Book reviews / History

Book review: Village Atheists

I had this on my to-read list for absolute ages! Luckily, I was surprised by receiving it as a Christmas present. And what a great present that turned out to be!

So the full title is Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers made their way in a a Godly Nation, and while it’s more academic in scope, it’s still so entirely readable. It focuses on four main people, all faced with different tests in 19th century America – from blasphemy charges to falling foul of the Comstock Laws.

What I found fascinating was how closely the issues were paralleled in the UK (my area of expertise). While in some ways, it’s obvious, as the US inherited some elements of British Law and also faced the same social conditions that existed in the 19th century. But even just the names of the conservative forces that spent their energies trying to suppress atheist (or infidel) thought were so similar. So while in the UK there was the King’s Society for the Suppression of Vice, there existed the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. In both cases, these societies used the courts and the strange conflation of blasphemy with sedition in law that was a result of the Reformation in the UK.

Similarly, in both sides of the Atlantic, liberal clubs and secularist societies sprung up with their own literature, fundraisers for fighting blasphemy charges and even ex-clergy doing the infidel lecture circuit. As well, less progressive positions (such as being a bit shy about birth control until the 20th century), and also being predominantly white and male. Though the author has a really good discussions on these areas, and luckily for us, the last chapter focuses on a woman – Elmira Slenker.

I also enjoyed the appearance of well known names on the UK secularist scene, which makes me think there is a PhD or two in the cross-fertilisation between the two countries. There were so many familiar tropes that there had to be some flow back and forth across the ocean. Gah! Can I do another PhD?

But for me, the most interesting part was everything to do with the Comstock Laws. Now, I had come across these many times in my historical education, but always to do with the suppression of birth control. In retrospect, it’s obvious that the same laws would be applied so secuarlist or atheist literature, but that was never mentioned. Maybe its the impossibility of including everything about history in different lectures, but it was just another example of secularist history just being ignored. Anyway it was fascinating. Just like the UK, where various laws were used to stop atheists from giving evidence in a trial or to try them for obscenity or blasphemy, the same happened in the US under the Comstock laws. Also, oh my god, Comstock was a petty, awful man. He kept a ledger of the people he arrested (or got arrested) and was clearly zealously religious.

What was also fascinating was how late it took for the establishment clause and equal protections to slowly apply to the USA. Yes, it took awhile in the UK as well, but it felt that the main persecution (and exclusion) was ended with the Oaths Act in 1888. Whereas it took until 1961 in the US in some cases (and even 1991 in one case in South Carolina!)

Anyway, its an absolutely fascinating look at how things evolved in the USA, and if you liked Freethinkers by Susan Jacoby, I recommend this as a follow up.

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