Book Review: Letters From an Atheist Nation
(Author’s Note: The following review was solicited and is written in accordance with this site’s policy for such reviews.)
Summary: A surprising, welcome reminder that atheism has a long and storied history in the U.S.
Letters from an Atheist Nation, edited by Thomas Lawson, is a compilation of reader letters printed by the Blue Grass Blade, a pro-atheist, pro-freethought newspaper published in, of all places, Kentucky in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Its editor, Charles Chilton Moore, was a strange and colorful character: an ex-minister turned atheist, abolitionist, prohibitionist, women’s rights advocate, and anti-gambling crusader who was repeatedly charged and occasionally imprisoned for libel, blasphemy, and obscenity (for printing ads for a pro-birth-control pamphlet). At its height, the Blade had several thousand subscribers from all around the country. Many old issues have been digitized and are available online from the Library of Congress.
In 1903, the Blade invited readers to submit letters on the theme of “Why I Am An Atheist”. Dozens of replies ran in the paper over the following months, and Thomas Lawson has done us the service of tracking down these letters, compiling them into a book, and supplementing them where possible with biographical information about the authors.
The letters run the gamut, and in some ways, they’re very different from modern atheist thought. There are a few mentions of Darwin, but only a very few. I assume this was the period when evolutionary theory fell into eclipse, prior to the Scopes trial and the emergence of the modern synthesis. There are also some very strange submissions, like one person who claims to be an atheist in contact with the spirits of dead people (they’ve told him there’s no god in the afterlife, either). There is, as you might expect, some unfortunate racist language as well, although it must be said there’s a lot less of it than I would have expected.
On the other hand, there are notable points of similarity as well. Robert Ingersoll is a major influence whose name is woven throughout the book, and arguments that are still mainstays of the atheist movement, like the argument from evil or criticisms of the genocidal morality of the Bible, are wielded with eloquence and flourish. And although the letters show that some definitional disputes have dogged us for over a century – like bickering about whether “atheist” or “agnostic” is the better label – most of the writers proudly claim the word “atheist” for themselves, even in an era where it was still technically illegal in some places. And they span a broad spectrum of diversity, including a remarkably high proportion that are from women (including one from, if I recall correctly, a 14-year-old girl!).
Letters from an Atheist Nation isn’t an up-to-date compendium of atheist thought, of course. Its real value is historical, in reminding us that freethinking isn’t a recent invention but a longstanding and proud part of the American story. In that respect, it’s another part of our answer to history-blind apologists who are nostalgic for a past golden age of universal Christianity that never actually existed. The only real change is that religion’s power to suppress differing views was greater in the past – and when that fades, as it’s now doing, a community of free minds will always flourish.