Tuesday, May 30, 2017


-by susan jacoby
I'm hard-pressed to offer a more perfect and concise critique of this book, than that provided by philip roth - a freshman course on the history of american secularism should be required at every college, and "Freethinkers" should be the text. There's simply no level on which jacoby's work isn't everything you could want: depth of research, clarity of vision, and smoothness of prose. Her main thrust is twofold - honoring the rich history of american freethought, and making it clear how vital the separation of church and state is to democracy...a message that may be more needed now than ever, with fundamentalist revisionists trying to jam religion back into government, and convince everyone that we're a "christian" nation. It takes a staggering level of truth-avoidance to suggest that the founding fathers wouldn't have been appalled by those efforts, but many believers are willing to take that leap. Jacoby helps you understand how easily minorities are disenfranchised by allowing religion into government, even a tiny bit. A world without diversity, or freedom of thought...is that the America to which we should aspire?
"Freethinker" is a word that has long since fallen out of vogue, but it was a noble honorific during the 19th century, when the notion of not being beholden to dogma or superstition was so strong, it was a national movement. Before radio or cinema, the primary social entertainment was lectures, and there was no more prominent 19th-century draw than robert ingersoll, the "Great Agnostic" who almost single-handedly restored the fame and honor of thomas paine, the godfather of american freethought. Would the Revolution have happened without paine? Would the slaves have been freed without william lloyd garrison? Would the feminist movement have happened without elizabeth cady stanton? Would the labor movement have happened without eugene debs? Would the civil rights movement have happened without bob moses? In all cases, the answer is almost certainly yes...but these were the freethinking people who stood up and dedicated their lives to making our murderous, greedy, hypocritical country actually live up to the ideals on which it was based.
The stories jacoby illuminates are fascinating, like how susan b. anthony and margaret sanger furthered the feminist movement by compromising it, making undesirable alliances or backing away from the depth of their beliefs, the way stanton steadfastly refused to do.
Or francis bellamy, who wrote the pledge of allegiance...but most people don't know that he was a minister who was defrocked for railing against the evils of capitalism, and that he would have been appalled by the insertion of the two words "one nation UNDER GOD" sixty years later.
Nor, jacoby admonishes, should we take any humanist victories for granted, for they could disappear in the blink of an eye. An hysterical but frightening example came after the Espionage Act of 1917-18, which criminalized any disloyal language. On that basis, a filmmaker was imprisoned for making a short film about the American Revolution, which cast our then-ally England in a negative light.
I've gone back and forth with labeling myself. Is agnostic too abstract or conciliatory? Is atheist too immodest or confrontational? Is secular humanist too wordy or toothless? In many ways, freethinker is better than any of them. Let's keep the dream alive. Thank you, susan.

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