Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation
Princeton University Press, 2016, 338 pp., $35.00
Damning Words: The Life and Religious Times of H. L. Mencken
Eerdmans, 2016, 279 pp., $26.00.
Taken at face value, recent debates about the place of religion in American institutions and culture suggest the ubiquity of the rhetoric of victimhood and marginality as much as the enduring appeal of zero-sum politics. Whether in debates about transgender usage of bathrooms or bakeries ordered to cater gay weddings, supporters of religious rights seem astonished suddenly to discover their status as a minority, while supporters of secular neutrality bemoan the enduring dominance of prejudice. Perhaps the only point of agreement between these advocates of religious or irreligious rights is an assumption that one of these visions of the American future can advance only at the expense of the other.
Is that really so? Can’t we all, as Jack Nicholson once famously said, just get along? This is exactly the question taken up in two recent histories of irreligious belief, both of them written by leading historians of religion. The two books claim, each in its own way, that from the 19th century until the present day arguments for faith and its alternatives have been advanced together, becoming entangled in mutually reinforcing ways. This remains so even as the nation’s moral expectations evolve: After all, when, in July 2015, the Boy Scouts of America removed its national restriction on gay leaders, it continued to allow individual units to require their leaders to express a belief in God. This contradiction that really isn’t has become deeply embedded in American culture and politics, and it is very likely to continue.
Leigh Eric Schmidt’s Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation begins its narrative in the 17th century, noting the prejudice against unbelievers in Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), the execution for blasphemy of the Edinburgh university student Thomas Aikenhead (1697), and the irony that “even as the principle of religious toleration gained traction…irreligious freedom lagged far behind.” Unbelievers did not fare much better in the new world, where the constitutions of Pennsylvania (1790), Tennessee (1796), and Mississippi (1817) required that those in public office demonstrate their belief in God and in eternal punishments and rewards. Elsewhere, the constitutions of Massachusetts (1780) and New Hampshire (1784) required that those in public office be Christians. This discrimination continued after the Civil War, when the constitutions of Maryland (1867), North Carolina (1868), Arkansas (1874) and Texas (1876) prevented atheists from obtaining any position of public trust. The irreligious remained on the fringes of society and law: One freethinker who was tried for blasphemy in Connecticut in 1916 was convicted of the same crime in Maine in 1919.
This was the legal context for Schmidt’s village atheists. Schmidt, a widely published professor of history at Washington University in St. Louis, structures his argument around four short biographies, focusing on small-town freethinkers who became significant influences on the formation of American liberalism. The “villages atheist” descriptor implies the marginality of their freethinking, particularly because it identifies religious eccentricity with marginal geographies. But these small-town freethinkers knew how to increase their audiences and achieve a national notoriety.
Samuel Porter Putnam, for example, published My Religious Experience (1891) to chronicle his “reverse pilgrimage” from the familiar faith of his Calvinist childhood though a sequence of Congregational and Unitarian pastorates, in which he found himself bored by the companionship of the faithful while constantly trying to understand the significance of the intense religious experiences he once enjoyed. Finally, he arrived at an atheistic materialism. This liberalizing journey moved him from theology to sentiment to the public advocacy of scientific materialism and the private pleasures of free love, as he logged hundreds of thousands of miles as a preacher of all kinds of infidelity.
Schmidt’s second example, Watson Heston, was a self-taught artist and a “struggling, small-town crank” who became the “artist-hero of Liberalism.” He produced “an incomparable iconography of American secularism” in illustrations that were widely reprinted in the Transatlantic print culture of unbelief. When his work was picked up in popular journals, Heston began to publish his cartoons in the thousands, drawing upon familiar tropes of American anti-Catholicism to make larger points about the dangers of religious faith. His visual texts had immediate appeal, but his fellow freethinkers debated whether Heston’s uncompromising satire was the best means of persuading their religious neighbours of the cool-headed rationality of secular thought.
Heston was well aware that some of the faithful shared his concerns about the nation’s dominant religious culture. After all, Adventists, Mormons, and Jews were also shut out of full civic participation. However, his sympathy for these outcasts was ambivalent; it was not just his “Hebraic portraits” that were “coarse, derogatory, and predictable”—and Schmidt does not dwell upon how these believers responded to their representation in Heston’s work. This visual ridicule left little middle ground between the hegemony of unenlightened zeal and those who wished to disrupt it. Nor did his career in satire end well; Heston was cheated out of the revenues that should have been his, and lost almost everything to creditors.
The links between minority religion and secular thinking are developed in Schmidt’s third case study, an account of a Seventh-Day Adventist minister whose advocacy of church-state separation became an inadvertent but effective preparation for his later promotion of irreligion. As a secular preacher, Charles B. Reynolds continued to use the methods and techniques that he had developed in his earlier career, preaching boldly in tent tabernacles and advocating the moral improvement brought about by conversion to irreligion. Reynolds is best known for his involvement in one of the most celebrated blasphemy trials of the century, in which a key defense witness was disqualified on the grounds that he did not believe in God or in posthumous rewards and punishments.
Legal difficulties also abound in Schmidt’s fourth biographical study. Elmina Drake Slenker, an erstwhile Quaker, gained notoriety for blasphemy and obscenity, her conviction on the latter charge made possible by the extensive interception of her mail. The Slenker case divided the community of freethinkers. Some of its members worked hard to emphasize the respectability of irreligion, even as others rejoiced in the disruptive potential of what was euphemistically described as “marriage reform.”
Rising above the controversy, Slenker sought to “normalize” secularists, publishing children’s literature and several novels to demonstrate that the irreligious could contribute to American society in positive ways. But the question of public jurisdiction over private convictions lies at the heart of the state-religion problem: Schmidt reconstructs several cases in which freethinkers were convicted of obscenity after including quotations from the Bible in their publications.
D.G. Hart’s account of H. L. Mencken develops the complexities of church-state relations in the United States. Mencken’s gift was to create maxims with the immediacy and impact of Heston’s cartoons: Puritanism, he famously noted, was “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy,” a creed promoted by “forlorn pastors who belabour half-wits in galvanized tabernacles behind the railroad yards.” Hart, a professor of history at Hillsdale College, Michigan, offers a portrait of Mencken that complicates this satirical pose. Mencken may never have been a believer, but he could not avoid engaging, sometimes sympathetically, with the religious convictions of others, even as he pushed to confront the faithful with their practical, this-world immorality of their religious beliefs.
Mencken is the most discussed of all the early champions of American free thought. Brought up in a family of German immigrants, with no more than a token relationship to institutional churches, Mencken gained a technical secondary education before being employed as a reporter at the Baltimore Sun, a literary critic at the Smart Set, and the founder of the American Mercury. He became the first American to write on G.B. Shaw and Nietzsche, the publisher of early work by Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Joyce, and Pound, and the author of more than fifty books and more than ten million words.
In the course of all this, Mencken became, as Time magazine put it in 1943, the nation’s “outstanding village atheist.” Unmoved by the claims of Christianity, he could not help but be intrigued by them. He offered a well-informed, satirical, and incredibly popular criticism of a religion that its adherents still seemed to believe entirely dominated American culture. Mencken himself was baptized into the Protestant Episcopal Church and confirmed as a Lutheran, though his home was a “religion-free zone” with a “good-natured opposition to Christianity.” He spent formative years in an Evangelical Sunday school, whooping up revivalist hymns with “bite and zowie”— which illustrates, as Hart puts it, that in the early 20th century “infidels and believers alike shared a common biblical vocabulary and repertoire of pious song.” Self-taught in the arts, Mencken began to read through the family’s literary canon, pursuing dreams of fiction-writing before settling on public letters, and learning as a cub reporter to produce 6,000 words per day. After early ventures in poetry and a child-care manual achieved little distinction, Mencken developed an ability for controversy that set him apart from his colleagues.
American Christianity became a regular target of Mencken’s vitriolic zeal. Theology, he insisted, “is an effort to explain the unknowable by putting it into the terms of the not worth knowing.” This targeting of religious faith reflected his broader concerns about the direction of American culture. “At the bottom of Puritanism one finds envy of the fellow who is having a better time in the world,” he explained. “At the bottom of democracy one finds the same thing. This is why all Puritans are democrats and all democrats are Puritans.”
Indeed, Mencken’s fervent resistance to religion mirrored his hostility to the structures of American politics. The Great War completed his alienation: He wrote editorials defending the German war effort, due to a larger fascination with the Nietzschean superman, though after his journey to Germany in 1917 he found the larger American newspapers wary of publishing his ideas. After the war, Mencken continued to identify Puritanism as a corrosive force within American cultural life, and restrictive of the most fundamental civil liberties. He associated it unsparingly with the Presbyterian President, Woodrow Wilson. But it is not clear that Mencken really understood the religious movement he was attacking: Rejecting the optimism about human nature that he believed was typical of contemporary Christians, Mencken might well have had more in common with the Calvinists whose achievements he dismissed.
At the center of Hart’s narrative is the infamous 1925 Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee. The “monkey trial” concerned legal restrictions, passed in several Southern states, on the teaching of evolution in public schools. The conflict between conservative Christianity and scientific progress was a golden opportunity for Mencken to advance his argument that religious faith debilitated the American future—and this despite the fact that the textbook in question suggested eugenicist applications for the theory of evolution, not to mention that two years later the Supreme Court would uphold laws requiring the compulsory sterilization of the mentally disabled.
Mencken’s description of religion in the rural South was so charged that his editors demanded extensive rewrites. But he did not amend his attitude toward religious faith: Christian worship was “debasing rather than ennobling,” he insisted, requiring “grovelling before a Being who, if He really exists, deserves to be denounced instead of respected.” He published his Treatise on the Gods, which he regarded as his finest work, while courting a woman who was in the final stages of a debilitating disease. Living by what he preached, he faced human mortality while refusing to appeal for any supernatural help.
Mencken’s skepticism of American ideals drew on his sense of German superiority as much as his religious contrarianism. In 1933, in his last issue as editor of the American Mercury, his review of Hitler’s Mein Kampf failed to condemn Nazi aspirations in the manner required by his publisher. In 1938, he travelled to Germany to “take a look,” entirely failing to express concern about its social conditions. Germany’s failure in the Great War had brought a sense of disgrace that Mencken found hard to reconcile with his assumptions about its superiority, so he underestimated its potency.
After the Second World War—embarrassed by his former German sympathies, mourning the death of his wife, and debilitated by advancing age—Menken became pathologically self-critical. “What could be more logical than suicide? What could be more preposterous than keeping alive?” He had spent his life working but now could neither read nor write, nor receive visitors. He regarded 1948, the year of his first stroke, as the year in which he truly died. He spent months in hospital in 1950 after a major heart attack. The aphorisms he published in A Mencken Chrestomathy encapsulated the frustration of his later life, describing the “Creator” as “a comedian whose audience is afraid to laugh.” “Everything is bad,” he complained in 1954: “I am going to hell.” He died two years later, at the end of January 1956, his “challenge to American Christianity” ending, Hart explains, “not with a bang but a fizzle.” Hart’s religious biography of Mencken is a tribute to the contrarianism of its subject.
Taken together, these accounts of 19th-century village atheists and their best-known 20th-century successor illustrate both the enduring power of religious critique and the constantly changing circumstances in which that critique has been advanced. It is not clear that Schmidt’s cast of characters are meant in any way to represent their epoch. It is their variety that illustrates the force and popularity of the arguments they maintained.
Hart’s depiction of Mencken as the inheritor of this tradition pushes readers to take seriously the anti-religious presuppositions of so much of his criticism of American democracy, though readers will not want to assume that Mencken’s sympathy for the Übermensch is a necessary corollary to those claims. In the end, Mencken’s popularity illustrated how unbelievers in early 20th-century America could be both central and marginal in different ways, raising questions about the extent to which unbelievers had, as Schmidt put it, “made their way in a godly nation.”
After all, these books illustrate the structural power of religious belief in our own day: their authors are both leading historians of American religion, whose careers in institutions dedicated to exploring the significance of religion in modern American culture are a reminder that historians of irreligion still lack organizational recognition within higher education and the collective mass to support their own centers of inquiry. Perhaps the final irony of the lives of these “village atheists,” and the most compelling evidence for the continual entanglement of religion and its opposite, is that these atheist pioneers are remembered by historians of faith.
The high point of public religiosity may have been reached in in the mid-20th century, when the Supreme Court announced that “we are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being” (1952), the Pledge of Allegiance was reconfigured to refer to a nation “under God” (1954), and Congress adopted as a national motto “In God We Trust” (1956). (All that was the subject of a still-worth-reading 1964 book by William Lee Miller called Piety Along the Potomac; Miller, who was Adlai Stevenson’s chief speechwriter, held a Ph.D. from the Yale School of Divinity.)
But things changed very quickly after the Supreme Court deemed unconstitutional the exclusion of atheists from public office (1961), and after the consequent battles for free speech against restrictive notions of blasphemy that precipitated the culture wars and did so much to contribute to the bifurcation of American politics. But the seeds of this decline had been sown generations before, and Cold War paranoia proved unable to shore up the continual decline of religious privilege, so that in 1966, only five years after the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the prohibition of atheists in public office, Time magazine ran a cover story entitled, “Is God dead?”
But modern-day believers and unbelievers may both be exaggerating their marginality. Even as debates rage about bakeries and bathrooms, most Americans continue to agree with the Psalmist that, “the fool has said in his heart there is no God.” A Pew survey in 2014 found that voters would look with more negativity on a presidential candidate’s atheism than on drug use or marital infidelity. As Schmidt observes, “the civic status of nonbelievers very much remains an unresolved question in the nation’s public life.”
Nevertheless, he continues, while “much cultural work went into drawing a bold line between religion and irreligion … in the everyday world of village atheists and their more devout neighbours, the room for blurring was considerable.” His account is neither “a story of inevitable secular advance” nor “unchecked Protestant dominance, but one of recurring friction and negotiation” that illustrates the changing boundaries of the socially acceptable as well as the enduring—and, perhaps, increasingly powerful—resonance of faith.
Hart’s biography of Mencken suggests reasons why this might be so. After all, as Hart claims, this is a period
when the United States is even more prone to religion-inspired hysteria than in an earlier era when liquor, dirty novels, and contraceptives were illegal. Mencken will not put an end to the so-called culture wars. His attitude as an unbelieving minority in a majority Christian society, however, might show a way to demilitarize the combat.
Schmidt and Hart achieve their nuance by avoiding high intellectual history in favor of the quotidian realities of individual lives, the material and personal circumstances under which irreligion could be structured and disseminated. The biographical approach helps both writers avoid the temptations and reductions of linearity, the habit of historians of ideas to cherry-pick the notions in which they are interested and to project a teleological inevitability as a replacement for the muddle, confusion, and distraction of life as it is lived. Both writers do a fine job of avoiding the jeremiads developed by those supporting and those fighting against these competing visions of the American future. There are times when scholarly dispassion still works as it should, and these books furnish notable examples. In debates about the official standing of religion and irreligion, as in many other aspects of its public life, American culture is almost certainly heading in several directions at once—as it has been doing for some time. Alas, Whitman remains: America contains multitudes.