Village atheists, with Leigh Eric Schmidt [MIPodcast #59]

  • Are you familiar with the New Atheists? The late Christopher Hitchens wrote biting books about religion as “poison,” Richard Dawkins champions a sort of scientism as a replacement for faith, and people like Bill Maher spend time each evening poking fun at the pious. Despite their unofficial “New Atheist” title, they’re perhaps not actually all that new. Award-winning historian Leigh Eric Schmidt sees them as ancestors of village atheists of days gone by. Atheists in American history have often been at the forefront of debates about the necessity of religion for healthy social life. They’ve fought legal battles over free speech and minority rights. In this episode, you’ll hear Schmidt tell the stories of four controversial folks who called themselves freethinkers—stories of integrity and courage, humor and hypocrisy. We’re talking about Leigh Eric Schmidt’s new book Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation.

    About the Guest

    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. He is author of the highly acclaimed book Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion, and the American Enlightenment, among other titles. His latest is called Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way In a Godly Nation (Princeton University Press).

  • BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. Are you familiar with the New Atheists? The late Christopher Hitchens wrote biting books about religion as poison. Richard Dawkins has championed a sort of scientism as a replacement for faith, and people like Bill Maher spend some time each evening poking fun at the pious. Despite their unofficial title “New Atheists,” they’re actually not all that new. Award winning historian Leigh Eric Schmidt sees them as ancestors of “village atheists” of days gone by.

    Atheists in American history have often been at the forefront of debates about the necessity of religion for healthy social life. They fought legal battles over free speech and minority rights. In this episode you’ll hear Schmidt tell the story of four controversial folks who call themselves freethinkers. Stories of integrity and courage, humor and hypocrisy. We’re talking about Leigh Eric Schmidt new book Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation in this episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast. Send questions and comments about this and other episodes to And don’t forget to rate and review the show in iTunes.

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    HODGES: Leigh Eric Schmidt is here. He joins us from the John C. Danforth Center on Religion Politics at Washington University in St. Louis, and today we’re talking about his new book Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation. Leigh, thank you so much for being on the show today.

    LEIGH ERIC SCHMIDT: Thank you for having me.


    HODGES: I wanted to begin with the way that your book begins. You talk about the Boy Scouts of America, of all things, right off the top. In 2015 the Boy Scouts of America lifted its ban on gay scout leaders, but their ban against atheist scout leaders remains. Talk a little bit about introducing the book that way.

    SCHMIDT: Well, I wanted a contemporary example that would suggest that these issues around how nonbelievers are treated in the culture are still alive. I mean, in some ways we think that this principle of neutrality that the courts have established in the middle decades of the twentieth century somehow resolve this as a problem in the culture, that believers and nonbelievers will be treated on equal terms before the law. But in all kinds of ways—in voluntary societies and just in terms of social relationships and social trust—the issue of how atheists fare in American life is still very much alive and the Boy Scouts is an example of that.

    And just the wider polling on that is that there is still a lot of suspicion aimed at atheists and unbelievers, you know, in terms of whether they should hold public office, whether they could be a viable presidential candidate. They’re still one of the most distrusted if not the most distrusted group in American life.

    HODGES: It’s really interesting. There’s this Pew data from 2014 where they assessed something called the “feelings thermometer”. They sort of asked Americans how they felt about different religious groups and atheists as well. Atheists rank a percentage point above Muslims in that survey. I think forty one percent versus forty percent, and they’re seven percentage points below Mormons. So the least three warmly-thought-of groups on the survey are Mormons then atheists and then Muslims. What do you make of that sort of assessment by Pew?

    SCHMIDT: Right. Well, it’s very telling that you have that kind of cultural suspicion out there for all three groups. I mean, there is some data now right that Muslims are polling lower than atheist. Atheists used to consistently poll the lowest, that’s changed a little bit. Mormons of course have a long history of that kind of suspicion aimed at them. It’s still inherited out of the nineteenth century and it’s persisted here in the twenty-first century. So, so this is a triumvirate that shares together in that kind of suspicion and problems out there around social trust.

    And then it comes up in these measures. I mean, people will poll things like not just whether you want an atheist or a Muslim or a Mormon as president, but they pull things like “would you be concerned if your son or daughter brought an atheist or a Muslim, you know, or a Mormon home as a date or potential in-law?” And the suspicion is on those matters, as well, so it cuts across a lot of areas of social life, these kinds of suspicions.

    HODGES: You mentioned the idea of an atheist president as a hypothetical. I think polls still show that it’s a bigger stretch for an atheist to become a president than any of these other categories of religion, including—as of 2014 at least—Muslims, Mormons and so forth. This is in the American context. In America a lot of people are thinking of this country as a Christian nation, but when they say that they’re largely referring to a Protestant Christian majority. Talk a little bit about that context and how that how those it seems to be on the wane a little bit.

    SCHMIDT: It is to some degree on the wane. I mean, atheist candidates are faring a little bit better in the polling. They’re not disqualified automatically by as many Americans. One of the factors there, I think, is that we do have a growing number of Americans who are religiously disaffiliated. That group has grown remarkably over the last twenty years going from, you know, under ten percent of the population to about twenty five percent of the population. So that you have this large group of Americans now who don’t claim a clear religious identity, aren’t affiliated with the religious community in any way. So as those numbers have gone up there has been some attenuation of these numbers in regard to atheists in public office and public life.

    So, if that group continues to grow—and a lot of sociologists think it will continue to grow, it might be up getting close to thirty percent of the population at this point—that should take away some of the reservations Americans have about unbelievers, about people who don’t have a clear religious identity or are actively opposed to having one.

    So, those things are lining up and I think that makes the difference. Also, the end of the Cold War made a real difference. I mean, there was a high watermark of suspicion of atheists during the Cold War because they were associated with Godless Communists. Once the Cold War is at an end there’s less of that. Atheists don’t have to constantly tell people “no, we’re not necessarily godless communists. We’re not on the side of the Soviets.” So, that’s changed too. So, there have been some things that make it likely that those percentages of distrust will continue to go down.


    HODGES: One of the interesting distinctions that you make throughout the book is in regards to religious liberty, the idea that America is this land of religious liberty and you talk about legal elements of that, but there are also social elements of that. And I think this connects to what you’ve been talking about in regards to an atheist president, for example. There aren’t any legal stipulations against that, but despite talk of religious liberty there are also these social barriers that still exist. It’s interesting to think about this—religious liberty in America as a legal issue but also a social issue, and the picture is a lot more complex when you think about those different elements.

    SCHMIDT: Right. Right. So, on the legal side, I mean, there is significant clarification after this case in 1961, the Roy Torcaso case that the Supreme Court decided. He wanted to be a notary public in Maryland. The Maryland state constitution still required testifying to a belief in God in order to serve in public life and he challenged that and he lost in the state courts and then when it went to the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court said that the ban on religious tests were also applicable to the States and Maryland can no longer enforce this ban against atheists being notary publics or being holders of offices of public trust

    So, that really made a big difference legally, but the social issues, it can’t resolve that. I mean, those are issues that go on in families, that go on in the workplace, that go on in the business community. I mean, there are a lot of stories in the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century that atheists and unbelievers and freethinkers felt they were subject to Christian boycotts in their businesses. That they’d set up a business in small town, they gain reputation for being a freethinker or an infidel, and the next thing you know nobody will shop in their store or their business goes way down. Those kinds of social elements are harder to resolve and in many ways than the legal ones where the Supreme Court could come in and make a decision. But the social issues persist.

    HODGES: So the Supreme Court decisions and some of the legal issues that were resolved in the mid-twentieth century is one end of the book, but you go back in time, back to the architects of the idea of religious liberty in the United States. You talk about how prejudice against atheists and unbelievers goes deep there. The idea that America was this land of the free where people could worship according to the dictates of their own conscience is complicated, because when they would talk about “religious tolerance” they would stipulate that it meant you at least had to have some religion to tolerate. There wasn’t tolerance for irreligion. I’m thinking of Locke for example.

    SCHMIDT: Right. No, that’s the key issue here, is that for a long time when religious freedom is theorized, the claim is that this is about the freedom of religious belief. That that’s where liberty of conscience comes into play. And if you don’t have religious belief, if you’re openly irreligious, these freedoms don’t apply to you. So, that was Locke’s position in his “Letter on Toleration.” It remained a commonplace among political theorists into the nineteenth century.

    Now, there were dissenters from that. Jefferson made the point that religious freedom should extend to infidels, that religious freedom included irreligious freedom. But for a lot of people beyond these Jeffersonian ranks that was not a move they were willing to make and they still believed that religious freedom did not include irreligious liberty, that the rights of unbelievers were not protected in the same way that rights of believers were. And so that issue lingers, you know, into the twentieth century as a legal problem. And as I suggested it’s only in the Supreme Court cases in the middle decades of the twentieth century that we get some clarification on that in legal terms—that religious freedom does include irreligious freedom.

    HODGES: Yeah and even then, some of those—as you said—some of those social discriminations still continue. So, legal issues can be resolved but there could still—obviously according to the polling there’s still a lot of stigma and a lot of problems that could be faced for atheists or unbelievers or freethinkers or whatever term we talk about them under.

    SCHMIDT: Right.


    HODGES: Let’s talk about the nineteenth century Protestant moral order. This is something that you describe as being the religious and cultural context of the nineteenth century where these village atheists are going to pop up in. Instead of being a simple black and white story you say this Protestant moral order is “fissured with division,” is the phrase you use. Talk about that context a little bit.

    SCHMIDT: Right. Well, one of the pictures we have of the nineteenth century is just how strong this Protestant moral order is and how effective it would be at marginalizing infidels and unbelievers. And there’s a lot of truth to that. Once you get down to the local level you see this time and again, you know, a village druggist who gets the reputation of being an unbeliever and a free thinker and the next thing you know somebody wants to charge him with blasphemy or harass him in other kinds of ways.

    So you see the strength of this. It works out in the way blasphemy is policed, in the way people think about witness testimonies in the courtroom, and things like that. But at the same time, what you see is that as these infidel lectures grow in popularity in the late nineteenth century—Robert Ingersoll is the most famous but there are dozens of these figures who are crisscrossing the country—a lot of the time they’re tolerated and they attract decent audiences and people are curious to listen to them and hear them and they let them go about their itineracy. There’s a certain civility that is extended to them.

    So, it’s a mixed picture in that way. There is an element here where there’s quite a bit of tolerance for these free thinkers. I mean, they can come into a lot of communities. They give their lectures over several days and they go on their way to the next town and are generally listened to all right there are as well. Church folks might grumble about it. The occasional minister might denounce them from the pulpit. But on the whole they get away with it. There is a certain tolerance or forbearance extended to them.

    So, that’s what I would say, is that it’s a divided picture. I mean, you get enough episodes where there’s real persecution on the ground in these locales. When an itinerant freethinker shows up, occasionally mobbed or casually threatened with violence. But on the other hand, they’re speaking all over the place dozens and dozens of times, and most of the time their performances go off without a hitch. Or you know or at least with a minimum amount of opposition, nothing overt.

    So, that’s my sense of it. You know, you can say that there is a lot of prejudice and there’s potential for, you know, even violence against these freethinkers and infidels. But on the other hand, there’s a certain openness, a curiosity about hearing their objections to the faith, that seems to override the spirit of persecution that comes up at other times.


    HODGES: Leigh, the book explores this context through particular village atheists. Earlier you mentioned Robert Ingersoll, and he was kind of this really popular, known atheist figure. I think today he might be compared with some like Bill Maher or Sam Harris or someone like this, sort of has a pretty big megaphone. But village atheists are sort of more, you know, amongst the commoners, so to speak, someone in your neighborhood or something. So, what was the quintessential stereotypical village atheist and how did that image come to be?

    SCHMIDT: Well, the idea of the village atheists develops over the course of the nineteenth century. There are few allusions to this in the antebellum period—the village blasphemer, the village atheist. Initially it’s just a figure of speech that’s applied to these kind of deist scoffers. Maybe somebody gets a little drunk in the tavern and starts uttering blasphemous things about the Virgin Mary or Jesus. So, it’s used in that kind of way, mostly negatively.

    In the late nineteenth century, you begin to get people who talk about it more positively or affectionately. That it’s this lone conformist, someone willing to stand up to the powers that be in the community to speak their mind, to be kind of creatively at an angle to popular opinion.

    So, I mean, “village atheist” doesn’t become uniformly popular in that way, but enough people are starting to see it that way, so that by the 1920s you actually get, almost, a nostalgia for this kind of local contrarian. That the village atheist is this great character in American life who was willing to stand up to the reigning pieties and the complacency in these towns and communities. So there is a kind of idealizing of their non-conformity that goes on in certain circles. Van Wyck Brooks and Sinclair Lewis, and some others who are, you know, critics of what they would see small town evangelical verities. And they look to these kinds of figures for a kind of crack in that moral world, in that social world.

    HODGES: So, yeah, it sounds kind of like these stock figures, like you’d have the town drunk, you’d have like the preacher, the busybody, the mayor, and the village atheist is one of these American characters that sort of exists alongside these other figures. I think the book does a great job pointing out how the term does shift from one of a negative polemical—almost accusation to this term of nostalgia as actual village atheists sort of waned and as the culture continued to shift.

    SCHMIDT: Mark Twain is kind of that, you know, sometimes taking to be one. Van Wyck Brooks—when he’s writing about Mark Twain in the 1920s Twain is not quite living up to that ideal of the village atheist because he sometimes pulled his punches and delayed expression of his unbelief until posthumous publication. But Mark Twain is sometimes seen as that, and in some of his stories you get a sense of the what this local freethinker was like.

    Yeah. So, yeah, and we know how idealized Mark Twain becomes as a character in American cultural life. [laughs] So, if you associate the village atheist with a kind of Twain-like character you can see the affection that’s possible for this kind of contrarian.


    HODGES: That’s Leigh Eric Schmidt. We’re talking about his book Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation.

    So, this book takes a kind of biographical approach, almost, you call that a “group portrait” approach, where each chapter focuses in on one particular example of a village atheist. Talk about how you decided to structure the book that way. It seems different from some of the past books that you’ve done—especially Hearing Things, a highly acclaimed book. Talk about the decision to structure the book this way.

    SCHMIDT: Yeah. I found these characters very colorful and I wanted to write a character-driven account, I guess, of unbelief. So I found the biographical approach useful in that regard. I also then wanted to make choices though that would allow me to use a figure to explore a critical aspect of American secularist experience. So, it wasn’t just to tell a particular biographical story. I mean, I wanted distinct figures that then would highlight in broad ways the core components of American secularism and American unbelief. So, I was trying to make choices in that kind of way.

    It’s always hard to make these kinds of choices. One of the first characters I talk about is Samuel Porter Putnam. He was an itinerant lecturer, but he was also sort of the historian of the movement and wrote a thousand-page book on freethinkers and really concentrated a lot on these American local characters. But when his book came out, even though it was a thousand pages long and dozens and dozens of biographical vignettes, people worried about “why did you choose that person and not this person” and so on. So, it is difficult to make these kinds of choices and feel like you’re making the right choices. But the goal was to find a handful of figures that would then illustrate these core themes as I saw it in American secularist experience.

    So, that was the ambition but there, you know, [laughs] it’s always a question of whether you realize your ambition, right? With your choices.

    HODGES: [laughs] Yeah! Well, I was impressed because it seems like a really hard thing to do, because there’s obviously going to be some overlap between these figures, you know. Each figure—and we’ll talk about each of them a little bit so people can get a sense for each of them—but each of them, yeah, you found a way to emphasize a particular point, but you also want to give a full picture of the person, as well. So, it seemed, I don’t know, as I read it just seemed tricky to me—to not make it artificial, to be true to those individual figures, but to also emphasize the wider point that you felt was kind of the main theme of their ministry so to speak—

    SCHMIDT: Right.

    HODGES: —without making them a cardboard cutout.

    SCHMIDT: Yeah, no, it’s difficult. And right, you necessarily end up muting parts of their career in order to draw out the central theme, you know. So if you’re talking about, like, Charles Reynolds, who is one of my characters. He’s convicted of blasphemy in this infamous trial in New Jersey in 1886. And so I concentrate there on blasphemy law and the history of blasphemy accusations and how this played in the late nineteenth century. And so I use him to think about that legal conundrum and the big problem of whether the irreligious share in religious liberty or not. But in doing that, you necessarily don’t talk nearly as much about, say, the last part of his career, which is he leaves New Jersey and leaves the east coast and heads west and takes up residence for the last decade or so of his life in the Pacific northwest, where he has an itinerancy out there between Seattle and Tacoma and Portland, Oregon and organizes this Oregon Secular Union in this Washington Secular Union and has various causes he’s pursuing out there. But you don’t tell that story as much because you really, you know, I’m interested in the blasphemy story.

    So, those are the kinds of things. You get a selective biography, necessarily, because you’re trying to use it to talk about something bigger than just the person’s overall life.


    HODGES: Right. Okay, and one more thing before we dive in to these individuals. Let’s talk a little bit about what I think what you call the “architecture of secularism” in the nineteenth century, sort of the ways by which these people associated and spread their messages, and learn from each other and connected.

    So, there are several different aspects of this architecture. I’m thinking about the liberalizing Protestant movements, freethinking associations, and different media platforms. Give people a sense of the architecture of secularism that existed before we dive into the individual people.

    SCHMIDT: Sure. Well, I mean, I do start with these liberalizing trends within Protestantism itself, so that you get a movement from, say, a waning Calvinist orthodoxy in Congregationalism and you move out to Unitarianism. And then from Unitarianism you move out to these dissenters from that, so they get their own free societies, the Free Religious Association, where they no longer want to own the Christian name at all at least within Unitarian circles. There’s still a lively debate and many of them are claiming still to be Christian, though Unitarian.

    Once you get out there to the Free Religious Association or these independent societies, they see themselves as explicitly post-Christian. And then you move, you know, further out where if the Free Religious Association, those independent societies are already kind of open to unbelief, then you get these organizations like the National Liberal League and the American Secular Union, which are fully inclusive of atheist perspectives. And so there is that kind of movement that you can trace in terms of institutions, in terms of organizations.

    Then there are the media platforms that are important. One is the lecture circuit. I mean, these are folks who spread the message by being itinerant lecturers. And as we’ve mentioned with Ingersol, sometimes very popular lectures. They can really attract a crowd. Ingersol attracts the biggest crowds coast to coast but others attract crowds as well. People come out and listen. There’s something very engaging about these freethinkers out there on the circuit.

    So, they have that. Then they also have more and more journals. I mean, there were a number of deist publications in the early Republic but after the Civil War you get a dozen-plus of these freethinking periodicals, some of which really have national circulations. They have agents out there across the country promoting subscriptions. Two of the biggest are one in New York called The Truth Seeker and then another one in Boston called The Boston Investigator, but there are other local papers out there that have more regional subscription bases.

    So, they have that, they’re growing that. And then another media form that they begin to exploit—and I talk about this in the book—is cartooning. They develop their own kind of secularist iconography. The Truth Seeker especially in the cartoonist Watson Heston. So that actually expands their media presence once they have a kind of visual iconography they can disseminate out there.

    So that’s really the kind of architecture of it is that, you know, the spread of these organizations, but then also building up these media forums for the spreading of the message. Those are things that I concentrate on in the book as kind of the substructure of the book.

    HODGES: Right, and we should also note too, you’re not telling a sort of whiggish history of this inevitable march of enlightenment. One thing that your book is going to point out as we introduce people to some of these figures is that it’s not the simple story of the fading away of religious belief in the light of rational enlightenment or something. The story is a bit more mixed up than that. There’s interaction, overlapping, clashing, all sorts of fun things as we talk about this.


    HODGES: So, let’s dig into the first figure you talk about in Village Atheists. You mentioned him a little bit earlier—Samuel Porter Putnam. And you give him the title “the Secular Pilgrim.” Why the Secular Pilgrim?

    SCHMIDT: Well, it’s a name he liked to apply to himself and I thought it was very apt. I mean, he starts off in the Congregationalist ministry. He’s the son of an orthodox Calvinist minister. He is reared in the heart of New England orthodoxy. So he takes as a template of what the religious life is supposed to look like as a young man John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. From this he knows what the Christian life, what the saint’s life, is supposed to look like, how it’s supposed to unfold and how you’re supposed to persevere in the Christian life. So I juxtapose that commonplace Protestant story or allegory, Pilgrim’s Progress, with the pilgrimage that Putnam pursues after he moves away from the Congregationalist ministry and ultimately becomes an atheist, and then sees himself as being on this secular pilgrimage.

    And that is two-fold. He’s this itinerant lecturer, he travels endlessly all over the country on to England and to Canada preaching the secularist atheist message. But it’s also an interior journey. He writes a memoir about his religious life and he charts the, you know, what’s going on, the critical experiences of his life. I mean, when he’s a soldier in the Civil War he has an epiphanal experience of Jesus and he becomes, really, an Evangelical at that point. But then fifteen, seventeen years on after the Civil War, he has an epiphanal encounter with Robert Ingersoll that is a second conversion experience, where he moves over to the side of the infidels and freethinkers. So, it’s that kind of secular pilgrimage to, an interior journey. It’s both that outward journey around the country as a freethinking lecturer and then this interior progress that he’s making—he would see it as a progress.

    HODGES: One of the interesting elements of his chapter was the discussion about his views on the dangers of sentimentalism, which is kind of connected to his early conversion experience. Talk about that just a little bit if you would.

    SCHMIDT: Right. So, he sees part of the problem within Christianity, but also within his Unitarianism when he passes over into that, he has a kind of transcendental register where he’s looking for religious truth through religious feelings. And that’s what he’s kind of holding onto—a sense of being awestruck in nature, say, over a sunset, or the whispering of the trees, a kind of awe-inspiring experience, a kind of transcendental experience in nature, and that this is linked, to him, to religious feeling. And what he comes to see when he becomes an unsentimental atheist is that that religious move had been wrong, that he had vested far too much in religious feeling, and now he saw himself as having come into this cold unblinking world of reason, and that that was the source of his grounding. So it was an express disengagement with religious feeling—both of the Evangelical variety, but also the transcendental variety, the kind of Emersonian, Thoreauvian currents that he had become familiar with as well.

    HODGES: It’s so interesting to see his “Secular Pilgrim” story as very much an inversion of a conversion narrative to Christianity or to some sort of belief in God where he even presents himself as backsliding toward belief again at certain points.

    SCHMIDT: Right. Yeah. I know he does see that, right? So it is, it’s reversed in all kinds of ways. It’s that he takes that template of the Pilgrim’s Progress and he stands it on its head. And the figures in his life who trouble him especially are the ones who backslide into belief as he would see it.

    So he has his very good friend, this companion George Cheney, who’s making the same journey he’s making from a kind of Evangelical roots into the Unitarian Ministry and then a freethinking unbeliever. And they’re on the same journey. The only problem is, George Cheney keeps journeying and then becomes a spiritualist and an occultist. And then, you know, Putnam can’t have anything to do with him, writes him out of the history of secularism, out of the history of freethought even though Cheney was a golden boy order in the movement, who was more prominent than Putnam in many ways at the time.

    So, it’s interesting, right? It’s the backslider in the belief that Putnam then cannot tolerate, cannot make sense of. He wants this to be a unidirectional journey and as we were saying earlier it’s a lot more complicated than that. There are plenty of people that get to where Putnam gets and then they go somewhere else into one other religious movement or another. And so that’s a big part of the story too.

    HODGES: It’s so interesting to see this impulse, this human impulse, to tell a certain type of story and then when people start escaping the bounds of that story the temptation is to erase them. We’ve seen that in religious accounts of people converting and then falling away from a particular faith. We also see it here in these “Secular Pilgrims” stories, they sort of do that same sort of selective editing. So, overall, what was your main takeaway from Putnam in terms of using him as a representation of an overall aspect of the village atheist?

    SCHMIDT: I think this idea of a Secular Pilgrimage, that you can create a kind of secular narrative about your life and about your journey from a religious grounding to an irreligious grounding. That was the overarching point for me.

    Obviously there are other things going on there, too. I mean, his life ends tragically. He dies in this gas leak with this other young freethinking woman and becomes scandalous. So, there are a lot of people who see at the end of his life a kind of free love scandal that kind of ruins his reputation in an enduring way. And there’s a huge fight over that. So, you know, it’s hard to ignore the scandal entirely—and I don’t ignore it, but I would still say it’s this other plot that matters, the way in which he creates an irreligious narrative, this story of pilgrimage into unbelief that inverts the classic pilgrimage story within Protestantism.

    HODGES: By the way, this is one of the ways you weave this story in with a later chapter in your book—and we’ll talk about that a little bit later on—but the sort of ideas about sexual freedom and so forth that were associated with freethinkers. So you do find ways to sort of—yeah, while this chapter doesn’t emphasize that you do talk about it and then you tie it in where it’s discussed a little bit later on—

    SCHMIDT: Right.


    HODGES: —so, people can keep listening! We’ll get to that part too. But next up is this cartoonist, this is really interesting, the cartoonist Watson Heston. I think this was the first part of the book I heard about because you spoke the Mormon History Association and presented a paper about Heston and some of the research that you’ve been doing.

    So secularist people, freethinkers, had a few big cultural heroes like Thomas Paine and Robert Ingersoll, we’ve mentioned. And then but there were a few nobodies who sort of had the opportunity to join their ranks as well-known figures. Watson Heston is one of these. He’s an Ohio artist. And you’re right, “he had a lot of hard luck.” Talk a little bit about Watson Heston.

    SCHMIDT: Heston in many ways became the figure I could not get out of my head. I mean, I just became absorbed with him, probably way too absorbed. I was collecting all of his cartoons and cataloging them—more than thousand of these cartoons—

    HODGES: Did you get any of his actually hand-drawn ones at all?

    SCHMIDT: No. I don’t think any of them survive. I haven’t come across any of them. He was an artist. I haven’t come across any artwork that survives of his, so—

    HODGES: That’s a shame.

    SCHMIDT: It is. It is a shame! I, you know, maybe someday something will surface, but I have not seen anything. Maybe the book foregrounding him will cause someone to look through their attic or look through their collections and find out that they actually have something of his.

    Yeah, so twelve hundred or more of these irreligious cartoons for The Truth Seeker between 1885 and 1900. And they have this rough-hewn quality to them, and they’re richly satiric, he has all kinds of different targets, all kinds of ways of dramatizing why freethinking ways of being in the world are vastly superior to religious ways being in the world. So, I wanted to think, then, about the visual culture of unbelief, the visual cultural of secularism, and I don’t think anybody had paid much attention to that before. No one had really noticed how popular Heston had become in these circles and how he did in many ways come to rival Ingersol in reputation—A whole different medium, a whole different outlet of expression, but that many of the folks who are reading The Truth Seeker really looked to those cartoons as embodiments, as encapsulations of what it was like to be a freethinker in American culture, what it was like to be a village atheist in American culture.

    And because he had so many you could really try to tell a story through his cartoons—not only of his own life, but of the whole world of unbelief. I mean, there was all these different facets of unbelief that he covered, including—you mentioned the talk I gave to the Mormon History Association—including his fascination with Mormons, sometimes identifying with them as a persecuted minority in solidarity against this Protestant majority, and sometimes being a predictable critic, you know, sharing in the Protestant tropes of criticism of Mormonism, so. So, you could, you know, pursue that angle, but any number of angles. I mean, with that many cartoons there’s hardly a facet of secularism or unbelief you can’t find documented in his artwork.

    HODGES: This artwork was usually spread around through these newspapers that you mentioned earlier, or the journals that you, mentioned earlier, the Freethinker, or The Truth Seeker?

    SCHMIDT: Right. There’s one called The Truth Seeker that’s the main venue, but they are published in others as well. There’s one in Kansas called the Free-Thought Ideal, some of his artwork shows up there. There’s one in Kentucky called The Bluegrass Blade, some of his work shows up there. And then it’s pirated elsewhere, including in British freethought material. So it starts circulating widely in these circles, but it’s main home is in The Truth Seeker. And then they create these cartoon books out of the ones that are published week to week, so they have compilations of his best cartoons, too. They have, actually, four volumes of his cartoons that they published separately and these are some of the bestselling books in these circles in these decades.

    HODGES: Despite all that, the best-sellers and all of that, you also write about how this did not make him a wealthy person by any stretch.

    SCHMIDT: No, you know, he was down on his luck as an artist to begin with. He itinerated, tried to paint portraits, and finally settled in Carthage, Missouri and tried to make a living as a photographer and artist and didn’t have much luck at that. It was a fairly impoverished existence. Then he gets lucky, he gets his connection to The Truth Seeker, but they never paid him very well. I mean it’s really—as far as I can tell—just a very small wage for this artwork. It lets him get by in the world but it certainly doesn’t make him a wealthy man. And then when the relationship falls apart around 1900, he supposedly is cheated out of a fair amount of money by the editor at the magazine. At least his defenders think that. So he then loses his house and ends up in even more dire conditions.

    And so when he dies in 1905 his health had never been great, his economic circumstances had always been tough. He really is in very poor shape and is kind of surviving on the largesse of those who identified with him as a great freethinker—people who establish a fund to try to support him and his wife in their forlorn condition there in Carthage. So it never makes him wealthy. It makes him notorious, but it doesn’t make him secure, that’s for sure.


    HODGES: And for all his talk of progress and liberty that he would depict in these cartoons, you also talked about how he actually remained quite blind—and perhaps this was of his time—but quite blind to minority rights more broadly. So as you pointed out, sometimes his cartoons would leverage Mormons as a criticism against the broader Protestant establishment. But he also had some cartoons that—he had Mormon leader B. H. Roberts being forbidden from entering congress, he’s drawn him dragging along this three-headed dog named Polygamy and this sort of thing. But also, I’m talking about more in terms of his depiction of women and African Americans, which, to modern sensibilities, could be sort of shocking.

    SCHMIDT: Yeah, definitely. Freethinkers could agree on their secularist agendas—strict church-state separation, a kind of materialist worldview, the progress of science, and things like that. But when it came to other controversies in the culture—the Mormon question, race question, women’s rights—they were very divided. And some of them took a progressive view and were in solidarity with Mormons, with women’s rights, with African-Americans on civil rights questions. But Heston had, at best, an ambivalent relationship on all three fronts.

    HODGES: Yeah.

    SCHMIDT: So on the race question. Occasionally, there was a sense of solidarity with African Americans, you know, anti-lynching cartoons. But much of the time, he just has the same stereotype that so many freethinkers have where they associate African Americans with primitivism, with excess enthusiasm, with the kind of ignorant views about the natural world, so that he would use African American figures as stand-ins with kind of unenlightened views. And he never pictured an African American freethinker in the same way that he pictured Ingersoll or Putman or some of these other infidel lecturers. I mean his ideal prototype for the freethinker, for the unbeliever, was a white man. The same thing basically went for women as well. He did not picture distinct women as freethinkers, and he did the same for African-Americans.

    HODGES: This is one of the most fascinating parts of your analysis, is when you actually just—It wasn’t anything he was actively saying per se, especially I’m thinking with regard to women. It was just that he would use women as symbols of weakness or vulnerability. And it was always the white man as this symbol of strength and rational thought. And so these assumptions were smuggled into the cartoons, they weren’t reflected on.

    SCHMIDT: Right. I mean occasionally, again, he could express contempt for religious views of women that he saw subjugating them or as oppressive. So he could draw satiric images of Saint Paul and his prescriptions of women as teachers or speakers or leaders. So he could do that. But he then would turn around and draw cartoons that showed a genuine fear that all these church women might get the right to vote, and then make it all that much harder for these manly infidels to have standing in the world and to forward their views about strict church-state separation or about a scientific worldview or those kinds of things.

    So yeah, it’s this two-fold quality. On the one hand, he wants to critique Christianity for its benightedness on women’s rights. And then on the other hand, he is profoundly anxious that women are going to be so religious that if they do get the right to vote, that they’re going to vote in more restrictions for infidels and freethinkers. So there is that. And yeah, so it just is in the cartoons, that deep ambivalence that comes out time and again, kind of association of women with effeminacy and weakness, with superstition.

    So yeah, he’s not a great partner on those issues. And there would be freethinkers who were, including a number of women who were leaders, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Freethinkers who really were very clear on issues of women’s rights. Watson Heston is not one of those people.


    HODGES: And another point that you use Watson Heston to bring out is the disagreement that existed among secularist proponents or atheistic proponents or freethinking proponents who disagreed on particular tactics that should be used. So these cartoons were sometimes brash, they were embarrassing to some people, and they were very popular. So there was disagreement about whether this sort of “visible incivility”—the term that you used—was appropriate or not or would achieve the ends that they wanted.

    SCHMIDT: Yeah. That was one of the big fights they had over the cartoons. The majority of subscribers who wrote in defended his pugnacity. They thought, this is exactly what we want. We want someone who goes after in an aggressive way Christian views of the world. The Christians had never treated freethinkers very well and it was their due to be treated uncivilly. And the harsher and more direct, the more pugnacious Heston was, the better.

    There were others though who said this was a horrible tactic. It was just going to drive people away. Nobody is going to come to be freethinkers by way of insult and abuse and ridicule. So they thought it was tactically a mistake. They thought from a standpoint of manners and civility and refinement, it was a mistake. And so they quarreled with him and with editors’ decisions time and again about that.

    And that’s one of the debates we still see very much in the early twenty-first century, is that issue of whether freethinkers, the New Atheists, should be out there satirizing religious people or whether they should show greater sensitivity to religious feelings. And this kind of—the way in which cartooning still is an art is this flashpoint of controversy, and it’s a flashpoint on that very issue. The right atheists have to ridicule, or whether ridicule should be reined in—both tactically, but also out of respect for religious people’s feelings and sensitivities.

    HODGES: And I think listeners could definitely unpack the sort of connections between those discussions and discussions that happen today. We’re speaking today with Leigh Eric Schmidt about his book, Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation.


    HODGES: So that was Watson Heston. Now we’re talking about “the blasphemer,” Charles B. Reynolds. And you mentioned him a little bit earlier. He was a long-serving Seventh Day Adventist preacher. And he took his revival meeting craft and turned it to preaching a new secular gospel instead. He would use the same sort of tactics. He would have a tent set up, he would go around and have revival-type meetings and give lectures this way. And this landed him in legal trouble. So let’s talk about the legal issues a little bit more.

    SCHMIDT: So this had been a long-running debate in American culture, and more broadly in European culture, a history here of blasphemy prosecutions. And then after the Revolution, there was more and more question about this—I mean, given the First Amendment, was blasphemy still something that could be recognized as a category in American law? And most of the time, state legislatures thought, some of them kept them on the books, and there are a good number of blasphemy trials in the first few decades of the nineteenth century. Some of them became famous. Many of them were just small-time blasphemers who got put away in a county jail for a few months.

    HODGES: [laughs] Small-time blasphemers.

    SCHMIDT: Yeah. [laughs] Somebody who probably got drunk, said something wrong, got put away for a month or two in the county jail. Didn’t make headlines, right?

    HODGES: And the kind of things they would say would just be like, “I don’t believe in God”? Or would it be more specific like, “I hate God”?

    SCHMIDT: Well, they would say things—I mean a kind of line that would get someone in trouble, a famous one was this guy Thomas Ruggles, who drunkenly announced that the Virgin Mary was a whore.

    HODGES: Okay. So that’ll do it.

    SCHMIDT: That kind of thing. So yeah, pretty ribald suggestions. And they would get locked up for saying something derogatory about Jesus or the Bible. And those kinds of blasphemers, people didn’t really come to the defense of. I mean nobody’s going to come to Ruggles’ defense really [laughs]. I mean you might think blasphemy shouldn’t be prosecuted, but nobody’s much going to embrace him.

    The kind of blasphemers who get embraced are, like, Abner Kneeland in Boston in the 1820s when people are prosecuting him, because he’s a minister, his heresies are more theological, right? He’s a universalist who says he just doesn’t believe in the Christian God in the way other people do. And so when he’s tried for blasphemy, many people come to his defense. Unitarians, Transcendentalists who come to his defense and celebrate him as a blasphemer. But not people like Ruggles. I mean those weren’t the cases that freethinking intellectuals usually embrace as their own.

    Now Reynolds is sort of in the middle. He clearly is provoking people in his tent lectures and has this spiel about the Bible, and about how silly Christians are, and how silly these Bible stories are. And you know, it isn’t the high-brow theological disagreements. There’s definitely a popular satire performance that he’s doing.

    HODGES: It’s a little theatrical, yeah.

    SCHMIDT: Yeah, it’s theatrical, and he’s got this tent, and so the tent is out there in public. I think part of his problem is that he has a tent. He thinks think of himself as this Adventist evangelist who’s now a freethinker evangelist. So he has a tent. And he thinks this is kind of a big oratorical show, a revival meeting for secularism. And that tent is open so people could hear what he has to say throughout the village, people outside of it. If you’re in a small lecture hall, you know, there isn’t a way in which the children are just going to wander and hear this. But with a tent, it’s open, it’s public. And so I think that’s a part of it. It’s how his irreligion is performed that gets him into trouble.

    So he is arrested and tried—Well, initially the big thing that the opposition to freethinkers latch on to is that he “provokes a riot” in Boonton, New Jersey.

    HODGES: Everything is legal in New Jersey, though, I’ve been told.

    SCHMIDT: [laughs] Yeah, that’s right. So he provokes a riot. His lectures are shut down. The town won’t let him ever lecture again. His tent is destroyed by the mob. And so it becomes a cause célèbre on the freethinkers’ side because, “look what these bigoted Christians of New Jersey did. They mobbed him. They destroyed his tent. He can’t get any satisfaction before the law.” Nobody’s going to bring any of the mob leaders to trial. Nobody’s going to charge them with anything, but they are going to charge him with blasphemy and provoking this civil unrest.

    So it winds its way through, and eventually Robert Ingersoll takes the case and gives a very dramatic courtroom performance. A little bit of the Scopes trial before the Scopes trial, having this big orator doing the defense. And so he nonetheless is convicted, given a token fine, and then sent on his way and he eventually moves west, as I said he’s out in Oregon and Washington.

    You know, it’s a big trial. It gets a lot of attention all the more because of Ingersoll’s involvement. But the bigger question was that question around irreligious freedom. Does he have a right to say these kind of things about religion? To say this kind of things about the Bible?

    HODGES: Right.

    SCHMIDT: And so does that fall into the category of free speech or not? Those are the kind of debates that are going on there. And there are—as I say—there are Protestant ministers and Protestant lay people who come to his defense, that really do prioritize the value of free speech over the notion of blasphemy. So he has defenders. He has defenders in Protestant ranks on this point, as well as fierce Protestant critics in this point. So again, that’s where it gets complicated.

    And then I try to use him as a leaping off point, the fact that he gets mobbed, the question is, well how much violence really was aimed at these kinds of lecturers or at freethinkers and infidels in general? Was this the exception, this kind of mob violence? Or was it indicative of wider patterns of violence or threats of violence aimed at freethinkers and atheists? And there I get a sense of a mixed picture. This is the only time Reynolds is mobbed. There are a couple of other times where he’s threatened with violence. This is the only time he’s mobbed, and he lectured hundreds of times. But there are enough other episodes of these kinds of lecturers being subject to attack or being charged with blasphemy to say that there is a pattern there, and that his was not simply an exceptional case. This New Jersey case is not just this kind of one-off blasphemy trial. There are enough other episodes out there to say there is an element of violence to which these freethinkers and unbelievers were subject.

    HODGES: Yeah. So it’s interesting to see in the book—and the conclusion sort of lets people know how things played out in the twentieth century a little bit as well, though it’s not a focus of the book—but people can pick up Village Atheists and see how those things played out through the twentieth century as well. A lot of the legal issues have been settled, though there are still some questions—now it revolves around things like whether the Ten Commandments could be posted at a courthouse or those types of things.

    SCHMIDT: Right. Sure.


    HODGES: The final figure that you talked about is actually the only woman featured in the book. It’s Elmina Drake Slenker. You refer to her as the obscene atheist. Let’s spend a minute on her story.

    SCHMIDT: Sure. So Slenker is an interesting character—all these characters are fascinating, I think Slenker in many ways is the most fascinating of all. She has Quaker roots. She becomes disaffected from Quakerism. Her father was tossed out of the Quaker meeting near Poughkeepsie, New York. And so she grows up in the 1850s without any real sense of religious identity anymore.

    And in that decade, she starts identifying herself actually as an atheist. She’s one of the really early ones in the 1850s who just come out and say “I’m an atheist.” And then more specifically, a woman atheist, which was even rarer. There is a one model for this that she has, Ernestine Rose, who’s a lecturer on the women’s right circuits and freethinking circuits. But for Slenker, she’s a model for her as a woman atheist. But Slenker really is out there in that regard. There aren’t that many atheists in general, right? I mean this is a small vocal minority, not a big one.

    HODGES: Yeah.

    SCHMIDT: And it’s an even smaller group when you get to those who are woman atheists.

    HODGES: She’s a minority in the minority.

    SCHMIDT: She’s the minority in the minority, and there is a kind of double outrage that goes with this, because women are associated with piety, with the care of the home, with domesticity. And they’re supposed to model those domestic Christian virtues and rear these godly children and godly sons will go out there and be good citizens in the world. So this notion of a woman atheist is this truly frightening prospect to people.

    And Slenker sometimes plays that up for all its worth, just plays up the outrage, plays up the controversy. And other times, she tries to make a safer image for herself—that a woman atheist is not such a frightening thing. That a woman atheist is just as domestic as a Christian mother. And she emphasizes that she is indeed a mother and that she always tends to the household and cares deeply about rearing good upstanding children, and she produces literature for freethinking children that mirrors the literature you would have for Protestant children in all kinds of ways.

    So, she sometimes plays up the outrage and sometimes it’s like, “No. This is safe. You can come around to actually tolerating these freethinking women because we’re as pure and upstanding as anyone else.” So she plays that on both sides.

    But the reason I call her “the obscene atheist” is because she moves on to these wider alliances that a number of freethinkers in the period explore, with marriage reformers and those interested around issues of reproductive rights. And she forms those alliances and becomes notorious in those circles. Basically, anyone who’s doing this, exploring that kind of literature and making these kinds of claims, is controversial. But she allies herself with this physician, Sarah B. Chase, and her journal The Family Physiologist. And in that journal, she writes explicitly on issues around contraception, and reproductive rights, sex within marriage and how that should look or not look. And so she’s taking up issues that are really controversial.

    And that calls her to the attention of Anthony Comstock who’s the great vice crusader of the era. And his focus is on diminishing obscenity and access to obscene reading materials in American life. And so as a devout Christian, he really doesn’t like infidels too. It’s harder for him to get them on blasphemy charges, but then a little easier—once they start doing the marriage reform stuff—to get them on obscenity charges. And that’s exactly the path he pursues with Slenker, his agents pursue of Slenker. She’s arrested on obscenity charges and goes to trial for that. And so I then used her to see how this becomes a pattern in the late nineteenth century. That when you want to go after these infidels, these unbelievers, the most effective legal strategy is to find a way to charge them with obscenity. They’re much more likely to go to jail if you charge them with obscenity than if you charge them with blasphemy or, you know, being a public nuisance or something like that. That becomes the big legal strategy. It’s fairly effective. A good number of them do go to jail in this period.

    So that’s Comstock’s modus operandi is to level these obscenity charges. So Slenker becomes a window in on that, and then I’m able to tell some other stories about other editors and lecturers—men and women—who are brought up on obscenity charges in the period.

    HODGES: How does Elmina’s story end?

    SCHMIDT: After this obscenity trial—I mean she spends some time in jail, is convicted. But she does go, then, back to her little town of Virginia which is not a hospitable place to be a woman atheist, This little town Snowville, Virginia, where she has a witch-like reputation for her unbelief. But she goes back to that and she does what she did before, which is she writes for these national freethinking periodicals like The Truth Seeker and Boston Investigator, and then a handful of other periodicals that she’s interested in. And she has a network of correspondents that she’s constantly writing to and linking up.

    And so she keeps doing what she was doing before. There’s some drop-off in how much she cares about the sexual physiology questions and things like that. But she goes back to being what she was before. This is one thing Comstock and his agents are unable to do. They can throw a wrench in the system for these people, but only occasionally do they really successfully end these people’s careers. I mean they really do end Sarah Chase—her colleagues’ career, fairly effectively. John Vlant is another one, a freethinking editor. They really do end his career. But Slenker’s, they don’t. And so she goes back, and then she lives out her life in Snowville, Virginia and dies in 1908. And there’s some celebration of her as one of these free speech leaders. But she’s not famous at the end of her life. She sort of dropped off the radar screen over the last ten years of her life by then.

    HODGES: When we come back, we’ll tie the story up to the present time a little bit and talk a little more about your role as the author of this book.

    We’re speaking today with Leigh Eric Schmidt. He’s the Edward C. Mallinckrodt distinguished university professor at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University and St. Louis. He’s author of the highly acclaimed book, Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion, and the American Enlightenment, among other books. But his latest is called Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation. We’ll be right back.



    HODGES: We’re back with Leigh Eric Schmidt. He joins us to talk about his new book Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation from Princeton University Press.

    Okay, Leigh, let’s talk a little bit about how the village atheist as a figure sort of faded away in American thought, or there’s this period of nostalgia for the village atheist. And they came to sort of personify this “gutsy descent from stultifying piety,” as you say. Or they’re also seen as “a necessary challenge to majoritarian religion.” So even some religious people—people of Christian faith or other faiths—could appreciate some of the things that village atheists stood for in terms of oppression against religious minorities and other minorities. So they became this sort of appreciated figure later on. But they seem to fade out through the 1950s and so on. How would you tie the end of that golden era to the present day? What kind of shifts have you seen between then and now?

    SCHMIDT: Yeah. I mean there is a way in which the village atheist is—That golden period for them is the late nineteenth century, maybe right into the early twentieth a little bit. But after that, there is a kind of way in which it becomes a literary representation and it stops being connected to these flesh and blood lecturers and dissidents, that people in the nineteenth century knew. And so it becomes more of a literary device. Say in Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry, there’s a village atheist. So it’s a literary device.

    And by the 1950s and so on, one thing that happens, of course, is that unbelief and atheism does get all the more marginalized in that era where there is a kind of sense that just to be an American citizen you need to profess some belief in God. You need to be, as Will Herberg said, a Protestant, a Catholic, or a Jew. That’s just how you show your American citizenship, is to be some kind of faithful person. And the atheist just fell outside of it, there’s just more of a sense that there aren’t such characters or there shouldn’t be such characters.

    Now, that’s the big picture. Underneath that, there are still plenty of these freethinking dissidents in the period. And a lot of them are these activists, still, and they’re taking a kind of legal approach to their quandaries.

    And so somebody like Vashti McCollum who is one of the first freethinking, atheistic, humanist plaintiffs to really succeed. She takes an Illinois school district to court over their religious release time program. Her son, she feels, is being excluded because they’re not religious and yet there are these catechesis classes being done in the school and making him feel like an outsider. So she takes him to court, loses in Illinois, it gets to the Supreme Court, and she actually wins, that release time program is deemed unconstitutional. And so here she is, she’s this freethinking local activist. And then once you get into that, you realize, “Oh, her father Arthur Cromwell in Rochester, New York was also one of these village atheist freethinking activists,” and that’s just a little step removed from Robert Ingersoll.

    So just beneath the surface a little, but you see that those kinds of activists survive, that kind of village atheist is there. Cromwell, Vashti McCollum, and then you kind of start seeing other figures who are also activists like this who are pressing their cases, making themselves a kind of nuisance in the courts by bringing everything from the adding “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance which happens in the 1950s, bringing cases against that, bringing cases against the release time programs, bringing cases against the fact that conscientious objection is only for members of religious communities and primarily for members of historic peace churches, and making a claim that a secular humanist ethical value should have just much standing as someone from one of those Christian traditions. So that’s where you see it. They’re still there. They’re still active. And they’re actually finally getting some traction in the courtroom.

    So I think that’s the legacy. It’s not this kind of separate group of activists in the forties, fifties, and sixties, but it’s a group of people who are drawing on these earlier traditions of activism and from the National Liberal League and American Secular Union and continuing them. And then finally, they’re in a legal context where they get a hearing, and they’re not just dismissed out of hand. So I think that’s an important legacy.

    And then it continues. In some ways, you think “oh well, it’s settled now. They won these Supreme Court cases and believers and non-believers are on equal terms.” Well, no, actually, it’s not so settled because these decisions aren’t self-enforcing. And so you find someone like this freethinker in South Carolina, Herb Silverman, who’s a mathematics professor at the College of Charleston. And when he tries to become a notary public in South Carolina in the 1990s, South Carolina doesn’t want to let him become a notary public even though that’s supposedly a settled issue [laughs]. They reject his application because he’s an atheist. And so he has to go to court and eventually he gets to be a notary public in South Carolina because that should have been a settled issue, I was just that South Carolina didn’t want to treat it as a settled issue.

    So it keeps going. So there are these traditions of protest and secular activism that continue then into the twenty-first century and are kind of the background to this emergence, this flowering of the so-called New Atheists in the twenty-first century, which once you have a little historical sense of this, they don’t seem so new actually. [laughs] I guess that’s how it kind of plays out. There are some continuities here. There are ways in which the New Atheism and these new secular coalitions of the twenty-first century are drawing in substantial ways on this history, are in continuous conversation with these village atheists of the nineteenth century.


    HODGES: Leigh, the conclusion of the book does a good job giving a pretty quick overview of that. And one could even imagine a similar book covering some of the figures you briefly mentioned here, sort of bringing that up to the present with the idea that the New Atheists—in some ways—aren’t all that new. I think that’s really fascinating.

    Another thing that fascinated me are your own stakes in this discussion. You’re a scholar of religion. How do you navigate this, when you’re relating the history, avoiding casting theological judgments or bringing your own sort of religious sensibilities into the picture? Talk about your own religious sensibilities whatever they are, and how that relates to the actual scholarship that you produce.

    SCHMIDT: Right. Well, I mean I do, of course, I try as a historian to create emphatic yet critical perspective on these characters, as a historical approach to my characters. But there are, no doubt, ways in which one’s own religious biography intersects with what one ends up studying. I mean, I’m a liberal Protestant by background, kind of a social gospel Methodist by background. So there are a lot of liberal Protestant assumptions and fascinations that I bring to my work. I mean, in this particular case, I think that that’s where you’re most likely going to see solidarity, right, with this secular minority. Is that there’s a valuing of minority rights—that many of these liberal Protestants are ready to join up with secularists on these matters of church and state for the protection of minority rights. And so there is a natural alliance there, often, between liberal Protestants and these secular activists.

    So that’s a place where you see these—You know, from the early nineteenth century on, where it’s people like Theodore Parker and Ralph Waldo Emerson who think Abner Kneeland needs to be defended through the Reynolds trial in the 1880s. That’s where the alliances are likely to be forged. And so it’s probably not all that surprising [laughs] that someone with this liberal Protestant background would be drawn to these secularist figures on the edges who are fighting this case—as they see it—for minority rights.

    So I’d say, you know, there are affinities there. I don’t think the book is driven by that.

    HODGES: Right.

    SCHMIDT: But I think that there are affinities, and I see it. I mean there’s a figure like Paul Blanchard who starts off as a liberal Protestant minister. That’s his background, Congregationalist minister. He becomes infamous in the 1950s as an anti-Catholic or as a critic of Catholicism. But he makes this journey, though, beyond that liberal Congregationalist background into a kind of secularist activism. And again, I think his biography also demonstrates those affinities. He’s sometimes seen as kind of—”His criticism of Catholicism is entirely Protestant.” Actually, his criticism of Catholicism is Protestant but it’s also intensely secularist. And it’s that kind of development, those affinities, that you see over time I think.

    You know, you have to be critical of those affinities, and you have to be reflective about those affinities, just as you are about these characters along in the way and the limitations of vision of somebody like Watson Heston or something like that. The same kind of critical perspective you need to bring to bear on your own suppositions and on your own background when you’re doing this kind of work. So I try to have that kind of critical awareness. [laughs] We’re usually not as critically aware as we think we are or that we need to be!

    HODGES: [laughs] Well, I’ll second what you said, having read the book. Yeah, some of the themes that you perhaps personally had the most affinity with are definitely there in the book. But I don’t think they were unduly foregrounded. You know, as people pick up this book and as they read through it they can think about that and they’ll see a lot of other things in your discussion that touch on things—like the right way to present your opinion publicly, you talk about what it’s like being in a minority position, and how some blindness can exist in those positions as well. And there’s a lot of things that people can apply to their contemporary experiences, I think, by reading books like this. And so I think that’s great.


    HODGES: The last thing I want to ask is, since this book is kind of an outgrowth of earlier work that you’ve done—you’ve written a book on The Making of American Spirituality, the sort of liberal Protestant context in which this village atheists arose—Are your next projects similar outgrowths, or are you going in a different direction next?

    SCHMIDT: It’s a little early to say. But usually when you’re done with a project—or at least this is what I found—is that there are some loose ends. You haven’t been able to cover all the things you would have like to have covered. And so you often start there. I mean I think that was true when I wrote that book Restless Souls on American spirituality. There were some loose ends there that then led me into this project and a biographical project on Ira Craddock.

    And I see some loose ends here too. I mean, one of the things that fascinates me—and I didn’t write about here—are the kind of community-oriented dimensions of freethinking. I mean, there’s all this concern in the twenty-first century among the New Atheists in a kind of “constructive humanism.” You know, these humanist chaplaincies that you see at places like Harvard or Yale or USC, where they’re trying to think about—in this world of growing religious disaffiliation—what could community look like on secular terms, on humanist terms? And I see there are all kinds of ways in which this history can speak to those issues as well.

    There’s this little town in Missouri, Liberal, Missouri, where they try to found a secularist community and what that looks like. Or a brotherhood of agnostics that try to create rituals for people who are beyond the churches now, I mean try to create funerals and marriages and naming ceremonies for people who are no longer connected to religious communities. Those kinds of experiments, as frail as they are, are nonetheless suggestive, I think, for people in the early twenty-first century who are trying to think through issues about community and belonging in a time where religious disaffiliation is growing and there is just a question, like, what are these millennials going to do? Are they going to join anything? Or is this all just fragmentation?

    Yeah, so I think those kind of questions linger for me, and I’ve got some files on that, but I can’t promise I’m going to write any of it up.

    HODGES: [laughs] Well, if you do, I look forward to it. I should say on a personal note, your work has strongly influenced my own trajectory. Your book Hearing Things was a pivotal book for me in drawing me into religious studies and becoming interested in the sort of questions you’re asking. So, a personal note of gratitude to you for your work.

    SCHMIDT: Well, I appreciate that. It’s great to hear. I’m glad to hear that.

    HODGES: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to be on the Maxwell Institute Podcast today, Leigh.

    SCHMIDT: I’ve enjoyed it a lot, it’s been a great conversation.