As long as there have been atheists, there’ve been angry atheists. Anyone who’s ever visited Reddit’s atheism section or one of the countless other godless forums floating around the internet has experienced the fire-and-brimstone smugness of pissed-off nonbelievers, but atheists from earlier eras were just as furious, and just as bitchy. Case in point: the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism (4A), a particularly ill-tempered organization founded in 1925 by activist Charles Lee Smith.
Then, as now, the advancement of atheism was assumed to involve the downfall of Christianity, and Smith was practically a parody of a strident anti-Christian. He was born in Arkansas and considered a career in the ministry until he abandoned his faith, after which he spent years harassing religious folk in his home state. In 1928, while the legislature was considering an antievolution law, he came to Little Rock and handed out literature telling people Darwin’s theory was the truth and God was a lie until he was arrested for blasphemy, which was still a crime back then. (According to The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, his conviction was overturned after years of appeals.)
Under Smith’s leadership, the 4A organized young unbelievers throughout the country while adopting causes that would be familiar today, like removing the “In God We Trust” from currency and revoking the tax-exempt status of religious institutions—demands to secularize government that echoed the “Nine Demands of Liberalism” written by 19th-century atheists. Smith also spent time sparring in public debates with Christians over the question of whether God exists, an activity that’s still popular among contemporary celebrity atheists.
The weirdest effort the 4A ever undertook was the establishment of what was supposed to be a brand new holiday called Blamegiving Day. There’s little information about this project available online, but from what I can tell, the idea was that while Christians got together to eat food and celebrate one another and the good things in their lives, atheists, unburdened by pathetic superstitious beliefs in deities, would gather in an auditorium and kvetch about how awful Christianity and God were.
The first and only Blamegiving service was held at Webster Hall in New York City on Thanksgiving Day 1931 and led by Woolsey Teller, the 4A’s vice president. A program from the event, which I obtained thanks to the University of California, Davis library, describes it as “a protest against Divine negligence, to be observed each year on Thanksgiving Day, on the assumption, for the day only, that God exists.”
It was organized as a mockery of a church service, with an “opening prayer of protest,” a “scripture reading,” and then the singing of a “hymn” called “The Modern Doxology.” Some choice verses:
Blame God from whom all cyclones blow,
Blame him when rivers overflow,
Blame him who swirls down house and steeple,
Who sinks the ship and drowns the people.
Blame God when fell tornadoes spread
Disaster, leaving maimed and dead;
When dread volcanoes vomit death,
Destroying towns with liquid breath.
For clergy who with hood and bell
Demand your cash or threaten hell.
Blame God for earthquake shocks; and then,
Let all men cry aloud, “Amen!”
They followed the hymn up with three “addresses”—you get the sense that these guys were pretty fond of orating in front of crowds. Teller delivered “The Indictment: ‘The Case Against God for the Year 1931’”; Smith continued with “The Reply: ‘The Ways of God Justified to Man’”; and someone named Timothy Patrick Murphy topped things off with “Summation: ‘Divine Negligence Overwhelmingly Established.’” Reading those titles, you can practically hear the preening, long-winded self-righteousness.
The service wrapped up with a chance for the congregation to voice their grievances and complain about unjust suffering as well as a “silent reprimand,” presumably of the man upstairs. Naturally, there was also a “FREEWILL OFFERING for the carrying on of the work.”
Another cartoon by Heston.
I couldn’t find any record of there being a Blamegiving Day in 1932. Most likely, there wasn’t enough money raised to carry on the work, and the holiday was a terrible idea anyway—why would atheists want to pretend that God exists, even for the purpose of attacking him? Why complain in a roomful of strangers when you could be eating turkey and stuffing with your family? I have no idea how many people actually attended the event, or even if it really happened, since all I have to go on are a few scattered references in books and this 82-year-old program, which could be a joke. In any case, it was likely less a serious endeavor and more a creative way to protest President Herbert Hoover’s issuing a Thanksgiving Day proclamation. (Those annual proclamations were a particular bugbear of the 4A, which seems strange given that Thanksgiving is a mostly secular holiday.) But even if the event was intended as a highbrow-ish parody, it sounds like an incredible bore to sit through.
The service might have also contained a fair amount of racism. Teller, the man who led it, was a eugenics-supporting white supremacist who would go on to publish essays with titles like “Grading the Races,” “There Are Superior Races,” and “Shall We Breed Rationally?” Smith may not have been as racist as Teller at the time, but he did tell The New Yorker, as a way of explaining his hatred of Thanksgiving, that “expressing gratitude for favors without voicing grievance for injuries characterizes the slavish subject of an Asiatic despot rather than the free American citizen,” which certainly doesn’t sound great to modern ears.
In the New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, Tom Flynn says that the 4A was crippled by the Depression and by 1933 became little more than a name on some letterhead. In 1937 Smith took over The Truth Seeker, a well-known, controversial liberal publication that espoused the rationalist philosophy of freethought, and proceeded to ruin it.
“Influenced by [Teller], by 1950 Smith openly reshaped the magazine as the organ of socially conservative freethought: anti-communist, eugenicist, anti-Semitic, and racist,” Flynn writes. “Circulation plummeted.”
Eventually, a self-made millionaire named James Hervey Johnson inherited both the 4A and The Truth Seeker from Smith. Johnson, it seems, hated not only religion but also the entire world. After he died in 1988, the Chicago Tribune wrote that he left behind “a well-documented record of an eccentric and spiteful life. He was outspoken in his contempt for Jews, Christians, blacks, Hispanics, doctors, lawyers, communists, alcohol, and meat.” He used the once-respected magazine as a platform to spew vile nonsense and paranoia, and by the time he died in the bath of a heart attack its circulation was down to less than 500.
After Johnson’s death, the 4A finally dissolved, tainted by years of inactivity and racist propaganda. The group is mostly a sidenote in the history of atheist organizations—it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page—but for a brief moment it was the public face of atheism and a challenge to Christianity in the public square, which was pretty rare in those days. It collapsed because the people in charge of it preached hate and intolerance and came up with awful ideas for fake holidays, but for that, they only have themselves to blame.
More on atheism: