Apr 22, 2013

Teaching the history of American atheism

There are more than a few resources available to those who would teach on atheism, so long as they conceive of atheism in philosophical terms. There are anthologies, and college course syllabi available online, and a more-or-less established sense of what would be included in such a course.

For those interested in teaching on the history of atheism, this isn't the case.

Personally, I became interested in atheism as a historical phenomena when thinking about how to explain the relationship between the New Atheists and the cultural changes at the turn of the century -- the terrorist attacks of 2001, the election of George W. Bush, and the rise of blogging in particular. While the arguments being advanced by New Atheists were, from the most part, not directly speaking to their political and cultural context, those things seemed relevant nonetheless. They're relevant not necessarily in terms of evaluating the arguments being made, but in terms of understanding why the arguments were what they were, and why they were being made in the ways they were. It seemed, further, that in the atheism debates that sprang up in the first part of the 21st century, atheism was consistently being treated as one thing, a timeless and unchanging philosophy. But when one looks at actually existing atheism, there are always multiple movements and counter-movements and many contested claims about coextensive commitments that come along with atheism.

Atheism, that is to say, is always, in history, atheisms. In the plural, they are, I find, more complex, more fraught, and more alive than they're generally made to seem in popular, public conversations.

Thinking about atheism ahistorically means leaving out a lot of interesting and arguably important aspects of the atheisms that people hold to and live their lives with.

Approaching the subject as history, on the other hand, allows one to focus on at least two important issues. One, what cultural conditions contributed to and determined the shape and tenor of various atheist movements, and two, what effect those movements had and have on the culture. Approaching atheism historically can mean (for example) allowing for the space necessary to think about how different political environments and philosophies were hospitable to different movements of atheists at different times -- why, for example, Republicans in the Gilded Age gladly counted Robert Ingersoll as one of their own, while in the first decades of the 20th century atheists were associated and affiliated with the more radical strains of the politics of the left.

As far as I can tell, the only readily available historical works on atheism tend towards hagiography, or are designed to be dismissive, so that "history" means either "model for moral instruction" or "refutation." Such approaches aren't great, academically. While they may be useful for arguing for atheism or against atheism, they're not helpful in teaching about atheism, which is what I want to do.

I am trying to teach the history of American atheism(s) this semester. I've had to create my own canon, to do that, with a bit of very helpful advice. With the thought that there may be others interested in teaching such a course, or anyway, general interest in approaching atheism as aspect of American history, I offer my course schedule reading list here, along with some explanatory notes.

In selecting the assigned readings, I kept two principals in mind: One, representitiveness; Two, accessibility.

It quickly became evident that it would not be possible to be comprehensive, given limitations of a semester. But I wanted readings that would adequately represent the various movements of atheism in American history, give students a vairly complete overview, and I wanted to have selections that would sufficiently present the particular thinkers and their arguments. Also I wanted readings that would not give my students -- mostly in their first years of university, coming from a wide variety of educational backgrounds, from a number of different disciplines -- too much trouble. Plus I had to be able to get ahold of the given readings and make them available to the students. With those limitations and goals, here's what I came up with:

15 April
Introduction; syllabus; definitions; review of classic arguments for the existence of God

22 April
Thomas Paine (1737-1809)
Selections from Age of Reason
Joel Barlow (1754-1812)
Selections from Joel Barlow: American Citizen in a Revolutionary World, by Richard Buel, Jr.

29 April
Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899)
"Centennial Oration"; "Why I am an Agnostic"; selections from The Great Agnostic, by Susan Jacoby
Elizabeth Candy Stanton (1815-1902)
Selections from A Woman's Bible

6 May
Charles Chilton Moore (1837-1906)
Selections from Kentucky's Most Hated Man, by John Sparks
Blue Grass Blade
Selections from Letter from an Atheist Nation, ed. Thomas Lawson

13 May
William Graham Sumner (1840-1910)
"Religion and the Mores"; "That it is Not Wicked to be Rich; Nay, Even That it is Not Wicked to be Richer Than One's Neighbor"; "The Shifting of Responsiblity"; "Sketch of William Graham Sumner," by Albert Galloway Keller; "God and Man at Yale (in 1880)" by George Marsden

20 May
Max Eastman (1883-1969)
"The Religion of Patriotism"
Mike Gold (1894-1967)
"The Jesus-Thinkers"

27 May
H.L. Menken (1880-1956)
Selections from Damn! A Book of Calumny; Scopes trial reporting

3 June: NO CLASS 

10 June 
Humanist Manifestoes (1933; 1973)

17 June
Richard Wright (1908-1960)
Selections from Black Boy
James Baldwin (1924-1987)
Selections from Go Tell it on a Mountain

24 June
Ayn Rand (1905-1982)
Selections from Atlas Shrugged; Playboy Interview 1964

1 July
Madalyn Murray O’Hair (1919-1995)
Playboy Interview 1965, "The Murder of the Madalyn Murray O'Hair: America's Most Hated Woman," by Lona Manning

8 July
William Hamilton (1924-2012)
"The New Essence of Christianity"
Thomas J.J. Altizer (1927- )
"A Wager"

Make-up class:
Richard Feynman (1918-1988)
"The Relation of Science and Religion"; "Cargo Cult Science"
Carl Sagan (1934-1996)
"Pale Blue Dot"; selections from "The Varieties of Scientific Experience"

15 July
Daniel Dennett (1942- )
"The Bright Stuff"; "Atheism and Evolution"; "The Evolution of Misbelief"

22 July
Chris Stedman (1987- )
Selections from Faitheist
Conclusion; wrap-up 

A few thoughts:
1. It would be very easy to double the number of readings. There are lots and lots of people who are not here and could be here, though hopefully the above gives a good overview even though it's not comprehensive.
2. There were a number of people who I ended up leaving out because their work is limited mainly to criticizing instantiations of Chrisitanity, and they don't generally go beyond that. Examples range from 19th century abolitionists to 21st century media figures. I gave preference to works where epistemological and metaphysical claims are made.
3. If this could be expanded, it would be worth looking at those who were not atheists per se but attempted to establish secular alternatives to traditional religions, such as Felix Addler and John Muir. Such movements will be referenced in discussions of readings that are included, but there are limits on time that forced me to make some tough decisions.
4. With a few noted exceptions, fictional works on atheism were not included. While there would ideally be space for Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Kurt Vonnegut, etc., etc., there was a problem of accessibility. In some cases, non fiction versions of the author's arguments are easier to teach. In others, the issue of excerpting a short enough portion of text for a single undergrad class was very problematic. Additionally, teaching fiction is different than teaching argumentative essays, and switching back and forth too much presents a number of challenges.
5. There are only a few secondary texts, here, mostly in the first month of class. The secondary texts I've found tend to be very uneven. The hope, though, is that these texts will demonstrate to the students how one can take a primary text and situate it historically and read it in historical context, which the class will then do with the later texts.
6. Class time will be given to a combination of history lectures and group discussions explicating the assigned readings.

This is obviously a work in progress, but, I hope, a promising one.