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Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism

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Freethinkers

Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, by Susan Jacoby

Secularism and freethought have played important roles in the development of American society, culture, and politics, yet they are roles which have been largely forgotten and ignored. Americans tend to hear about and be familiar with the role of religion in their nation's history while freethinkers and skeptics are unjustly marginalized. This is both a tragedy and a travesty which desperately needs to be corrected.

Summary

Title: Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism
Author: Susan Jacoby
Publisher: Metropolitan Books
ISBN: 0805074422

Pro:
•  A needed balance to the "religiously correct" histories which exclude secularism and freethought
•  Provides a perspective and information generally neglected and ignored
•  Powerful antidote to the inaccurate rhetoric of the Christian Right

Con:
•  There is far more history than can be contained in this single volume

Description:
•  Overview of the history and influence of freethought and secularism in American politics •  Explores how freethinkers impacted various social and political movements •  Argues that secularism and freethought have been deliberately marginalized

 

Book Review

A good first step in this process is Susan Jacoby‘s book Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. A noted author of several books as well as articles in such publications as The Washington Post, The New York Times, Newsday, and Vogue, Jacoby attempts to set the record straight by demonstrating just what sort of role both individual freethinker as well as more general movements and groups have had on significant aspects of American history.

Many people today recognize that at least in some of its guises, religion can be a tenacious and even violent impediment to social progress and liberty. At the same time, though, they will also argue that "true" religion, when "properly understood," can actually aid the causes of progress and liberty. Perhaps this is so - but it would be a serious error to think that religion is a necessary aid.

Religion is, by its very nature, a conservative institution. It is a repository of the values, beliefs, morals, and practices of our ancestors and of generations gone by. Those values and practices can provide stability to society and they can certainly create a safe shelter during troubled periods. At the same time, though, those same values and practices can act as lead weights which inhibit progress and improvement.

What Jacoby's book teaches us is that some of the most important figures in American history who pushed for liberty and reform regarded religion as an obstacle to progress, and thus regarded their fight as being against traditional religion as much as it was in favor of some improvement for society. This is not to say that they were all atheists, although some certainly were; but in so many cases their beliefs were so unorthodox that their contemporaries regarded them as being no different from atheists.

Freethinkers

Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, by Susan Jacoby

Aside from their unorthodox beliefs and religious skepticism, there seems to be one other feature which most of the people and organizations in Susan Jacoby's book have in common: they are largely forgotten (or, if not forgotten, then their beliefs are downplayed and ignored). That is only to be expected, I suppose, because otherwise her book wouldn't be so needed.

Still, it can be quite sad to read about how people were shoved aside and even deliberately written out of history once their ideas about religion were revealed. Being a skeptic, an atheist, or simply unorthodox can be such a stigma that it overwhelms everything else a person does (Jacoby's inclusion of all these groups under the label "freethinker" might seem too broad to some, but is in fact quite appropriate).

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