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Freethinkers, Susan Jacoby

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Subtitled "A History of American Secularism," the book seemed to promise a treatise on the origins and role of secularism in American life. Alas, the book is not scholarship but activism. Susan Jacoby preaches only to the choir in the Church of Lefties Against Religion. The work could have been much more if only Jacoby were as dedicated to fact as she is to her cause.

When Jacoby gets to her fourth chapter, “The Belief and Unbelief of Abraham Lincoln,” she strangely asserts that “Today's Christian conservatives frequently use the slogan ‘Let's put God back into the Constitution...’ ” (p. 105, emphasis original) At first I thought the remark odd since we're presumably meant to be considering the beliefs of Lincoln, dead for over 140 years; what could the actions or thoughts of today's anybody have to do Lincoln's beliefs? I also wondered why the phrase was in quotes but that no citation was offered. Taking Jacoby's assertion at face value—that the phrase is used “frequently,” I opted to Google the phrase.

The results intrigued me. All three of them. Two of them are quotes of Jacoby's assertion and the third is someone else asserting that conservatives often use the phrase. While Google is hardly the entire world's information in all forms, it seems to me that the assertion that a phrase is “frequently” used strains credibility when Google cannot find a single instance of anyone actually using it.

Elsewhere, Jacoby reveals her own anti-capitalist bias, writing as if a “need” to limit capitalism is somehow a matter of fact, or at least universally accepted. “Many freethinkers and religious liberals were admirers of [Herbert] Spencer's unrestrained individualism even though, unlike Spencer, they recognized the need for not only basic government services like the post office but for social action to ameliorate the harshest aspects of industrial capitalism.” (p. 141) Plenty well-informed citizens, particularly fans and students of the late Milton Friedman, are far more likely that such “social action” is not only unnecessary but actually harmful to the very people it's meant to help.

Elsewhere, she asserts that capitalism is a conformist and collectivist ideology. (p. 266) Again, this is nonsense. I quote Dr. Friedman: “The most important single central fact about a free market is that no exchange takes place unless both parties benefit.” No one is made to conform: people do what they believe will be best. Naturally, corporate executives are mentioned only to reveal Jacoby's assumption that corporate executives as a rule evade responsibility (p. 300) without bothering to note that for every executive who fails to take responsibility for his actions, there are hundreds or thousands who honorably and skillfully execute their duties.

“The lasting consequences of this old cultural division remain apparent today; it is no accident that the center of the Christian right in late-twentieth-century America, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Bob Jones, to name only a few stalwarts of right-wing fundamentalism, are the religious and political heirs of the nineteenth-century ministers and politicians who were determined to purge scientific rationalists from southern churches and educational institutions.” (p. 144) I saw this coming...and of course they're “right-wing,” as if science is a left/right dichotomy or the South is exclusively the domain of religion. This is what happens when an Internet meme takes the place of research. What we see here is little more than an attempt to explain away the 2004 presidential election results as the “fault” of religion, for no one else, we're presumed to understand, would vote Republican.

Jacoby seems to want to claim Robert Green Ingersoll as a Progressive, suggesting that his attachment to the Republican party was weakened by his followers' apparent later support of Progressive causes. She goes on to assert that “Had Ingersoll lived longer, his economic views would likely have been modified by the upheavals of the twentieth century” and goes on to use his apparent support of estate taxes that would require the rich to pay a larger percentage than the poor. (p. 179) All of this seems strange for a “history of American secularism”—it makes sense only if the point is to claim that any figure important to the freethought movement must not be a real Republican.

We're introduced to a publication, Blue Grass Blade that supported freethought and prohibition. (p. 210) This strikes me as interesting because we're also told that freethought is an individualistic movement. (p. 266) I know not whether the obvious contradiction originates with Jacoby, freethought, or the Blade, but it does seem to support the assertion that the political Left wants to get everyone else to conform to its world-view through legislation. (Such that might be found in books like Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism.) It might seem, then, that some of Jacoby's intellectual sputniki might well be some of the very same “policepersons” she laments—though the specific world-view being enforced by force might well differ. (p. 224)

Use of the pseudo-word “policepersons” wasn't the only thing that made me laugh aloud. Sadly, the other case I can remember was an argument apparently made in all seriousness. “One can only imagine what Jefferson and Madison would have to say about the appointment of a ‘military vicar’ to look after the spiritual welfare of the secular American army.” (p. 279) Why attempt to claim the authority of Madison or Jefferson rather than use their own writings? It's not as though the issue didn't come up in their time. In fact, the Continental Army had chaplains. (See also Religion and the Continental Congress, 1774-1789 by Derek Davis and The Founders on God and Government by Daniel L. Dreisbach, Mark David Hall, and Jeffry H. Morrison.)

Jacoby finally makes her point toward the end, where she argues her hatred for George W. Bush and Antonin Scalia. (p. 355-56) Thus, we see how clearly the subtitle of the book has led us astray, an absurd attempt to blame Bush and Scalia specifically, and the Republican Party more generally, for the widespread departure from the values that presumably formed the basis of American society.

What is especially amusing is to see now with the perspective of history is her commentary that mentions “the marginalization of ... Senator John McCain of Arizona” (p. 355) within the Republican Party. Just a few paragraphs earlier (p. 354) she complains that “Religion is so much a part of the public square that a majority of American say that they would refuse to vote for an atheist for president, even though they would consider voting for an African American, a woman, a Jew, or a homosexual.” This much, supported by a citation, would allow her to make her general point about the influence of religion on American society. Nevertheless, Jacoby just can't resist the urge to opine without foundation, adding that “Americans are probably not telling the truth on this issue to pollsters; it is difficult to credit the assertion that a majority of citizens, in the privacy of the voting booth, would cast their ballots for a gay or a black presidential candidate, and I also have my doubts that either a Jew or a woman could be elected at this time.” (p. 354) The election of 2008 must be quite a surprise for her.

In all, Freethinkers is a tremendous disappointment. Jacoby fails to provide a history of secularism except to the degree that it supports her own world view. She fails to credit any other thinkers who share her view of religion but don't support her view of the role of government—Ayn Rand being an obvious example. What Jacoby is not even a history with commentary: she has given us is a manifesto for lefty atheism, one that will find a welcome audience only with those who already agree with her and accept her world-view without regard to its relation to reality.

Created by cmcurtin
Last modified 2008-09-28 07:08 PM
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