Going Their Own Way: Village Atheists in a Changing America

Leigh Eric Schmidt

When the sociologist Will Herberg surveyed the nation’s tri-faith landscape in the early 1950s in his classic study, Protestant-Catholic-Jew, he emphasized “the extraordinary pervasiveness of religious identification among present-day Americans.” Almost everyone, it seemed, gladly claimed fellowship with one of the country’s three primary religious groups. Amidst this high tide of religious affiliation, Herberg surmised that “the old-time ‘village atheist’” had become “a thing of the past, a folk curiosity like the town crier,” having disappeared without leaving a successor:

The present generation can hardly understand the vast excitement stirred up in their day by the “atheists” and “iconoclasts” who vied for public attention less than a half century ago, or imagine the brash militancy of the “rationalist” movements and publications now almost all extinct. Religion has become part of the ethos of American life to such a degree that overt anti-religion is all but inconceivable.

Herberg took it as axiomatic that the country had changed vastly since the 1890s when infidels like Robert Ingersoll roamed the land “defying God” with their irreligious oratory, and even since the 1920s when literary sophisticates like Sinclair Lewis made ridicule of Babbittry and the Bible Belt de rigueur. In the grip of the Cold War struggle against godless communism, the United States had become—more resoundingly than ever before, the sociologist averred—a nation “under God” (the phrase was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, the year before Herberg published his banner work). The country’s long-standing distrust and abhorrence of atheists was at a floodtide. Nonbelievers had become utterly anathema to an American Way of Life in which citizenship and religious profession were manifestly interwoven.

The twentieth-century fate of the village atheist was not, however, quite as bleak as Herberg imagined it when he pictured the “militant secularist” fading haplessly into inconspicuousness and inconsequence. Even as Herberg was writing atheism’s Cold War epitaph, nonbelievers were making demonstrable inroads through the courts. If the post-war era was the axial moment for making palpable the country’s civic theism—Congress adopted “In God We Trust” as the national motto in 1956—it was also the period in which freethinkers, humanists, and atheists gained critical legal vindication through the Supreme Court. These secularist victories were the flipside of all the “Back to God” movements that the era generated and that the nation’s political leaders eagerly embraced. The rights and liberties of nonbelievers were, in short, given fresh reconsideration at the very moment when social and political pressures to privilege religion over irreligion reached a new peak of intensity.

 

Early in the twentieth century—at a time when many imagined freethought’s golden age long past—no group was more prepared to keep up the secularist fight than the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism (4A). Chartered in New York in November 1925 in the heaving wake of the Scopes trial, the 4A heralded itself as the first American group to fly the atheist banner with such unflinching explicitness—no flaccid invocation of liberalism, humanism, or agnosticism sufficed. “The 4A is a militant foe of the Church and Clergy,” the group proclaimed. “Our strategy is to storm the forts of the enemy in a direct frontal assault.”

Pugnacity was the 4A’s trademark, but one episode stands as especially emblematic: namely, the effort by Charles Lee Smith, the group’s president, to bring atheism and evolution to Little Rock, Arkansas, in the fall of 1928. Smith had honed his irreligious skills in New York City, writing for the Truth Seeker, but he was born in Arkansas, grew up in Oklahoma, and knew his Protestant opposition intimately. Arriving in Little Rock, he proceeded to set up an atheist headquarters on Main Street. In a large show-window, he planted a placard that read: “EVOLUTION IS TRUE. THE BIBLE’S A LIE. GOD’S A GHOST.” That Smith failed to save “Darkest Arkansas” from evangelical Protestantism goes without saying. Instead, he was arrested twice—first for disturbing the public peace and then for blasphemy. Barred from the witness stand, he was found guilty on both charges and imprisoned for sixteen days when he refused to pay a fine. His atheist shop was pillaged, his tracts confiscated, and the chief of police refused him any security: “I would not give protection to a house of prostitution or a bootlegging joint and I don’t see why I should protect you,” he had reportedly informed Smith. A ham-fisted assault on conservative Protestantism, Smith’s blitz and the disturbance it provoked gained national media attention—much as Clarence Darrow’s excursion to Dayton, Tennessee, had. An undersized venture, like most freethought groups, Smith’s 4A nonetheless managed to make plain that America’s distinct brand of combative secularism was not going to fade gently away.

The 4A gleefully thrust itself into the clamor of religious controversy in the mid-to-late 1920s. One of its chief ambitions was to create satellite chapters on college campuses, and it achieved a publicity coup when it undertook to inaugurate a club at the University of Rochester in early March 1926. A small group of students (eleven men and two women) answered the atheist call at the Baptist-affiliated campus and dubbed their new fellowship the Society of Damned Souls. Latched onto by the local papers and then by the Associated Press, the Damned Souls quickly garnered notice in Time magazine—in back-to-back weeks. What had started mostly as lighthearted collegiate rebellion was widely recast as a disturbing trend of the times. Ministers condemned the students from the pulpit—one labeled them “perverts”; alumni were enraged over the “unwholesome publicity”; and the student leader, Salvatore Russo, was taunted in the streets and eventually assaulted. Soon Clarence Darrow and the nascent American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), along with the 4A, were offering support to the students, but the Society of Damned Souls had largely been cowed. Most of the collegians peeled away, and a supportive philosophy professor eventually convinced the remaining members to drop the “Damned” from their name and just be called “The Souls.”

The local fate of Rochester’s Damned Souls certainly counted as one more defeat of freethinking unbelief at the hands of the Protestant establishment, but the 4A nonetheless managed to run with the publicity and capitalize on it nationally. Indeed, the squashing of this one student group seemed only to embolden youth elsewhere. Within the next year, the 4A was proudly claiming chapters on twenty college campuses—from Brown University to the University of Kansas to the University of California. At Yale, “a group of daring young radicals” emulated the Rochester cabal, banding together, the New York Times reported incredulously, on “the platform that the old religion is bunk, that God is a figment of the diseased mind, and Heaven a luscious frankfurter held out on the end of a stick to keep the anthropoid rabble working like the trained dog in a circus.” That media notice was precisely the success the 4A gained through its campaign to organize “a junior atheist movement” in American colleges and high schools. The clubs were generally tiny and fleeting, but they nonetheless managed time and again to gain news coverage out of all proportion to their membership.

The grandest indication of the visibility that the 4A had attained through its junior-atheist clubs came in 1928 with the release of Cecil B. DeMille’s spectacular melodrama, The Godless Girl. An Episcopalian who credited his father’s commitment to family Bible reading each evening with having shaped both his movie-making and his lifelong faith, DeMille already had such scriptural epics as The Ten Commandments and The King of Kings under his belt. Looking for another morality tale, he found it in the sinister efforts of the 4A, particularly the group’s rumored recruitment efforts at nearby Hollywood High School. The Godless Girl centers on a young rebel named Judy, played by Lina Basquette, who organizes a Godless Society, much to the chagrin of both her school’s leaders and her Christian classmates. (One of the 4A’s junior-atheist groups had actually taken the name “Society of the Godless,” a little sharper-edged than the clubs calling themselves “Truth Seekers” or “God’s Black Sheep,” and a lot pithier than the one hailing itself “The Hedonic Host of Hell-bent Heathens.”) The film’s opening title card sets the stage for the disturbing story to follow: “There are Atheist Societies using the schools of the country as their battle-ground—attacking through the Youth of the Nation, the beliefs that are sacred to most of the people.”

After that ominous pronouncement, the film cuts to a printing press multiplying hundreds of leaflets that carry the invitation: “Join the Godless Society. Kill the Bible.” Immediately the school’s principal rallies the faithful against the scourge, denouncing the Godless Society as a bunch of “little rebels [who] blow spit-balls at the Rock of Ages.” (In the shooting script, he holds the atheist pamphlets and trembles with alarm: “Do you know this [literature] is striking at the root of the nation?”) Despite all the distress they have created, the young atheists persist, beckoning new members to take an oath with their hands solemnly placed on a monkey’s head: “Swear that you don’t believe in the Bible—the Church—or God!” Unsurprisingly, things do not go well for these youthful agitators for unbelief. An egg-throwing, vegetable-heaving mob of Christian students is soon raised against the club—an overheated reaction, DeMille suggested, but one that nonetheless seemed understandable in the face of “unlawful” atheist propaganda and agitation. Amid the mayhem a young woman falls over an upper-floor balustrade, and, as she lies dying, Judy helplessly leans over her without being able to offer a word of religious solace. Both the godless Judy and the Christian ringleader, Bob (who also plays the role of Judy’s budding love-interest), are then locked away in a reformatory where they are treated brutally. Imprisoned, the youthful atheist eventually comes to her religious senses and reaffirms God’s existence (in one especially grim scene, she even has the sign of the cross burned into her hands by an electrified fence). Resisting the prison’s sadistic guards, she and Bob eventually regain their freedom when the reformatory is consumed in an inferno. As in the University of Rochester episode, DeMille’s film moves toward the seemingly inevitable Christian reclamation of a youthful malcontent. Judy realizes, especially through her blooming passion for Bob, that God is love and love is God.

DeMille’s religious verities notwithstanding, The Godless Girl provided the 4A’s atheistic campaign with big-screen, mass-culture exposure that made the notices in Time magazine look small bore. For all of the director’s dire warnings about atheistic propaganda poisoning American youth, the 4A understood the film’s release in a different light: it proved that they had picked the right target. “About one in three college students are Atheists,” a 4A spokesman confidently asserted. “Colleges are a fruitful field for us—for this is where the young people begin to think.” For the 4A, the attention The Godless Girl focused on their college and school clubs, no matter how alarmist, was promotional pay dirt. Overmatching Judy’s newfound God—one version of the script had her chirp about the “Big Friend that loves us all”—was a task the 4A relished. Smith liked to complain about DeMille’s use of motion pictures “to sustain religion and blacken the character of Atheists,” but there was little doubt that The Godless Girl was a godsend for the 4A.

 

Charles Lee Smith was far from alone as a gadfly for the rights of atheists and for strict church-state separation. Among his most tenacious comrades was Joseph Lewis, the son of a Jewish merchant in Selma, Alabama. The family had made its way to New York City just after the turn of the century, and young Lewis left school to work for his father. An autodidact, he had absorbed the works of Paine and Ingersoll while carrying on a successful trade as a men’s clothier. In 1921, he launched his own Freethought Press Association to broadcast his atheistic views as well as his sharply secularist perspective on the nation’s founding fathers. That venture allowed him to fire off one title after another—from The Tyranny of God to Jefferson, the Freethinker to The Bible Unmasked. His publishing enterprise was but preparation for his primary preoccupation, the litigation of church-state cases in order to “get God out of public institutions.” He challenged prayers at city board meetings, the recitation of the Ten Commandments in the public schools, and the expenditure of public funds to transport students to parochial institutions. Eventually, he would even challenge the addition of the “under God” phrase to the Pledge of Allegiance, the building of airport chapels, and the use of public firehouses for religious meetings. A self-avowed “Enemy of God” who worked to organize freethinkers into a national society, Lewis made it his perennial mission to question religion’s persistent entwining with the country’s public institutions. Even though most of his suits were quickly dismissed—“Legalistically Freethinker Lewis hardly ever wins a battle,” Time magazine smirked in 1935—he nonetheless managed to keep such secularist provocations in the national news from one year to the next. Lewis even gained some well-placed admirers along the way—Clarence Darrow for sure, but also Unitarian John Haynes Holmes and journalist Heywood Broun, who editorialized in the pages of the New York World in 1926 on behalf of this “small minority” of atheists and freethinkers against a “stampeding” Christian majority.

Highly visible agitators like Smith and Lewis had the company of equally committed, if more local and obscure, comrades. A prime example was Arthur G. Cromwell, an architect from Rochester, New York. Raised in a staunch Presbyterian family (his father was an elder in the church), Cromwell had been a doubter of the faith since boyhood and renounced Christianity entirely after his violently disillusioning experience in the army during World War I. Disabled, he spent three years in and out of army hospitals, then devoted much of the next decade to digesting the works of religion’s critics—from Voltaire to Ingersoll. By the 1930s, Cromwell had organized his own local society of freethinkers in Rochester and was serving as the group’s president (it was an affiliate branch of Joseph Lewis’s barebones national organization). In 1940, he produced a fiery sixteen-page pamphlet on Rationalism vs. Religious Instruction in the Public Schools, just one more squib in the ongoing legal battles that Smith, Lewis, and company had been pursuing for the last fifteen years. It would have been an unremarkable contribution except for one thing: five years later, in 1945, one of Cromwell’s daughters, Vashti McCollum, would file suit against the release-time program operative in the schools of Champaign, Illinois—an action that set the stage for the first major Supreme Court victory, in 1948, for an avowedly secularist plaintiff. Arthur Cromwell, acerbic local freethinker, would have his moment in the national spotlight thanks to his ungodly daughter. He would see his tiny Rochester pamphlet brandished in an Illinois court as an illustration of the atheistic militancy and familial delinquency behind McCollum’s challenge. Called to the stand himself, Cromwell would send a gasp through the courtroom when he flatly denied God’s existence and announced he was proud to be an atheist.

The public schools of Champaign, Illinois, had started a program of religious instruction in 1940 in which Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish children learned from representatives of their respective faiths about their own tradition. The program, dominated by a palpable Protestant majority, was conducted in school classrooms on a release-time basis, for a half-hour each week. Like her father, Vashti McCollum was a humanistic freethinker and so was her husband, John, a professor of horticulture at the nearby University of Illinois. The couple was disturbed at the prospect of their three sons being incorporated into Champaign’s “voluntary” program of religious instruction. When their oldest son James Terry entered fourth grade, the level at which the religious curriculum began, Vashti took the lead in getting him excused. Placed by himself in the hallway or in a music room, Jim was stigmatized by his classmates for not participating in the program, further steeling McCollum’s resolve to have religious instruction removed from the public schools. With the support of a local Unitarian minister, Philip Schug, and a civil-liberties group in Chicago, McCollum filed suit against the school board. The case went to trial in September 1945, garnering national media attention, much of which was scornful of McCollum, an “Anti-Bible Mother,” with a finger-pointing atheist for a father and “a young Voltaire” for a ten-year-old son. In January 1946, a three-judge panel of the Sixth Illinois Circuit Court denied her petition, seeing no constitutional or statutory violations stemming from Champaign’s system of religious education. She appealed to the Supreme Court of Illinois, which upheld the Circuit Court’s verdict; she and her lawyers then turned to the Supreme Court of the United States, which agreed to review the case and heard oral arguments in December 1947. Ten months earlier, in February 1947, the Supreme Court had decided another crucial establishment-clause case, Everson v. Board of Education, in which it narrowly upheld a New Jersey school district’s use of public funds to transport students to parochial schools. Though the school’s policy was vindicated, Justice Hugo Black made plain in his majority opinion that the First Amendment’s prohibition of any law respecting “an establishment of religion” was indeed applicable through the Fourteenth Amendment to state and local governments. So, even as the court decided that in this instance there was no breach of the First Amendment, Black and his fellow justices (including those who, in dissent, did see a clear breach) pledged the nation’s highest court to a new vigilance against religious establishments broadly construed. Rehearsing the founding principles of Jefferson and Madison, Black made a sweeping separationist argument:

The “establishment of religion” clause of the First Amend­ment means at least this: neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. . . . No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance. . . . In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect “a wall of separation between Church and State.”

All citizens—whether “Catholics, Lutherans, Mohammedans, Baptists, Jews, Methodists, Nonbelievers, Presbyterians, or the members of any other faith,” in Black’s compendious listing—were to share equally in the rights and liberties of the First Amendment. The state was required to be studiously “neutral in its relations” with “religious believers and nonbelievers” alike. With those words, Black, an Ala­bama Southern Baptist turned humanistic Unitarian, gave McCollum hope. The religious and irreligious had equal standing under the Bill of Rights, and those protections were enforceable on the states through the Fourteenth Amendment.

Justice Hugo Black wrote the majority opinion in McCollum v. Board of Education, an 8–1 decision in favor of the appellant, announced on March 8, 1948. Invoking the same language as he had used in the Everson case, Black found this time that the breach of the First Amendment’s establishment clause was “beyond all question.” The city of Champaign was clearly using “the tax-established and tax-supported public school system to aid religious groups to spread their faith,” an encroachment on the Jeffersonian wall of separation that Everson had elevated. As Black saw it, the state’s use of the “compulsory public school machinery” for “the dissemination of religious doctrines” was simply incompatible with a “high and impregnable” wall separating church and state.

 

On religious tests and public office-holding, the case of Roy Torcaso, a Maryland atheist and the manager of a construction business, proved especially momentous. To become a notary public in the state required taking a solemn oath pledging faithful allegiance, “in the presence of Almighty God,” to the constitutions of both Maryland and the United States; it also required a distinct declaration of belief in God’s existence. Torcaso wanted to make an affirmation in lieu of the religious oath and declaration, but the Circuit Court of Montgomery County denied that petition in 1959, as did the Maryland Court of Appeals the next year. The Appeals Court pointed to the state’s constitution, which made a declaration of belief in God a prerequisite to holding any office of public trust and to serving as a witness or juror in Maryland courtrooms:

It seems clear that under our Constitution disbelief in a Supreme Being, and the denial of any moral accountability for conduct, not only renders a person incompetent to hold public office, but to give testimony, or serve as a juror. The historical record makes it clear that religious toleration, in which this State has taken pride, was never thought to encompass the ungodly.

As a historical judgment, that appraisal fairly captured the long-reigning majoritarian view that lifted believers above unbelievers in American public life. It failed, though, to recognize the equally tenacious challenge American secularists had been mounting to such invidious legal distinctions for well over a century. The Maryland court counted the limits placed on irreligious freedom a settled question in the nation’s history when, in fact, that issue had been in dispute from the beginning. The Torcaso case promised to bring some resolution to those endlessly smoldering debates.

With the backing of both the ACLU and the American Jewish Congress, Torcaso took his case to the Supreme Court in 1961. Once again, Justice Hugo Black delivered the Court’s opinion, this time unanimous in favor of the appellant. Torcaso’s lawyers—among them Leo Pfeffer, a front-rank defender of religious liberties—had argued that Maryland’s oath requirements violated Article VI of the federal Constitution, which expressly forbids religious tests for public office, as well as the First and Fourteenth amendments as interpreted in Everson and McCollum. Skirting the Article VI argument and its bearing on the states, Black instead presented the Supreme Court’s reversal of the Appeals Court as another exemplary establishment-clause case. Neither the state nor the federal government, Black insisted, “can constitutionally pass laws or impose requirements which aid all religions as against non-believers”; neither can offer special aid to those who profess a belief in God over those who do not. Torcaso v. Watkins, in its unanimity, was the legal vindication for which atheists and secularists had long been waiting. Theistic qualifications for public office-holding, court testimony, and jury service had been rendered unconstitutional; beyond Maryland, that judgment had direct implications for state provisions in Arkansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. The liberties and protections of the First and Fourteenth Amendments were not for theists alone; they applied equally to atheists and nonbelievers. Finally, the Supreme Court had untangled some of the toughest legal knots in the nation’s long-snarled debate over irreligious freedom.

 

Battles over prayer and Bible reading in the public schools came next. Engel v. Vitale (1962) struck down a one-sentence, state-authorized school prayer in New York; Abington v. Schempp (1963) decided against the daily reading of ten Bible verses and the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in Pennsylvania schools; and Murray v. Curlett (1963), which was folded into the Schempp decision, rendered unconstitutional similar practices in Baltimore’s schools. In all three cases, humanist and atheist plaintiffs loomed large (in Engel, two Jewish appellants joined a cohort of five challengers who included a Unitarian, an atheist, and an ethical humanist). The strict separationist logic of Everson and McCollum reached its apogee in those cases and occasioned a new storm of outrage. The court had moved, in the eyes of its critics, from friendliness through neutrality to overt hostility toward religion. Much like the McCollums fifteen years earlier, the Schempps, a humanistic Unitarian family, as well as the five plaintiffs in the New York lawsuit, came under venomous attack. Only the Baltimore litigant, Madalyn Murray (O’Hair), reviled as “the most hated woman in America” for her particularly brash atheism, seemed to thrive on the infamy of the moment. The heat of the ongoing conflicts even convinced Justice William O. Douglas, the author of the majority opinion in Zorach with its snide attack on the fastidious atheist, to move over to Hugo Black’s view of the need to protect irreligious nonconformity from harrying religious coercions. The philosophy of the First Amendment, Douglas now wrote in his concurring opinion in Engel v. Vitale, is that “the atheist or agnostic—the nonbeliever—is entitled to go his own way.”

With that pronouncement, Douglas wrote the lore of the village atheist into church-state jurisprudence. (Mark Twain, after all, had described Judge York Driscoll, the small-town infidel in Pudd’nhead Wilson, as someone who ventures “to go his own way and follow out his own notions.”) Between McCollum in 1948 and Schempp in 1963, the contrarian freethinker had secured a measure of vindication. As Paul Blanshard, another high-profile secularist, wrote in the wake of the Torcaso decision, “Religious liberty in a nation is as real as the liberty of its least popular religious minority.” For the United States, Blanshard said, the proper gauge was whether that freedom was accorded atheists and nonbelievers. Far from a sell-out to communist Russia and its atheistic state, this judicial course—according equal rights, liberties, and protections to a quintessentially despised minority—was, Blanshard suggested, exactly what separated the United States from totalitarian regimes. One hardly had to embrace Blanshard’s secularist vision to recognize the legal shifts that had taken place. Even the lone dissenter in the combined Schempp and Murray decisions, Justice Potter Stewart, was pointed in his defense of the “governmental neutrality” demanded by the First and Fourteenth Amendments—“the extension of evenhanded treatment to all who believe, doubt, or disbelieve.” He only suggested remanding the cases for the collection of additional evidence on whether the school boards had failed to meet that constitutional standard. Indeed, Stewart closed his dissent with a marked validation of the country’s varied nonbelievers: “What our Constitution indispensably protects is the freedom of each of us, be he Jew or Agnostic, Christian or Atheist, Buddhist or Freethinker, to believe or disbelieve, to worship or not worship, to pray or keep silent, according to his own conscience, uncoerced and unrestrained by government.” Through a long drawn-out process of secularist activism, a tiny minority of atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers had managed to gain explicit judicial acknowledgment alongside three of the world’s major faiths.

By the mid-1960s, the era of required godliness that Herberg described in Protestant-Catholic-Jew was fast unraveling.

This article was adapted with permission from Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation, published in 2016 by Princeton University Press.

Leigh Eric Schmidt

Leigh Eric Schmidt is the Edward C. Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor in the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to his most recent book, Village Atheists, he is the author of Heaven’s Bride: The Unprintable Life of Ida C. Craddock, American Mystic, Scholar, Sexologist, Martyr and Madwoman (Basic Books, 2010).


America seemed unanimously religious, but freethought, that seeming nineteenth-century relic, was already in the throes of rebirth.

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