'Village Atheists' Engagingly Explores a Persecuted American Minority

Nonbelief in America has enjoyed a certain amount of social progress, thanks to the three men and one woman profiled in Village Atheists.

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

Publisher: Princeton University Press
ISBN: 978-0-691-16864-7
Formate: Hardcover
Price: $35.00
Author: Leigh Eric Schmidt
Length: 360 pages
US Publication Date: 2016-10
UK Publication Date: 2016-09

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.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Noel Fielding (Daniel) and Mercedes Grower (Layla) (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back in time to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less

The Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop artist MAJO wraps brand new holiday music for us to enjoy in a bow.

It's that time of year yet again, and with Christmastime comes Christmas tunes. Amongst the countless new covers of holiday classics that will be flooding streaming apps throughout the season from some of our favorite artists, it's always especially heartening to see some original writing flowing in. Such is the gift that Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop songwriter MAJO is bringing us this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.