The Village Atheist

by Emanuel Haldeman‑Julius

In certain quarters, where there is pride of intellect together with a spirit of compromise and policy playing on the subject of religion, it seems to be fashionable to sneer at "the village atheist." Sometimes this "village atheist" is called, by way of mock courtesy, a "curbstone philosopher"; and the suggestion is that he is a very crude, poorly educated, awkwardly reasoning fellow—one who is incapable of perceiving the subtler arguments that, while they may (according to these critics) turn one away from superstition, enable one more clearly to appreciate the value of what is called "true religion." Even so good and usually sound a literary critic as Carl Van Doren, in his preface to a collection of excerpts from Thomas Paine's writings, says that Paine's The Age of Reason has long been the "Bible of village atheists."

It is not clear, after a first or second thought, why an atheist in a village should be absolutely inferior to an atheist in a city. Ordinarily we do not think of villages as homes of the highest culture; but it is also a fact that thousands of inhabitants of the city differ only in manners and not really in culture from their village‑bred brethren; and it is further true that good books and good ideas can and in a measure do find their way to villages, bringing at least to an individual here and there a more enlightened viewpoint than is shared by the majority.

Atheism, as an attitude toward the problems, fictitious or real, that are posed by religion requires considerable decision and a clearer light of thought for anyone who has been reared in the atmosphere of conventional religion. One would like to ask the critics of the "village atheist" whether they regard him as intellectually a higher or a lower type than the village pulpit‑pounder or the village Christian who believes his Bible from cover to cover or any village (or city) believer in religion whose belief is a matter of thoughtlessness and fashion. Whatever the shortcomings of this "village atheist," evidently his mind has been active and curious enough to rise above the level of his mental surroundings; it is literally true that he has devoted more actual thought to religious questions than his pious neighbors; he has not been tamely and incuriously gullible, swallowing as gospel truth whatever the preachers have declared on the bogus authority of a hodge­podge Bible and a hypothetical God.

But we need not for the moment concern ourselves with the refinement, the subtlety and suavity, nor the general culture of "the village atheist." He may be deficient in esthetic sensibilities; as a philosopher he may not be all-embracing in scope; in numerous branches of knowledge his information may not be all that it should be—no layman, for that matter, however intelligent and studious, can match the extensive information and understanding of the specialist in any subject; but in his philosophy of atheism, I maintain that "the village atheist" is sound and that his critics cannot dispose of him derisively with a phrase.

It is usually insinuated by these critics that "the village atheist" is superficial, that his arguments are crude and elementary, and that he is not sufficiently aware of the broader reaches of philosophy. The fact is that his arguments are sound, shrewd, and unanswerable. They may not original with him—they have been repeated innumerable times—but they are still decidedly vital and insistent arguments precisely because, while having been repeated so often, they have never been answered with reason and conviction. There is not a single point in the philosophy of atheism as commonly expounded by "village atheists" which has been shown to be irrelevant or unreasonable; the most roughly educated "village atheist" propounds questions that all the so‑called wise men of religion have been unable to answer satisfyingly; his objections to religion may seem elementary—well, indeed they are elementary—which means that they go to the root of the matter and deal with those first principles which must be placed in clarity before religion can justify itself. Assuredly the arguments of "the village atheist" appear quite simple; one might even say that these are questions which a bright child would naturally ask, which is by no means to say that they are foolish questions; on the contrary, they are questions which, first and last, stand centrally challenging to the whole viewpoint and all the conceivable claims and doctrines of religion.

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"The village atheist" makes out a plain case against religion, buttressed by a formidable if rude logic. If he appears insensitive to the finer—and futile—speculations of men who spin webs of wonderful fantasy out of their inner consciousness, he has at any rate a due regard for facts and that, for the purpose of arriving at truth, is better than any amount of nimble fact-dodging logic. Before one goes into abstruse speculation or argument on any subject, there are certain plain, fundamental questions that require an answer. These are the questions which, with regard to the subject of religion, "the village atheist" continues to ask and which not the most skillful theologian can answer, although he may offer various evasive and unsatisfactory replies. In building a philosophy of life, "the village atheist"—at least insofar as an attitude toward religion is involved in a philosophy of life—wants to begin at the foundation. Maybe that is a crude and materialistic method. That is what his "spiritual critics" assert, who ignore the foundation of facts and reason and start in gaily and irresponsibly trying to establish an airy structure in the clouds—indeed, beyond the clouds, entirely out of sight.

What if "the village atheist" does lack originality? It is better to be unoriginal and rational than to be originally fantastic and irrational. Does "the village atheist" repeat the arguments of Paine and Ingersoll? Very well; they are sound, unanswerable, directly pertinent arguments; they strike at the very heart of the assumptions of religion; and it is not a matter of inventing arguments, but of looking at things reasonably, denying oneself the dubious luxury that may be associated in some minds with the refinements of sophistry.

Was Thomas Paine crude when he pointed out that revelation must be direct from God to man and that when coming through an intermediary, prophet or savior so‑called, it is but hearsay? Was Paine giving evidence of a lack of culture, or was he exhibiting a good and clear critical insight when he riddled with remorseless logic the inconsistencies of the Bible? Was Ingersoll merely being childish or perversely refusing to see the truth and beauty of religion when he said that man created God in his own image—that the God idea is but a reflection of man's superstition and his unscientific effort to explain things—that the assumptions of religion, God and all the rest, are compounded of pure fallacy? When Ingersoll exposed the absurdities and cruelties of the doctrines of heaven and hell, of the whole mystic notion of a hereafter, was he taking a position inferior in point of wisdom to the high plane of "spiritual" philosophy or was he taking the best vantage ground of common sense, of plain observation and reason, to see the truth of things?

Certainly the preachers have never been able to show anything that was wrong with Ingersoll's (or, similarly, with the "village atheist's") reasoning; in attempting to show that Ingersoll and "the village atheist" are superficial the preachers simply expose their own wide variance from a valid, reasonable, conception of life.

No doubt it is annoying to a preacher when "the village atheist" throws at him questions about heaven—its location, its nature, its appearance and laws, and the like. It doubtless seems a bit of perversity for "the village atheist" to point out that this heaven the preachers mention so assuredly is an imaginary place which nobody has ever seen, with which we have no communication, from which no one has ever returned even for a moment to enlighten us. These are irrelevant details, the preacher may say; but they are not; they are exactly what we should and would know if heaven were a positive, located, comprehended place.

And, again, when the preacher says that men must have faith, "the village atheist" replies that he is merely asking that others believe him without the slightest evidence or show of reason; that in other words the preacher is saying, "Don't bother me with questions, and don't ask me for proof, but just believe what I tell you."

One does not readily understand why "the village atheist" should be accused of crudeness and superficiality because he has an inquiring and independent mind. Of course, we expect him to be condemned by preachers and by Christians of the ordinary type. But it is more of a surprise when we find this attitude among certain intellectuals and critics who have, after all, an unusually thoughtful view of life and who might be expected to recognize the pertinence and logic of "the village atheist's" arguments—who, assuredly, do not have a simple belief in a God or in religion, although by some trick of verbiage and imagery they may persuade themselves that they have a glimpse of "true religion." Such a critic as Carl Van Doren, for instance, may feel that the arguments of "the village atheist" are unoriginal and crudely expressed; but can he produce any arguments for religion that are as sound as the arguments of "the village atheist" against religion? What Van Doren's attitude toward religion is I do not know; he may, for all I know, be an atheist or he may prefer to call himself more tentatively a skeptic; but, surprisingly, now and then a man who is himself utterly a disbeliever in religion speaks slightingly of "the village atheist"; quite often it is no more than a literary objection and is made in forgetfulness of the fact that, after all, "the village atheist" is voicing the prime inquiries that still must be made in approaching the subject of religion.

There is another type of man who, while not able to gull himself with the absurdities of conventional religion, is nevertheless at heart a mystic. This sort of man dislikes "the village atheist" because the latter is realistic and materialistic and because he prefers plain truth to fancy notions. When the strain of mysticism is strong in a man he does not wish to be confined to clear‑cut, definite ideas nor does he wish to make direct, detailed inquiries into religion or anything else. He loves, it seems, a sort of thinking—or perhaps it would be better described as feeling—that is without form or real direction, that inspires the mind to function in free fancy regardless of rules of reason. Mystics are impatient with facts. A simple, logical form of thought, based carefully upon observation, is distasteful to this—well, disorderly—type of mind.

Nine times out of ten one will find that it is a man who is enamored with some sort of mysticism who accuses "the village atheist" of arguing crudely, superficially, impertinently and ignoring higher "spiritual" values. And quite effectively "the village atheist" would reply that it is this "spiritual" assumption—­the assumption that there is a peculiar order of truth apart from and above the kind of truth that men can know by observation and reason—which is, after all, his main point of attack. What is the "soul"? asks "the village atheist"—and philosophers have asked it and the great skeptics of all ages have asked it and, when all the arguments or attempted explanations of theologians are summed up, one finds that all they can say is that the "soul" is "spiritual" and that "spiritual" truth is the concern of the "soul," pretending to explain one word with another word that is equally meaningless.

Yes—the great skeptics, the great thinkers who have led in the work of enlightenment, have insisted, with reference to religion, upon fundamentally the same inquiries and have stated the same contradictions and difficulties that are directly propounded in the familiar arguments of "the village atheist." There is nothing so devastating as common sense applied to religion; and "the village atheist," if he is lacking in intellectual refinements and cannot argue subtly in a circle of metaphysics, at any rate does, with a few observations and queries of common sense, cut away the bare, unsupported, even unintelligible assumptions that are the stock in trade of religion.

Socrates asked questions—no doubt they seemed to many of his fellows to be perverse or childish questions—and the "village atheist," in confounding interrogatively and argumentatively the wits of the pious, is following an illustrious intellectual example.

SOURCE: Haldeman‑Julius, E. The Age‑Old Follies of Man. Girard, Kansas: Haldeman‑Julius Publications, 1930. Little Blue Book No. 1488. 63 pp.  For a more complete excerpt, see “The Village Atheist” in Freethought on the American Frontier, edited by Fred Whitehead & Verle Muhrer (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1992), pp. 239-253.

On this site:

"Haldeman-Julius, The Little Blue Books, and the Theory of Popular Culture" by Dale M. Herder

"The Little Blue Books as Popular Culture: E. Haldeman-Julius' Methodology" by Dale M. Herder

"The Little Blue Books in the War on Bigotry and Bunk" by Mark Scott

Emanuel & Marcet Haldeman-Julius: Guide to Web Resources & Bibliography

Intellectual Life in Society, Conventional and Unconventional: A Bibliography in Progress

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