Freethinkers by Susan Jacoby

Review by John C. Snider

One of the most successful myth-memes of American history is that “America is a Christian nation;” that the Founding Fathers were, to a man, devout believers; and that every step of progress over the last 225 years–from the abolition of slavery, to women’s suffrage, to the civil rights breakthroughs of the 1960s–was the result of Christian charity combined with good ol’ common sense.  This mythology has become so pervasive that it’s nearly impossible to have a conversation about US history without dealing with it head-on.

While there’s no denying the role of religion and the positive contributions of religious people throughout American history, the influence and hard work of secular-minded–even atheistic–citizens are often overlooked (and in fact sometimes actively erased), as Susan Jacoby points out in her 2004 book Freethinkers, which traces the participation of skeptics and unbelievers from Colonial times to the late 20th century.

A recurring theme in Jacoby’s work–one which 21st century secularists will do well to notice–is that Enlightenment idealism, the embrace of scientific progress and secular government, is but a veneer on the deep substrate of religious conservatism that is American culture.  Time and again, freethinkers have declared or predicted imminent victory over superstition and religiosity, only to be confounded by the next Great Awakening.

Another interesting theme is just how upside-down things can become during the course of history.  Early American Deists and Baptists making common cause to ensure Constitutionally mandated religious freedom?  Atheists as key players in the temperance movement?  (Not to mention the amazing role-reversals between the Republican and Democratic Parties: just compare the platforms and positions of each party in 1859 and 2009 and you’ll see just how befuddling the transmogrification of the American political landscape has been.)  Jacoby also points out the long history of internecine conflict within secular progressivism; e.g. the sharp debate amongst 19th century feminists over whether to support the enfranchisement of blacks before the enfranchisement of women, or the admixture of socialism and atheism that was more or less complete by the 1950s (and seems to have become  the accepted paradigm within much of the  secular community today, who bristle at the notion that one could be a conservative–much less a libertarian–and still be an atheist).  It’s also interesting how fast current “facts on the ground” can change: writing just five years ago, Jacoby refers to the “marginalization of libertarian conservatives like Senator John McCain,” and accuses Americans of lying in opinion polls, saying “it is difficult to credit the assertion that a majority of citizens, in the privacy of the voting booth, would cast their ballots for a gay or a black presidential candidate, and I also have my doubts that a Jew or a woman could be elected at this time.”  The developments of the ensuing five years would seem to offer some hope that the progressive veneer has some influence after all!

Jacoby points out that nonbelievers like Revolutionary War catalyst Thomas Paine and 19th century suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton have been either minimized or ignored by historians because of their “unsavory” beliefs, an ironic lesson given that Jacoby engages in her own selective amnesia.  She barely mentions the iconoclast H. L. Mencken, and makes no mention whatsoever of the influential and controversial novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand.  Say what you will about Rand, but there’s no denying that her books have sold more than all other American freethinkers’ works put together; and her influence has extended far beyond the insular confines of the atheistic community, with former acolyte Alan Greenspan serving as Chairman of the Federal Reserve for nearly 20 years!

Oddly, Jacoby spends most of the final 75-100 pages of the book discussing the Christian conquest of mid-20th century mass media and not enough on developments within the secular movement.  It’s fine to spend an entire chapter making the case for Abraham Lincoln as a closet skeptic, but doesn’t the story of Madalyn Murray O’Hair–from her rise as the Most Hated Woman in America to the scandalous indifference to her murder in 1995–also deserve a chapter?

While Freethinkers is generally well-researched, a few factual errors slipped through the cracks; Lexington is incorrectly identified as the capital of Kentucky (it’s Frankfort, for the record), and it is flatly stated that John T. Scopes “was convicted of violating the Tennessee law [against the teaching of evolution] (which he had)”–in fact, Scopes was a football coach who later admitted that he probably never actually taught evolution during his substitute teaching stints, but had agreed to the claim only to enable the test case to go forward.

Jacoby ends her book with a call to arms, encouraging us to “revive the evocative and honorable freethinker, with its insistence that Americans think for themselves instead of relying on received opinion,” and to “reclaim the language of passion and emotion form the religiously correct.”  I agree that secularists must strive to be proactive rather than reactive, to show what we strive to build a better future rather than just tearing down the traditions of the past.  Unfortunately, just as with theism (a term which could mean just about anything), there is no one atheism; there is no one comprehensive message from those who call themselves atheists, agnostics, humanists, Brights, Objectivists, rationalists, skeptics, secularists or freethinkers.  Before nonbelievers can present a united front, they must create a united set of principles and beliefs–but this will never happen.  Freethought, by whatever name, is inherently resistant to unification.  This is not to say that, due to our fragmented community, nonbelievers should stop trying; rather, we should do our human best to pull together on those tiny handful of things on which we do agree, and muddle through with the remainder.

Freethinkers is available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

Visit Susan Jacoby’s Official Website.

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