"Were I an atheist,—a man devoid of conscience"
The Atheist of Pilgrim's Progress
Public DomainThe Atheist of Pilgrim's Progress - Credit: Frederick Barnard et al

1922 cartoon
Public Domain1922 cartoon - Credit: E. J. Pace
Though openly discussed by European philosophers and intellectuals since the early eighteenth century, atheism was still practically unknown on American shores during Hawthorne’s lifetime, let alone Hester’s. Lack of contending theories, limited scientific knowledge and ubiquitous faith meant that denials of God were seen in much the same light as denials of gravity would be today. They indicated not merely a lack of morality but a lack of reason. Despite this, accusations of atheism proliferated wildly in Puritan New England, with the liberal Christian Thomas Morton, the founder of the colony at Merrymount, being exiled to the Isle of Shoals in 1628 for his supposed irreligion. As the colony became more established, the punishment was upgraded to execution. It was not until the late nineteenth century — after the Civil War and the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859) — that atheism became a concept worthy of true consideration in the United States. Learn more about its history here.