In general, Americans do not like atheists. In studies, they say they feel coldly toward nonbelievers; it’s estimated that more than half of the population say they’d be less likely to vote for a presidential candidate who didn’t believe in God.
This kind of deep-seated suspicion is a long-standing tradition in the U.S. In his new book, Village Atheists, the Washington University in St. Louis professor Leigh Eric Schmidt writes about the country’s early “infidels”—one of many fraught terms nonbelievers have used to describe themselves in history—and the conflicts they went through. While the history of atheists is often told as a grand tale of battling ideas, Schmidt set out to tell stories of “mundane materiality,” chronicling the lived experiences of atheists and freethinkers in 19th- and 20th-century America.
His findings both confirm and challenge stereotypes around atheists today. While it’s true that the number of nonbelievers is the United States is growing, it’s still small—roughly 3 percent of U.S. adults self-identify as atheists. And while more and more Americans say they’re not part of any particular religion, they’ve historically been in good company: At the end of the 19th century, Schmidt estimated, around a tenth of Americans may have been unaffiliated from any church or religious institution.
As the visibility and number of American atheists has changed over time, the group has gone through its own struggles over identity. Even today, atheists are significantly more likely to be white, male, and highly educated than the rest of the population, a demographic fact perhaps tied to the long legacy of misogyny and marginalization of women within the movement. At times, nonbelievers have advocated on behalf of minority religious rights and defended immigrants. But they’ve also been among the most vocal American nativists, rallying against Mormons, Catholics, and evangelical Protestants alike.
Schmidt and I discussed the history of atheists in the United States, from the suspicion directed toward them to the suspicions they have cast on others. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Emma Green: There’s a stereotype that the number of nonbelievers is significantly on the rise, along with those who are disaffiliated from religious institutions—often called the “nones.” How do today’s demographics compare with those in earlier American history?
Leigh Schmidt: One of the reasons the nones seem so surprising to us is because we often operate with a Cold War baseline. There really were high rates of religious adherence in in the 1950s. The truism was you had to be a Protestant, a Catholic, or a Jew—you needed that because, in the shadow of this communist threat, it was just a necessary part of American identity. But with the decline of the Cold War we no longer have that hanging over the culture in the same way. I think the nones sometimes look more startling because we’re looking back at that world, when religious membership seemed a part of American citizenship.
With a longer-term perspective, the story is a lot more complicated. When you start getting reliable data in the 1890s census and thereafter, a good 8 or 10 percent of the religious population is actively unaffiliated. And before the 1890s, our data isn’t anything like what we have now. At the time of the Revolution, say, the best guesses on fully paid-up members is like 15 percent of the population. Over this longer term, it’s quite possible that the nones have a lot more company than we often think.
“The term ‘atheist’ is a slur.”
Green: In the late 19th century, what did nonbelievers and religiously unaffiliated people call themselves?
Schmidt: The term “atheist” is a slur. There’s no way anyone in the 17th or 18th century wanted to be called an atheist. It’s a slur within Christian theological discussions about people who are libertines, who are living as if there is no God.
There were other terms that were seen as ways of sidestepping the slur of atheism. You might think of yourself as a freethinker or you might call yourself a deist. But even those were dangerous labels to assume.
Green: Where does the term freethinker come from?
Schmidt: That term is in play by 1700 to describe a deist—someone who believes in a kind of God of nature, a mathematical God, a disengaged or impersonal God. It’s also someone who really believes in free inquiry—one who believes that one’s speculations should not be hemmed in by the demands of Christian orthodoxy.
Green: In your book, you write about cross-cutting impulses in the freethinking community with regard to immigrants and religious minorities. On one hand, some freethinker journals would report on Mormon persecution that they said went uncovered in Protestant press. But they would also write anti-polygamy invectives or condemn other religious minority groups. Where did these impulses come from?
Schmidt: A lot of times, secularists want to imagine themselves as wonderful progressives in a really pure and clear way—that they’ve been on the right side of history. And there’s evidence for that. But if you look at the statistics on atheism, it’s very white, male group. Historically, you could see that as well. The cartoonist Watson Heston, for example, assumed a white, masculine model for the atheist nonbeliever.
Sometimes they want to come to the defense of a religious minority against the Protestant majority. Sometimes, because they don’t like religion across the board, they’re just going to mock Mormons. In their long-term view of history, religion is going to disappear. So how much solidarity do you really want to have with religious minorities if you think ultimately rationality is going to wash it all away?
On race issues, you get some of the same. Some of the freethinkers really are activists for civil rights. But others are just run-of-the-mill racists, and have no vision on race that would separate them from the usual prejudices of the era.
“Male atheists are bad. Women atheists are genuinely considered monsters.”
Green: Why has the movement traditionally been so masculine?
Schmidt: In the 19th century, there are more women in the church than men. So there is an association with churches and pious femininity and domesticity. Freethinkers see women as supporters of the church, and supporters of evangelical Protestant politics, whether it’s temperance or other moral-reform causes, so there’s an alienation that arises there. They’re fearful that if women have the right to vote, they’ll vote for Christian-inflected politics. They’re afraid: What’s this going to do? Is this really going to advance the cause of reason, the cause of science, if we give women the right to vote?
Green: You talk about the perceived oddness of “woman atheists.” How have the experiences of women who are atheists differed from those of men historically?
Schmidt: Because there was such an ideal of pious femininity—women are supposed to be pious, women are supposed to go to church—there was greater horror associated with a woman being an atheist than with a man being an atheist. Male atheists are bad. Women atheists are genuinely considered monsters.
So that puts a lot of pressure on somebody like Elmina Drake Slenker or other women atheists to say, “Being an atheist does not deprive me of these maternal ideals.” Slenker writes domestic fiction in which freethinking, atheist women are also incredible housekeepers and homemakers. She wants to make sure there is no conflict over 19th century ideals and atheism—and no man has to worry in the same way she has to worry.
She is also much more interested in rethinking the marriage relationship, birth control, and reproductive rights. That’s something a lot of the freethinkers and atheists—the men around her—want to avoid. They see the issue as too controversial; that’s not an issue they’re willing to engage.
But she’s willing to engage it. And that gets her arrested for obscenity.
Green: If someone weren’t necessarily familiar with her story, they might read that and think of a 1970s-style women’s liberation movement, dedicated to deconstructing sexuality, etc. But as you write, Slenker was actually a part of Alphaism—a movement that promoted only procreative sex in monogamous relationships.
It seems like there was a kinship between freethinker movements and some of the vice-control impulses of the Victorian era, including Alphaism, or perhaps something like the temperance movement. Why was it that outspoken, freethinking women like Slenker went in this direction with their programs of reform?
Schmidt: It tells us a lot about the incredible pressures she experiences as a woman who has come out as an atheist and someone who wants to explore issues around sexual physiology. She could be so radical on the question of God, but she has to assure everyone, “I’m really this pure woman. I’m really this virtuous, domesticated woman. I always put my family first. I’m not a libertine.” For her, it’s about an image of purity that she maintains publicly, which also comes in handy when you’re being tried for obscenity.
“You could charge someone with blasphemy, but it was even better if you could catch them doing something lewd.”
Green: Why did charges of obscenity or sexual immorality so often overlap with additional charges of not believing in God?
Schmidt: Part of the inheritance is that “atheist” and “libertine” were almost interchangeable slurs because of the way people thought. If you were an atheist, you were a libertine, and if you were a libertine, you were at least a practical atheist because you weren’t worried about divine judgment. So there’s a kind of association out there that sexual immorality, obscenity, and atheism go together.
It also became legally challenging for people to enforce blasphemy charges. You could charge someone with blasphemy, but it was even better if you could catch them doing something lewd or circulating lascivious literature. Then you could go after them for obscenity, and that was an easier case for prosecutors.
Green: In your book, you echo a narrative that is often repeated by secularization theorists and conservative religionists alike: that there’s a kinship between liberal Protestantism and secularism. Not only are they closely aligned, but the liberalization of Protestantism in fact enables the rise of secularism.
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.
There’s a sense that “you can’t trust the atheist … that they can’t be held accountable.”
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.