Atheism, religion, American life, and the C3 framework

By Robert Shaffer posted 01-04-2019 11:00:03 AM


             I spent much of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day reading Godless Citizens in a Godly Republic: Atheists in American Public Life, by R. Laurence Moore and Isaac Kramnick (New York: W.W. Norton, 2018).  I highly recommend this readable, brief, enlightening, and challenging book to those teaching U.S. history and/or Civics.  Moore and Kramnick provide an introduction to some of the more prominent atheists and agnostics in U.S. history (Thomas Paine, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Thomas Edison, Andrew Carnegie, the less-well-remembered Robert Ingersoll, and several others), and they then survey some of the First Amendment court cases as they relate to the liberty (or not) of those who do not wish to practice religion.  I learned about this book from an extensive review in The New Yorker by Casey Cep (October 29, 2018), available at  (Moore and Kramnick, both professors emeritus at Cornell, previously wrote The Godless Constitution [2nd ed., 2005], and in both books they counterpose the determinedly secular U.S. Constitution with the insertion of religious clauses in various state constitutions.)

            Among the many points of interest to social studies teachers in their new book, Moore and Kramnick lament the omission from U.S. history textbooks of the secularism and anti-religious ideas of American thinkers and doers whose ideas and actions are otherwise well represented in the curriculum.  Standard textbooks devote much space to Edison, Carnegie, Alexander Graham Bell, and Albert Einstein, the authors write, but “American schoolchildren don’t learn [from their textbooks] that these men and many other American innovators linked their ability to make creative leaps outside the box of received thought to their agnosticism” (p. 68). 

           Moore and Kramnick quote Carnegie, for example, as writing that his success in business and technological innovation came to him after he “got rid of theology and the supernatural”; Carnegie added even more pointedly, “The whole scheme of Christian salvation is diabolical” (both quotations on p. 68).  Elizabeth Cady Stanton, meanwhile, broke ranks with many of her co-workers in the women’s suffrage movement over religion, writing that woman “would never be fit for freedom…until she ceased to hold to her bosom the primary cause of her degradation – her religious superstitions” (p. 62). 

            Two additional passages encapsulate Moore and Kramnick’s challenge to social studies teachers and to the Trump administration: “No nation can claim a high standard of education without recognizing that people who don’t subscribe to a theistic religion often possess knowledge that is crucial to solving the myriad problems that beset our world” (p. 202); “when schoolchildren aren’t asked to consider connections between nonbelief and creativity when that lesson is relevant, or may learn instead that nonbelief is un-American, they are being shortchanged.  The purpose of education should not be what Betsy DeVos, the secretary of education during Donald Trump’s administration, claimed: advocacy of the ‘advance of God’s kingdom’” (p. 70).

            To be sure, many have claimed that U.S. history textbooks have downplayed the religious motivations and connections of many reformers and reform movements, and it may be that newer textbooks are more open about such influential groups as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.  But Moore and Kramnick argue persuasively that the denigration of nonbelievers in American political culture (not necessarily in our textbooks) is tied to Cold War ideology, which also saw the addition of “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” as the national motto.  Moreover, in their eye-opening discussion of conscientious objection to the draft (pp. 130-140), Moore and Kramnick examine the expansion of CO status during the Vietnam War to non-believers, based on a particularly intriguing interpretation of the phrase “Supreme Being” by the U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Seeger (1965).  (Among the most startling aspects of that decision to anyone who has followed the Supreme Court in recent years is that the decision was unanimous!)

            Social studies teachers could easily adapt many sections Moore and Kramnick’s study to the NCSS C3 (college, career, citizenship) framework.

            With regard to “evaluating sources and using evidence,” Moore and Kramnick present a slew of court decisions on the inclusion of “under God” in the Pledge, an issue that affects K-12 students very directly.  Students could examine the reasoning by the Supreme Court and other federal courts in many of these, and similar, cases that the use of the phrase represents an essentially non-religious “ceremonial deism” – a conclusion that Moore and Kramnick skewer as illogical both to non-believers and to those who insist upon the religious nature of these phrases.

            With regard to “communicating conclusions and taking informed action,” students might evaluate their course textbooks along the lines that Moore and Kramnick suggest and then write to the textbook authors with their conclusions, whether they agree or disagree with the authors’ conclusions.  In a more challenging vein, in areas in which state constitutions still include clauses which deny to freethinkers the right to hold elected office (Maryland, Pennsylvania, Texas, and five others – see p. 122), students could research the origins and history of these clauses and communicate their findings to their legislators.  To be sure, the U.S. Supreme Court has held these clauses to be unconstitutional and thus unenforceable, but Moore and Kramnick make a compelling case that the persistence of this language in state constitutions perpetuates the idea of second-class citizenship to atheists, agnostics, and, in some cases, to adherents of non-Christian religions.

            Moore and Kramnick wrote Godless Citizens in a Godly Republic for a general audience, not specifically for teachers or students, but many of their insights and observations are tailor-made for consideration in secondary social studies classrooms.




17 days ago

I found this topic very interesting especially since the current discussions of what "Religious Freedoms" entail. I believe this is a topic that discussed in the classroom that often, thank you for the resources.

04-19-2019 04:50:48 PM

No need to apologize Robert, I am sure we all know who you meant.

This blog stuck out like a sore thumb to me, it is right up my alley. I have been saying qualities that are mentioned in this book to my peers and to my students for some time. I am not saying that religion is bad or good, I just like how this text points out the prominent figures throughout history that have claimed to be atheist or agnostic, especially Paine.  Also, how the text indicates these qualities were huge contributors to their success.

01-04-2019 05:18:00 PM

I apologize for the embarrassing error in the original post, in the second paragraph.  Of course it should have been Albert Einstein, not Andrew.  It has now been corrected.