1 Reverend George M. Docherty, pastor at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, 17 February 1954. Quoted in Stephen Bates, “Godless Communism and its Legacies”, Society 41/3 (March 2004): 1. A shorter version of this article was presented as a conference paper in Lille on 23 May 2010 at a workshop on American Studies (theme: “Looming on the Horizon”).
2 Samuel Huntington, “Under God, Michael Newdow is right: Atheists are Outsiders in America”, The Wall Street Journal, 16 June 2004.
3 For stylistic reasons, “atheist” and “non-believer” will be used as synonyms throughout this article, even though the meaning and connotation of these two terms can differ in the American context (not all Americans who declare that they do not believe in God identify themselves as “atheists”). To better understand the particular signification of these two words and the ways they are used in the United States, see Frank Pasquale, “The Nonreligious in the American Northwest”, in Ariela Keysar and Barry Kosmin (eds), Secularismand Secularity: Contemporary International Perspectives (Hartford: Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society & Culture, 2007); Bob Altemeyer and Bruce Hunsberger, Atheists. A Groundbreaking Study of America’s Nonbelievers (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2005).
4 See http://pewforum.org/Muslim/Views-of-Muslim-Americans-Hold-Steady-After-London-Bombings.aspx and http://pewforum.org/Politics-and-Elections/How-the-Public-Perceives-Romney-Mormons.aspx.
5 John Locke, Letter on Toleration, 1689; Voltaire, “Athéisme”, “Athée”, Dictionnaire Philosophique, 1770.
6 “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
7 “US Religious Landscape Survey,” Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, February 2008. Among those 5% are those who declare that they “do not believe in God or in an universal spirit.” This article does not intend to be a historical or sociological analysis of American atheists: its main purpose is to study the perception and symbolical status of atheists in the United States. Thus, it will only explore to a small extent the nature and diversity of their (un)beliefs, the development of atheist organizations in American history, or the main historical figures of freethought in the United States. For detailed studies on those topics see Philip Hamburger, The Separation of Church and State (Cambridge: Harvard UPress, 2005); Susan Jacoby, Freethinkers. A history of American Secularism (New York: Owl Books, 2004); Evelyn A. Kirkley, Gender and American Atheism, 1865-1915 (Syracuse: Syracuse UPress, 2000).
8 Penny Edgell, Joseph Gerteis, Douglas Hartmann, “Atheists as ‘Other’: Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society,” American Sociological Review 72/2 (April 2006): 211-234.
9 “Altérité intérieure”, cf. Audric Vitiello, “L'école et l'altérité : crispation identitaire et crispation institutionnelle,” Institutionnalisation de la xénophobie en France, REVUE Asylon(s), May 2008, available at www.reseau-terra.eu/article747.html
10 Charles Taylor, “The Dynamics of Democratic Exclusion”, Journal of Democracy 9 (4) (October 1998): 143-156.
11 Erving Goffman, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, (New York: Touchstone, 1963).
12 David Hollinger, “How Wide is the Circle of the ‘We’? American Intellectuals and the Problem of the Ethnos since World War II,” American Historical Review 98/2 (April 1993): 317-337.
13 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983).
14 Michele Lamont, Money, Morals and Manners. The Culture of the French and the American Upper-Middle Class, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 9.
15 Jeffrey Alexander, “Citizen and Enemy as Symbolic Classification: On the Polarizing Discourse of Civil Society,” in Michele Lamont and Marcel Fournier (eds), Cultivating Differences: Symbolic Boundaries and the Making of Inequality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 289-308.
16 Arguments in the trial for blasphemy of Abner Kneeland, 1838. Quoted in Lori Ginzberg, “‘The Hearts of Your Reader will Shudder’: Fanny Wright, Infidelity and American Frethought,” American Quaterly 4/2 (June 1994): 205.
17 Michele Lamont, Virag Molnar, “The Study of Boundaries in the Social Sciences”, Annual Review of Sociology 28 (2002): 167-195.
18 Anonymous, “Sermon on Natural Religion by a Natural Man,” 1771, quoted in Owen Aldridge, “Natural religion and Deism in America before Ethan Allen and Thomas Paine,” The William and Mary Quaterly 54/4 (October 1994): 843.
19 Sacvan Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978).
20 See Wilson N. Brissett, “Puritans and Revolution: Remembering the Origin: Religion and Social Critique in Early New England,” in Charles Mathewes and Christopher McKnight Nichols (eds), Prophesies of Godlessness (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 22.
21 See his sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” (also entitled “A City upon a Hill”), 1630.
22 Jeffrey Alexander, The Civil Sphere (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 46-64; “Citizen and Enemy”, 289-308.
23 Jeffrey Alexander, “Citizen and Enemy”, 290.
24 One must note however that Roger Williams, founder of the colony of Rhode Island in 1644 and famous advocate of religious liberty, broadened tolerance to those who did not believe in God (See Roger Williams, “A Plea for Religious Liberty”, 1644).
25 Charles Rushing, “The First Amendment and Civil Disabilities imposed upon Atheists,” Duke Bar Journal 3/2 (Spring 1953): 137-154.
26 Quoted in David Wootton, John Locke. Political Writings (London: Hackett Publishing, 2003).
27 After 1783 six states of the thirteen kept an established Church. The last disestablishment occurred in 1833 in Massachusetts.
28 James Madison, A Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments, 1785.
29 The Anti-federalist Charles Turner warned in a pamphlet published in the early 1790s that “without the prevalence of Christian piety and morals, the best Republican Constitution [could] never save us from slavery and ruin.” When asked why there was no mention of God in the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton ironically replied “We forgot”. But this omission was deliberate: the delegate from Connecticut, Williams Williams, had suggested including a reference to God in the Constitution, but his proposition was quickly rejected.
30 John Locke, Letter on Toleration, 1689.
31 Quoted in Walter Berns, Making Patriots (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 39.
32 Jefferson made several allusions to non-believers. He wrote for instance that “Locke refuses tolerance for those who deny the existence of God. (…). But where he stopped short, we may go on.” Quoted in Isaac Kramnick and Laurence Moore, The Godless Constitution. The Case against Religious Correctness (New York: W&W Norton, 1997), 92.
33 Jonathan Den Hartog, “John Jay and the ‘Great Plan of Providence’,” in Daniel Dreisbach et.al. (eds), The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009).
34 Jeffrey Alexander, “Citizens as Enemy”, 289.
35 See the works of Parson Mason Weems, The Life of Washington (New York: Belknap Press, 1809) and George Bancroft, History of the United States of America, from the Discovery of the American Continent (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1834).
36 Ray Billington, The Protestant Crusade (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1938); John Higham, Strangers in the Land. Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925 (New York: Atheneum, 1963).
37 Will Herberg, Protestant-Catholic-Jew (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955), 260.
38 Quoted in Rosemarie Zagarrie, “Mercy Otis Warren on Church and State,” in Dreisbach et.al., The Forgotten Founders, 292.
39 Quoted in Frank Lambert, The Founding Fathers and the place of religion in America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 93.
40 Quoted in Jan Ellen Lewis, James Horn, and Peter S. Onuf, The Revolution of 1800: Democracy, Race and the New Republic (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002), 178.
41 Félix de Beaujour, Aperçu des Etats-Unis au commencement du XIXe siècle, depuis 1800 jusqu’en 1810 (Paris: L.G. Michaud, 1814); Georges J. Joyaux, “De Beaujour’s Views of America at the Beginning of the Nineteenth Century,” The Modern Language Journal 39/4 (April 1955): 165-173.
42 Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (New York: Free Press, 1965).
43 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (London: Regnery Publishing, 2002), 243.
44 Erving Goffman, Stigma, 1965.
45 State v. Chandler, 1837. See Anonymous, “Blasphemy”, Columbia Law Review 70/4 (April 1970), 704, also quoted in Walter Berns, Making Patriots, 34.
46 See of course Will Herberg, Protestant-Catholic-Jew, to understand how Catholics and Jews became progressively integrated within the boundaries of the American “imagined community” after World War Two.
47 Frank Newport, “Americans Today Much More Accepting of a Woman, Black, Catholic, or Jew As President,” Gallup News Service, 23 March 1999.
48 Joseph McCarthy, “Speech of Wheeling,” West Virginia, 9 February 1950. Quoted in Ellen Schrecker, The Age of McCarthyism (New York: Bedford Books, 1994).
49 J. Edgar Hoover, “God and Country or Communism?” The American Mercury, December 1957.
50 Louis Fischer and Nada Mourtada-Sabbah, “Adopting ‘In God We Trust’ as the U.S. National Motto,” Journal of Church and State 44/4 (Fall 2002): 671-692; Lee Canipe, “Under God and Anti-Communist. How the Pledge of Allegiance got religion in Cold War America,” Journal of Church and State 45/2 (Spring 2003): 305-323.
51 “Text of Truman decrying ‘hysteria’ in fighting communists,” The New York Times, 11 November 1953.
52 Quoted in “FFRF celebrates National Day of Prayer victory,” available at www.ffrf.orf, www.ffrf.org/news/releases/judge-rules-in-favor-of-ffrf-in-suit-against-national-day-of-prayer/. The National Day of Prayer is still acknowledged today by American Presidents, who since Reagan have traditionally issued a proclamation on the first Thursday of May. It was declared unconstitutional by a U.S District Court on 15 April 2010 after an atheist organization, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, sued the White House for violating the 1st Amendment. President Barack Obama decided to appeal the decision.
53 Will Herberg, Protestant, 258.
54 Michele Lamont and Laurent Thévenot, “Introduction: Towards a Renewed Comparative Cultural Sociology,” in Michele Lamont and Laurent Thévenot (eds), Rethinking Comparative Cultural Sociology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 4.
55 See Philip Hamburger, The Separation of Church and State (Cambridge: Harvard UPress, 2005); Susan Jacoby, Freethinkers. A History of American Secularism (New York: Owl Books, 2004).
56 See Charles Rushing, “The First Amendment”, 1953.
57 Axel Honneth and Nancy Fraser (eds), Redistribution or Recognition?: A Political-Philosophical Exchange (New York: Verso, 2003).
58 Everson v. Board of Education of the Township of Ewing, 330 U.S 1: a New Jersey law allowing the reimbursement of public transportation for students attending catholic schools is constitutional.
59 Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S 306, 1952: released time programs for religious education in public schools are acceptable if the instruction takes place away from the school campus, for one hour per week, and with no public funding.
60 Since Everson and Zorach, these protections afforded to atheists under the 1st Amendment have been regularly reasserted by the Supreme Court in several rulings (Lynch v. Donnelly, 1984; Lee v. Weisman, 1989; McCreary v. ACLU, 2005). Some Justices in the current Supreme Court have nonetheless declared that they do not believe that the 1st Amendment prohibits the government from favoring religion over non-religion. Justice Antonin Scalia wondered for instance “how can the Court possiblyassert that "'the First Amendment mandates governmental neutrality between ... religion and non-religion’, and that ‘[m]anifesting a purpose to favor . . . adherence to religion generally’,is unconstitutional? Who says so? Surely not the words of the Constitution,” McCreary v. ACLU, 2005.
61 Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S 488. Two later rulings, O’Hair v Hill in 1978 and Voswinkel v. Hunt in 1979 confirmed that religious tests were unconstitutional, respectively for the Constitution of Texas and for the Constitution of North Carolina.
62 It is worth noting however that as of today, three states – Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina - still have provisions prohibiting non-believers to hold public offices in their Constitutions, but they are of course only symbolic and would be ruled unconstitutional if enforced.
63 Ahmet Kuru, “Passive and Assertive Secularism, Historical Conditions, Ideological Struggles, and State Policies toward Religion,” World Politics 59 (July 2007): 568-594.
64 Some court cases were brought by militant atheists against religious symbols in the public sphere, but they all failed: Aranow v. United States, 1970 against “In God We Trust” on coins and bills; O’Hair v. Cooke, 1977, against the opening of Austin’s municipal council with a prayer; O’Hair v. Blumenthal, 1979, against “In God We Trust” on coins and bills; Marsh v. Chambers, 1983 (Supreme Court), against the opening of the sessions of Nebraska’s Congress with a prayer; Newdow v. U.S Congress, 2002, against “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.
65 Evelyn Nieves, “Judges ban Pledge of Allegiance from School, citing ‘Under God’,” The New York Times, 27 June 2002.
66 Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris, Sacred and Secular. Religion and Politics Worldwide (New York: Cambridge Upress, 2004), 90-91.
67 See Penny Edgell et.al., “Atheists as ‘Other’,” 2006, and http://www.soc.umn.edu/~hartmann/files/atheist as the other.pdf
68 This result is of course all the more meaningful, since after 9/11 one could have legitimately expected a majority of the respondents to choose the category “Muslims”.
69 Michele Lamont, Money, 57.
70 See http://www.gallup.com/poll/3979/Americans-Today-Much-More-Accepting-Woman-Black-Catholic.aspx
71 Charles Mathewes and Christopher McKnight Nichols, “Conclusion: Prophesies, in Retrospect and Prospect,” in Mathewes and McKnight Nichols (eds), Prophesies, 236.
72 R.D.Woodberry, “When Surveys lie and People tell the Truth: How Surveys over-sample Church Attenders,” American Sociological Review 63/1 (February 1998): 119-122.
73 Robert Wuthnow, America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005); Loose Connections: Joining Together in America’s Fragmented Communities (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002)
74 Paul Lichterman, “Religion’s reputation”, The Immanent Frame, 2 February 2010.
75 Alan Wolfe, One Nation After All (New York: Viking, 1998), 45.
76 See http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1181/religious-identification-of-those-who-do-not-believe-in-god
77 See the survey led by the anthropologist Frank Pasquale among groups of non-believers in the states of Oregon and Washington: Frank L. Pasquale, “The Non religious in the American Northwest,” in Keysar and Kosmin (eds); See also Ariane Zambiras, “Accepting the ‘Non –religious’? The Case of Atheists in the United States,” paper given at the conference Religion in the 21st Century: Transformations, Significance, Challenges, Copenhagen, 9-13 September 2007.
78 Ariela Keysar and Barry Kosmin, American Nones: The Profile of the No religion Population (Hartford: Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society & Culture, 2008); Angela Abbamonte, “One in Five Americans may be Secular in 2030,” Religion News Service, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 25 September 2009.
80 Michael Hout, Claude Fischer, “Americans with ‘No religion’, Why their Numbers are growing,” American Sociological Review 67/2 (April 2002): 165-190.
81 Paul Lichterman, “Religion’s Reputation,” 2010.
82 See Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (London: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006); Sam Harris, The End of Faith (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007); Christopher Hitchens, God is not Great. How religion poisons everything (New York: Twelve, 2007).
83 The number of atheist or agnostic groups on college campuses doubled between 2007 and 2009, from 80 to 162 (Angela Abbamonte, “Atheist Groups Double in Size in Two Years,” Religion News Service, 16 September 2009). A national lobby, the Secular Alliance Coalition, has even been created to defend the interest of “non-theist” Americans in Washington (www.secular.org).
84 David Abel, “The Nonbelievers”, Boston Globe, 16 September 2007.
85 Richard Cimino and Christopher Smith, “Secular Humanism and Atheism beyond Progressive Secularism,” Sociology of Religion 68/4 (2007): 407-424.
86 Daniel E. Slotnik, “Ads for Atheism appear on Manhattan Buses,” The New York Times, 25 June 2009.
87 Jeffrey G. McDonald, “Long defined by what they are not, Nonbelievers increasingly try to define what they are,” The Christian Science Monitor, 28 June 2009.
88 See the book Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, written by Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain at Harvard Divinity School.
89 Nicholas Kristof, “Obama’s Inauguration,” The New York Times, 20 January 2009.
90 Michael Conlon, “A new day for U.S. atheists?” Reuters, 30 March 2009.
91 Paul Levinson, “The most revolutionary phrase of Obama’s Inaugural Adress,” 20 January 2009, available at http://www.opensalon.cm Top of page