Sunday, October 9, 2011

Letters from an Atheist Nation

(cover from

Hmm,... this sounds interesting:
So, last week I happened to stumble upon an old Unreasonable Faith post celebrating the firebrand atheism of Charles Chilton Moore, whose turn of the century Kentucky newspaper, The Bluegrass Blade, was like the Pharyngula of its time. (Moore even did a stint in jail for scandalously claiming that “Jesus Christ was a man exactly like I am and had a human father and mother exactly like I had.”) Little did I know at the time that just a week later, Thomas Lawson would publish a book of letters to The Bluegrass Blade, called Letters from an Atheist Nation in which everyday atheists from every walk of life in 1903 explain in their own words how and why they became atheists.

And here's the product description at
In 1903, the "Blue Grass Blade," a Kentucky/Ohio-based freethought newspaper, which started as the only Prohibition newspaper edited by "a Heathen in the interest of good morals," requested letters from its readers describing how and why they had become atheists. Lawson has meticulously transcribed these letters from the digitized copies available at the Library of Congress's "Chronicling America" website and has edited them for a 21st-century audience. He touches on the stigma that has been placed on atheism in America and why atheists feel they have to hide their true personalities from their closest friends and family. Like today's atheists, the writers of these letters hid behind initials and "nom de plumes," and Lawson has done us a great service by deciphering many of the letter writers' mysterious pseudonyms to reveal their true identities. Will you find a branch of atheism in YOUR family tree?

The phrases and voices in these letters are over one hundred years old, but the thoughts and sentiments have changed very little, unlike the dogmas and doctrines they were hoping their descendants would have abandoned by now. Their thoughts could be pulled from the latest blogs of non-believers, but these are not merely letters from scientists, scholars, or intimidating intelligentsia, no, these are personal revelations from physicians, lawyers, dentists, veterans, pioneers, settlers, farmers, tradespeople, teenagers, and housewives. These letters are ironically Bible-like in that they are lyrical, repetitive, prophetic, and poetic, but the "revelation" will be left to the reader. If these century-old thoughts sound familiar, it would appear that there is nothing new about OUR century's "new" atheism.

Note that the book is apparently only available as a Kindle download (for $8.99), so I'm not sure if I'll buy it myself. But it does sound intriguing.

And what it tells me already is that progress isn't guaranteed. These were atheists of a hundred years ago, yet I never knew a single other atheist all the time I grew up. They may have hoped for their descendents to abandon religious dogma and doctrines, but it probably didn't happen.

Well, I've also heard that race relations in America were better in the latter part of the 19th Century than in the early 20th Century. So we may progress, but it's not guaranteed, and it's certainly not without its ups and downs. Progress, like liberty, takes continual work, and backsliding is all too common.

Anyway, that book really does sound interesting. We atheists have always been around. But until fairly recently, atheism was dangerous to admit, and it's still unpopular enough that most of us remain in the closet.

Still, these days you can easily find communities of atheists on the internet, if not in your own hometown. In 1903, it must have been a lot harder. That freethought newspaper was probably the only connection to other atheists most of them had.

Edit: My review of the book is here.


Thomas Lawson said...

FYI, the lone letter from Nebraska is from Indianola, in case you were wondering.

I am formatting the book for print, and it should be available in November.

WCG said...

Thanks! I must admit that I'd much rather own a paper copy. I'll make a note to check on that in a month or two.

Thomas Lawson said...

Hey, WCG, just wanted to let you know the paperback was released last month.

WCG said...

Hey, that's great! Thanks!

Now I just have to figure out what else to buy, so I can get free shipping. :)

WCG said...

FYI, I bought the book, read it, and reviewed it here. Nice job!