Review: Freethinkers, by Susan Jacoby


Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, by Susan Jacoby. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2004. 448 pp. $17.00 (paperback).

freethinkers

In March 2010, the Texas State Board of Education acted to remove mentions of Thomas Jefferson from a standard history textbook. Texas students will now learn not about the author of the Declaration of Independence, but about the author of “The Word our Only Rule,” John Calvin.*

Hearing this news, those who have read Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism may be saddened or enraged, but they will not be surprised. Freethinkers includes stories of many Americans who challenged religion and, thus, were either erased from textbooks or had their views revised in order to remain.

Freethinkers begins at the founding of America—and with a fact that certain Texans seek to hide: The founders explicitly rejected the dogma of Calvin and his ilk and embraced a philosophy of reason and rights. For Revolutionary War heroes such as Ethan Allen, the “rejection of [an] all-powerful Calvinist deity went together with the rejection of the divine right of kings” (p. 18). What distinguished the most important revolutionary leaders, she argues, was their skepticism of such authoritarian sects, their conviction “that if God exists, he created human rationality as the supreme instrument for understanding and mastering the natural world,” and their view that an individual’s religion is and should be a private matter. “The logical extension of such beliefs,” says Jacoby, “was a civil government based not on the laws of God, as promulgated by self-appointed earthly spokesmen, but on the rights of man” (p. 15).

Jefferson was crucial to making this ideal form of government a reality. In addition to the Declaration of Independence, Jacoby points out that, in 1779, “Jefferson proposed a bill that would guarantee complete legal equality for citizens of all religions, and of no religion, in his home state of Virginia.” This, Jacoby says, was “the first plan in any of the thirteen states to call for complete separation of civil and religious authority” (p. 19). It read, in part, that “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry . . . [and] that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion” (p. 24). Supported by, among others, James Madison, primary author of the Constitution, the bill passed in 1786, prompting Jefferson to observe that “it is honorable for us to have produced the first legislature who had the courage to declare that the reason of man may be trusted with the formation of his own opinions” (p. 25).

Jacoby says that “it is impossible to overstate the importance” of this act “for, much to the dismay of religious conservatives, it would become the template for the secularist provisions of the federal Constitution” (p. 19), including the provision that no religious test shall be required for officeholders; the First Amendment’s declaration that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”; and the Constitution’s “refusal to invoke any form of divine sanction” (pp. 28–29).

Continuing her history, Jacoby points out that “by the early 1830s . . . the heritage of revolutionary secularism—and the intellectual successors of the eighteenth-century American freethinkers—had moved north.” She notes that southern clerics justified slavery on scriptural grounds and that those who disagreed “simply lost their place in their own society” (pp. 66–67). Jacoby addresses those who argue that religion deserves “the credit for the eventual emergence of a moral consensus against slavery”:

[The] false image of religion as a staunch foe of slavery is a basic tenet of religious correctness . . . [that] conveniently ignores the good Christian rioters and hecklers who frequently disrupted abolitionist lectures in Boston and New York throughout the 1830s and 1840s. That . . . churches in the north were slow to condemn slavery outright, and even slower to endorse any economic or political action that might bring about the end of the “peculiar institution,” is also conveniently forgotten (pp. 68–69).

Jacoby explains that when an influential northern minister advised Presbyterian churches “to prohibit discussion of slavery that might break ‘silken ties’ between northern and southern Presbyterians,” William Lloyd Garrison pointedly observed that the silken ties in question “are literally the chains of slaves” (p. 69).

Garrison, who crusaded relentlessly “for the immediate abolition of slavery” (p. 72), rejected “a literal interpretation of the Scriptures, which were often used to justify slavery” and excoriated clergymen who campaigned against receiving mail on Sundays while ignoring the horrible crime being perpetrated in the South (pp. 73, 78). Garrison’s actions were instrumental in leading to abolition, yet, according to Jacoby, his “savage attacks on orthodox churches and their leaders” earned him “the deepest and most enduring enmity, from social conservatives of his own generation and subsequent ones” (p. 72).

Jacoby shows that historians have routinely ignored Americans with secular or antireligious views. Garrison is but one of many whose story is told in Freethinkers. Others include Thomas Paine, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Clarence Darrow, Robert Green Ingersoll, Margaret Sanger, and Eugene Debs—all of whom, Jacoby shows, challenged religion and advocated secularism.

But Freethinkers is plagued by a major flaw—Jacoby’s confused definitions of “secularism” as a “concept of public good based on human reason and human rights rather than divine authority” (p. 4) and of “secularist” as someone who fights for laws based “not on the duties of humans to their gods but on the obligations of citizens to one another” (p. 338). By incorporating into her definitions the concepts “public good,” “human rights,” and “obligations of citizens” Jacoby confines secularism to a particular set of political ideas, namely those that resonate with modern-day liberals such as her. As a result of these invalid definitions, the book suffers major contradictions and omissions that severely detract from its value.

For instance, Jefferson and Madison, whom Jacoby touts as seminal American secularists, certainly did not fight for “the obligations of citizens to one another” or for “human rights”—at least not in the modern, collectivist sense of these phrases. Jefferson and Madison plainly fought for the individual’s rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness; thus, neither man meets Jacoby’s definitions. And Jacoby largely avoids mentioning other rights-oriented secularists, such as Andrew Carnegie and H. L. Mencken, who were arguably more influential and more secular than most of those discussed in Freethinkers—and whom Jacoby gave one sentence each.

Toward the end of the book, Jacoby laments that “the once-robust American dialogue between secularism and religion” has been muted (p. 219), and that none of the “direct challenges to religion that freethinkers mounted in the nineteenth century” have been seen “since the end of the Second World War” (p. 313). Although few thinkers in the past several decades challenged religion with any intellectual fervor, the few who did held philosophical and political views starkly at odds with those of Jacoby, and, for some reason, Jacoby does not mention these thinkers. For instance, George H. Smith—whose 1974 book, Atheism: The Case Against God, is one of the most direct challenges to religion ever written—is nowhere to be found in Freethinkers. Far more remarkably, Jacoby does not mention Ayn Rand—the best-selling novelist and philosopher who stood intransigently for reason and against faith, and whose fiction and nonfiction works have been steadily selling precisely since the end of World War II. Apparently, in Jacoby’s view, advocates of reason and opponents of faith whose political and philosophical views run counter to hers have no part in the “American dialogue between secularism and religion.”

Owing to its patent contradictions, inexcusable omissions, and severe misrepresentation of the nature of secularism, Freethinkers provides only a partial history of American secularism and leaves readers with a false view of where it stands today. This may not nullify the value of Freethinkers, but it does detract heavily from it. Those interested in the history of American secularism would be better served turning to a detailed history of America—albeit not one from Texas.

Endnote

*James C. Mckinley Jr., “Texas Conservatives Win Curriculum Change,” New York Times, March 12, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/13/education/13texas.html. John Calvin, “The Word our Only Rule,” http://www.reformedsermonarchives.com/cal13.htm.

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