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Atheists, Agnostics and Deists in America: A Brief History
Peter M. Rinaldo
New York, Briarcliff Manor: DorPete Press, 2000.
$19.95, 184 pages, ISBN 1-890849-03-0 (hardback).

Caroline Bélan
Université de Rouen

In 1993, Perer Rinaldo reports, a Gallup Poll affirmed that four percent of the United States population claimed to be atheist or agnostic—in 1999 the figures added up to 1.6 million atheists and 27 million “nonreligious” Americans. The 2000 census confirms not only the growing number of Americans claiming they do not take part in any traditional church but also the endless multiplication of denominations in the country. Are those truly the descendants of the Pilgrim Fathers? It is precisely because such a contrasting religious context necessitated study and explanation that Rinaldo’s book comes as a useful and relevant tool to understanding modern America. The thirteen chapters of Atheists, Agnostics and Deists in America represent the variety of groups and associations of “nonbelievers” and trace back the roots of those religious trends. Each chapter basically touches on either a precise period, the roots of the different movements or revolves around an individual or group of individuals and Rinaldo uses stories, anecdotes and biographical sketches to introduce the subjects for, it should be acknowledged, the book must have been written with a pedagogical goal and may serve as a teaching aid. Indeed the reading of the book is made much easier than one would have expected considering the subject. Rinaldo’s introduction and glossary illustrate this practical outlook as he offers clear definitions of atheism, deism and agnosticism as well as a short and simple glossary at the end of the book.

Doubtlessly Rinaldo is skilled at making the content of his book very accessible and somewhat entertaining. A case in point is Chapter One on Greece and Rome in which he describes Democritus’s scientific approach to religion:

With no warming, a turtle suddenly fell from the sky, hit [one of his fellow citizens] directly and killed him. Since an eagle, a symbol of Zeus, had been seen soaring in the sky shortly before the accident, the townspeople believed that the unfortunate man was punished by Zeus. Democritus, however, gave a rational explanation: Eagles are fond of turtle meat but have a problem getting the meat from the shell. Accordingly, they take the turtles aloft and drop them from great heights on rocks, which shatter the shell. The eagle had mistaken the man’s bald head for a shining rock—there was no need to invoke the gods. [6]

Thus Rinaldo strives to reach as wide a public as possible. The first two chapters for instance are meant to link great American figures like Jefferson or Emerson to Greek Epicureans and Stoics, and Rinaldo’s anecdotes about Epicurus and Democritus are very lively and pleasing. He is openly aiming at simplifying his discourse to reach many readers as the biographical references sometimes dwell at length on details which do not always seem essential to the understanding of the subject matter. His explanation of Epicureanism, the content of which is not, in itself, to be criticized, can irritate the more ‘enlightened’ readers: the necessity to go back over basic information—sometimes biographical, sometimes purely anecdotal—does not always seem justified. Of course, the subtitle of the book, “A Brief History,” warns the reader, who should not expect a thorough study of those religious movements. Still, a more detailed, precise and, to put it bluntly, a more intellectual research would have been welcome. The feeling of frustration is reinforced by Rinaldo’s regular hesitations and refusal to take a stand: In the first chapters, more particularly, he explains the English and French roots of Unitarianism, a movement which, he claims, bordered on atheism without being atheism. The reader cannot help wondering if, in the end, it was atheism or… not, and if Rinaldo could not have taken the standpoint of a researcher and decided for himself to, in a way, ‘invent’ his own classification of nonreligious beliefs in America. This would have turned the book into a valuable critique of those movements whereas most of the time it ends up being a mere collection of information. Typical of Rinaldo’s scattered writing is the passage about Hobbes found in Chapter Two. After exposing Hobbes’s belief, or rather lack of belief in God or in the explanation of history through the Bible, Rinaldo adds that Hobbes’s "philosophy that a strong central government is required to prevent anarchy has never been widely accepted. Nevertheless the late twentieth-century experiences with anarchy in Somalia and Rwanda show that to a degree he had a valid point of view.” [16] What is the link between such a remark and deism? Of course, had Rinaldo pointed out the influences of deism on Hobbes’s philosophy and ideas about government, the criticism would have been invalid; but he does not. Many passages in the following chapters resemble that example and give the reader the impression that much is said ‘in passing’ without being developed or even explained. At times Rinaldo gets carried away and I do not think the reader needs so much irrelevant information.

Rinaldo covers the main periods and influences of those nonreligious movements in a survey-like style. The writing of the Declaration of Independence for instance takes a whole page of Chapter Three whereas the idea of ‘pursuit of happiness’ is barely skimmed over in a short paragraph. Those passages consequently appear as mere articles of an encyclopedia, for instructive explanations are scarce and always a bit simplistic.

Rinaldo, however, is much more efficient when he turns, in Chapter Four, to the utopian communities of Fanny Wright and Robert Owen and the beginning of Unitarianism which is quite fascinating. The second half of the book is in fact much more interesting as the author extends his study of various American characters to their influence on social values and politics because of their religious creeds. He notably examines the case of Theodore Parker, a Unitarian minister, whose reflection on private property is reminiscent of Marxism, or the case of Robert Ingersoll whose religious creeds also comprised the fight for women’s suffrage or equal rights for Blacks. [77, 92]. Chapter Seven on the Scopes Trial is also very instructive as it focuses on lawyer Clarence Darrow who defended John T. Scopes against the Christian fundamentalists but also on the influence of Charles Darwin on religion in America: Rinaldo quotes Darwin at length and explains his religious beliefs. Chapters Eight and Nine on Unitarians, Universalists and the Free Religious associations are definitely the most interesting passages in the book as they develop the shift from Unitarianism to Humanism and to associations of atheists such as the American Ethical Union, or the American Humanist Associations which are almost considered as denominations or churches—a paradox that is very well depicted by Rinaldo and quite challenging for European readers! When he makes more use of texts such as the Humanist Manifesto I and II or of episodes such as the Murray vs. Curlett case on private prayer in public schools or even when he explains the simultaneous growth of atheism and cults like the Mormons, Rinaldo can be very efficient and instructive.

The potential disappointment of the reader of Atheists, Agnostics and Deists in America is probably due to the brevity of this “History” and the fact that the book was designed rather as a survey for students with very little knowledge of philosophy, religion or European culture. Yet Rinaldo’s attempt must be saluted, for nonreligious movements are today a not inconsiderable part of American religious life, as paradoxical as this may sound, and are too often considered as non-existent. Indeed America has remained for many people a prisoner of its overwhelming Protestant past. Examining the slow but regular progress of more humanistic than traditionally religious movements is definitely enlightening, not only as far as the religious situation in the United States today is concerned, but also because some may have a distorted vision of a limitless ascendancy of religion over American individuals.

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