Leigh Eric Schmidt on Village Atheists
Date: November 6th, 2016

In an era dominated by a Protestant ethos, how did atheists manage to make their presence known?  Prof. Leigh Eric Schmidt, a Distinguished Professor of Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis and fellow at the Danforth Center on Religion & Politics, joins us to discuss his latest book Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation.  We begin with Prof. Schmidt’s own intellectual journey from studying evangelicals to his latest work on unbelievers in the 19th century (give or take a few decades).  We then talk about the religious landscape of the 1800s and the types of social pressure and legal penalties freethinkers faced in expressing their unbelief in Christianity.  Noting that Thomas Paine was the first doubter to openly express his views in the public square, Prof. Leigh talks about how a number of other atheists began coming out of the closet by the mid-1800s.  He explains that he chose the title Village Atheists as it recognizes the more localized and vernacular style of many of these unbelievers. We review a number of other names that these folks adopted, including freethinkers, liberals, humanists, and infidels – a name initially meant as a derogatory term, but one in which many of them embraced to the point of sponsoring Infidel Conventions.  After pointing out a number of common themes that all these atheists shared — e.g., anticlericalism, separation of church & state, promotion of scientific inquiry — we move to a discussion of several of the more colorful characters that represented some of the diverse ways in which freethinkers interacted with their surrounding culture.  Leigh covers the life and legacy of Samuel Porter Putnam (the secular pilgrim), Watson Heston (the cartoonist of the movement), and Elmina Drake Slenker (a feminist freethinker ).  Prof. Schmidt shares his thoughts about what this history means for our society today as well as what he has learned over the course of his several decades of superb scholarship.  Recorded: Nov. 4, 2016.


Prof. Leigh Eric Schmidt’s bio at the Danforth Center on Religion & Politics, Washington University (St. Louis).

Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in A Godly Nation, by Leigh Eric Schmidt.

Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion, and the American Enlightenment, by Leigh Eric Schmidt.

Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality, by Leigh Eric Schmidt.

Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays, by Leigh Eric Schmidt.

Holy Fairs: Scottish Communions and American Revivals in the Early Modern Period, by Leigh Eric Schmidt.

Heaven’s Bride: The Unprintable Life of Ida C. Craddock …, by Leigh Eric Schmidt.

Watson Heston’s cartoons on Flickr.


Joseph O. Baker on American Secularism.

Hunter Baker on Secularism.

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