Nov 27, 2012

Teaching: History of American Atheism

I'm in the process of preparing a class on the history of American Atheism, which, as far as I can tell, is more or less uncharted territory. Existing studies and curricula seem to either be philosophical examinations of atheism (e.g.), or much too narrow for my interests (e.g.), or really more hagiographical canonization efforts than I am comfortable with (e.g.). Not to mention the very common whig histories of atheism.

Given the new(ish?) direction of the class I'm designing, it seems some readers might be interested in the shape of the class as it develops. Also, as there's no standard text outlining major figures or movements in American Atheism, I would appreciate readers' help in identifying critical people and/or texts to teach.

Below, I've listed those I have in mind who are important in this history and who I think can be taught fairly well to first and second year students with an interest in religious history and American cultural studies. I've construed "atheist" fairly broadly, to include some agnostics and skeptics (especially if they expand the possibility of disbelief); as well as some who's opposition to specific faith traditions is clear while their own position is more ambiguous; those of the political right as well as the more well-represented left; some who are hostile towards religion and some who attempt to make use of religious rhetoric. I've also tried to work in a fair representation of non-whites, women, and, as far as possible, some from backgrounds other than Protestant.

Are there any significant figures or movements I'm missing?

Anyone who would likely teach particularly well that I haven't thought of?

Course description:

From Cotton Mather’s denunciations to Daniel Dennett’s proposal atheists rebrand themselves as “brights,” atheists have been a much-discussed but little understood feature of the religious landscape of America. This class will take a historical approach to the subject, analytically examining the many varieties of atheism in America. Students will learn about atheisms, plural, in the past and present, and will study their cultural contexts, as well as arguments for and against the existence of God, and vying conceptions of meaning and morality. Students will also be introduced to the methodological issues in the study of the history of religion, gaining a working understanding of the approaches entailed by cultural history.

Tentative syllabus:
1. Thomas Paine
2. Joel Barlow
3. Joseph Weydemeyer
4. Robert Ingersoll
5. Charles Chilton Moore and the Blue Grass Blade
6. Emma Goldman
7. Eugene V. Debs
8. Emanuel and Marcet Haldeman-Julius
9. Richard Wright
10. James Baldwin
11. Ayn Rand
12. Madeline Murray O'Hare
13. Kurt Vonnegut
14. Thomas Altizer
15. Sam Harris
16. David Silverman
17. YouTub videos: "Why I am an Atheist"/"How I became an Atheist."
18. "Preachers who are not believers"
19. Chris Stedman

Additions suggested via twitter:
Felix Adler
Paul Kutz
Carl Sagan

Additions suggested via Facebook:
Penn Jilette
Seth MacFarlane
George Carlin
Linus Pauling
Richard Feynman
James Rani
Michael Hardt
H.L. Menken

Other additions suggested:
Charles Lee Smith
Ambrose Bierce
H.P. Lovecraft


  1. Penn Jillette
    Bill Maher

  2. This sounds like an amazing course!

    I read a book by Susan Jacoby called "Freethinkers" a few years back that was a great general overview of most of the folks on your list.

    Does Mark Twain belong on that list?

  3. Katy, I have a lot of problems with Jacoby's book & general approach to the subject, mostly in that she seems less interest in history than in a canon of skeptic-saints. I have put a number of the people she profiles in Freethinkers on the above list, though.

    Twain's a good suggestion.

  4. Probably too late to be of use, but in the event it's not, I'd add Sinclair Lewis's Elmer Gantry, which is dedicated to Mencken, and I'd second Mencken. If it's a big list, and not just what could be covered in a course, I guess I'd also add the texts of Humanist Manifestoes I and II, Walter Lippmann's A Preface to Morals, John Dewey's A Common Faith, Herbert Asbury's Up From Methodism, and Reginald Wright Kauffman's A Man of Little Faith. If you're digging deeper, it's worth noting that Mencken was a translator of Nietzsche and that Albert Barnes salvaged Bertrand Russell's career when the latter was de facto exiled in the Sierra Nevadas. The 1920s and 30s are completely fascinating. And I would finally note that these are small additions to an already thorough list you've got up there.

  5. Excellent suggestions. Thank you!