Women and American AtheismTwo Judicial Examples Ethan Quillen » ISHS: International Society for Heresy Studies



Women and American Atheism

Two Judicial Examples


Ethan Quillen

Of the many questions that I receive at the end of conference presentations, I am quite often asked about female Atheists, and whether or not women are as active as men, given that the public’s perception of Atheism has been monopolized (especially in recent years) by male authors. This latter point is especially true of ‘New Atheism,’ and its ‘four horsemen,’ the men who have become synonymous with that type of Atheism: Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens.

I tend to answer these questions in two parts.

First, while I would agree that the popularity of New Atheism lends credence to the notion that Atheism is a bit of a ‘men’s club’ lately, I would also argue that this limited gender diversity looks quite different within the context of the academic study of Atheism and its conceptual cognates. Even a cursory review of the websites for the two leading research organizations on Atheism, secularism, and humanism would attest to this: the and the . As would, it should be added, the membership of the International Society for Heresy Studies.

Second, women Atheists play as active a role in defining Atheism as men do, though not always in the same way. While we’ve yet to have a female ‘New Atheist,’ due in part to that ‘movement’s’ existence as primarily a marketing strategy to sell four rather mediocre books, women have shaped the public’s perception of Atheism via a number of larger, albeit less popularized, influences. And as such, the two judicial examples that I’ve chosen for this brief discussion here are as subtle as they are essential, especially in how they shape both American Atheism, as well as American religion.

Perhaps the leading issue with the study of Atheism, secularism, humanism, non-religion, nones, etc., is the multiplicity of terminology that we use in order to describe our subject. Atheism, like its close cousin ‘religion,’ is a challenging concept, unwilling to lend itself to a simple and compact definition, and moreover, Atheists tend to be rather unwilling to define themselves by any strict index. So, unsurprisingly the academic discussion of Atheism is often hijacked by the imperative, yet time-consuming, discussion of terminological clarity.

In my own work, I have found that a focus on my subjects’ discourse, i.e. how they use certain terminology to describe themselves, or how others have described them within a particular context, has provided a quick and successful remedy to this.

One of these discourses deals with the United States Judicial system, and how the language of select case decisions concerning Atheist Americans offers, in an American sense at least, a more comprehensive understanding about the ways in which Atheists come into conflict not only with their own religious counterparts, but with their role in American society as well.

The two decisions below reflect ideal samples of this Atheist American discourse, and perhaps more importantly, they represent ideal samples for the theme of this discussion concerning women and Atheism. I have presented them here as pure discourse, that is, as quotes pulled directly from the decisions themselves, limited only by the requirements of word-count limitations. For the benefit of those unfamiliar with this discourse, I have included here only the ‘syllabus’ of each (the brief summary provided by the Judge or Justice who has authored the decision), and the ‘opinion’ (provided usually at the end of the decision, that represents the court’s ruling). My commentary will follow.

McCollum v. Board of Education, United States Supreme Court (1948)
Full Case Name: People of State of Illinois ex rel. Vashti McCollum v. Board of Education of School District 71, Champaign County, Illinois, et al.
Citation: 33 U.S. 203
Author: Justice Hugo Black

Case Syllabus:

With the permission of a board of education, granted under its general supervisory powers over the use of public school buildings, religious teachers, employed subject to the approval and supervision of the superintendent of schools by a private religious group including representatives of the Catholic, Protestant and Jewish faiths, gave religious instruction in public school buildings once each week. Pupils whose parents so requested were excused from their secular classes during the periods of religious instruction and were required to attend the religious classes; but other pupils were not released from their public school duties, which were compulsory under state law. A resident and taxpayer of the school district whose child was enrolled in the public schools sued in a state court for a writ of mandamus requiring the board of education to terminate this practice.


For the First Amendment rests upon the premise that both religion and government can best work to achieve their lofty aims if each is left free from the other within its respective sphere. Or, as we said in the Everson [Everson v. Board of Education, 1947, citation: 330 U.S. 1] case, the First Amendment has erected a wall between Church and State which must be kept high and impregnable. Here not only are the State’s tax-supported public school buildings used for the dissemination of religious doctrines. The State also affords sectarian groups an invaluable aid in that it helps to provide pupils for their religious classes through use of the State’s compulsory public school machinery. This is not separation of Church and State.

Abington v. Schempp, United States Supreme Court (1963)
Full Case Name: School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania, et al. v. Edward Schempp, et al.; Murray, et al. v. Curlett, et al., Constituting the Board of School Commissioners of Baltimore City
Citation: 374 U.S. 203
Author: Justice Tom C. Clark

Case Syllabus:

Because of the prohibition of the First Amendment against the enactment by Congress of any law ‘respecting an establishment of religion,’ which is made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment, no state law or school board may require that passages from the Bible be read or that the Lord’s Prayer be recited in the public schools of a State at the beginning of each school day—even if individual students may be excused from attending or participating in such exercises upon written request of their parents.


Once again, we are called upon to consider the scope of the provision of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution which declares that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof […].” These companion cases [Edward L. Schempp et al. v. School District of Abington Township, PA., et al. (1962), District Court, Eastern District, Pennsylvania, citation: 201 F.Supp. 815; and Murray et al. v. Curlett et al. (1962), Court of Appeals of Maryland, citation: 228 Md. 239, 179 A.2d 698] present the issues in the context of state action requiring that schools begin each day with readings from the Bible. While raising the basic questions under slightly different factual situations, the cases permit of joint treatment. In light of the history of the First Amendment and of our cases interpreting and applying its requirements, we hold that the practices at issue and the laws requiring them are unconstitutional under the Establishment Clause, as applied to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment.


Vashti McCollum and Madalyn Murray O’Hair

Each of the women named in these decisions reflect uniquely generational American women with uniquely generational concerns.

Vashti McCollum

The Supreme Court’s decision in McCollum v. Board of Education has held precedence over every religious-based decision since, particularly in its use of the Fourteenth Amendment in order to federalize its ruling. That is, where its 8-1 decision in favor of Vashti McCollum deemed it unconstitutional in Illinois to force public school students to undertake religious education, the application of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (“[N]or shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”) to their decision meant that this same compulsory religious education was illegal nationwide. In essence, this made what was referred to as ‘released time,’ an initiative that permitted public school students the right to leave school in order to receive religious education, or in this case, cease their secular learning in order to be taught by a ‘religious professional,’ illegal. Because of Vashti McCollum’s activism, the ‘wall of separation’ between church and state mentioned by Justice Black, especially in relation to the early education of American children, remained high and impregnable. After the case was decided, McCollum continued to be an active and vocal representative of American Humanism by documenting her experiences with the case, including descriptions of the discriminations and threats that she and her family endured, in a memoir titled, One Woman’s Fight (1953), by serving two terms as President of the American Humanist Association from 1962 to 1965, and by signing both the second and third Humanist Manifestos in 1973 and 2003, respectively.

Madalyn Murray O’Hair

Madalyn Murray O’Hair

In a similar decision, the Court’s ruling in Abington v. Schempp forever altered the relationship between religion and the American public school system. Consolidated with the Abington case, Murray v. Curlet (1962) was named for Madalyn Murray O’Hair, a woman who would become infamous as the ‘most hated woman in American,’ and who eventually founded the organization American Atheists. The issue at center in her case concerned the constitutionality of compulsory Bible reading, to be done at the start of each day, without commentary, by public school students. The Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in Murray’s favor, and in his opinion, Justice Clark argued that though religion and religious belief are valuable to the culture of the United States, maintaining a sense of neutrality, so as to protect all in order to prefer or disparage none, represented value in equal measure.

Or, as he so eloquently put it:

The place of religion in our society is an exalted one, achieved through a long tradition of reliance on the home, the church and the inviolable citadel of the individual heart and mind. We have come to recognize through bitter experience that it is not within the power of government to invade that citadel, whether its purpose or effect be to aid or oppose, to advance or retard. In the relationship between man and religion, the State is firmly committed to a position of neutrality. Though the application of that rule requires interpretation of a delicate sort, the rule itself is clearly and concisely stated in the words of the First Amendment.

While the neutrality that Justice Clark advocated for in his opinion determined a fair and legal environment for American school children, the decision was seen by some critics, and to the delight of Madalyn Murray, as the utter removal of God and the Bible from the American public school system, which they perceived as another example of America being pushed further away from its core Christian ideals.


American Atheism and the First Amendment

Though we might view these two decisions as discursive examples of Atheist Americans determining a definition of America Atheism, expressed via their language and later activism, they likewise define the role that Atheists play in defining American religion, a curious rapport unique to the United States. The relationship between ‘church’ and ‘state’ in America is predicated on the First Amendment, but in particular on the first sixteen words of the First Amendment and its two religion clauses: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” While the latter of these clauses exists to protect the beliefs and practices (to an extent) of religious Americans, the former exists to ensure those beliefs and practices are not hindered by an established, “official” religion. It is this clause that has defined America as ‘exceptional’ to other nations since its adoption in 1791, and it is also where we find a seemingly paradoxical relationship between the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom, and the manner with which it equally protects the beliefs of American Atheists.

These two decisions represent disestablishment cases, and in bringing their challenges to the Supreme Court, these two female Atheist Americans provided a ‘check’ against the unconstitutional establishment of one particular religion over another. So, by defending their First Amendment rights as Atheists, and in order to protect themselves from the encroachment of religion in the public sphere, these women guaranteed the continuation of American religious freedom, even though they themselves were not, per se, religious. Their fight to ensure that the wall of separation between church and state remained strong helped to re-define American religion in the twentieth century, particularly in regard to the notion that regardless of tradition or majority standing, no American religious belief may outrank another. In setting these precedents, and just as much as they support my use of them as unique Atheist discourses, these decisions likewise lend credence to the idea that Atheists, and in this case Atheist women, play a much larger role in defining American religion than we might have previously assumed.

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