'Village Atheists' Engagingly Explores a Persecuted American Minority

by John Garratt

3 November 2016

Nonbelief in America has enjoyed a certain amount of social progress, thanks to the three men and one woman profiled in Village Atheists.
 
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Village Atheists: How America's Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation

Leigh Eric Schmidt

(Princeton University Press)

As much as we all enjoy the benefits of being the persecuted one in the occasional argument, it’s time to face the fact that it is now almost just as easy to be an atheist in America as it is to be a Christian in America. Both sides have the luxury of crying “Intolerance!” at every turn without pondering just how tilted the religious vs. secular playing field was just 150 years earlier.

According to author and humanities professor Leigh Eric Schmidt, if you were the village atheist who ran a grocery, you couldn’t sell water to your fellow townsfolk even if they were on fire. If you rolled into town, intent on delivering a peaceful lecture on agnosticism that suddenly turned vicious at the hands of rioting Christians, you were put on trial for blasphemy. If word got out before trial that your star witnesses were also atheists, the court refused to regard their testimony as credible. If a prosecutor caught so much as a whiff of a private citizen’s non-belief, he needed little to no probable cause to search their mail behind their back.

If these ne’er-do-well were mailing out leaflets that mocked the bible, the judge would slap them with a fine and jail time without batting an eye. If said infidel mailed out correspondence of a sexual nature, such as marital advice, the punishment was worse. If you were a triple threat like Elmina Drake Slenker—an atheist woman who was interested in sex—then you were a disgusting aberration. Not even most newspaper editorial pages would consider your position from a sympathetic angle. If the secular person in question was ever caught ranting and raving about the unconstitutional nature of the treatment they were receiving, they were just digging their own hole even deeper. Yet America’s nonbelievers managed to carve paths for themselves through America’s formative years, and Schmidt’s book Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation profiles just four individuals who, despite their often unhappy existences, blazed trails for today’s atheists and agnostics in America. (See also Pew Research Center’s “10 facts about atheists”, June 2016)

Schmidt names the chapters based on each historical figure’s unofficial title, as if they were nameless characters in a cast for a murder mystery: “The Secular Pilgrim”, “The Cartoonist”, “The Blasphemer”, and “The Obscene Atheist”. After a lengthy introduction that attempts to discuss the idea of the village atheist in terms almost too abstract and academic, the author launches into the tale of Samuel Porter Putnam, an enigma in the history of secular America. Born in 1838, Putnam’s early childhood was at the mercy of his strict Calvinist father. The combination of being groomed to follow in his father’s footsteps coupled with his father’s dispassionate treatment of him left a bad taste in young Putnam’s mouth. It didn’t take him long to begin questioning religion itself, though Schmidt makes the case in the introduction that this shouldn’t be surprising; “[Non-believers] were rarely sophisticated metaphysicians worrying over the niceties of epistemology, but instead aggrieved contrarians stunned at the moral shabbiness of scriptural stories or the manipulative theatrics of popular revivalists.” [page 18]

The act of turning his back on orthodoxy out of spite for his father proved to be temporary. A battlefield injury during World War I sidelined him physically and emotionally, long enough for him to set out in search of a benevolent god. Putnam’s studies and subsequent attempts to re-enter the ministry only resulted in frustration. He became a star lecturer for the growing flocks of freethinkers that were surfacing in 19th century America, rivaling the late Robert Ingersoll in delivery and draw. At one point, Putnam took it upon himself to literally write the book on atheism and agnosticism with Four Hundred Years of Freethought, an historical account fashioned on his point of view. The activists he chose to profile and the ones he chose to exclude gives us some insight into the petty favoritism that was taking place at this point in America’s freethought movement.

His penchant for free love finally got the better of him after his death. On the night of his passing, Putnam and a young female colleague retired to her apartment for the evening. In the morning, they were found dead. There were no signs of foul play (e.g., an undetected gas leak) or of any sexual deviance having taken place, but that didn’t stop Putnam’s opponents from spinning vicious yarns against him. By ignoring the coroner’s evidence of what actually happened, the secular pilgrim’s enemies could make up any piece of unsubstantiated sexual depravity and declare it a genuine account of those evening’s events. Even fellow freethinkers who sharply disagreed with him during his lifetime couldn’t wait to help pound nails into the coffin of Putnam’s legacy.

“The Cartoonist” follows the popular yet unprofitable career of illustrator Watson Heston. Born in 1846, Heston had little money, a lot of hard luck, and no sympathy for religious folk. He may have been destitute, in poor health, and constantly needing to relocate with his wife, but Heston was able to supply a steady stream of cartoons for the freethinking newsletter the Truth Seeker. Schmidt generously provides many full-page examples of Heston’s satirical working, making the second chapter a relatively swift read.

In “The Cartoonist”, Schmidt devotes a bulk of his writing to just describing each illustration while occasionally giving the broader context of Heston’s points. For example, the first reproduction of the chapter, “The Modern Balaam”, will need a great deal of explanation to most modern readers who aren’t familiar with the book of Numbers. Schmidt gives a succinct rundown of each drawing, even as he wanders into the territory of the self-explanatory. It isn’t until the chapter’s closing pages that we learn that Heston’s mean-spirited attacks on Christianity as well as other religions rubbed many atheists and agnostics the wrong way. While some believed that certain anti-religious points could be made more eloquently, others were dismayed at the general lack of respect his cartoons showed for their adversaries.

Heston died as he lived—ill and low on funds. Schmidt makes the case that Truth Seeker prospered, thanks to Heston’s cartoons.

“The Blasphemer” is a very protracted biography of Charles B. Reynolds, a Seventh-day Adventist preacher-turned-atheist who was taken to court in New Jersey for blasphemy. The first portion of the chapter focuses on Reynolds’ soft transition from one kind of speaker to another, all while clinging to the same set of virtues that discourages vices such as alcohol and tobacco. Schmidt seems convinced that by holding on to his old school principles, Reynolds was able to take on a unique persona within atheist circles, one that afforded a certain respect from naysayers.

Naturally, not everyone was impressed. Two American towns gave Reynolds a massive headache as he was trying forge a new career as an atheist speaker, and one of them hosted a blasphemy trial just to take him down a peg. Robert Ingersoll dutifully arrived to defend him in court, but according to Schmidt, he dropped the ball when it came to citing legal precedent. Though the jury convicted Reynolds, Ingersoll’s opening and closing arguments became nearly legendary in their own right. In his later years, Reynolds and his wife moved west where the welcomes at his speaking engagements became significantly warmer. People would travel from miles around just to shake the hand belonging to the man who was convicted of blasphemy in New Jersey in 1887.

Out of all of the chapters in Village Atheists, it’s the final one that takes the oddest shape. “The Obscene Atheist” tells the story of Elmina Drake Slenker… to a point. Schmidt starts things off well enough by giving Slenker’s background in growing up in an ex-Quaker household, marrying a man with similar religious views, and slowly nurturing a sexual curiosity. After the story turns to Slenker getting caught and standing trial for sending marital advice of a sexual nature through the mail, the chapter takes a hard turn into the culture of persecution instigated by the American politician Anthony Comstock (of the 1873 Comstock Act).

Suddenly, “The Obscene Atheist” seems to be more about the rogue politician obsessed with Victorian morality and the various people he landed in the slammer based on obscenity laws that ebbed and flowed a great deal. It’s as if the one woman who gets her own chapter in Village Atheists still managed to get shortchanged out of half of it. Comstock’s methods could be the subject of another book entirely, whereas the amount of disgust hurled at women atheists during this period arguably makes for a more compelling subject. Imagine getting your hands on a major news publication, opening to the editorial pages, only to find these words written about you: “A moral impossibility”, “a deformed, dwarfed, blighted, blasted creature. Thank God, there are but few women who are Infidels.”

The epilogue for Village Atheists is less an epilogue and more of an extension of the freethinking narrative into the 20th century. It isn’t until after Robert Ingersoll’s death that atheism finally gains traction with younger people on college campuses and becomes an acceptable belief system in the American court of law. The first secular victory in a court case arrives in 1948 when Vashti McCollum, daughter of Arthur Cromwell, fights to have religious instruction removed from public schools. Leading up to this, many atheist organizations worked overtime to convince the American government that church and state are, constitutionally speaking, supposed to be separate entities.

The issues raised here are all frighteningly current in America and elsewhere. Schmidt closes out the book with another anecdote of intolerance as recent as 2011 when a Rhode Island high schooler co-filed a lawsuit with the ACLU to have a prayer removed from the wall of her school. The blow-back from Christians was, as expected, intense. To the author, this student is another example of the village atheist as an ongoing phenomenon—lonely but unwavering in her beliefs. The word “How” in the book’s subtitle is a bit of a misnomer, though. There is no concrete “how” to each atheist’s survival beyond stubbornly holding to their beliefs—they just make their way.

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

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