Welcome to the inaugural entry in ISHASH’s interview series! We will be focusing on young scholars who are working on the history of atheism, secularism, and humanism. Our first interview is with Charles Louis Richter. It was conducted by Elliot Hanowski.
Could you introduce yourself and tell us a little about your academic situation?
I’m a PhD candidate in American Religious History at the George Washington University, working on finishing my dissertation under Leo Ribuffo. I came to GW from the University of Washington, where I got my MA in Comparative Religion at the Jackson School of International Studies.
How would you describe the content of your current project?
My dissertation frames the American reaction to atheists and the idea of irreligion in the 20th century as a form of nativism. The turn of the century ended the golden age of nineteenth century freethought with two events: the death of Robert Ingersoll in 1899, and the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901. The lack of a widely popular voice for irreligion, combined with the murder of the president by an anarchist, led to a backlash against not only anarchism but also atheism. From that point, Americans tended to see irreligion in terms of whatever ostensibly foreign ideology seemed most threatening. So for the rest of the century, we see atheism and atheists associated with anarchism, fascism, socialism, and of course Soviet-style communism. By the late seventies, secular humanism became the buzzword for a whole suite of threats not only to religion, but to Americanism. It’s important to note that this phenomenon is not limited to the political or religious right; liberals also framed irreligion as un-American.
In my own work I’ve found that many Canadians also characterized unbelief as “foreign,” but they often blamed it on irreverent Americans! Aside from Russia, were there any particular countries that were frequently seen as exporters of unbelief?
It’s fascinating that Canadians have seen the US as troublesome in that manner. Besides the Soviet Union and other communist nations, several countries show up as producers of atheism. The legacy of the French Revolution made France suspect in this sense–you have Christian Amendment supporters blaming French revolutionary atheism for the lack of any reference to God in the US Constitution, and the popularity of French existentialists in the states produces concern as well. Germany gets a bad rap due to thinkers like Marx and Nietzsche, of course, but also from the fear that a victorious Hitler would replace all religion with a Nazi church. To a lesser extent, any nation with strong anarchist or fascist movements became objects of concern.
Does your project cover all of the 20th century? Are there any specific periods that you focus on?
This project goes from 1899 and the death of Ingersoll to 2001 and 9/11. It’s an ambitious scope and I considered reducing it, but the story of the nativist impulse against irreligion that emerges from the entire century is strikingly coherent, and I decided that it ought to be addressed as a single narrative. The period between the World Wars is particularly interesting, as it’s a time when the US and the world was struggling with the validity of various ideologies, which produced an opening for a number of atheist activists.
What types of sources are you using?
I rely on a wide array of different sources, but periodicals are especially useful to me because they provide so many voices. Because I’m interested in American reactions to an idea, letters to newspaper editors–particularly in small town newspapers–are a rich vein of popular debate. Speaking of debates, the US has a long tradition of public believer-nonbeliever debates, so those transcripts show up in my work as well. The challenge is winnowing material from archival sources. This thread of thought is both ubiquitous and implicit in American thinking, so practically any manuscript collection will provide examples of it.
Is your work challenging part of the existing historiography, or are you breaking new ground that hasn’t really been considered before?
Several recent works have addressed the assumption of the Christian nature of the United States, such as John Fea’s Was America Founded as a Christian Nation and Peter Manseau’s One Nation, Under Gods, and of course numerous works about anti-communism, and anti-radicalism like Michelle Nickerson’s Mothers of Conservatism and Lisa McGirr’s Suburban Warriors, but there has been very little attention paid specifically to how the idea of irreligion shaped American religion and culture. For that matter, there has been surprisingly little work done on the history of American irreligion and atheism at all, although Leigh Eric Schmidt is now working on a history of American irreligion. I see my work as providing another facet to the “Christian nation” discussion, with the innovation of treating the reaction to atheists and the idea of irreligion as a discourse in and of itself.
Have any particular characters (whether atheist or anti-atheist) distinguished themselves in your research, either for the vividness of their personality or the scope of their influence?
On the atheist side, there’s Charles Lee Smith, the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism, and the last American to be convicted of blasphemy, in 1928. Like Madalyn Murray O’Hair in later decades, he was a gadfly who provoked a response far out of proportion to his actual impact. Unlike O’Hair, he was never successful at achieving actual legal reform with regard to the religious freedoms of the irreligious. Then there’s John Courtney Murray, the Jesuit who helped frame the Catholic Church’s post-Vatican II position toward religious pluralism, and argued that the church had to engage “on a footing of equality” even with atheists. He even taught an “atheism seminar” at Woodstock college in 1966, but found resistance among his students to his liberalizing ideas.
To what extent did nativists invoke a generic American civil religion in battling atheism, as opposed to identifying with particular denominations?
First, while I describe the reaction to atheism and irreligion as a form of nativism, I don’t think of those who respond in this fashion as nativists, per se. To complicate the question further, they weren’t necessarily fighting actual atheism, but often the idea of atheism, so accusations of irreligion could be leveled at anyone who was seen as insufficiently or incorrectly religious. Thus, at times denominational or political differences were important, but an increasingly ubiquitous ecumenism of the sort described by historians such as Kevin Schultz and Kevin Kruse could be used to show that while Americans held different faiths, they at least had faith.
Following on the previous question, how did American Catholics fit into these struggles, given that they were anti-atheist but also frequently targeted by nativists?
Anti-atheism was a useful tool for minority religions to use to justify their place in a broader American religious pluralism. Not only Catholics, but also Jews, Mormons, Muslims, and members of other religious traditions could assert some combination of belief in a god or gods, belief in a transcendent source of morality, adherence to a moral community, etc., to demonstrate that they too participated in religiousness and the American project. The “Protestant-Catholic-Jew” framework is partly a story of finding common ground, but also a story of defining the religious against the irreligious. As religious pluralism became more a point of national pride than a liability, these minority religious groups, to varying degrees of success, found their religions to be assets in proving their American credentials. This process was (and still is) complicated, as shown by Tisa Wenger in her study of the Pueblo Indian dance controversy; because colloquial definitions of “religion” are formed in a Protestant framework, determining what is and isn’t a religion in the eyes of the law is a fraught process. And that’s part of what makes irreligion and atheism such useful bogeymen: it is easy to say that atheists don’t believe in anything. From there, you can project any frightening role on them that you’d like.
If you have more questions, you can get in touch with Charles on Twitter. His handle is @richterscale.