Book Review: Susan Jacoby’s “Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism” – by Loren Petrich

freethinkers_largeSusan Jacoby has published Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. Overall, it is an excellent book, but I do have some nits to pick with it:

It has no discussion of right-libertarian freethought, as practiced by the likes of Ayn Rand, Robert Heinlein, and their admirers. Ms. Rand was a Russian Jewish immigrant whose father’s business had been taken over by the Bolshevik revolutionaries; she is best known for writing some novels that pictures capitalists as Nietzschean heroes, and she is the creator of a philosophical system she called Objectivism. Not surprisingly, she was firmly anti-Communist. However, Ms. Rand was never very activist about her atheism, even though one might expect her to have wanted to set straight the misconception that atheism is somehow equivalent to Communism. If she had, by (say) calling herself a “godless capitalist”, then Ms. Jacoby may have had more reason to include Ms. Rand in her book.

Also, she does not give much space to what may be called the royal-lie theory of religion, which she quotes Benjamin Franklin as seemingly supporting. This is the theory that most people must be made to believe in some brand of religion that one considers false, in order to make them virtuous. The term “royal lie” is from Plato’s Republic; it is what Plato called a religion he had invented for his ideal community, a religion designed to “demonstrate” the legitimacy of its quasi-theocratic philosopher-rulers. And a religion other than Plato’s society’s religion, which he criticized as being full of bad examples. That view was common in centuries past, though nowadays it is seldom stated with much honesty.

But an atheist who believes in the royal-lie theory of religion is not likely to publicly defend atheism; that would be someone like Pogue in I am an atheist.. and TOTALLY against Church/State Separation

More generally, the book has been criticized for seemingly connecting atheism/freethought with liberal/progressive politics, but it may be a matter of who gets drawn to which kind of politics. Those with unorthodox religious opinions may feel more at home in unorthodox political movements.

She also failed to discuss the intellectual antecedents of the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

This is a clear statement of the social-contract theory of government; in which government owes its legitimacy to “the consent of the governed”, as the Declaration of Independence puts it (the DoI’s God only appears as an ultimate lawgiver who grants “rights”, not as a continually-active Universe-controller). The social-contract theory was put forward by John Locke in England some decades earlier; not surprisingly, he argued against the Divine Right of Kings.

Our Founding Fathers also preferred to discuss the likes of Polybius rather than the Bible; I mention some of their argumentation in Greece and Rome and Recent Europe: 1, Bible: 0. If the Bible was so all-important to them, why did they ignore that book?

But that aside, that book was excellent. I like her term “religiously correct” for a certain sort of orthodoxy about religion in society, in which it is supposed that all forms of organized religion have been totally saintly. This includes taking credit for the abolitionist and civil-rights movements, even though most of the southern white churches had been staunch supporters of slavery and segregation, and though most of the Northern ones had been more-or-less indifferent, at best. During the Civil War, curiously enough, the northern churches became jingoistically pro-Union; the southern ones were, of course, pro-Confederate. This makes me suspect that the religiously correct may eventually try to take credit for feminism, which she correctly identifies as an essentially secular movement.

I also like how she described the great religious fliparound between North and South in the early 19th cy. The North, especially New England, had been the home of the infamous Puritans, but it then became the home to liberal religious movements like the Unitarians and Universalists. While the South became much more fundified with the rise of the evangelicals, and it has been very fundified ever since.

She’s correct about a serious deficiency in the freethought movement: the shortage of institutional support. This has made it hard to keep alive an institutional memory of such freethought heroes as Thomas Paine and Robert Ingersoll. If one’s mind is one’s church, to quote Tom Paine, it’s rather difficult to perpetuate it. So one will have to work out how best to organize freethinkers, even if doing so is like herding cats.

She also notes that progressive movements have often tended to downplay their heretical/nonreligious/freethought parts, in order to make themselves seem more acceptable to the orthodox. Thus, Elizabeth Cady Stanton was pushed aside in favor of Susan B. Anthony, because she was willing to challenge religion with her Woman’s Bible; late-19th-cy. feminists even entered into an alliance with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which would not likely have been fond of that book. However. Ms. Stanton was likely more prescient than Ms. Anthony; women have needed more than the vote to become full citizens in society.

Attitudes of different churches toward church-state separation have varied widely.

In the 19th cy., a lot of clergymen denounced our Constitution as “Godless”; they had no illusions about its secular nature.

But other churches were much more supportive, like the Danbury Baptists that Jefferson had written to. It’s curious that the predecessors of many present-day fundie theocrats had once been staunch supporters of CSS.

Jews have long been supporters of CSS; they were much better off here than in their former European homes, with their state religions and “Christ-killer” anti-Semitism.

However, the Catholic Church has tended to act as if it was the US’s national religion, even though it has always been a minority. In the mid-20th-cy, many politicians were afraid of displeasing the Church out of fear of losing the “Catholic vote”, though the Church has been less successful at creating a voting bloc than they liked to appear to be.

But the Church could exploit some of the sympathy it had gotten as a result of anti-Catholic bigotry, like what Al Smith had gotten in 1928.

Interestingly, JFK, the first (and still the only) Catholic President, was a staunch supporter of CSS who went through the trouble to assure Protestant voters that he would not be taking orders from the Vatican. JFK was also not a very religious Catholic; he reportedly joked that a bad thing about being President is that he’d have to go to Mass every Sunday.

Ms. Jacoby laments the lack of a successor to Robert Ingersoll, the “Great Agnostic” of the late 19th cy. The closest one we’ve had has been Madalyn Murray O’Hair, but unlike Mr. Ingersoll, she was intolerant of anyone who did not share her militant atheism — and also of anyone who more-or-less agreed with atheism but who preferred some other self-designation. This put off many people who tended to agree with her.

She suggested reclaiming “freethinker”; I think that the same could also be done with “atheist” and “godless”. “Bright” seems to be flopping, suggesting that inventing another name for ourselves is not a good idea.

Needless to say, she does not let many of us freethinkers and secularists off the hook; she not only faults us as being cowardly before the religiously correct, she also faults us as not setting forth a comprehensive vision of a secular ethic, thus letting the religiously correct get away with painting us as advocates of “anything goes” amorality.

I think that we can learn some activist lessons from Susan Jacoby’s book.

Our theological opponents will always find something to smear us with. Before the Soviet Union and Communism, they associated us with the French Revolution, which was rather vehemently anticlerical, and which got known for its Reign of Terror with its thousands of guillotinings. Interestingly, Maximilien Robespierre, the mastermind of that Reign of Terror, claimed

Atheism is aristocratic; the idea of a great Being that watches over oppressed innocence and punishes triumphant crime is altogether popular (or an idea of the people)

Eventually, his colleagues became worried that they might be next, so they found him guilty of trumped-up charges and made him join his victims with the help of a guillotine.

It helps to be organized. “My mind is my church,” said Thomas Paine, but that is not very effective in keeping a legacy alive — he got disregarded for much of the nineteenth century, because his legacy was not kept alive by some Thomas Paine Society. So freethinkers ought to organize themselves to keep such things from happening, and to increase their political clout. It may be like herding cats, which are legendary for their solitariness, but it ought to be done.

Being deferential only leads to being walked all over. Over most of the twentieth century, US freethinkers had been much more deferential and much less visible than nineteenth-century ones like Robert Ingersoll. Also, successful activists have not been afraid of being visible and theatric — even offensive. Abolitionists, civil-rights activists, suffragists, present-day feminists, and gay-rights activists have all been willing to be very out in the open about their beliefs.

Hiding behind religious leaders does not stop theocrats and the like; the clerical members of the civil-rights were disdained as frauds by some of their opponents. It also lets the theocrats take credit for things that some of our predecessors had helped fight for, like abolition and civil rlghts — things that those theocrats’ predecessors had been everything from indifferent to to vehemently opposed to. Like preaching that black people have been given the curse of Ham and thus ought to be ruled by white people.

Imitating Madalyn Murray O’Hair is no good either. Freethinkers must also avoid the opposite extreme of belligerence; a reasonable policy would be to follow Aristotle’s Golden Mean between the two. Ms. O’Hair was an embarrassment for freethought, lacking in intellectual depth, and being dogmatic, intolerant, and difficult to get along with. And this had kept her and her organization, American Atheists, in isolation from many people who might others have been inclined to cooperate with her.

I suggest asserting our beliefs while trying to avoid giving the appearance of insisting that other people have to share our beliefs. Jews have not insisted that other people convert to Judaism, black people have not insisted that white people darken their skins, flatten their noses, thicken their lips, and make their hair woolly, gay people have not insisted that heterosexuals make themselves homosexual, etc.

Make a moral case as well as a legalistic case for church-state separation. That will keep us from looking like defenders of bad law and “activist judges” and the like.

Work with whatever information media are available. Freethought was hurt over much of the twentieth century by the rise of centralized information media like movies and radio and TV. While in the nineteenth century, one had to travel to meet a lecturer like Ingersoll, in the twentieth century, it became possible to stay home and listen to the radio. That had the problem of the centralized managements of the new information media being unwilling to feature heretical viewpoints like freethought. Perhaps the biggest twentieth-century US publisher of freethought literature for a long time was Emanuel Haldeman-Julius with his Little Blue Books.

The Internet, however, is the world’s largest vanity press, and can make information available remarkably quickly by the standards of most other media. And activist freethinkers have become good at exploiting it. Resulting in what someone here has referred to “the degraying of freethought”.

Many Southern white people used to believe that black people were subject ot the curse of Ham (Genesis 9:20-27):

Noah, a man of the soil, proceeded to plant a vineyard.When he drank some of its wine, he became drunk and lay uncovered inside his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it across their shoulders; then they walked in backward and covered their father’s nakedness. Their faces were turned the other way so that they would not see their father’s nakedness.

When Noah awoke from his wine and found out what his youngest son had done to him, he said,

“Cursed be Canaan!
The lowest of slaves
will he be to his brothers.”

He also said,

“Blessed be the LORD, the God of Shem!
May Canaan be the slave of Shem.

May God extend the territory of Japheth;
may Japheth live in the tents of Shem,
and may Canaan be his slave.”

And not surprisingly, those Southerners’ churches supported Southern plantation slavery, and later segregation. And the Northern churches were mostly indifferent and unwilling to do much to oppose slavery and segregation, though they turned jingoistically pro-Union during the Civil War. Furthermore, the abolitionist and civil-rights movements included both religious and secular activists, though the religious ones were often more or less at the fringe rather than big-name or mainstream.

Susan Jacoby has the whole story in her book, including the common “religiously correct” rewrite of history.

Ms. Jacoby even described some culture clashes among the civil-rights activists, like black-church elders complaining that some of the younger activists were too irreligious and disrespectful of them, and Martin Luther King arguing that some fellow activist could not possibly be an atheist because he was so good.

Originally from these IIDB threads:
Susan Jacoby’s “Freethinkers”
Activist Lessons from Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers
Pro-Christian quote-mining on the History Channel


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