Village Atheists and Their Fight for Religious Liberty

In our secular age perhaps Christians and atheists will share a plot of peculiar common ground.

If you care about religious liberty, this is a story you should familiarize yourself with. Village Atheists is really a religious liberty narrative told from the perspective of grassroots atheists. It’s a survey of “that charged terrain that atheists and unbelievers have long occupied between tolerance and intolerance, civility and incivility, equal and unequal citizenship in American culture.” It’s a profile of atheists in our country who fought for religious liberty on behalf of the irreligious.

 

G. K. Chesterton’s delightful novel The Ball and the Cross begins with a Christian man visiting London for the first time. When he walks down Fleet Street, the center of the then-known publishing world, he comes to a full stop in front of the newspaper office of “The Atheist.” After reading the blasphemous headlines posted in the picture window, he promptly throws his walking stick through the glass, hurls himself inside, jumps on top of the editor’s desk, and demands an old-fashioned duel.

Most of the novel is about these two men trying to find a nice peaceful place to kill each other. Chesterton ends the story with the couple locked up in an insane asylum. His paradoxical point seems to be that these two extremists are the most sensible people on the planet, because they’re most aware of the implications of their view of reality.

The Ball and the Cross in America

Though Chesterton’s story is set in England, his title is a fitting description of Leigh Eric Schmidt’s recent work, Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation. Our nation’s founding fathers either believed in the cross or were at least willing to entertain the sort of values necessarily associated with it. Those who saw the cosmos as an end unto itself—the ball—have held a minority position throughout our nation’s history. As Schmidt shows, the relationship between the believing majority and the unbelieving minority is marked by “recurring friction and negotiation.”

Schmidt traces this conflict back to America’s founding: “The number of unbelievers was not inconsequential then—just as it is not inconsequential now.” But though present from the beginning, atheist voices were muted, often forcibly so. In American colonial life, blasphemy was not only looked down upon, but was the target of fierce punishment like “public whipping, tongue-boring, and imprisonment.”

Grassroots Atheism

If you care about religious liberty, this is a story you should familiarize yourself with. Village Atheists is really a religious liberty narrative told from the perspective of grassroots atheists. It’s a survey of “that charged terrain that atheists and unbelievers have long occupied between tolerance and intolerance, civility and incivility, equal and unequal citizenship in American culture.” It’s a profile of atheists in our country who fought for religious liberty on behalf of the irreligious.

Schmidt, a humanities professor at Washington University, performs a historical survey centered on atheism in the 19th century. He’s more concerned with telling the story of the individuals who challenged and shaped popular culture—the village atheists—rather than focusing on academic or literary elites.

Schmidt outlines how the cultural condescension toward the village atheists began to shift and even soften as the nation moved closer to Civil War. The term “village atheist” slowly moved from one of disgust to one of nostalgia. Schmidt cites the example from 1838 when Ralph Waldo Emerson described the “bold village blasphemer” as one who sees “fear in the face, form, and gait, of the minister.” This transition was marked and accelerated by the publication and popular reception of Charles Darwin’s famous Origins in 1859, the year before the war began.

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