A Portrait of America’s First Atheists
What life was like for unbelievers long before Christopher Hitchens and company arrived on the scene.
There was a time in our nation’s history when “village atheist” was a term of endearment. It introduced a note of affection for the vocal unbelievers in our midst. In 1943, Time magazine referred to the journalist H. L. Mencken, of Scopes Monkey Trial fame, as America’s “outstanding village atheist.”
Still, the term quietly conceded that flat-out unbelievers have historically been a rare breed in the United States—so rare that you were likely to find only one in any given community. In America, it takes a village to raise just one atheist. Even today, just 3.1 percent of Americans identify as such, according to Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study.
When a village did manage to raise an atheist, it was almost always a boy. In his lively, informative study, Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation (Princeton University Press), historian Leigh Eric Schmidt includes a chapter on Elmina Drake Slenker, a 19th-century woman from Upstate New York. Many readers today disapprove of books solely about men, but organized atheism hasn’t always been terribly concerned with gender parity. Slenker confessed that every place she went, she was the first woman atheist anyone there had ever seen. When the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism (4As) surveyed its membership in 1930, it was 93 percent male.
Churches, by contrast, have been a model of balance, with women even outnumbering men in terms of membership. So it is ironic that one of the traditional ways that atheists attacked Christianity was for allegedly being anti-women. When 4As founder Charles Lee Smith debated evangelist and Foursquare Church founder Aimee …