Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism

By Kenneth W. Krause

“Talking against Religion is unchaining a Tyger,” warned Benjamin Franklin in 1751. “The Beast let loose may worry his Deliverer.”

I found myself reflecting upon Franklin’s counsel one morning last spring when I first heard Susan Jacoby on Wisconsin Public Radio. A former Pulitzer Prize finalist, director of the Center for Inquiry–Metro New York, and contributor to The Washington Post, The New York Times, Newsday, and Vogue, Jacoby compromised nothing for the sake of political correctness. I grinned like a lizard, in fact, as she punished every insensible, squealing Christian rigorist in the state with a spare hour and the wherewithal to operate a touch-tone telephone. Regrettably, Franklin’s admonition is as relevant today as it was in the eighteenth century, but I can assure everyone–Susan Jacoby isn’t scared.

In Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (NY: Metropolitan Books, 2004), Jacoby underpaints her historical portrait of American secularism with a sketch of our constitutional roots. “It is impossible to overstate the importance of Virginia’s 1786 Act for Establishing Religious Freedom,” she writes, “for, much to the dismay of religious conservatives, it would become the template for the secularist provisions of the federal Constitution.” As their model, the founders chose Virginia, “not the other states, with their crazy quilts of obeisance to a more restrictive religious past.”

Our Constitution was intended as a purely secular document, Jacoby surmises, “because of what it says and what it does not say.” Article VI, section 3, of course, which was adopted in Philadelphia with little debate and no controversy, assured that our representatives and their appointed officials would be bound “by Oath or Affirmation” and that “no religious Test [would] ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

And in no way, at no point, would the Constitution refer even passingly to a supernatural entity.

“The Constitution’s silence on the deity broke not only with culturally and historically distant precedent but with proximate and recent American precedents–most notably the 1781 Articles of Confederation, which acknowledged the beneficence of ‘the Great Governor of the World.’ With its refusal to invoke any form of divine sanction, even the vaguely deistic ‘Providence,’ ” reasons Jacoby, “the Constitution went even further than Virginia’s religious freedom act in separating religion from government.”

“The inefficacy of [religious] restraint on individuals is well known,” wrote James Madison to Thomas Jefferson on October 24, 1787. “The conduct of very popular assembly, acting on oath, the strongest of religious ties, shows that individuals join without remorse in acts against which their consciences would revolt, if proposed to them separately in their closets.”

Clearly, it was the moral tenets of Enlightenment rationalism and not reactionary superstitionalism that America’s revolutionary generation sought to instill in their new government. Jacoby concurs: “Americans lived no longer in an age of faith, but in an age of faiths and an age of reason.”

The author layers her canvas sparingly, but appropriately emphasizes secular morality:

“The religiously correct version of American history has never given proper credit to the central importance of the Enlightenment concept of natural rights–or to the anticlerical abolitionists who advanced that concept before the public–in building the case against slavery.”

Indeed, but for the bible, would slavery have ever infected American society in the first place? “[S]ecularists are not value-free,” Jacoby writes. “[T]heir values are simply grounded in earthly concerns rather than in anticipation of heavenly rewards or fear of infernal punishments.”

To American readers denied an honest, inclusive education with respect to their own past, Jacoby introduces a new cast of heroes from the nineteenth-century–the likes of Lucretia Mott (“Truth for Authority, Not Authority for Truth”), Elizabeth Cady Stanton (“[E]very form of religion which has breathed upon this earth has degraded woman”), William Lloyd Garrison (“Truth is older than any parchment”), and of course, the “Great Agnostic,” Robert Green Ingersoll (“Every fact has pushed superstition from the brain and a ghost from the clouds . . . and every schoolhouse is a temple”).

But most conspicuous are Jacoby’s final strokes. In the chapter entitled “Reason Embattled,” she brutalizes the most formidable contemporary proponents of American theocracy. “The real underpinnings of [Antonin] Scalia’s support of the death penalty are to be found not in constitutional law but in the Justice’s religious convictions.” Death, according to Scalia, is simply “no big deal” for Christians with faith in an afterlife.

And the venerated principle of separation of religion and government, so elemental to democracy itself, should apparently be of no concern to American citizens content to live under the law of Scalia’s god. But some citizens, Jacoby protests, “might respect themselves enough to respect the authority of their elected officials–even without being threatened by the sword of the Lord of Hosts.”

Yet, for all his pompous, illicit evangelism, Scalia is not the principal threat to American secularism.

“It is fair to say,” writes Jacoby, “that the first six presidents of the United States did not invoke the blessings of the Deity as frequently in their entire public careers as President George W. Bush does each month. . . . Short of erecting a cross atop the White House . . . , the current administration could hardly do more to demonstrate its commitment to pulverizing a constitutional wall that has served both religion and government well for more than two hundred years.”

The President’s faith-based initiatives, his constant, official yet furtive allusions to scripture and empty neo-Christian platitudes (exactly what is this “culture of life,” and does it ever apply to the living?) demand our unwavering political attention as much as more traditional and less subtle attacks on separation.

Like Franklin, Jacoby offers fair warning to the community of reason. We must challenge the “unexamined assumption that religion per se is, and always must be, a benign influence on society. . . . For secularists to mount an effective challenge to the basic premises of religious correctness, they must first stop pussyfooting around the issue of the harm that religion is capable of doing.”

And most importantly, rational citizens must educate themselves: “Nor is it enough for secularists to speak up in defense of the godless constitution; they must also defend the Enlightenment values that produced the legal structure crafted by the framers. Important as separation of church and state is to American secularists, their case must be made on a broader plane that includes the defense of rational thought itself.”

We must “reclaim the passion and emotion from the religiously correct. The revitalization of American secularism in the twenty-first century depends upon its ability to convey the passions of humanism as Ingersoll did in the nineteenth, to move hearts as well as to change minds.”

Free Inquiry magazine touted Freethinkers as “the freethought book of the year. Make that the decade. OK, the century.” I would ask every secularist to consider a number of fine books in the same tradition, including Sidney Warren’s American Freethought, 1860-1914. (NY: Gordian Press, 1966), and Annie Laurie Gaylor’s Women Without Superstition: “No Gods–No Masters” (FFRF, 1997).

I won’t fault Jacoby for writing a polemical history. Democracy, after all, is the marketplace of not only facts, but of ideas and arguments as well; and Jacoby has demonstrated appropriate facility with both. Besides, to whom should we look for our political and social ideas, if not to those with a working knowledge of our history?

My only criticism of Jacoby’s book is that it insufficiently emphasizes the freethought organs and organizations of the late nineteenth century, America’s ‘golden age’ of reason. Our citizens should know more about the struggles of that period, often lost but always fiercely fought, that gradually led to the enhanced (though inadequate) level of freethought we enjoy today. The Truth Seeker (arguably, the era’s most radical freethought weekly, edited by D.M. Bennett) and The Index (published by the Free Religious Association) were the venerable precursors to contemporary atheist and humanist news services. The National Liberal League, the American Secular Union, the Freethought Federation of America, the Infidel Association of the United States, and the New York State Freethinkers’ Association all serve as worthy examples of the ability of rational people to unite for a critical cause.

But I agree with Susan Jacoby:

“It is time to revive the evocative and honorable freethinker, with its insistence that Americans think for themselves instead of relying on received opinion.” Nothing less salient than democracy, freedom and peace hang in the balance; and on a scale of one to five, in the category of American history, I rate Freethinkers at four Ingersolls.

Kenneth W. Krause lives in Wisconsin and has degrees in History, Literature, Art and Law.

Susan Jacoby spoke at the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s national convention in 2004, where she was given a “Freethought Heroine” award. 

Freedom From Religion Foundation