaffolding for the historians who will hopefully soon tell the story of 20th-century nonbelief in the United States.

Schmidt’s prose is lucid and often clever, the biographies he’s written are engaging, and his archival research is especially valuable for having mined outside the metropoles. James Turner’s Without God, Without Creed remains useful for its sweep, if not its Hegelian thesis; and since its publication in 2004, secular activist Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers has been the most valuable history of American nonbelief.1 But Schmidt’s Village Atheists is now the first volume I’d recommend. Within his biographical sketches, Schmidt has found ways to introduce his readers to most of the secular activists who were significant prior to WWII, making the book an excellent historical introduction.


Soft Atheism

By Matthew Engelke

It would be wrong to say that Village Atheists only presents what nonbelievers don’t believe. Schmidt’s chapter on Putnam is full of references to the ideas and authors that he encountered on his pilgrimage to scientific materialism and atheism. Schmidt’s chapter on Slenker gives us fewer clues about the tradition that shaped her journey, but traces remain. And yet, in its title and its persistent frame, Village Atheists offers an overwhelmingly negative account of nonbelievers’ beliefs and identities. Like Edwin Gaustad’s Dissent in American Religion and Martin Marty’s The Infidel, the book’s red thread is woven into the edge of a Christian fabric.2 Schmidt has followed in the footsteps of the historians who came before him, and he has given us the best history of American nonbelievers to date. Yet we can still hope for another kind of story: the positive history of nonbelievers and their tradition.

For a good example of this other story, we need only turn to the book for which Putnam is best known, 400 Years of Freethought, first published in 1894. Despite Schmidt’s claim that “village atheists” are “rarely sophisticated metaphysicians worrying over the niceties of epistemology,” Putnam proves an exception in the first half of his nearly nine-hundred-page tome. The book opens with a poem dedicated to Giordano Bruno, the 16th-century Italian atomist who revived the cosmological theories of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus and was burned at the stake for his heresy. Putnam takes a great-man approach to the development of secular thought, including major figures in the Epicurean tradition like Vanini, Spinoza, and Comte, as well as others who participated in the Enlightenment more broadly, such as Descartes, Hume, and Kant.

Greek Epicureanism developed into one of the central schools of ancient Rome, and as the historian Catherine Wilson has shown, the influence of Epicureanism on modernity is understudied yet difficult to understate.3 Pulitzer Prize–winning Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt has written a page-turning history of the Renaissance reception of the most important Epicurean text from the ancient world, Lucretius’s Latin poem, On the Nature of Things.4 The recovery of Epicureanism and its relation to nonbelief is underway, though Putnam saw it plainly enough more than a century ago.

The second half of 400 Years of Freethought mirrors Schmidt’s project, focusing on the American secularist movement and offering portraits—literally including images in addition to biographical text—of everyday freethinkers. Though he shares with Schmidt a desire to catalogue the quotidian, Putnam’s magnum opus tells a very different history of nonbelief, and it can teach us a great deal about the things that nonbelievers believe.

Christianity was never universal nor whole, and other traditions and influences persisted alongside and within that which we often call Christian.

In his introduction to American Religious Liberalism, a volume he coedited with Sally Promey, Schmidt keenly observes the presence of what he calls “spiritual-secular ambivalence” among 19th-century religious liberals.5 These liberals consumed ideas about scientific materialism as voraciously as they read about a spiritual realm beyond the limits of the material world. Fellow travelers in free thinking, it can be difficult to tell the secularists apart from the religious, because sometimes they identified as both. For Unitarians and nonbelieving Jews, this ambiguity still exists today, and it can be tough to parse the secular from the religious.

“The varieties of religious liberalism,” writes Schmidt, “do not stand apart from or in the shadows of their multiple political, economic, and freethinking cousins. Instead, the relationship between religious and secular versions of liberalism is taken to be dynamic and mutually constitutive.” Schmidt goes so far as to argue that religious liberals and avowed freethinkers should be included in the same historical narrative. He thus affords us another view of “village atheists.” Rather than mere antagonists, we can see them as a crucial part of liberal religion and handmaidens of post-Christianity.

Like Putnam, Slenker possesses a carefully constructed system of beliefs that belong to a millennia-old Epicurean tradition. Considering that she shared much of this system with liberal Christians like Octavius Brooks Frothingham and liberal Jews like Felix Adler, it’s hardly a stretch to place her right alongside if not within American liberal religion.6 Under the pen name “Aunt Elmina,” Slenker published in 1884 a children’s introduction to her tradition: Little Lessons for Little Folks.

Though Schmidt draws on the handful of passages that negate God or religion, Slenker’s book is almost entirely constructive in its outlook, encouraging children to understand themselves as animals, like monkeys, who live on an earth made from the same stuff as stars: “Nearly all animals are made of the same elements that we are, and like us are only a part of the same world—made from its elements—evolved from remote beginnings … There were only the sixty-four elements from which were evolved forms of life.”

In a short chapter on dolls, Slenker opens with a reflection on gender and taste that would fit well enough in our own century: “All little girls are supposed to love dolls, and to want one more of these little pets for their very own. Boys would love them almost, if not quite, as well as girls do, if it were only customary and fashionable for them to do so.” In the closing of the same chapter she makes no mention of the afterlife or supernatural beliefs as she reflects on the loss of her four-year-old daughter: “To-day I would give a great deal if I could take back the past and have the joy of knowing my dead baby had owned the long-wished-for doll. But none of us can read the future. All we can do is to do the best we can to-day—to make life happy and pleasant for all around us.” In simple language Slenker gives the children reading her book a positive, secular approach to grieving and the brevity of life.


Losing Their Religion

By Marah Gubar

If we take seriously the beliefs of “Aunt Elmina,” then we also ought to take seriously the ways in which they blended with Christian beliefs to produce hybrids like those found among religious liberals like Frothingham. Liberal religion need not be the source of secularism or post-Christianity, but simply one of many sites of the secular tradition’s integration into American culture. Historian Catherine Albanese has argued convincingly for the existence of the metaphysical tradition and its diverse influences on spirituality and religious liberalism.7 Like the metaphysical tradition, the Epicurean tradition—or however we choose to name it—has had a massive impact on the landscape of American religion.

An Epicurean is an atheist in the eyes of a Christian, but through their own eyes, Epicureans are more than mere negators. They rest on independent ground. Until recently, most historians of nonbelief have severed its pre-Christian roots by arguing that atheistic philosophies like materialism and naturalism developed within Christianity as a self-negation. Schmidt relies heavily on three Catholic scholars who make this argument: Michael J. Buckley, James Turner, and Charles Taylor. All three assume an unspecified time and place in European history in which the “assumption of God” was “practically universal.” Out of this universal assent arose its opposite, and in the optimistic versions of their story, Christianity will eventually reintegrate this heresy into the fold. In other words, nonbelief does not come from a tradition outside of Christianity, but from within Christianity itself. Atheists, true to their negative appellation, are merely heretics.

The devil is in the details, however. We know this universal assent never existed. Peter Gordon has offered the most eloquent takedown of Taylor’s fictional unity of the community of Christ, but I prefer the simple example that Dante Alighieri gives in his gorgeously morbid poem, the Inferno, written in the first decades of the 14th century.8 Guided by the Roman poet Virgil, walking through the sixth circle of hell, Dante encounters a close friend’s father, Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti, who has been condemned to an eternity of being buried alive in a hot stone coffin.

Dante inflicted a clever contrapasso punishment on Cavalcanti, an Epicurean atomist who believed that his soul was material and would dissipate, like his body, upon his death. Alas: in Dante’s inferno it persists. We thus have a special place in hell for Italian Epicureans at a time when Catholic historians of nonbelief find only God-believing Christians. Christianity was never universal nor whole, and other traditions and influences persisted alongside and within that which we often call Christian. Epicureanism is one of those traditions.

Most historians of nonbelief have severed its pre-Christian roots.

Intellectual historian Alan C. Kors offers a measured alternative to the story that Christianity is the source of atheism. Kors has written four volumes on the theological and philosophical debates of early modern France.9 The last two volumes were both published last summer, and they are long-awaited sequels to a landmark study on French atheism that he published in 1990. These two final books are remarkable because they solve a thorny problem in the history of nonbelief: if Epicureanism is just another intellectual tradition, then how did it become atheism par excellence? After all, everyone is always an atheist to someone else’s gods.

According to Kors, internecine battles among Christian theologians created the idea that Epicureanism was the system of thought most antithetical to Christianity and thus the opponent most in need of defeat. In this history, Christianity is not the source of atheism so much as the means by which atheism and Epicureanism became synonymous.

Kors’s contributions make it all the more important to recover a positive history of the Epicurean tradition. Schmidt’s groundbreaking and careful work on the diverse influences that have shaped American religious liberalism makes him better suited than perhaps anyone to tell the story of the Epicurean impact on American religion and freethought. Despite its merits, Village Atheists does not recover this tradition—at least not well enough. At nearly every turn, atheists and infidels are defined by their relationship with Christianity, and their ideas merely negate its central tenets. In this view, their beliefs are little more than a collage of Christianity’s detritus.

Schmidt’s research for Village Atheists is impeccable, and the negative identity he uncovers is very real—as is the vitriol with which many of these freethinkers attacked Christianity. And yet, if historians included the Epicurean tradition in their histories of nonbelief and attended to what nonbelievers do believe, it would give secular people a presence that their negative identity belies.

If we tell their story another way, nonbelievers become a very strange thing: a disavowed tradition in American thought that looks a lot like a religious tradition of its own. Nonbelievers appear to be a believing minority whose beliefs are so antithetical to the hegemonic Christian culture that they are illegible as beliefs and can only be seen as the antithesis of belief itself. Perhaps it’s time we gave atheists a place in the pantheon. icon

  1. James Turner, Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985); Susan Jacoby, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (Metropolitan, 2004).
  2. Edwin Scott Gaustad, Dissent in American Religion (University of Chicago Press, 1973); Martin E. Marty, The Infidel: Freethought and American Religion (World, 1961).
  3. Catherine Wilson, Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity (Oxford University Press, 2008).
  4. Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (Norton, 2011).
  5. Leigh E. Schmidt and Sally M. Promey, editors, American Religious Liberalism (Indiana University Press, 2012).
  6. In 1871, Frothingham gave a lecture he would later publish as a book entitled Beliefs of the Unbelievers (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1876). “You have had the shadow without the light,” he wrote. “There is no injustice in giving you the light without the shadow.”
  7. Catherine Albanese, A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion (Yale University Press, 2007).
  8. Peter E. Gordon, “The Place of the Sacred in the Absence of God: Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age,” Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 69, no. 4 (2008), pp. 647–673.
  9. Alan Charles Kors, D’Holbach’s Coterie: An Enlightenment in Paris (Princeton University Press, 1976); Atheism in France, 1650–1729: The Orthodox Sources of Disbelief (Princeton University Press, 1990); Naturalism and Unbelief in France, 1650–1729 (Cambridge University Press, 2016); Epicureans and Atheists in France, 1650–1729 (Cambridge University Press, 2016).
Featured image: Watson Heston, Two Ways to Go, in The Freethinkers’ Pictorial Text-book (1896)