Public Lecture with Washington University Professor Leigh Eric Schmidt


As part of the Kinder Forum’s Public Lecture Series, Washington University Professor of Humanities Leigh Eric Schmidt gave an evening talk on April 30 detailing the historical process by which atheists, secularists and nonbelievers carved out a space for themselves in American public life over the past two centuries. Prof. Schmidt started by establishing the historical poles between which this conversation about the evolution of atheism exists. Citing Locke’s 1689 “A Letter Concerning Toleration” as a touchstone of Enlightenment-era religious pluralism, he argued that, even as principles of religious freedom began to take hold in Europe, there were still no political or cultural accommodations made for nonbelief, which remained a capital offense. By contrast, he then examined how religious disillusionment gained full-expression in the shadow of 9/11, as a number of mass cultural outlets pronounced “the end of faith” and the religious nones experienced explosive growth. Still, he pointed out, the question remains of how we got from a virtual absence of atheism to a society in which a vocal nonbelieving minority exists. The incremental growth of atheism in the United States came, he argued, in three stages. In the early nineteenth century, American deists unified around Thomas Paine’s anti-orthodox legacy, rhetorically twinning his revolutionary political and religious principles in hopes of establishing a place for nonbelief in American life. Later in the nineteenth century, Prof. Schmidt noted, revolutionary deism gave way to liberal secularism and the rise of the National Liberal League and the American Secular Union. Far more public in their endeavors, the groups’ platform of “Nine Demands for Liberalism”–which ranged from eliminating tax exemption for churches to requiring that the credibility of court witnesses no longer be tied to religion–marked one of the earliest concerted efforts to create a more secular republic. Finally, Prof. Schmidt cited the early twentieth-century formation of the American Association for the Advancement of Atheists (AAAA) as a moment in history that brought activist unbelief to the nation’s attention. From setting up an atheist bookstore in Little Rock, Arkansas–where the chief of police refused to provide security to AAAA leader Charles Smith when local backlash inevitably came–to facilitating college coalitions of atheists such as “The Society of Damned Souls” on the University of Rochester campus, the AAAA’s antics served, Prof. Schmidt concluded, as perhaps the most critical stepping stone in the rise of public atheism in the United States.

Leigh Eric Schmidt is the Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor in the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis and the Acting Director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics. Prof. Schmidt received his Ph.D. in Religion from Princeton University, where, from 1995 to 2009, he was the Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor of Religion and Chair of the Department of Religion. From 2009 to 2011, he was the Charles Warren Professor of the History of Religion in America at Harvard University. Prof. Schmidt has authored numerous books, including Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion, and the American Enlightenment (Harvard University Press, 2000), which won the American Academy of Religion Award for Excellence in Historical Studies as well as the John Hope Franklin Prize from the American Studies Association. His most recent single-authored book is Heaven’s Prize: The Unprintable Life of Ida C. Craddock, American Mystic, Scholar, Sexologist, Martyr, and Madwoman (Basic Books, 2010), and his current book project examines how atheism and nonbelief have fared in American public life.