How did you think about this narrative as you were working through this history of freethinkers?
Schmidt: There’s a way this story usually goes: First people were orthodox, then came the Congregationalists, then Unitarians, and the next thing you know, we have atheism.
But in this standard narrative, you’re looking to blame liberal Protestants. You’re looking for Protestant sources of a contemporary secular culture, which is normally seen in negative terms. I wanted to actually talk about atheists and secularists, the ones who were actually embracing this identity and developing an alternative irreligious world.
Green: You say in your book that “freethinking secularists imagined a long, bitter, and ongoing war between science and religion.” Why do you say that battle is imagined?
Schmidt: Historians of science now argue that warfare language around science and religion is a creation of secularist freethinkers. A lot of the time, say in the aftermath of Darwin’s Origins of Species, what you find is all these scientists in universities who are completely capable of merging a Darwinian science with a kind of progressive, Christian worldview. I wanted to acknowledge that while at the same time emphasizing that for some freethinkers there really was a warfare. That’s exactly how they saw it.
Green: How representative was the combative spirit of organized and visible freethinking leaders?
Schmidt: That’s a really critical question, because the stigma of non-belief and atheism did create a culture where it was best to keep your non-belief hidden, to keep your views hidden. It was best to dissemble.
That didn’t keep people from identifying with the Watson Hestons of the world—the people who wanted to go in guns blazing and be as aggressive as possible to create that hyper-masculine posture of aggression toward their Christian neighbors. How many people can afford to be Heston-like? Not too many. But I think they live vicariously through him.
You still see this among atheists and secularists today. There are the ones who say you have a right to blaspheme and offend and ridicule, and that’s our posture. And then there are people like Hemant Mehta, the guy at “The Friendly Atheist.” He’s critical, but he wants to be friendlier and more civil about it. It’s a still a live issue in these circles.
Green: Why has there historically been so much suspicion attached to atheism, and why does this continue today?
Schmidt: There is an element of suspicion that’s so deep-seated. You see it in John Locke: You can’t trust the atheist. There’s nothing to bind them to society. There’s this chaos they represent: a sense that they can’t be held accountable, and that you can’t trust them.
I have found it fascinating just writing about atheism. Someone asked me, “Are you an active atheist?” And I said, “I’m an active scholar.” I never felt like that when I write about Presbyterians—I’m not a Presbyterian. I’ve never felt that when I write about Buddhists—no, I’m not a Buddhist. But it somehow, when they ask about being an atheist, you feel it: There’s a kind of judgment.
In the polling data, atheists will report this: in the workplace, among family, certainly in electoral politics, it’s an issue. Minority rights matter. If those prejudices and suspicions are there, it’s important to take them on, and address them.