Where Are the Histories of American Irreligion?

[This post originally appeared at Religion in American History.]

Robert Owen and Alexander Campbell squared off against one another in a public debate on April 13 and April 21, 1829. The debate packed out a Methodist meeting house in Cincinnati, where the European traveler Fanny Trollope thought a thousand people were in attendance. The crowd had gathered to hear a debate on the merits of Christianity versus infidelity. Robert Owen was a religious skeptic and the founder of New Harmony, a social experimental community in Indiana; his role in the debate was to represent skepticism against all forms of Christianity. His opponent, Alexander Campbell, was a minister engaged in restoring the Christian churches to the purity of the New Testament; his role was to defend Christianity, and in particular his form of Bible Christianity. The audience sat through fifteen sessions which, when printed, filled two volumes. At the end of the debate, over Owen’s protest, Campbell determined the outcome by popular acclaim. In revivalist fashion Campbell asked the crowd to rise if they believed in Christianity, and most stood up. Only three people—“a few gentlemen, and one lady,” according to Trollope—rose for Campbell’s second challenge:

Now I would further propose, that all persons doubtful of the truth of the christian religion, or who do not believe it, and who are not friendly to its spread and prevalence over the world, will please signify it by standing up.1

The Owen-Campbell showdown was just one time of many when nineteenth-century Christians and skeptics formally debated one another, let alone all the times when they merely declaimed rather than debated. But to judge by the writings of American historians of religion, the triumph of religion over free thought and skepticism in nineteenth-century United States was as lopsided as in the Owen-Campbell debate. For all the hundreds of books on American religion, you would be hard pressed to find three good books on American irreligion.

I want to argue that to understand the religion that Campbell defended, we must also understand the irreligion that Owen argued for. Before I get to that point, though, let me substantiate the claim that there are few good histories of American irreligion, if that’s what we should call it. I’m uncertain which umbrella name to give this phenomenon, which encompasses at least Deism, skepticism, agnosticism, rationalism, Free Thought, Ethical Culture, atheism, secularism, and infidelity. Then there are the “nones,” that is, people who did not claim a particular religious identity. I’ve chosen the term “irreligion” until someone proposes a better one.

Works on American irreligion fall into several categories. (I’m grateful to Per Smith, Benjamin Park, and L. D. Burnett for tweeting references, and especially Daniel Silliman’s two blog posts about his syllabus for a history of American atheism.)

The first category are the intellectual histories, and chief among them is James Turner’s Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America (1986), the place to start for any reading in the history of irreligion. In tracing irreligion from Europe to the United States, Turner offers a convincing argument that the primary motivation to irreligion was moral: social reformers who found Christianity or the Bible inadequately moral found irreligion more congenial. That argument is given more detail in David Hempton’s Evangelical Disenchantment: Nine Portraits of Faith and Doubt (2008), tracing the lives of British and American evangelicals who became skeptics, such as George Eliot, Theodore Dwight Weld, Sarah Grimké, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. I find Hempton’s book particularly interesting for tracing movements to irreligion within individual lives. We might add Martin Marty’s brief book The Infidel: Free Thought and American Religion (1961), written about a few freethinkers, but mostly about the use to which the Protestant churches put the symbol of “the infidel.” Most recently, Christopher Grasso has published two articles on skepticism and Deism.

The next category are the “denominational histories” of irreligion, by which I mean, histories written by atheists with the intent of chronicling their tribe. Chief among these writers is Susan Jacoby, who, unlike most academic historians, knows how to sell books. Her Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (2004) is valuable as the only book I know of to trace the history of irreligion from the Revolution through the culture wars and the present day, and, besides the usual suspects like Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and Robert Ingersoll, it brings to light a number of interesting skeptics who don’t usually figure in histories of religion. Her biography of Robert Ingersoll, The Great Agnostic (2013) is as readable and entertaining as Ingersoll himself. That said, both of Jacoby’s books are severely flawed. I don’t wish to be too hard on denominational histories, since they are an honorable tradition from which religious history has benefited, and to which secularists are as entitled as anyone. But denominational histories are not critical histories, and Jacoby is better at writing to inspire contemporary secularists than to explain the past. Daniel Silliman calls Freethinkers less a history and more “a canon of skeptic-saints.” I might add that Jacoby’s work, like David Barton’s, exudes an injured air at the suppression of the true history of the United States. Her biography of Ingersoll, in which Timothy Larsen has found a number of errors, is a hagiography. I don’t mind reading hagiographies; I just prefer the hagiographies written in the nineteenth (or ninth) centuries.

Howard B. Radest’s Toward Common Ground: The Story of the Ethical Societies in the United States (1969), to which I’ve only just been introduced, falls into the denominational history category, since it was written by an insider about institutions that approximate a secular denomination. A quick perusal shows it to be a valuable survey of one strain of secularism, starting with Felix Adler.

There are older histories of denominational histories of secularism and freethought. J. M. Robertson’s A History of Free Thought in the Nineteenth Century (1930), which tells the history of British and American, and to a lesser extent, continental free thought. I have a particular penchant for these nineteenth-century histories, which, as in the case of Robertson’s transatlantic perspective, often anticipate current scholarly concerns. Robertson is as close to standing father to the history of American free thought as Philip Schaff is to the history of Protestantism or John Gilmary Shea to the history of Catholicism—but he is a father without sons or daughters.

There are many biographies of free thinkers, agnostics, and atheists, such as Paine, Adler, Ingersoll, Clarence Darrow, Robert Owen, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but of course a collection of biographies does not add up to a history.

Histories of American politics have found it necessary to write the history of skeptics to explain political history. Among these is Amanda Porterfield’s recent Conceived in Doubt: Religion and Politics in the New American Nation (2012), reviewed at this blog by Jason Bivins.

Finally, the body of work on secularization is vast and daunting. But if I can sum it up in a sentence, this works tends to look at secularization as a historical phenomenon rather than at secularists as a group of people with a historical tradition.

On the social history of American infidelity, we have next to nothing. If, to borrow a phrase from Martin Marty, we distinguish between “parlor” and “platform” infidelity, then we know little of the platform and nothing of the parlor.

There is, however, the promise of good work to come on this topic. Per Smith and Daniel Silliman are both working on dissertations about secularity. Christopher Grasso is “working on a book about American religious skepticism,” while Leigh Schmidt has a “project in the early stages on how atheism and nonbelief have fared historically in American public life.”

If it be the case that historians haven’t written the history of irreligion, then we have to ask, was there an American irreligion of any significance worth writing about? We should further ask, if there is a history to write, are historians of religion the ones to write it?

On the level of elites, we have ample evidence that many people were agnostics or atheists and defended their views publicly to a large hearing, if not necessarily a large following. It’s common to remark, for example, that nineteenth-century politicians were permitted an ambiguity of religious belief denied to politicians in our own day. These platform skeptics carved out room—both social and interior— for irreligion which has to be accounted for. Irreligion was actual for some, potential for many, to say nothing of its symbolic importance to preachers and polemicists.

But irreligion was far more widespread than just among elites. If we trust work on the historical demography of American religion (I don’t, but that’s a topic for another day) then there is reason to think that American religious history has neglected a lot of people. Simply put, if religion and specifically groups like Methodists, Baptists, and Catholics were growing constantly, and not just from immigration, then they had to grow from somewhere. Who were these secularists or “nones”? The nineteenth century has bequeathed us competing explanations. The secularist explanation was that the more education one possessed, the further back one had pushed the superstitions of religion. Perhaps—but only post-Darwin, and then only for elites. Much more persuasive is the shared assumption of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews that ignorance produced irreligion. Many of the vast nineteenth-century evangelistic enterprises, such as the Sunday school (Jewish as well as Christian), the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, the evangelical tract and textbook, and for that matter the public schools, were fundamentally educational. To hear Peter Cartwright tell it, he was constantly encountering (and wrasslin’ with) “rowdies” and skeptics. When colporteurs of the American Tract Society sold Bibles in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey in the 1840s, they found many people who, they claimed, “had never heard of Jesus Christ.” What would a religious history of those people look like?

Now, should historians of religion take on this topic, or should we cede the ground to our colleagues in intellectual history, more and more of whom are writing about religion anyway? I grant that there are conceptual problems in thinking about irreligion as a kind of religion. But still, the methods of religious historians suit the problem. Our sensitivity to the way religion shapes lives, to interactions between religions, to the way religious ideas both bubble up from below and trickle down from above, and to the seriousness of theology (when we take theology seriously) are necessary to tackle these problems.

Besides having the necessary skills to address this question, historians of religion should see this as their question because it’s a necessary piece to the puzzles we’re already working on. I’m not interested in the history of irreligion as a quest to add yet another marginal group to the history of religion, a project that has been underway for some time with great effect, yet a project that seems to have no particular aim in sight. I’m interested in how the history of infidelity can help tie together the story of American religions. This older, probably unfashionable, approach was Martin Marty’s impulse to write The Infidel, and it’s basically correct. Marty thought that “the infidel rose to prominence at those moments in American history when the churches were most embarrassed by social or theological questions”—during disestablishment, during the rise of voluntaryism, and during the intellectual adjustments of modernism. My own interest in irreligion is akin to Charles Taylor’s description of secularism as a possibility for nearly everyone: an option that everyone had to reckon with, and which consequently shaped religion.

So what would this history look like? The history is probably particularly difficult to write, because there was no single origin or peak of irreligion in American history, but several. There was a period of Enlightenment rationalism around the turn of the nineteenth century, followed by the burgeoning evangelicalism, then skepticism and modernism around the turn of the twentieth century, broken up by consensus and the Cold War, followed by the new atheism and the rise of the nones in our own day. My own modest attempt at writing a history of irreligion is confined to a dissertation chapter, as yet undrafted, on people who lost faith over the course of the nineteenth century, and how the possibility of loss of faith moved the experience of religion more generally from the pole of an inherited default towards the pole, as William James put it, of “forced, living, and momentous” choice.

And so I pose these questions to you: have historians done more work on the history of irreligion than I’ve mentioned here? How does or should irreligion fit into the history of American religion?

  1. The debates are in Alexander Campbell and Robert Owen, Debate on the Evidences of Christianity, 2 vols (Cincinnati: 1829). Frances E. Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans, 2 vols. (London: 1832), 1:206-12. The debates are described in Martin Marty, The Infidel, 124–29.