READ THIS: An Eloquent Plea to End Discrimination Against Atheists

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Godless Citizens in a Godly Republic: Atheists in American Public Life by R. Lawrence Moore and Isaac Kramnick

 W.W. Norton & Co. 236 pp.

“She believed in nothing,” Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in his autobiography.  “Only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist.”  Atheism, as Sartre recognized, is not an absence of belief, but in its way a very firm outlook on the world.

In Godless Citizens in a Godly Republic, R. Lawrence Moore, and Isaac Kramnick, emeritus professors at Cornell University, provide a fascinating look at atheism in America, a country that has historically not been very kind to nonbelievers.  This was true, as the authors observe, in the earliest days of the Republic.  Thomas Paine, the author of Common Sense, was a deist, but was often falsely branded an atheist – and, as a result, attacked as a “loathsome reptile,” or, as Theodore Roosevelt called him, a “filthy little atheist.”

Moore and Kramnick trace the history of American nonbelief through the women’s suffrage movement, Felix Adler’s Ethical Culture Society, and other high points.  A key moment of liberation came in 1961, when the Supreme Court, in Torcaso v. Watkins, ruled that atheist Roy Torcaso could become a notary public in Maryland, striking down the requirement in the Maryland Constitution of “a declaration of belief in the existence of God” from anyone seeking to hold “an office of profit or trust” in the state.

Godless Citizens in a Godly Republic is not only a history but, as the authors say, “a plea to end discriminations against atheists, agnostics, and nontheists.”  That day may be approaching.  A much-publicized opinion poll last year found that 26 percent of Americans likely do not believe in God – a far higher percentage than many prior surveys had found.  On the other hand, Gallup found a few years ago that only 58 percent of respondents said they would vote for an atheist for President – below the percentages that would support a black, female, Jewish, or Muslim candidate.  That poll and others with similar findings are evidence that Moore and Kramnick’s plea is still very much needed.