Village Atheists

How America's Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation

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Leigh Eric Schmidt
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , October
     360 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Before reading this review, take a moment to search through your library catalog of choice for monographs on atheism in the United States. Try searching “unbelief,” “atheist,” “atheism,” and “secular.” Don’t worry––it won’t take long. And what about monographs specifically on the history of atheism in the United States? Heretofore, the US religious historian’s best resource on that subject was Martin Marty’s 1961 The Infidel (World Press), which though a brilliant treatment of the subject, is now woefully out of date. Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007) and James Turner’s Without God, Without Creed (Johns Hopkins University Press,1985) offer high-level philosophical or intellectual histories, ignoring entirely the lived experience of actual unbelievers. The field needed the publication of Leigh Eric Schmidt’s Village Atheists, not only because it fills a gap in the historiography of American religion, but because this book sheds new light on old questions and paves the way for new ones.

Each of the four content chapters in Village Atheists center on a particular atheist––or freethinker, or secularist, or infidel depending on the time period and the subject’s inclination. Chapter 1 focuses on Samuel Putnam, a Calvinist-cum-Unitarian-cum-freethought activist whose life mirrors three key aspects of secular development in the United States: “liberalizing religious movements”; “organized forms of freethinking activism”; and “expanding media platforms to spread the secularist message,” such as lecture circuits and journals (28). Schmidt subtly highlights the role of affect in Putnam’s ups and downs: Putnam’s strained relationship with his coldly Calvinist father; the trials of Civil War service; an infatuation with the Great Agnostic Robert Ingersoll; a public freelove scandal that led his wife to abscond with his children––Schmidt ties all of these to various stages of Putnam’s secular journey, deftly linking head and heart in an area of study focused too much on the former. Further, Schmidt uses Putnam’s waffling to highlight the tension between liberal Christianity and secularism, demonstrating the puerility of simple bifurcations––a theme that dominates the book.

In the second chapter, Schmidt focuses on Watson Heston’s freethought cartoons. With the aid of some fifty of Heston’s images, and viewers’ reactions to them, Schmidt highlights the underexplored impact of visual imagery in the history of American secularism. Schmidt also compares Heston to his religious counterparts, noting that Heston’s anti-Catholic images “would have been hard to distinguish…from those of Protestant nativists who had already produced a rich visual repertoire” of such imagery (98). Schmidt also compares Heston to Dwight Moody, both of whom believed that the world was disintegrating with only one hope of salvation. For Moody that hope was found in Jesus; for Heston, it was in the freethinking enlightenment. Schmidt notes that “Heston’s atheistic assurance of triumph often looked like its own kind of folly––a prophecy that had to be affirmed even as it kept failing to materialize” (125), instantly calling to mind the Millerites.

Schmidt digs deeper into Protestant and secular entanglements in the third chapter.

Charles B. Reynolds’s used lessons from his days as a Seventh Day Adventist to become a secular revivalist. But Schmidt points out that Reynolds’s pre- and post-Adventist life had more in common “than any neat division between a Christian nation and a secular republic suggests” (173). For Reynolds, Schmidt concludes, “the bright line separating the believer and the unbeliever turned out to be a penumbra” (181). Like chapter 2, this third chapter provides tantalizing glimpses of on-the-ground ways that people entangled Protestantism and secularism without critical analysis of these entanglements, a gap that may frustrate some specialists.

Through the story of Elmina Drake Slenker, the final chapter explores issues of gender, sexuality, and obscenity as they relate to the secular struggle for equality in the public sphere. As in the previous chapters, Schmidt draws attention to the forces pulling Slenker in different directions. Analyzing her fiction, for example, he notes that Slenker “strove to depict strong, atheistic women who were quite capable of persuading anyone they might encounter to exchange threadbare theology for scientific rationality” while at the same time “presenting the female infidel as a paragon of homemaking, domestic economy, and familial devotion” to counter Christian criticisms of freethought (228). As throughout the book, Schmidt often lets these tensions speak for themselves, without intervening with heavy-handed analysis. Some readers may find this approach useful, as it lets the sources stand on their own. See, for example, how masterfully Schmidt narrates Slenker’s story, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions from the available evidence. Other readers might wish for more in-depth interpretive discussions of whiteness, class, Muscular Christianity, or reform movements.

In choosing “village atheists” as both the subject and the title of this book, Schmidt deliberately highlights people who humanize the secular in America. His subjects’ lives demonstrate Robert Orsi’s point that conflicting “impulses, desires, and fears” complicate grand narratives of religion (or secularism), and Orsi’s suggestion that scholars focus on the “braiding” of structure and agency (Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them, Princeton University Press, 2005, 8-9, 144). In this vein, Schmidt deliberately steers his monograph away from the larger questions that animate current discussions of American secularism: Have we been secularizing for two centuries, or Christianizing? Has Christianity been coercive or liberating (vii)? By sidestepping these questions, his subjects’ day-to-day struggles come into sharper relief, opening up new and interesting questions. For example, Schmidt’s attention to affect alerts scholars interested in atheism that hurt, anger, and resentment are important aspects of the American unbeliever’s experience. Schmidt’s willingness to highlight that hurt without forcing their stories into larger narratives of secularism should give specialists and non-specialists much to ponder.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joshua D. Urich is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas at Austin.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Leigh Eric Schmidt is the Edward C. Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis. His books include Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality and Heaven's Bride: The Unprintable Life of Ida C. Craddock, American Mystic, Scholar, Sexologist, Martyr, and Madwoman. He lives in St. Louis.


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