Americans have long been suspicious of nonbelievers. Misogyny, nativism, and racism have often been tied up in their fear.
In general, Americans do not like atheists. In studies, they say they feel coldly toward nonbelievers; it’s estimated that more than half of the population say they’d be less likely to vote for a presidential candidate who didn’t believe in God.
This kind of deep-seated suspicion is a long-standing tradition in the U.S. In his new book, Village Atheists, the Washington University in St. Louis professor Leigh Eric Schmidt writes about the country’s early “infidels”—one of many fraught terms nonbelievers have used to describe themselves in history—and the conflicts they went through. While the history of atheists is often told as a grand tale of battling ideas, Schmidt set out to tell stories of “mundane materiality,” chronicling the lived experiences of atheists and freethinkers in 19th- and 20th-century America.
His findings both confirm and challenge stereotypes around atheists today. While it’s true that the number of nonbelievers is the United States is growing, it’s still small—roughly 3 percent of U.S. adults self-identify as atheists. And while more and more Americans say they’re not part of any particular religion, they’ve historically been in good company: At the end of the 19th century, Schmidt estimated, around a tenth of Americans may have been unaffiliated from any church or religious institution.
As the visibility and number of American atheists has changed over time, the group has gone through its own struggles over identity. Even today, atheists are significantly more likely to be white, male, and highly educated than the rest of the population, a demographic fact perhaps tied to the long legacy of misogyny and marginalization of women within the movement. At times, nonbelievers have advocated on behalf of minority religious rights and defended immigrants. But they’ve also been among the most vocal American nativists, rallying against Mormons, Catholics, and evangelical Protestants alike.
Schmidt and I discussed the history of atheists in the United States, from the suspicion directed toward them to the suspicions they have cast on others. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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