Godless Infidels: Leigh Eric Schmidt on Atheism in the 19th Century

October 10, 2016

Today the United States is the most secular and irreligious it has ever been. According to Pew Research, the percentage of Americans who identify as atheist, agnostic, or having no religion in particular is up to 23%, compared to the 16% it was in 2007. With a lack of religious affiliation becoming normalized, it’s hard to imagine what it was like for the nonreligious when God’s primacy was almost entirely unquestioned.

Point of Inquiry welcomes Leigh Eric Schmidt, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis and author of the new book, Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation. Schmidt gives a detailed account of what it was like to be secular in a society where God was considered to be the sole source of all morality. While some worked to prove that God was not essential to being a moral, upstanding citizen, others were more concerned with reforming the way the church affected public life. Schmidt explains that in the 1850’s, “liberal” was used interchangeably with “atheist.” While some atheists felt it was important to blend in with the rest of God-abiding society, others felt their views on everything — from marriage reform and gender equality to civil rights and free speech — were in direct conflict with the church, and they challenged its claims to moral authority.

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Welcome to Point of Inquiry, a production of the Center for Inquiry. I’m your host, Lindsay Beyerstein. 

We’re living in the most secular age in human history. But some days it still feels lonely to be an infidel. Imagine what it would have been like to be openly godless in the eighteen fifties when your religion put you outside the very pale of humanity. My guest today explores that question in his fascinating new book, Village Atheists How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation. Leigh, Eric Schmidt is a distinguished professor in the humanities at Washington University in St. Louis. Leigh, welcome to the program. 

Thanks for having me. What inspired you to write a book about 19th century atheists? 

I’ve always been interested in. Religious minorities or religious nonconformists and folks who seemed a little on the outsider edges of things. And there was hardly any group that would fit that more than those who would define themselves as atheists in the 19th century. Obviously, not so much maybe a religious minority, but despite a religious minority that that was marked out is so different from this religious mainstream. So that was, you know, one of the things I mean, I’m I’m sort of interested in the outliers when I when I look at the historical record and these secular the minority was definitely that. And I was just fascinated by the question of whether these basic American principles, like liberty of conscience and religious freedom, were actually something that were marked out for the faithful alone somehow or whether they really did extend to the irreligious and the nonbeliever. And that’s a big question with a lot at stake politically, legally, socially. 

Eighteen hundreds. There was kind of a flowering of a frisson. What were the forces that brought that on? 

Well, yeah, definitely. There’s this period after the Civil War, 30 or 40 years after that. There is a really dramatic increase in the number of lecturers out there on the circuit, freethinking lectures, the secularist lectures. And there is also a very noticeable growth in the number of journals and periodicals that are promoting the cause. So why? It’s a good question. A lot of things, I think, go into it. There is this larger backdrop of the liberalization of Protestantism. Christianity broadly. And as those movements grow within Protestantism, the ages, there’s kind of a spectrum as they move out from the kind of religious liberal posture to more and more of a secularist posture. So there’s a kind of larger drift out there. And the freethinkers and atheists, you know, are the ones that are taking these steps from the evangelical to liberal to, say, Unitarian to a kind of positive and turning into an outright atheist secular. So there’s a kind of broader intellectual cultural movement that is shifting themes that are opening up this possibility. You know, that kind of pushes the question back. Where did that come from? But it is true that it’s part of that broader context of these liberalizing religious impulses out there in the landscape. 

And what were some of the issues that the free thinkers of the day were really concerned with? 

Well, they had they had several issues that they really promoted. 

So they had these things called the nine demands of secularism or these nine demands of liberalism, and most of them focused on separation of religion and state. So a group today, like the Freedom from Religion Foundation, which is very concerned with the strict separation of church and state, that vision is an extension of the vision that many of these folks in the 19th century had. So getting the Bible out of the public schools, getting prayer out of the schools, trying to keep government officials from issuing religious proclamations for the holidays, trying to keep the churches from having special tax exempt status, trying to level the playing field between believers and nonbelievers. Those kinds of issues really energized these secular free thinkers, atheists in the period. And then then there were the larger kinds of questions, as in so much focus on the religion, the same questions. There were religion and science questions, their defense of Darwinian naturalism against religious figures who oppose that. So there’s a religion and science side of this as well. But a lot of the energy is coming from this church and state battles or the stricter separation of church and state. 

There was a lot of sense that people who didn’t believe in God were unwelcome and untrustworthy and not even citizens. How did the freethinkers of that year deal with their own isolation? 

Right. There’s definitely a Texas up in the record. I mean, one of the things I tried to do is get a sense of just these commonplace letters that say the isolated village eight years from a small town in Pennsylvania or New Mexico. We’re amazed how they they experienced their kind of loneliness, their solitary position in their in their communities. And you could kind of reconstruct that. Now, there are ways that they could deal with that. One year, you know, you subscribe to these journals and then you feel like, hey, I’m in fellowship with all of these other people who are writing in their letters. I may be experiencing this isolation in my little town here, but there are all these other folks out there across the country feel the same way as I do. So they kind of knit together through a kind of sort of reading. 

Freethinkers today congregate around blogs and yapp communities. 

Right, exactly. It’s like that kind of a virtual community. I mean, you’re not doing it locally face to face so much. But you do feel connected because of that network. Right. And whether it’s blogging, reading. And then sometimes they did form clubs, they formed little societies. Sometimes they call them these liberal leagues. That was one of the clubs. And there were about 300 of those clubs across the country by 1880. And, you know, sometimes they’re really tiny. Sometimes they had a couple dozen members or more. And so they could congregate and then feel like they had a community that kind of was close enough down and offered an alternative to all of the church communities in town. So so there was some some of that. So there were various strategies you could employ to feel like you weren’t so alone in the world or so isolated or so ostracized. And then sometimes these freethinkers, of course, have built up alliances with other people in the community. And the community didn’t necessarily just decide out of hand handling a boycott that person’s business or we’re not going to be in fellowship with that person or because they were seen as people of upstanding character in the town or had, you know, a record published right. From the Civil War or something. And so there was just a kind of level of trust that could be built up apart from this fundamental difference about religion. So sometimes that happens as well. 

It’s interesting in the book, one of the themes that keeps coming up is the ways in which people had to bend over backwards to establish themselves as virtuous and trustworthy in the ways in which that shaped their nonbelief kinds of thinking. 

Right. Yeah. And, you know, you still see this as one of the big arguments out there. You know, that you can be good without God right now. You kind of have to keep making this case. It’s possible to be a ethical humanist and is concerned about the community life, that is, people who go to church to be able to make that case. And people had to try to make that case. 

And there was just as fundamental level of distrust built in somehow being a responsible moral citizen went hand in glove with being part of a religious congregation or having a religious affiliation. It was just hard. 

A lot of times to get those things disjoined. But that was something that they had to work on over and over again and insist that the two weren’t necessarily connected. 

It’s funny because you think about the other stereotype of the village atheist coming back and back, but being a drunkard. And then you see these these freethinker sort of struggling to claim a place among the righteous by being vehement prohibitionists and anti alcohol crusaders. 

Right. Right. So so sometimes they are right. They this H.L. Green, who is one of them, I mean, you put him a kind of a temperance advocate, is a moral purist in all kinds of ways, wants to make freethinking atheist views respectable and very middle class ways. And so any taint of kind of connection with marriage reform or questions about reforming sexuality and understandings of sexuality, all of that was just off limits to him. And he just wanted to make it respectable on these very Middle-Class really Protestant terms. And so, yes, sometimes that happened. And then he would he would try to basically house down any of the free thinkers who saw the atheist cause as including these other kinds of reforms and these other kinds of issues. So, yeah, it is. I mean, they’re divided. That’s politics. And the divide in the most was how to think about it consistently divided. I mean, this this issue about how to think about marriage equality, the relationship of minimum marriage. What kind of reforms need to be done there? The liberalization of divorce laws or property rights for women? What was probably interesting about those things and also then questions about sexuality. Did any sexual relations outside of conventional heterosexual married relationship figure in your book, even wanted to restrict within heterosexual conventional marriage to simply procreative sex? 


Right, right. I mean, right. So there. Yeah, that’s true. I mean, there was there is that too. And that’s the pressures to be respectable and those kinds of ways to make it look. In that case, it’s one. This woman, atheist online slinker. I talk about a lot, you know, who has really all kinds of radical views. But she’s also so worried about just being dismissed as crazy and dangerous that she is consistently going ways to say, no, I’m not as dangerous as you think. I’m quite respectable on these on these issues around sexuality and marriage. You know, I’m not a poor ish advocate of libertinism or something. 

I do know this. I am I am the mother of Freethought. I am the you know, I did domestic face of free thought. 

She she makes those kinds of moves all the time. She feels compelled to do it because of all the rhetoric on the other side, you know, is of the just had. It is for her to be a woman and an atheist at the same time. 

Do you think it was a conscious decision on her part to put up an image, or do you think that was just who she was? 

Well, I think a little bit of both. I mean, it’s it it’s calculated. She falls back on it again and again and again. I mean, she put on trial for obscenity because of her involvement in sex before marriage reform work. She she has put on and she falls back on a trial. I mean, it is a way of making it look not threatening. You know, on the other hand, though, I think she really needs to believe that about herself. I mean, she really needs to be invested in in her own domesticity that she needs to she always put her family first. She never, you know, traveled widely as a lecturer. She tended to the home fires. I mean, she makes that emphasis. I think it just it hurts. It is a lot about who she is, actually, even though she also knows how to deploy that tactically. I think that she really would together that she wrote some fiction as well. And occasionally her stories, you see a kind of bolder vision for how you can think about this, that she imagines characters who who don’t, female characters who are atheist, who don’t need to get married, who don’t need to present this domestic face to the world. So she’s capable of imagining it. But I don’t think she’s she was that way herself. That’s not how she sees herself. 

Is it true that she advertised for an egalitarian marriage and found someone who is willing to answer her classified ad? 

Then if it is true, there are people that may be classified as are looking in this one journal and a lot of people advertise for mates. And she was looking for an appropriately freethinking liberal one and found one, so. Right. She did. 

And it worked for her. Exactly. 

If any of your bill fears, just take the total opposite track and say, to hell with respectability politics. We’re all in for free love and being an evidence base about the horrifying Submerse Wasey. About everything. 

Yeah. Let’s see now. I’m trying to think of someone. I mean, some of the there’s some that do this this Edwin C. Walker and his partner, Lilian Harmon. They are willing to be in people’s face a little bit more. He’s they’re both secularist free thinkers. And they’re also I mean, they just decide to flaunt the Kansas marriage law and cohabitate together and they’re arrested for that. So they’re in there in you know, officials say so on this. They just think that, you know, this this kind of form of marriage. I see marriages, you know, fundamentally coercive and unequal. 

And so they’re just going to do away with the system as it is and not play by the laws of the day. And so they’re just going to create their own they create their own wedding marriage? Well, they create their own ceremony for their partnership. And then they go about living together. So, yeah, they flaunt it, gets them into trouble. And then but they don’t want anything to do with these folks who want to. 

I mean, they’ll they’ll cooperate with him. But they also think that they’re just being all too prim and proper about it. And they criticize criticize them for just not being out there on those kinds of issues. 

So, yeah, there are some kind of a division that comes back and back and forth in other liberation movements and also with an atheist today and seculars and today, like how much in your face people really want to be about it? 

Right. Right now, that’s a yes. I mean, another place you see, that is in the debates about cartoons. Like, do you just one figure I talk about what’s in essence, who created over a thousand cartoons satirizing. Religion and in Christianity, in the Bible and the big debate was, is this the right way to behave in relationship to our Christian neighbors? Right. Should we be that in their face? Should we offend their feelings in this very intentional way by distributing these offensive cartoons that were very brash and hard hitting and most of the freethinkers ended up supporting his cartooning thing was good thing. But there was a significant minority said, no, this is this is going to win. Any converts to our cause is just offending people. It lacks sensitivity. It’s just not. It’s just not a good strategy to, you know, to delight too much in cartoons. It’s all too in your face. So they debate that, too. And, you know, Chris, that issue goes on still. I mean, something to life and death issue still. I mean, in terms of the cartoon in question and whether people have a right to ridicule, whether they have a right to blaspheme, we see that globally still as a huge issue. 

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The ongoing debates within this Freethought community about what to call themselves mean. It seems like this is something that’s ongoing today too. Like what we could detention’s that the nomenclature debate really represents, right? 

Yeah. Yeah. I mean, you’re right. I think this is something you see you do see a lot of cill today. And in this period, you know, throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, they were try out different levels. Basically, atheist is a slur. It’s an insult. I mean. And same same with infidel freethinker. It could go both ways. 

It could be used as a slur, just like desists, could be used as a slur. But it was also a term that there were not people kind of adopting as their own. And then there were ones that were seen as softer and just learn and ones like liberals feel liberal or just be a secularist. These were seen as terms that were thought to be more constructive, a little softer around the edges not and maybe better badges to wear because of that. 

But, yeah. Or others wanted to emphasize more the side side or materialist. I’m a naturalist. So there. Yes. So this was long running debate about it. I mean, a lot of these terms, of course, are just overlapping, mutually reinforcing. And. Yes, so it’s I mean. Well, I don’t even know which ones. The most popular one finally in the 19th century. They go out. They use them so interchangeably. I’m an atheist on the secularist and so on. And that continues. 

It’s interesting that liberal was so closely associated with all kinds of nonbelief, ideologies and in secularism today, you have people that are sort of waxing nostalgic for the good old days before. A few he hasn’t got mixed up with all this social justice warrior nonsense. But it seems like in your book, it’s that there’s always been this this close, or at least in the era you’re studying a very close relationship between various kinds of theological liberalism and political liberalism. 

Right. Yeah. Yeah, definitely. You know, it’s it’s not 100 percent right. I mean, you could be a secularist and not be progressive on race questions. You could be downright conservative and reactionary on race questions and still be a secular. So. But you’re right that there’s considerable overlap. And a lot of this is very evident when you get, you know, around a certain Unitarian influences on Freethought and on the rise of unbelieve is because that’s coming right out of these liberal theological traditions within Protestantism. And then it’s just becoming like a stepping stone to other for a really post Christian posture’s and secularist posture. So there, you know, you can really see a kind of continuum, a set of connections where one leads to the other. I mean, that’s very New England base. So there’s a lot of links between reform movements within those liberal Protestant worlds and reform movements that these secularists keep taking on after they’ve made that tradition. Right. So, yeah, you see it there. But then other places, you know, you see something that’s much more sectional. So, I mean, the sexual liberalism where on race questions, it’ll look completely different if you’re in, you know, in Texas, but it does appear in Boston or something. 

Were there any notable people who regard this? Will bad guys within the secular movement who were just terrible on race that we should talk about? 

Well, let’s see this guy. The the founder of the for a the American Association for the Advancement of Racism is Charles Lee Smith. And he at the time he’s involved this is in the 1920s. In fact, he helps found this group is really aggressive group. The first one to really fly the easiest banner so explicitly in the United States. He founded in the wake of the Scopes trial in 1925. And he now he’s is hard charging, aggressive person, goes down to Little Rock, Arkansas, to fight, you know, the pro evolution cause in Arkansas and sets a any bookstore on Main Street. Very, very, very aggressive pose. And, you know, in the 1920s that that’s what is his cause is I mean, he’s really an anti fundamentalist and that’s what he’s doing. But then in the 1940s and 1950s, later in life, he becomes a flaming racist. I mean, he he just he just he gets the slogan going in these circles that he’s for liberty, fraternity, liberty, fraternity and equality, equal equality, racial equality, racial purity. So and there are others in this circle who are the same way. Woolsey Toller’s another atheist of the 1940s and 1950s who writes in this, you know, explicitly this explicit vein of racial superiority at this period or of the white race. 

So there are some slinker was part of that. You mentioned in the book that some of her writings that got into trouble had stuff to do about miscegenation or fortuitous couplings. Was that a racial janik type thing? 

I did not I did not see that particular eugenicist link in her. But it’s you know, it’s of a piece that the sort of concerns about having fewer and better children. I mean, for her, that’s more about women having control over how many children they have and family size and things like that. So she was more concerned in that as a as a as a gender issue than a race issue. But isn’t it only takes a step or two, you know. Yeah. From there to get into race questions. And so that’s yeah. Those are the kinds of links to get played out over time. They become, you know, this kind of the interest in heredity that turns into an interest in eugenics and, you know, breeding a superior race or something. Yeah. That then gets into, you know, this Charles Lee Smith character and teller in the 40s and 50s. So, yeah, they’re you know, these these strands are there. 

You know, the one thing you can say, though, is the influence of eugenicist fought in the United States is extremely widespread in the period. Few groups would get off unmarked by that. 

So there were people who rejected a lot of the secular implications of Darwinism, but still wanted to run with the pseudoscience of breeding better humans. 

Yeah. And there’s just there’s a lot of interest in that. Just that sort of sense of. Right. I mean, you know, you could see how you would see in protest in circles, in Catholic circles. I mean, there’s just there’s there are there are a lot of a lot of thinkers, a lot of writers on on society by the 1920s, just kind of Thomas, like it’s just in the year. And it’s hard. It’s picked up in all kinds of places. So it’s not surprising. You see, it picked up an atheist simply about circles as well. It’s surprising in light of some of the previous history where you thought, like Robert Ingersoll’s alliance with Frederick Douglass is strong and is a big advocate of rights and liberties. And it’s a little strange to see it mutate in that kind of way. We see that piece of history. But it’s not once you see some of the other pieces that are there. 

You can see how you get you get to that a little bit about the mechanics of the secular lecture circuit. I mean, I find it personally kind of mind blowing that there was such a thing that anybody could make their living talking about guilelessness the crowds in that era where their company that did multiple locations, we’d go on a tour with them or how did that work? 

Well, I think that, you know, the biggest ones to have, you know, agents and like Ingersol is making a good amount of money on elections or you’re really selling big three years out. So he has to have help. He’s not just going from place to place in any in any discretion as to why it’s really well organized, because he’s a big draw. When you get down into more the middle range where these these folks are traveling, what they’re doing is they announced their travel dates in these sympathetic periodicals. So, you know, they’re five or six of these big Freethought atheist. Periodicals in the period and they’ll announce their dates. I’m going to be in Boston on April 15th and I’m going to go to Hartford and then I’m going to get, you know, there and then or they’ll be sent or they’ll be little towns. I’ll be in this little town in Iowa and then that little town in Michigan, you know, and so they’ll announce them out. And usually, you know, they’ve already made some sort of arrangements through local networks of these three thinking dissidents know that they’ll have at least a small audience and they’ll still have some support in the community. I mean, I think that’s how it works. And since I’m David, they just show up and speak. But that’s not. It’s really more carefully planned than that. It’s important to carefully plan, because if you don’t know what you’re doing, you can encounter a lot of hostility really quickly. So they have to they have to plan this. And, you know, having having a few key supporters organize and find a venue for it for me to fall back on. You know, the local ministerial group decides to create a lot of opposition to the speaker being in town. Things like that. So they they work in network. I mean, I suppose if you get down to the lowest, you know, Ruby, these are the ones that are just out there trying to speak and a handful of places in one little part of the state or something. I don’t know how organized they are. They might actually maybe I’ll know a family or something and go and try to do it. But a lot of them, they’re pretty well planned out. And they, you know, they have to know where they’re going to be. 

And if they have to have a venue and they have to have some local support for it. 

After looking at this number, Gnomon, very carefully. Would you say that history has a verdict on? I mean, I think it’s fair to say that we’re living in a secular era. This country has ever known. 

Is there a verdict on what style of engagement worked best, which really did make the most inroads in terms of right in your face versus more conciliatory and friendly? 

Yeah, that’s yeah. That’s a hard one to judge. You know, both both have their defenders. 

I know the one I prefer. 

I mean, I like I, I, I like this this kind of more civic minded forms of engagement where there’s a kind of moderate tone to the debate and it’s not premised on kind of a warfare model that, you know, that’s when I come across those kinds of scenes where even a minister can stand up and think of Freethought lecture for giving the lecture, for kind of making him think about the issues around mental liberty or the relationship of religion, the state. I mean, I think I think that’s a good episode. I mean, I think that’s the kind of civil society we’d like to see where people can really exchange just fundamental differences in a way that just doesn’t drive people part into completely separate camps. 

Is it the most effective way, you know, created? I don’t know. I mean, you know, there’s a lot to be said for, you know, that the cartoon worked and how effective that is and all the places that shows up. 

Right. I mean, you see people putting them up in barbershops or in taverns or hanging them up. And other than the law office or something like that. So they become these icons that they engage people in that, you know, the visual images and they have a visceral power to them. That’s different than a carefully considered lecture, you know, on the platform. So, you know, I think that I think in terms of effectiveness, you know, a case can be made for both. So it’s you know, it’d be an interesting question. You know, when we think about like this over the last fifteen years when there has been this incredible growth in the atheist community in the United States, in them, in the number of people who are have no religious affiliation whatsoever, right up to about 25 percent of the population. You know, what is what is created that grows? Is it that the aggressive posture of the of the most famous new atheists know combat, as you know, Hitchens approach to it? Bill Marr, is it more you know or is it coming from other kinds of sources of alienation that really don’t have to do with that combativeness? That really that’s what explains it more than than the style of combat. It’s become quite popular over the last 15 years in that polemical literature. I don’t know that it’s a good question. 

I don’t really and I would be hard on how to quantify it to both where they go, where the growth has come from. Do you have it? You have a sense of that? 

I know my personal feeling is that it’s it’s both it’s a good cop, bad cop routine that we’ve got going on throughout the movement that you’ve got. Some people are going to be reached by the fire breathers and some people are going to be reached by the more thoughtful, legitimizing, coaxing, cajoling side of things. And I think you’re right both. 

Right. Right now, I think. I yeah, I definitely think that’s, you know, and that’s how it works. In the 19th century, you had both and you said you saw them side by side, you know, arguing with one another over tactics and strategy and who was actually doing more effective. But probably you’re right, when you step back from it, it’s a combination that proves effective in creating a much more organized frisson. 

I mean, the most successful social movements are often the ones that that harness the strengths of their individual members. You have some people that are more suited to engaging in a really aggressive way and you other people who have other strengths and talents and the most influential movements create, pass or both those kinds of people. 

But right now, that’s a necessity. It’s a fascinating time right now. And I’m sure you’re wearing this moment or for atheist communities and secular communities in the United States, because the trend line here is just it’s remarkable in both the number of people who are unaffiliated, you know, you haven’t grown to 25 percent, but also the number of people within that group who are willing to come out and just say, I’m an atheist or agnostic. 

That that’s also brand new. 

That’s all the time we have. Thank you so much for coming on the program. 

Thank you for having me. It’s great talking to you. 

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The NationMs. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.