Godless Citizens in a Godly Republic: Atheists in American Public Life

256 PP.; $26.95

The narrative of history has not been a pretty one for atheists. One doesn’t have to flip back the pages very far to find people in all sorts of places on the planet who expressed skepticism over the existence of God, only to be tied to a pole in the town square and set on fire. In examining the long arc of history, we in the modern-day United States aren’t very far removed from these practices and remedies. Indeed, the early history of this country includes the same medieval barbarism.

A new book by historians R. Laurence Moore and Isaac 
Kramnick, Godless Citizens in a Godly Republic: Atheists in American Public Life, examines the plight of atheists in the United States, giving us a provocative and enlightening picture. It sets off from shore with the much-celebrated Pilgrims of the early seventeenth century and takes us all the way to our immediate present.

Despite all the quaint, largely fictive tales we were told about the Pilgrims when we were children, the Pilgrims were wingnuts. They were rigidly fundamentalist, intolerant, and brutally violent to boot: the enslavement and ritual slaughter of Native Americans, the execution of Quakers, and the nefarious Salem witch trials were all expressions of the Puritan idea of what divine providence entitled them to do. Their journey to the New World to escape oppression and practice religious freedom translated roughly to a demand that everyone on this side of the Atlantic, without exception, practice the same sullen religious ideologies they embraced, and they felt fully empowered to castigate or even destroy anyone who refused. Their idea of civil governance was that all laws and practices were to precisely reflect their religious convictions. So was born the oft-lauded and appropriately maligned Puritan ethic. Life among them might have seemed less like an age of liberal enlightenment and more like The Handmaid’s Tale.

Since then, the belief in God has been something of a general posture in America. It matters less what flavor one prefers among the now more than 40,000 denominations of Christianity, less about where you live or what you might look like, and less about one’s political stripe—so long as one stands on the side of the almighty. Moore and Kramnick suggest Thomas Jefferson might be shocked that the deism he shared with many of the Founders didn’t take hold as the new nation progressed into a more reason-based society.

Thomas Jefferson’s view on this point proved to be as mistaken as his notion that American slavery would die a natural death. Deism faded away. Americans turned their energies to building and populating churches. In the early nineteenth century, a new generation of American leaders branded nonbelief in a God who intervened in human affairs and who judged humans as fit or unfit as a scandalous position bordering on moral turpitude. Atheism became a pejorative.

After some 375 years of a determined strategy to just shut up and not dare let on, atheists and other nonbelievers are starting to stand proudly apart from the believers. One might think that with the progress of science, including the social sciences, as well as a more educated populace, we might have made considerable progress. Well, the truth is…maybe.

Godless Citizens in a Godly Republic is not only a well-conceived chronology of the matters of faith versus no faith, it’s also a source of inspiration and even comfort to those who just can’t abide the existence of God and all that engenders and entails. It’s unlikely to convince those who still do believe, but that isn’t the book’s purpose. To my mind, the authors are trying to give people like myself a narrative to embrace that, although full of ample frustration and despair, celebrates heroes and notes of progress.

There have been many significant figures all throughout our history and Godless Citizens in a Godly Republic describes and deals with many of them in turn, from Robert Ingersoll and Elizabeth 
Cady Stanton to Thomas Paine—a skeptic and iconoclast if there ever was one and perhaps the single-most resounding voice to foment the American Revolution. We also have many modern-day heroes, among them Madalyn Murray O’Hair, Anne Gaylor, 
David Niose, and Michael Newdow. Their stories, challenges, and accomplishments are also told, and in considerable detail. Their battles in the public square and in US courtrooms still continue as we speak. They work within the structures of many new organizations which have formed in recent years and found a voice in US public policy, among them are American Atheists, 
Freedom From Religion Foundation, Secular Coalition for America, and the publisher of this magazine, the American Humanist Association. Much time is devoted to these and other organizations that are making a significant difference.

One striking thing is just how many times, even today, the people who have fought for a secular government, an enforcement of the First Amendment, and the rights of people who do not subscribe to a god have fallen short. The fact is that we’ve lost many more battles in the courts and legislatures of this country than we’ve won, and people who speak out are still putting themselves at great personal risk. Despite that sobering bit of reality, it’s apparent that we are slowly and surely winning the war between fundamentalist Christianity and a truly secular government that respects and provides for both opinions in equal measure.

Recent studies of public opinion by the Pew Research Center show clearly that the number of nonbelievers, atheists, agnostics, and people who just don’t give a damn about religion comprise between 15 and 23 percent of our citizenry. That exceeds the total number of Jews, Muslims, and mainstream Protestants (Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians and Episcopalians) combined, as estimated by Pew. Among people below the age of thirty, the “nones” are closer to one third. What’s more, the change is accelerating. Just as the majority of Americans now view same sex marriage as a normal thing (something that seemed impossible as recently as ten years ago), the same will happen for people who, in one way or another, reject the intellectual and emotional confines of religion.

Godless Citizens is a well-considered, well-written, and arguably important book. It should be read by anyone who sees themselves as having had to live on the short end of things in an America 
fighting at any cost to be defined as Christian. Moore and Kramnick give us ample reason to take heart:

Legally and culturally atheists and all others who have put God aside as a useful concept have gained ground since the adoption of the Constitution. Measured by numbers, the Atheist Awakening has been astonishing. Nontheists are no longer a tiny minority of the American population but constitute a substantial plurality.

Revolutions don’t happen overnight, but they almost always gain momentum over time. The realization of the determination and wisdom of the Founders to ensure that religion and government are kept separate might actually, in our lifetimes, come to pass.