In this day of self-driving cars and instant, world-wide video conferencing, it is difficult to believe we still prejudice belief in God. Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation isn’t exactly what I thought it would be. Leigh Eric Schmidt is an historian, so this is an historical treatment. Specifically focusing on four characters from the nineteenth (to early twentieth) century (Samuel Porter Putnam, Watson Heston, Charles B. Reynolds, and Elmina Drake Slenker), Schmidt focuses on a term I’d seldom heard before his book, “the village atheists.” These men and women objected to the preferential treatment accorded to Christian believers in a nation founded on religious equality. In the epilogue Schmidt shows that we are still not a nation committed to fairness.
The only crime these people committed (and two of them were clergy) was honesty in their search for the truth. This was an actionable offense into last century. Such was the hold of biblical religion in America that holding public office, being on a jury, or even protection under the law was disallowed for those who questioned the existence of the Almighty. For sure Schmidt has picked out some colorful characters to sketch, but their common theme was that they were simply following where reason led. In America this was a crime. Secularists today who claim it’s not still haven’t come to terms with the power of religious ideology. A deep distrust of the unbeliever remains, even after the four horsemen of earlier this millennium.
For me the question comes down to honesty. Belief shifts over life, depending on your circumstances and your outlook. Most people unreflectively stay with the religion into which they’re born. Those who study it learn to ask questions and the result is belief that may shift over time. Making what you believe a measure of your integrity is therefore a temporary thing. This is well illustrated in Village Atheists; some of these people began as fervent ministers. They, however, were honest about their thought process and were counted criminals. You have to wonder about a religion that punishes honesty. Perhaps it’s no wonder that evangelicals have no trouble with Trump’s incessant lying. To be honest is to be vulnerable. The people profiled in this study, tried for things we would have trouble believing count as a crime (consider what 45 has been able to get away with), came out of their trials with integrity. It would be great if the same thing could have been said about their accusers.