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date: 16 October 2019

Atheism in America

Summary and Keywords

Atheism refers to the conviction of the nonexistence of God. In the United States, atheism is diffuse, individualistic, and heavily reliant on the media for the cultivation of a sense of community. Intellectually and socially, American Atheism has its roots in a number of prior movements, including in particular the Deism of Thomas Paine and other American Revolutionaries and the broad free-thought movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries. These disparate strands of religious criticism coalesced into an atheist political movement predominantly during the course of the 20th century, through the deliberate efforts of individuals like Charles Lee Smith and Madalyn Murray O’Hair to capitalize on the exposure afforded by new media formats. Following the popularity of the Intelligent Design movement toward the end of the 1990s and the September 11th attacks, New Atheism emerged in the mid-2000s as a form of atheism reliant on new media, especially critical of fundamentalist interpretations of Christianity and Islam, and particularly devoted to scientific empiricism and rationality. In the early 21st century, atheism in the United States continues to be organized largely through the media, with official organizations operating primarily through annual conventions and local chapters. Atheism has constituted and continues to constitute an important form of identification for many Americans dissatisfied with a dominant religious culture.

Keywords: atheism, secularism, deism, free-thought, New Atheism, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, Robert Ingersoll, E. Haldeman-Julius

Atheism has played and continues to play an important role in the American religious landscape. In part, atheism has served as a productive foil for both its critics and allies, providing a push and pull that defines one edge of American conceptions of pluralism and religious liberalism. Historically, atheism has served as both a dangerous force to be resisted, providing fodder for religious leaders advocating conservatism and piety, and as a kind of buffer allowing religious liberals to frame their own movements as relatively restrained and pious.1 The former function is a familiar one; atheists are still often framed as immoral and un-American in ways that reify the notion of America as a religious nation. Less frequently recognized is the second function, in which the history of American atheism demonstrates a long and fascinating interrelationship between atheism and various forms of religious piety. As much as American atheists have been framed (and have framed themselves) as antithetical to all forms of religion, atheism in America has also shaped and been shaped by creative engagements with religious culture.

In the United States, atheism carries within itself the influences of a web of intellectual currents and historical movements antithetical or parallel to a dominant religious culture. These include at least deism, skepticism, and theological agnosticism; religious and irreligious anti-clericalism and anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic prejudice; philosophical materialism, logical positivism, and varying degrees of scientism; the free-thought, Infidel, Free Love, Populist, and Communist movements; political secularism and ethical humanism; and the contemporary rise of the religiously unaffiliated, or “nones.” None of these strands map perfectly onto American atheism, but each one imparts some of its values, commitments, self-understandings, and political strategies to the background of contemporary atheism.

The overarching principle or common motif that connects these disparate movements to atheism is rooted in individualism. A strongly negative understanding of atheism as the absence of religious beliefs has generated an emphasis on the inclusivity of a diffuse atheist movement—the lack of theistic beliefs is regarded as a kind of bedrock or tabula rasa on which the individual is free to erect whatever personal beliefs they wish. This can make it difficult to create declarative statements about atheism as it manifests in the United States. The epistemological unifier for contemporary atheism is a general commitment to science. While organized atheism necessarily involves bodily practices and communal discourses and values, its proponents nonetheless tend to describe it first and foremost as a hypothesis about the nature of reality that lends itself to distinguishing between scientific and religious ways of knowing. The 21st century’s most popular atheists come from the ranks of scientists and scientifically minded philosophers, but their celebration of the scientific method is far from new. Scientism and atheism have long drawn from the same wells of classical materialism and empiricism, in large part because Western theology has historically established the natural world as a privileged locus for inquiring after the existence and nature of God.

Roots of American Unbelief

For those who see atheism as a modern phenomenon, 18th-century France serves as the site where the first philosophers proudly self-identified as atheists. For the first time, thinkers like Jean Meslier (d. 1729), Denis Diderot (d. 1784), and Baron D’Holbach (d. 1789) proudly embraced the term, which had previously served exclusively as an epithet to describe various forms of religious heresy. Of course, French atheism drew on several philosophical traditions closely aligned with absolute materialism and religious criticism, from Epicurean and Lucretian atomism to Pyrrhic skepticism and scientific naturalism, but these traditions had always been located, at least by their ancient and medieval proponents, within some form of religious thought. As 17th-century European theology grew increasingly confident and fractious, theologians became more and more adept at deconstructing the theological systems of their opponents, inadvertently providing the philosophical tools that would be synthesized in the atheism of Holbach and Diderot.2

The Enlightenment atheism of Diderot and Holbach would be influential for early American Freethinkers concerned with demonstrating atheism’s reasonable foundation in scientific naturalism. For those most committed to the scientific method and a rigorous understanding of philosophical materialism, the French atheists provided a model of a kind of respectable disbelief. At the same time, French atheism’s commitment to the absolutisms of logical positivism tended to be too extreme for Revolutionary America’s most important figures, who were more drawn to the English-language debates over sense perception and common sense coming out of British Empiricism and the 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment.

Among the difficult issues of governance faced by America’s founders was the question of how to balance religious and political liberties. Considering the sectarian conflicts and religious wars that had plagued Europe at least from the Protestant Reformation to the 17th century, the founders sought to strike a balance between religious toleration and the possibility of the moral improvement of society. On this point, the resources of French atheism were limited. Holbach’s System of Nature, for example, framed human nature as inherently violent, meaning that religion would only ever give citizens license to commit atrocities. Religion, always tending toward extreme fanaticism, could never be tolerated. Perhaps seeking more moderate positions, some of America’s founders, most notably Thomas Jefferson (d. 1826), Benjamin Franklin (d. 1790), and Thomas Paine (d. 1809), found valuable resources in deism. Popular in higher education during the mid-18th and 19th centuries, deism emerged in Europe precisely in response to the Thirty Years War and the English Civil War and was concerned with God’s role in history, religion’s place in moral society, and the justification of religious tolerance by the discovery of universal religious truths.

Historians have disagreed over the extent to which individuals like Franklin and Jefferson can be safely considered deists. Jefferson referred to himself as a Unitarian and expressed an unwillingness to abandon the notion of God’s historical presence, for example in “Notes on the State of Virginia.” But his “Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth,” commonly known as the Jefferson Bible, in which he removed from the Bible all passages that he considered supernatural, reflects the deist concern with purifying religion of its irrational elements. Similarly, Benjamin Franklin wrote and said conflicting things about his relationship to deism, indicating some confusion on the possibility of God’s intervention in history.

But if Jefferson and Franklin represent a reticence to fully identify with deism, others were more outspoken. Elihu Palmer (d. 1806), for example, established the Deistical Society of New York and wrote the Principles of Nature, published in 1801 and constituting perhaps the first major work of American deism. For Palmer, the enemy was “supernatural and vindictive theology, which has served only to destroy the harmony of nature, and demoralize the intelligent world.”3 But the clearest bridge between American deism and American atheism was erected by Thomas Paine, who was regarded at least throughout the 20th century as a kind of patron saint of American atheism. By the time Paine published The Age of Reason in 1794, he was widely regarded as a hero of the American Revolution. This, combined with Paine’s accessible language and its publication in cheap pamphlet form, meant that The Age of Reason was widely read, introducing the American public in explosively controversial fashion to deism’s capacity for religious criticism. In it, Paine decried Christianity as “a fable” and denied in absolute terms God’s participation in history. There were no miracles, no revelations, and no personal God. While Deists rarely went as far as rejecting the existence of God outright, they attempted to excise all irrational convictions from religious dogma, often ruthlessly attacking a form of Christianity that expressed insufficient skepticism in the face of miracles—both Biblical and contemporary. For Deism, a rational God could not intervene in human affairs or natural processes without invalidating the possibilities of free will and an ordered universe, respectively.

Deism contributed to American atheism by reinforcing the understanding of religion as a question of beliefs, which could be empirically proven or disproven by scientific method. This process can be traced back to Edward Herburt, first Baron Herbert of Cherbury (d. 1648), who attempted to formulate a universal belief which could resolve 17th-century religious disputes. This pursuit of a religious common-denominator was a popular move among Deists and contributed to religion’s being understood as privately held beliefs in contrast to publicly shared political opinions—an understanding of religion that later atheists would adopt as they attempted to reduce religion to a series of scientifically disputable hypotheses about the nature of reality.

Alongside the influence of European Deism in the Revolutionary United States was the effect of British secularism in the 19th century. George Jacob Holyoake (d. 1906) coined the term in 1851 in response to the legal prosecution of blasphemy in 1840s Britain. In Holyoake’s understanding, secularism was a vitalizing force for morality, which theology had desiccated. Secularism provided a means with which to “test theology by its ethical import.”4 Between 1851 and 1861, some sixty secularist groups were founded in the United Kingdom, with Charles Bradlaugh (d. 1891) rapidly achieving prominence, presiding over the London Secular Society and then cofounding the National Secular Society in 1866. Under Bradlaugh’s direction, British secularism took a greater interest in separatism and atheism relative to Holyoake, who, apparently uncomfortable with the stringency of the antireligious position with which he had become associated,5 adopted the term “agnostic” after it was coined by Thomas Henry Huxley (d. 1895) in 1869. Although British secularism largely declined in popularity after the 1890s, Bradlaugh, in particular, exerted a profound influence on American free-thought, largely through a series of successful American lecture tours in the 1870s.

It is important to note that secularism is not synonymous with atheism. In the 21st century, secularism is commonly understood as the political wing of American atheism—a commitment simply to the separation of Church and State. And indeed, American atheists have maintained a relatively stable and perennial core set of political demands. Central among these have been the protection of public schools from religious influence, the taxation of religious property and income, and the removal of religious symbols from official governmental displays, including especially currency, the Pledge of Allegiance, and NASA missions. At the same time, a number of religious groups and leaders have defended the secular separation of church and state as a means of encouraging religious expression. Self-professed atheists interested in abolishing the separation of church and state are less common.

Free-Thought and Infidelity in the 19th Century

In the most general sense, free-thought is the insistence on the right to think independently. But as a term of art, free-thought described a movement popular during the 19th century of applying skeptical tools of independent inquiry to religious theology. Free-thought’s popularity peaked on either side of the American Civil War. The first wave of American free-thought owed much to a steady influx of immigrants from the British Isles and Germany to American cities from around 1820 to 1850.6 A number of short-lived free-thought presses emerged during this period, with only the Boston Investigator achieving financial sustainability. As the abolitionist and Spiritualist movements gained traction surrounding the Civil War, free-thought subsided until energized by influence of Bradlaugh’s speaking tours, the development of Darwinism after 1859, and the controversy generated by the National Reform Association’s call, in February 1873, for a Constitutional amendment recognizing Jesus Christ as the supreme ruler of all national conduct, provoking the formation of the National Liberal League in 1876.7

The name most synonymous with this second wave of American free-thought is Robert Green Ingersoll (d. 1899), “the Great Agnostic.” A former Illinois Attorney General and prominent Republican, Ingersoll was world-renowned for his skills as an orator. Ingersoll achieved national recognition following his “Plumed Knight” speech supporting the nomination of James G. Blaine at the 1876 Republican National Convention, and he became the most successful public orator of his generation. He spoke from memory for hours on a wide range of topics for massive crowds across the country, but he was known primarily for advocating a form of agnosticism often indistinguishable from atheism. Ingersoll was active in the free-thought community, serving as the President of the American Secular Union from its formation in 1885 until his death in 1899.

But while Ingersoll achieved success as an orator, the postbellum period also demonstrates a close reliance of the broader free-thought movement on an emerging print culture. The second wave of American free-thought saw greater success in distributing free-thought ideas and organizing official societies in large part because the Civil War greatly contributed to the wider consumption of print media and the pluralization of reading publics.8 Hence, American free-thought became a widely successful imagined community based on an explosion of new regional and national free-thought periodicals. Joining the ranks of the Boston Investigator, founded in 1831, were the nationally circulated The Index, unofficial organ of the Free Religious Association, and innumerable regional free-thought newspapers like Texas’ Common Sense, Agnostic, and Independent Pulpit; Kentucky’s Blue Grass Blade; Kansas’ Lucifer the Lightbearer; Missouri’s Liberal; California’s To-Morrow and Freethought; New York’s Man, Truth Seeker, and Freethinker’s Magazine; and Chicago’s The People’s Press and Ingersoll Memorial Beacon.

Even more so than contemporary atheism, free-thought described a fervent sense of plurality and individualism. The fragmentation of reading publics in the postbellum period meant that the free-thought movement had little need to draw rigid distinctions between various shades and degrees of disbelief and religious criticism. It provided a large umbrella, incorporating ideas from agnosticism, atheism, free religion, spiritualism, liberal Christianity, free love, and other less-well-defined communities.

The difficulty of sorting out these entangled strands plagues virtually every historical account of American free-thought. Nonetheless, patterns do emerge in contextual discussions of appropriate labels within the free-thought community. For the sake of clarification, one can take “infidel” as a starting point. Contributors to free-thought periodicals often employed the term “infidel” and “infidelity” much more readily than “atheist” or “atheism,” apparently in part because the term was frequently deployed by Christian leaders concerned with establishing religion’s cultural enemies in the eyes of their congregations. In response, there was a clear desire among many Freethinkers to reclaim the pejorative term and meet the social condemnation head- on. Because “infidel” came already morally loaded by its critics, it proved to be a popular term with which to either confront and disprove the stereotype of the immoral unbeliever or to embrace the reputation and scandalize one’s Christian neighbors.

Not all free-thinkers were comfortable with the embrace of infidelity. Some expressed dissatisfaction with an ambiguity arising from the term’s overuse by Christian opponents. When infidelity stood for unfaithfulness in general, critics alleged, it became too context dependent to be useful; depending on perspective, one person’s infidelity was another’s orthodoxy, and many free-thinkers sought to reserve infidelity’s sting for criticisms on religious hypocrisy. Despite these reservations, debates over the accuracy of terms like “infidel” or “atheist” simmered but rarely caused widespread shifts in opinion. In 1878, concern about the continuing popularity of “nicknames” and “party commonplaces” culminated in the adoption of a number of resolutions at the Freethinkers’ Convention at Watkins, NewYork:

WHEREAS, the common use of the words Heretic, Infidel, Atheist, and others of like import only mislead the ignorant and offend the wise; therefore, Resolved. That their further use be discountenanced and discontinued by the Freethinkers and Liberalists of this and kindred conventions, and that we recommend to reformers everywhere the just use of words in all spoken and written relations of thought, that the righteous and rigorous phraseology of science may take the place of these theologic vulgarisms.9

This seeming attempt to rescue free-thought from a lack of philosophical rigor posed by the use of nicknames made explicit an underlying concern about terms like “infidelity,” namely whether a collective label should represent a purely philosophical viewpoint or whether it should serve a primarily social function in distinguishing the free-thought community from a wider religious culture.

For those unwilling to identify with infidelity, the term “liberal” served briefly as the label of choice, particularly for readers of and contributors to the nationally circulated Truth Seeker, which would become the official organ of the National Liberal League founded in 1876.10 For the last two decades of the 19th century, “Liberal” became a popular term of identification for those opposed to institutional religion. Not to be confused with political liberalism in general, the Nine Demands of Liberalism, the official platform of the National Liberal League, indicated the specific centrality of the religious question, demanding “that our entire political system shall be founded and administered on a purely secular basis, and whatever changes shall prove necessary to this end shall be consistently, unflinchingly and promptly made.”11 Unlike infidelity, liberalism spoke almost exclusively to the question of secularism, serving as an appropriate term for those more interested in politics than collective self-identification.12 And by the end of the 19th century, “secularism” had begun to replace “liberalism” as the political term of choice. When the National Liberal League splintered in 1884 over the issue of whether to advocate repeal or reform of the Comstock Law of 1873, it reformed in 1885 as the American Secular Union.

Throughout the 19th century, the term “atheism” was never as widespread or popular as terms like infidelity, liberalism, and free-thought. Nonetheless, a considerable minority of American free-thinkers tenaciously persisted in identifying as atheists. Of the other free-thinking monikers, atheism was most closely related to and often synonymous with infidelity. Atheism often seemed to constitute a more extreme version of infidelity, but this extremity typically had a philosophical dimension. Atheism, more so than infidelity, was understood in primarily philosophical rather than social terms. Atheists often purported to articulate an epistemological position concerning the nature of reality and occasionally derided infidels for abandoning philosophical rigor in the name of spectacle.

This understanding of atheism owes in part to the influence of Abner Kneeland (d. 1844), the editor of The Boston Investigator who in 1838 became the last American tried and convicted of blasphemy. While Kneeland’s publications rarely advocated atheism, they frequently defended it from intellectual criticism. At his conviction, Kneeland read before the Supreme Court of Boston a philosophical creed originally published in the July 12, 1833, issue of the Investigator: “Hence I am not an Atheist but a pantheist; that is, instead of believing there is no God, I believe, in the abstract, that all is God, and that all power that is, is God, and that there is no power except that which proceeds from God.”13 But Kneeland’s attempt to articulate the philosophical difference between atheism and Spinozan immanentism, and thus divorce himself from accusations of atheism, was unsuccessful. When Horace Seaver (d. 1858) took over editing The Boston Investigator, the discussion of atheism took center stage, and the understanding of atheism articulated was almost exclusively philosophical. Seaver editorialized, “Perhaps of all doctrines, Atheism may be taught with safety to society. It never can influence many to either good or evil, for it is a cold abstraction not suited to any passion or feeling.”14 Perhaps because atheism was understood primarily philosophically, then, the term remained far less popular at the end of the 19th century than “infidel,” and it would remain relatively unpopular for the first half of the 20th century.

Atheism at the Turn of the Century

In the first half of the 20th century, religious criticism and anticlericalism was largely dispersed among various organizations representing religious liberalism and secular humanism. Felix Adler and his Society of Ethical Culture (SEC), which grew out of a series of weekly lectures in 1876 and 1877, sought to articulate a religion free of ritual and theological doctrine. Adler advocated “deed, not creed,” which represented a shift in emphasis entirely from questions of metaphysics to morality. Hence, the SEC only brushed up against atheism, which it framed as a metaphysical position irrelevant to questions of morality. The Humanist Fellowship of Chicago was formed in 1927, transforming into the Humanist Press Association by 1935 and finally into the American Humanist Association (AHA) in 1941 by Unitarian minister Curtis Reese. Initially comprised mostly of Unitarian ministers, the AHA maintains 150 local affiliates and a number of publications in the 21st century. It is important to acknowledge these forms of religious humanism as contributing to, rather than competing with, American atheism. Adler frequently made common cause with the burgeoning atheism movement, once remarking, “If [atheism] means the denial of being conceived by superstitious mortals in the image of themselves, a ‘big man’ above the clouds, then the sooner we accept Atheism the better.”15 As the free-thought movement survived into the early 20th century, it continued to overlap substantially with free religion and other social movements. Some of the most fervent antireligious sentiment was folded into the anarchist and socialist movements. Emma Goldman’s (d. 1940) short-lived Mother Earth journal served occasionally to voice her conviction of the sinister marriage of the state and religion.

The figure who most aggressively took up the mantle of infidelity in print before the birth of the broadcast era was Emanuel (E.) Haldeman-Julius (d. 1951). Born in Philadelphia in 1889, Haldeman-Julius published and sold, from 1919 to 1949, between 300 and 500 million “Little Blue Books,” and he became one of the most prolific publishers in American history. His three-and-a-half-by-five-inch booklets cost 25 cents and were initially advertised to the 175,000 subscribers to Appeal To Reason (Girard, Kansas), which Haldeman-Julius took over in 1915. The topics were diverse, inaugurating with Oscar Wilde’s “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” and Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat, but extending to classics of Western literature and pamphlets explicating liberal sexual education, Socialist propaganda, and psychoanalysis. One of the largest genres was rabidly antireligious—booklets like “The Meaning of Atheism” (1931) and Bertrand Russell’s “Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Society?” (1930) urged readers to cast off the shackles of religion and embrace atheism and free-thought.

The Little Blue Books were eagerly consumed. With half a billion booklets sold in 30 years, Harry Golden’s 1960 declaration that “no other publisher will ever create so wide a reading audience” is not outlandish.16 Until the advent of the Internet, Haldeman-Julius’ publications arguably constituted the most explosive distribution of information in human history. Following World War II, when J. Edgar Hoover placed Haldeman-Julius on the FBI’s enemies list due to the subversive potential of the Little Blue Books, demand for the titles rapidly declined. Haldeman-Julius was convicted of tax evasion in June 1951 and drowned in July, his booklets reduced to the status of collectible relics.

Atheism in the Broadcast Era

In November 1925, Charles Lee Smith founded the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism (4A) in in New York. A former writer for the Truth Seeker, Smith’s approach to religion was confrontational, belligerent, and uncompromising. For roughly the decade from 1925 to 1937, when Smith returned to the Truth Seeker as editor, 4A was a prominent feature of America’s religious landscape. Smith focused much of 4A’s efforts on challenging perceived violations of the Constitution’s Establishment clause, advocating hedonism and moral liberalism, and making atheism as publicly visible as possible. Following his display of a storefront sign in Little Rock, Arkansas that read “Evolution is True. The Bible’s a Lie. God’s a Ghost,” Smith was arrested once for disturbing the public peace and then again for blasphemy, in both cases refusing to swear the court’s religious oath against perjury and drawing public attention. Organizationally, 4A focused largely on establishing godless societies on college campuses across the country. When Cecil B. DeMille released The Godless Girl in 1928 about a young woman who perilously joins a godless society on her campus, Smith reveled in the notoriety generated for 4A. Additionally, 4A organized a series of popular debates with famous evangelists, including one between Smith and Aimee Semple McPherson on the subject of evolution at Carnegie Hall in 1934. After 1937, Smith receded somewhat from the public spotlight. An outspoken racist and anti-Semite, Smith cultivated controversy to an unpalatable degree. For example, Smith changed the subtitle of the Truth Seeker to “the journal for reasoners and racists” during his tenure from 1937 until his death in 1964, alienating many former subscribers and potential readers.

The birth of the broadcast media era enabled an unprecedented degree of exposure for American atheism. The Godless Girl provided a short-lived boon for Smith’s 4A, but the expansion of television and radio around the middle of the 20th century enabled atheists to maintain a more tenacious and unified public image. Print media in the 19th century was well-suited to the nebulous and porous free-thought movement. Radically decentralized in production, distribution, and consumption, with low financial barriers to entry, print media in America lent itself to pluralism. Individuals as well as communities had little incentive to establish rigid boundaries around their identities, as there was enough room in the mediascape for overlap and negotiation. With the popularization of broadcast media, in the form of radio and television, antireligious criticism was translated into a more centralized grammar, in which fewer producers and distributors held sway over larger audiences who simultaneously found their options for feedback limited.

The most significant figure in the history of American atheism during the broadcast era is likely Madalyn Murray O’Hair (d. 1995), though this significance is belied by her relative absence from contemporary atheist discourses. In 1960, Madalyn Murray (who adopted the O’Hair surname in 1965) filed suit against the Baltimore Public School System for requiring her son William to participate in mandatory Bible readings. The case, Murray v. Curlett would eventually be combined with a similar challenge brought by Unitarian Universalist Edward Schempp in Pennsylvania, Abington School District v. Schempp. The 8–1 decision, issued in 1963, effectively banned mandatory Bible recitation in public schools, constituting a legal victory for secularism and a cultural victory for the atheist movement as a political force in America—a movement now closely wedded to the persona of O’Hair herself. By 1964, Life magazine famously dubbed her “The Most Hated Woman in America,” a title she relished and encouraged throughout the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, O’Hair’s infamy stemmed not primarily from her involvement in Murray v. Curlett but from her personality and tactics as a representative of Atheist identity.

By the time Madalyn Murray filed suit in the Superior Court of Baltimore in December 1960, she had already grabbed ahold of the media spotlight. In October, the Baltimore Sun had published a front-page article detailing William and Madalyn’s alleged discrimination as atheists. The story was quickly picked up by regional and national news outlets, and Murray expertly cultivated her celebrity status. Throughout the 1960s, she appeared on dozens of radio and television shows—most famously the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and The Phil Donahue Show. And in every appearance, Murray/O’Hair proudly identified as an atheist. Indeed, O’Hair’s legacy in the 21st century consists primarily of her unwavering commitment to popularizing the term atheism. As Frank R. Zindler, member of the American Atheists Board of Directors and managing editor of American Atheist magazine, summarizes:

She did expend great effort to desensitize the nation to the “A-word.” She used the words “Atheist” and “Atheism” — capitalized, no less — over and over in every possible venue. Before Madalyn, most Atheists were afraid to use the word other than in whispers. Things are much different now, thanks to her, although I can’t say the desensitization of society as a whole is yet complete. Nevertheless, Madalyn made it much safer — and much more natural — to call oneself an Atheist.17

Never content with her image as it was constructed by talk show hosts and religious opponents, O’Hair constantly struggled to secure the means to project her own image as the quintessential American atheist—largely through the American Atheist Press, the American Atheist Radio Series, which broadcast to as many as 150 stations during the period between 1968 and 1977, and the American Atheist Forum, a cable-access show carried by as many as 140 cable television systems. During her tenure as president from 1963 to 1986, the organization American Atheists had chapters in 28 states, maintained a successful Speakers’ Bureau, established the largest archive and library of atheist literature in the world, sustained the “Dial-An-Atheist” program for informational outreach, and maintained a Sustaining Trust Fund as well as an international outreach program called United World Atheists.

O’Hair saw broadcast media as holding the secret to a successful atheist movement in America. In contrast to previous attempts by atheists to achieve prominence through mainstream media, O’Hair’s atheist message found greater acceptance alongside counter-cultural currents of the 1960s. At the same time, the ascendancy of television relative to radio meant that O’Hair found radio broadcasters more willing to take risks in catering to niche audiences left out by network television programming. O’Hair thrived in these fringe media forms and formats, where she could position atheism in opposition to the mainstream or dominant religious culture. And O’Hair sought repeatedly to consolidate this identity into something stable, exclusive, and relatively homogenous. In contrast to the pluralism of free-thought, O’Hair frequently lamented the fragmentation of irreligious identity. In one radio broadcast, O’Hair complained: “As an Atheist and speaking for Atheists as well as American Atheism, I try constantly to find out why we have hidden ourselves under diverse names during our history.”18 For O’Hair, the primary goal of American atheism was to maximize the visibility of atheist identity, which meant resisting the temptation to philosophical hair-splitting and focusing instead on coming out and publicly identifying as an atheist.

But O’Hair’s attempt to remain the sole or primary representative of a consolidated atheist identity provoked strong reactions from those for whom she claimed to speak. By the early 1980s, O’Hair’s grasp on the atheist movement that she had helped create was falling apart. In 1980, William J. Murray, O’Hair’s son and plaintiff in Murray v. Curlett, converted to Christianity and disavowed his mother’s atheism. In response, Madalyn declared a “postnatal abortion” and repudiated William “for now and all times.” During the 1980s, American Atheist chapter leaders called for the removal of Madalyn and her son Jon Garth Murray from power and began defecting from American Atheists. In 1983, she proposed a new motto for American Atheists: “Unity today, power tomorrow,” but few people seemed interested in her brand of unity. In the late 1980s, she unsuccessfully attempted to legally commandeer The Truth Seeker. By the 1990s, many of American Atheists’ members had abandoned the organization, leaving only O’Hair and a handful of family and supporters behind. On August 27, 1995, O’Hair, along with her son Jon and granddaughter Robin, suddenly disappeared along with around $500,000 worth of American Atheist funds. Their whereabouts became a public mystery for the next five years until, in 2001, David Roland Waters led investigators to the O’Hair’s bodies on a Texas ranch. Waters, a typesetter for American Atheists who had been exposed embezzling funds from the organization by Madalyn in 1995, along with two accomplices had kidnapped, extorted, and finally murdered the O’Hairs.

The New Atheism

The term “The New Atheism” was coined by U.S. journalist Gary Wolf in a 2006 profile of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett to refer to a wave of atheist literature that emerged after 2004. These three thinkers—a biologist, author, and philosopher, respectively—largely accepted the moniker and soon adopted journalist Christopher Hitchens (d. 2011) following the publication of god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything in 2007. Collectively referred to as the “Four Horsemen,” the New Atheists became the representatives of atheist thought for the early 21st century, engaging in aggressive campaigns of “consciousness raising” through media activity. Since 2006, New Atheism has come to incorporate a broad coalition of loosely affiliated atheist thinkers committed in general to the scientific method, rationalism, and moral and political liberalism.

There is ongoing debate over whether there is anything essentially new about New Atheism or if it merely extends the rational atheism of Enlightenment Europe. Commentators point to the New Atheists’ optimism in science’s ability to disprove the epistemic claims of religion, but this constitutes a difference in degree rather than a difference in kind. That is, the New Atheists resemble most closely updated versions of the Atheisms of Diderot and Holbach, attempting to empirically disprove the theological doctrines of revealed religion with scientific observation and logical positivism. Dawkins, in particular, has spearheaded the attempt to disprove the “god hypothesis” with contemporary theories from biology and physics. In part, the scientific bent of New Atheism is a reaction to a perceived threat from the Intelligent Design movement, largely centered around the Center for Science and Culture at Seattle’s Discovery Institute, which was active at the end of the 20th century in attempting to frame creationism as a scientific concept to introduce it into public education curricula. New Atheism thus positioned itself early on in opposition to an understanding of religion reduced to a factual claim about the origin of the universe.

Another popular method of distinguishing the New Atheists’ argumentative arsenal has been to argue that they, more so than in the past, have attacked not merely religion but the idea of religious tolerance. While the New Atheism emerged largely in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks and the surge in popular interest in Islamic extremism, the New Atheists have often gone out of their way to emphasize that liberal religion is not off the hook. In response to critics who accuse them of cherry-picking the most extreme forms of religion, the New Atheists go to great lengths to demonstrate that their criticisms apply to the very idea that religion is off limits as a topic for attack. Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, for example, is aimed primarily at rejecting the notion that religion deserves special treatment as a topic of conversation. The principle of religious tolerance, to the New Atheists, is what generates their emphasis on religious fundamentalism and fanaticism. For thinkers like Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, in particular, a primary emphasis on Islamic extremism is deeply connected to the claim that tolerance for religious liberalism reinforces a logic that requires tolerance for the intolerant or fanatical. But again, Holbach, for example, in The System of Nature, expressed very similar sentiments to the new Atheists on religious liberalism, arguing that religion always tends toward the extreme and that accepting the immunity of liberal religion generates a slippery slope toward being unable to criticize religion’s more violent aspects.

Considering philosophical similarities between New and Enlightenment atheism, commentators have nonetheless sought to articulate a sociological uniqueness to the contemporary situation. New Atheism appears uniquely comfortable with the tactics of identity politics, but this constitutes more an extension of the tactics deployed by Madalyn Murray O’Hair and American Atheists than a departure from them. Similarly, some have argued that the New Atheists are more caustic or polemical in their language, refusing to mince words like never before, a characterization obviously belied by the long history of truly polemical works of religious criticism. Robert Ingersoll attracted huge crowds in the 19th century in large part due to his frank and mocking tone and Diderot’s aphorisms were often unflinchingly harsh. Thinkers like Dawkins have received criticism for claiming that religion is a form of child abuse, but Diderot claimed that the most faithful adherence to religious logic would require smashing a child’s head against a rock. And Madalyn Murray O’Hair, whose influence is rarely acknowledged by any of the New Atheists, was notorious for her incendiary language.

One of the most compelling methods of isolating the New Atheism while recognizing its heightened emphasis on questions of identity and tolerance is to highlight the centrality of contemporary media practices. Due to simple advances in technology, New Atheism is a uniquely networked or digitally imagined community, existing primarily in print and on the Internet. Through new media, New Atheists can organize en masse according to a dominant understanding of identity. In some ways, those characteristics of New Atheism highlighted by other depictions—the polemicism, opposition to tolerance, and minoritarian status—can be seen as results of changing media practices rather than as necessary components of a unique atheist epistemology. Richard Cimino and Christopher Smith have claimed, for example, that the formation of an atheist community on the Internet generates a sense of communalism as it simultaneously cultivates feelings of marginality. Just as atheists come to recognize their belonging to a group, the transparency of the Internet also presents them with the fact that they are surrounded by a dominant religious culture. Thus, it is the Internet that largely generates feelings of oppression and a heightened perception of the intolerance of religion.19

The New Atheism has faced a number of controversies in the years since 2006. Specifically, the community has been dogged by accusations of Islamophobia, sexual harassment, racial homogeneity, and classism. In response to allegations that conventions and gatherings associated with New Atheism have fostered unwelcome environments for women, in particular, Richard Dawkins has on more than one occasion used Twitter and other media platforms in ways that have stoked dissatisfactions. These controversies, along with New Atheism’s frequent unwillingness to acknowledge anything positive about religion, have prompted several contemporary atheist figures to attempt to establish more accepting forms of atheism. Most notably, Hemant Mehta (“the friendly atheist”) has become a popular figure for those who regard New Atheism as unnecessarily hostile to religion, Atheism+, a movement proposed in 2012 by blogger Jen McCreight, has sought to place social justice concerns at the forefront of the New Atheism, and Alain De Botton has influentially advocated “Atheism 2.0” as a form of disbelief that maintains the positive trappings of religion like communal institutions, traditional ethical commitments, ritual behavior, and diffuse forms of transcendence.

The Contemporary Scene

In the 21st century, American atheism exists primarily as a virtual community. Roughly a dozen national organizations with full-time paid staff cater to self-identifying atheists and the cause of secularism, operating primarily through some 1,400 local groups throughout the country. American atheists continue to file lawsuits over alleged violations of the separation of church and state, particularly with regard to public displays of religious symbols. The organization holds national conventions, operates a Roku channel, and earns notoriety for erecting prominent billboards critical of religion. The American Atheist organization claims 172 local affiliates and 392,000 members and supporters. Alongside American Atheists, the Atheist Alliance of America (AAA) and its umbrella organization Atheist Alliance International (AAI), founded in 1991, host national and international conventions, publish the biannual magazine Secular Nation, and assist in the formation of atheist organizations in developing countries. The Secular Coalition for America (SCA) was founded in 2002 to lobby the Federal Government on behalf of nontheistic Americans. The Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRI) (incorporated 1978) and The Center for Inquiry (CFI) (established 1991 and merged with the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science in 2016), engage in broad campaigns of advocacy and education. Other major nonreligious organizations in America include the American Ethical Union (AEU), Council for Secular Humanism, HUUmanists, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, National Atheist Party, Recovering from Religion, Secular Student Alliance, Society for Humanistic Judaism, and United Coalition of Reason.

Alongside these official organizations, atheism’s largest presence in America can be found on the Internet. Major digital platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have thriving but nebulously defined atheist communities, often closely affiliated with the web presences of New Atheist thinkers. The religion blog includes dozens of well-trafficked nonreligious blogs, but the largest digital community of atheists resides at, a popular content-aggregating social platform. The community, or “subreddit,” r/atheism ( claims more than two million members and serves as a critical hub for the wider world of digital atheism. The success of r/atheism, however, has remained relatively insulated from widespread visibility. Where Madalyn Murray O’Hair and her American Atheists sought first-and-foremost to render atheist identity publicly visible to mainstream America, contemporary atheists on the internet appear relatively more content with remaining a subcultural virtual community.

Review of the Literature

On the long history of Western atheism and atheists from antiquity to modernity, Michael Buckley’s On the Origins of Modern Atheism provides a compelling intellectual history of atheism’s relatively modern emergence out of theological debates. On the contrary, historian Tim Whitmarsh has regarded atheism as an ancient phenomenon in Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World. Whitmarsh explores the scant but provocative evidence for atheistic philosophers and self-identifying atheists in ancient Greece and Rome, keeping in mind that they must have differed from contemporary atheists in the extent to which religion was regarded as a matter of belief rather than cultural practice. Jan Bremmer has also provided an accessible introduction to atheism’s ancient predecessors in his contribution to The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, titled “Atheism in Antiquity.” Gavin Hyman’s A Short History of Atheism provides an even more accessible historical survey.

In the American context, James C. Turner’s Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America, locates America at the center of atheism’s emergence as a modern phenomenon. Martin Marty’s Infidel: Freethought and American Religion explores the ways that 19th-century Christian leaders inflated the image of the infidel as a scarecrow with which to encourage congregational piety. On the other hand, Leigh Eric Schmidt’s Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation meticulously unearths the voices of American free-thinkers who attest to the presence of a vibrant atheist imagined community in the United States in the 19th century. Susan Jacoby has influentially attempted to rehabilitate the radical anticlericalism of the America’s founders in Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, while Albert Post’s Popular Freethought in America, 1825–1850 and Sidney Warren’s American Freethought, 1860–1914, constitute invaluable historical surveys of 19th-century free-thought. On the figure of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, Bryan Le Beau’s The Atheist: Madalyn Murray O’Hair remains the most authoritative and exhaustive account of her relationship with American atheism, and her own publications, including those of her radio broadcast transcripts, serve as important source material on 20th-century atheism.

The New Atheists have received extensive scholarly attention. Stephen LeDrew’s The Evolution of Atheism: The Politics of a Modern Movement does the important work of situating New Atheism as a political and social—rather than purely intellectual—phenomenon. Similarly, Richard Cimino and Christopher Smith’s Atheist Awakening: Secular Activism and Community in America and “Atheism’s Unbound: The Role of the New Media in the Formation of Secularist Identity,” focus on the role of media in shaping the New Atheism. Religion and the New Atheism: A Critical Appraisal, edited by Amarnath Amarasingam, provides a survey of some of the more popular diagnoses and criticisms of the New Atheist movement.

Further Reading

Amarasingam, Amarnath, ed. Religion and the New Atheism: A Critical Appraisal. Boston: Brill, 2010.Find this resource:

Buckley, Michael J. At the Origins of Modern Atheism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987.Find this resource:

Bullivant, Stephen, and Michael Ruse, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Atheism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Campbell, Colin. Toward a Sociology of Irreligion. London: Macmillan, 1971.Find this resource:

Cimino, Richard, and Christopher Smith. Atheist Awakening: Secular Activism and Community in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Hyman, Gavin. A Short History of Atheism. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.Find this resource:

Jacoby, Susan. Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. New York: Macmillan, 2005.Find this resource:

Le Beau, Bryan F. The Atheist: Madalyn Murray O’Hair. New York: New York University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

LeDrew, Stephen. The Evolution of Atheism: The Politics of a Modern Movement. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Martin, Michael, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Marty, Martin. The Infidel: Freethought and American Religion. Eastford, CT: Martino Fine Books, 1961.Find this resource:

Passet, Joanne Ellen. “Freethought Children’s Literature and the Construction of Religious Identity in Late-Nineteenth-Century America.” Book History 8, no. 1 (2005): 107–129.Find this resource:

Post, Albert. Popular Freethought in America, 1825–1850. New York: Columbia University Press, 1943.Find this resource:

Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Smith, Jesse M. “Becoming an Atheist in America: Constructing Identity and Meaning from the Rejection of Theism.” Sociology of Religion 72, no. 2 (2011): 215–237.Find this resource:

Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Turner, James C. Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985.Find this resource:

Warren, Sidney. American Freethought, 1860–1914. New York: Gordian Press, 1966.Find this resource:

Whitmarsh, Tim. Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World. New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2015.Find this resource:


(1.) See Martin Marty, The Infidel: Freethought and American Religion (Eastford, CT: Martino Fine Books, 1961).

(2.) See, for example, Alan C. Kors, “The Age of Enlightenment,” in The Oxford Handbook of Atheism, eds. Stephen Bullivant and Michael Ruse (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

(3.) Elihu Palmer, Principles of Nature; Or, A Development of the Moral Causes of Happiness and Misery among the Human Species (New York: Literary Licensing, 2014 [1823]), title page.

(4.) George Jacob Holyoake, The Origin and Nature of Secularism: Showing that Where Freethought Commonly Ends Secularism Begins (London: Watts & Co., 1896), 96.

(5.) Edward Royle, “George Jacob Holyoake,” Journal of Liberal History 67 (Summer 2010): 35–37.

(6.) Albert Post, Popular Freethought in America, 1825–1850 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1943), 32.

(7.) See Tisa Wenger, “The God-in-the-Constitution Controversy: American Secularisms in Historical Perspective,” in Comparative Secularisms in a Global Age, eds. Linell E. Cady and Elizabeth Shakman Hurd (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 87–105.

(8.) Roderick Bradford, D. M. Bennett: The Truth Seeker (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2006), 73.

(9.) J. H. W. Toohey, “The Omitted Resolutions,” The Truth Seeker, September 21, 1878, sec. Communications.

(10.) Bradford, D. M. Bennett: The Truth Seeker, 16.

(11.) “Demands of Liberalism,” The Truth Seeker, October 1873.

(12.) Despite the use of the term “secular” in the Liberal platform, other secularist language was relatively scarce in the early decades of the free-thought movement. In general, it was used mostly in explicit reference to the works of British secularists. By the end of the 19th century, “secularism” had begun to replace “Liberalism” as the political term of choice. Evidence of this transition includes that when the National Liberal League splintered in 1884 over the issue of whether to advocate repeal or reform of the Comstock Law of 1873, it reformed in 1885 as the American Secular Union.

(13.) Abner Kneeland, Speech of Abner Kneeland Delivered Before the Supreme Court of the City of Boston, in His Own Defence, on an Indictment for Blasphemy. November Term, 1834 (J. Q. Adams, 1834), 16; and Abner Kneeland, “A Philosophical Creed,” Boston Investigator, July 12, 1833.

(14.) Boston Investigator, October 14, 1846.

(15.) Felix Adler, Atheism, a Lecture before the Society for Ethical Culture, Sunday, April 6, 1879 (New York: Cooperative Printer’s Assn., 1890), 17–18.

(16.) Harry Golden, “Foreword,” The World of Haldeman-Julius (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1960), 7.

(17.) Frank R Zindler, “Remembering Madalyn Murray O’Hair: April 13, 1919–September 1995,” American Atheist (Second Quarter 2013): 28.

(18.) Madalyn Murray O’Hair, “Secularism,” American Atheist Radio Series (Austin, TX: KTBC, November 25, 1972), in Vol. V of O’Hair’s transcripts at the Charles E. Stevens American Atheist Library and Archive (CESAALA).

(19.) Richard Cimino and Christopher Smith, “Atheisms Unbound: The Role of the New Media in the Formation of a Secularist Identity,” Secularism and Nonreligion 1 (2012).