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Book Review

Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism

by Susan Jacoby

Owl Books (2004)




Susan Jacoby's Freethinkers is subtitled A History of American Secularism. Her much-needed book is a primer on the anti-secularism that characterizes much of American history. It might well have been subtitled How We Got from a Kingless/Godless Constitution to a Faith-Based Monarchy.

Jacoby's account begins with the pre-revolutionary colonial boys and their concern for peace and justice on earth. It ends with the Texas theocrats (like George W. Bush and Tom Delay) claiming to be doing some god's work. She details how we got to a world of politics dominated by concerns over evolution, abortion, stem-cell research, flag burning, and same-sex marriage, while the real and significant issues of our day are ignored or given a make-over by conservative contrarians whose job is to rewrite history, science, or whatever else stands in the way of a fact-based account of reality.

It took more than 200 years to get from debating whether God should be mentioned in our Constitution and whether churches should be state supported to whether the words "under God" should be taken out of the Pledge of Allegiance and "in God we trust" taken off our currency. There has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth by those who still bemoan the fact that the Founders separated church membership from citizenship, but the fact is that today's  White House has a webpage instructing churches how to get state support (i.e., under George W. Bush; the page redirected under Barack Obama to one that explains how governments work to enact the will of the people. I wish I were making this up).

One thing has remained constant throughout this history, however, and that is the use of the term 'atheist' by anti-secularists as an epithet to discredit a person's ideas. A number of other terms have joined 'atheist' in the conservative's pantheon of killer catchphrases: liberal, communist, ethical relativist, leftist, agnostic, secular humanist, heretic, infidel, non-believer, unbeliever, disbeliever, pagan, blasphemer, nonconformist, dissenter, apostate, defector, and freethinker.

Atheists and others have responded to this contrived use of language by starting a movement to introduce a new word that the enemies of freethinking cannot co-opt and abuse. Thus was born the word 'bright' to denote those who share a naturalistic, rather than supernaturalistic, viewpoint. Brights are guided by reason and freedom of thought, rather than tradition and irrational faith. It is true that Jacoby doesn't mention the bright movement. However, she is clearly sensitive to the success conservatives have had with their tactic of using negative labels against those who disagree with them, thereby allowing them to frame most political issues to their liking. She suggests that we "revive the evocative and honorable freethinker, with its insistence that Americans think for themselves instead of relying on received opinion."  I like the term freethinker and would consider it an honor if others described me as such. But I also like the word bright as a noun. Neither word, however, is likely to bring about a sudden interest in thinking for ourselves and abandoning received opinions, especially in religious matters. Still, neither word lends itself to easy co-opting by the opposition.

The opposition to the term 'bright' has come mostly from brights themselves. Many brights don't want to be called brights because they think the word is pretentious and implies that those with a supernatural viewpoint are not bright, i.e., stupid. As Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell, the ones who started the bright movement, have pointed out ad nauseam: bright is a noun not an adjective. In response to this concern, Daniel Dennett suggests that those with a supernatural outlook might call themselves supers, a term with positive connotations. Personally, I find contrasting the term brights with supers to come easily and be inoffensive. I'm not optimistic, however, that either bright or freethinker will find its way into mainstream publications because those publications are dominated and controlled by concern for the other side (the supers) and a significant minority on the other side is masterful at manipulating the media and have no interest in describing their opponents in any terms that might be fair or accurate. There is also the problem that most people who think of themselves as freethinkers and brights are likely to think of themselves as liberals in the good-old-fashioned sense of caring for people, wanting to maximize personal liberty, and believing that government should stay out of our private lives while helping its people who are in need through no fault of their own. But the fact is that there are conservative atheists and liberal supers. Anyway, how could brights and freethinkers compete for influence with the likes of Bishop Fulton Sheen, whose TV show my parents made me watch many years ago and who once said: "a liberal is one who brands every civilizing influence as fascist" (Jacoby: 282).

We should expect no mercy from the right wing when it comes to civility. They are likely to continue to abuse language when it suits them and refer to freethinkers in words that express their contempt for anything resembling free thought. Toe the line or expect the wrath of God who, of course, is on their side.

In any case, freethinker is a good term to denote most of the secularists that Jacoby brings to life from Paine, Jefferson, and Madison to Robert Ingersoll, William Lloyd Garrison, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ernestine Rose, Clarence Darrow, and a host of other bigger-than-life figures that were never mentioned in our American History classes.

How did we get from an era with men and books like Ethan Allen's Reason the Only Oracle of Man (1794) and Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason (1804) to Antonin Scalia and Joseph Lieberman (not to mention Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity)? Depravity, I suppose. Maybe the Bible thumpers are right. Actually, the devil is in the details and you'll have to read Jacoby's book for those details as she takes the reader from the battle to pass Virginia's Act for Establishing Religious Freedom (1786) to Scalia's speech proclaiming that government rules by divine right, not the consent of the governed as declared in our Declaration of Independence. How did America descend from the age of Thomas Jefferson to the age of Tom Delay, who characterized evolution as the notion that humans are "nothing but glorified apes who have evolutionized [sic] out of some primordial soup of mud"? How did we get from an era when religious liberty meant the freedom to oppress Catholics, Jews, and other non-Protestants to an age where Protestant fundamentalists and Catholics form a powerful political faction that many politicians believe must be catered to? Read Jacoby's book to find out the answers to these and many more questions about our odd history.

Many will find of interest Jacoby's reminder of the "false image of religion as a staunch foe of slavery" and how our children are likely to be taught an American history that makes no mention of great women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her Woman's Bible. Jacoby reminds us that it has always been the freethinkers, not the Christian fundamentalists, who have fought for such things as abolition of slavery; woman's suffrage; development of science, literature, and art; and civil liberties for all our citizens. In one of the many ironies of American history, it has been the freethinkers, too, who have fought the hardest for religious liberty. In the forefront of that fight one of the prominent leaders has been the American Civil Liberties Union, a group universally hated by religious fundamentalists, conservatives, and other slaves to tradition and irrational faith.

As an added benefit, the book is well-written and a page-turner, though some might complain that the book is incomplete and did not consider the fine work of such conservative or libertarian freethinkers as Ayn Rand and Christopher Hitchins. This is not a complaint I would make, however. I would have liked more coverage of H. L. Mencken, that equal opportunity debunker and iconoclast who stands as a towering reminder that not all freethinkers are liberals.

reader comments

from John:

In your recent review you asked, "How did we get from an era with men and books like Ethan Allen's Reason the Only Oracle of Man (1794) and Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason (1804) to Antonin Scalia and Joseph Lieberman (not to mention Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity)? Depravity, I suppose." In fact, Ethan Allen had a rough time finding a publisher for Reason the Only Oracle of Man, precisely because he lived in an age that was highly intolerant of such ideas. These days, one could easily find a major publisher for even the most vehemently anti-religious book (taking into account the difficulty of getting published at all, of course). It's simply misleading to present the development of this country as a descent from freethinking to religious fanaticism.

Jacoby makes it clear and my opening comment about her book also makes it clear that the religious people of this country have been anti-secular from the very beginning, despite the fact that only a secular government can protect freedom of religion and despite the fact that the Founders were wise enough to recognize that fact. My point in comparing the two eras with the people I mention was not to imply that Allen and Paine were hailed as wise men for their defense of reason wherever they went (an obvious falsehood) but that today we are led by men like George Herbert Walker Bush who once publicly denied that an atheist could be a patriot and we hail women like Ann Coulter who consider liberals to be atheists and by definition unpatriotic.

"Freethinker" does seem like an appropriate word for a person who rejects any kind of Revelation, for one because it is accurate (they are not bound to any particular tradition) and relatively neutral ("free" thought might be reasonable or unreasonable). "Bright" on the other hand, even if its originator has mentioned ad nauseum that it's supposed to be a noun, undoubtedly has all the connotations of the adjective "bright," which, of course, is the reason it was chosen. Unlike "freethinker," it would be quite easy to co-opt: "The self-proclaimed 'brights'..." Pointing to someone's arrogance is one of the easiest ways to popularly discredit him or her.

Consider your explanation: "Brights are guided by reason and freedom of thought, rather than tradition and irrational faith." Can you really say that a particular group is guided by reason? I'd guess that most people are simply convinced of a position (for example, by reading arguments someone like you are Randi provides) and then continue to hold that position dogmatically, whether it's belief in the power of pyramids, the latest neuroscientific discovery, or the non-existence of psychic powers. Now, I'd rather have people dogmatically hold to reasonable rather than unreasonable positions, but I wouldn't necessarily assume they were actually guided by reason, which would imply that they critically assess not only those positions but their foundations as well. I have met many atheists, skeptics, and freethinkers who would probably not merit the term "bright" and who inhabited no broader a world than many religious thinkers. That they happened to hold some positions with which I agree did not for a moment suggest that they held them for the same reasons, or for any legitimate reason at all.

Yes, I can say that brights are guided by reason rather than irrational faith. That doesn't imply that each member of the group always believes what is most reasonable and beyond controversy. It simply means that they don't appeal to authority to defend their beliefs. It doesn't mean they all believe the same thing or that they are all equally reasonable. People who use reason rather than authority can err. Being guided by reason doesn't imply one thinks one is infallible. You  are right, however, in noting that the term 'bright' can be easily co-opted by a simple "so-called" or "self-proclaimed."

more book reviews by R. T. Carroll

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