Bradley Kime is a doctoral student in Religious Studies and Jefferson Fellow at the University of Virginia. We thank Bradley for taking the time out of his schedule to answer a few questions for us about his upcoming article in Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture, which is titled, “Infidel Deathbeds: Irreligious Dying and Sincere Disbelief in Nineteenth-Century America.”
How did you come across the topic of your article?
Initially what I wanted to know was, in what moments and by what means did skeptics in America secure some credibility? In other words, regarding disbelief, where and when can we measure some movement, however halting, away from the margins of society? Not as part of a metanarrative of de-marginalization, but as an instructive moment or case study in the mechanics of de-marginalization. I was familiar with what were, in the long nineteenth century, extremely common accounts, published mostly by Protestants, of disbelievers dying in agony and often revealing some surreptitious belief in Christian truth claims. I saw in these accounts a polemical meditation on the in/sincerity of dis/belief. And I quickly discovered that late-nineteenth-century disbelievers had developed, in print and in person, a nationwide network of contrary accounts—good irreligious deaths, declared disbelief intact. Disbelievers’ complaints and rationales surrounding these accounts confirmed my sense that the category of sincerity was at stake. These deathbed presentations were part of a “strange social politics of [dis/belief’s] invocation” (1). They were about the social siting and standing of disbelievers. So I figured I would track the ways self-declared disbelievers redeployed the deathbed to broker their bona fides, and to what effect, if any. By the early twentieth century, I argue, their selective, strategic deployment of certain constructions of the deathbed was measurably effective, and many American Christians began echoing idioms of irreligious dying to concede the contested sincerity of disbelief.
What inspired you to write this article?
Two perpetual intrigues kept the project going. One was seeing disbelievers become deeply and strategically entangled in what had historically been a Christian procedure surrounding death and dying. I was fascinated to see the good irreligious death become so central to their collective identity and interests. The second intrigue was seeing the event and eventuality of irreligious death become increasingly primed as an omnipresent occasion for popular theorizing about the nature of dis/belief. Intrinsic to the social politics was some substantive debate about the sources of disbelief, whether disbelief was a distinct cognitive category, whether it was mixed and multiple or uniform and singular over time or at a given moment, and what kind of necessary or contingent relationships prevailed between propositional disbelief and disbelieving praxis. Per both the procedural entanglement and the popular theorizing, disbelievers seemed to me to be doubling-down rhetorically on some (roughly) Protestant notional prioritizations of propositional dis/belief and inner in/sincerity.
Is there a particular source you came across during the course of your research that you would like to share with us?
On November 29, 1901, The Dallas Morning News announced the death and described the funeral of a local “Texas Infidel.” Charles B. Moore had lived and died on a farm on a fork of the Trinity River in nearby Collin County. At his funeral, Moore’s executors were legally obligated to read a declaration of his disbelief in any immaterial realities, as well as dated records documenting the endurance and sincerity of his disbelief on the deathbed. That’s an odd thing to have done at your funeral. But my article illuminates what provoked it and what kind of work it performed.
Where did research for this article take you (archives, cities, etc.)?
Because I was interested in the publicly available work that went into blurring and/or brightening the lines between belief and disbelief, sincerity and insincerity, my sources were all published. Between interlibrary loans, emailed scans from kind archivists, and a lot of digital databases, I was able to collate a sizeable set of deathbed accounts and commentaries stretching from the late eighteenth century to the early twentieth.
Is there anything else about this article and the process through which you wrote it that you would like to share?
The history I conjure in this article is both long gone and hauntingly present. As Christopher Hitchens died a slow, thoughtful, prolix, and very public death in the many months leading up to December 2011, he both predicted and preempted Christian narration of his own deathbed remorse and/or recantation. This much was continuous with the long nineteenth century. But when the moment came, his wife reported that “to be honest, the subject of God didn’t come up” (2). This marked a sharp break. Disbelievers effectively neutralized the truly robust Christian tradition of infidel deathbed narration by the early twentieth century. Such narration echoes and multiplies into the twenty-first century. But, as in the boldest speculation to date about Hitchens’s possible deathbed doubts, it now enters the public sphere without teeth and with chastened disavowals of its own lingering history (3).
Abstract of “Infidel Deathbeds: Irreligious Dying and Sincere Disbelief in Nineteenth-Century America”
This article asks, in what ways did irreligion tentatively emerge from the margins of American society during the late nineteenth century? And in what ways did its de-marginalization entail enduring entanglements with Christianity? In answer, it argues that irreligionists mimed and subverted the deathbed strategies of their Christian detractors to convince a skeptical American audience to concede the contested sincerity of their disbelief. For much of the nineteenth century, infidel deathbed narratives mapped the mixture and multiplicity of inner irreligion and interrogated the sincerity of disbelief. In response, irreligionists initially rejected the interpretability of the deathbed, but eventually came to invest it with as much power to prove sincerity as had American Christians. Between the Civil War and World War I, irreligionists developed a nationwide network of irreligious dying and selectively, strategically deployed the deathbed’s accrued power to prove the sincerity of their disbelief. By the turn of the century, they had largely neutralized the derisive force of the infidel deathbed genre, leaving disbelief a less marginal and less multiplex marker in American society, and re-tethering themselves to their Christian detractors in the process.
(1) Kathryn Lofton, “Introduction to the Yale Roundtable on Belief,” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 24, no. 1 (2012): 54.
(2) Adrian Humphreys, “No Death-Bed Conversion for Atheist Christopher Hitchens,” National Post, 8 September 2012, http://news.nationalpost.com/news/christopher-hitchens-writes-dispatches-from-cancerland-in-posthumous-memoir-mortality.
(3)Larry Alex Taunton, The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2016), 171.