Religion historian Leigh Eric Schmidt is the author of half a dozen books on religion, but it is the non-religious who have captured his attention in his latest book, Village Atheists: How America's Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation (Princeton University Press, Oct.).
As a religion professor, why write about atheism?
Religion and irreligion are deeply interconnected. Whenever I study religion, I also regularly find myself studying religion’s fiercest critics. So, even before I began working on this book, I saw atheism and Christianity, belief and unbelief, as shadowing one another.
What is a “Village atheist?”
When the expression was first coined, it was wholly negative. Eventually, the idea of the village atheist started to take on more positive associations, a fearless contrarian who was willing to challenge the sanctimony and complacency of provincial churchgoers. The village atheist came to be seen as a necessary secularist critic of America’s dominant Protestant faith, a freethinking nonconformist in a country that demanded all too much public piety. The village atheist was scorned by many as a blaspheming subversive and admired by others as a courageous defender of intellectual independence and church-state separation.
What is an example from the book that surprised you the most about atheist social exclusion?
One of the most consistent was the exclusion of atheists as witnesses in court; the practice of making a sworn belief in God a condition of witness competency. That came up time and again, right into the twentieth century. Perhaps the most egregious case, though, was the lynch-mob attack on the Texas freethinker L. J. Russell in 1875. He had left himself open to community suspicion by organizing a local club of freethinking liberals in Bell County and hosting infidel lectures. A group of vigilantes kidnapped him at gun point and beat him savagely in order, they claimed, to prevent him from leading innocent souls to hell.
What do you hope readers will learn from ‘Village Atheists?’
I wanted to retell the history of secularism in the United States from the ground up with a focus squarely on the folks who proclaimed themselves atheists, infidels, unbelievers, and freethinkers. I wanted to reconsider these dissenters as an irreligious minority, not the bearers of a triumphant secularism that redefines the entire age, but a much tinier, more embattled group who had to fight long and hard for equal liberty and civic acceptance in American culture.