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A History of American Secularism
by Susan Jacoby
Metropolitan Books, April , 2004
401 pages, hardcover
Review by Jim Walker

Sadly the word "freethinker" has so gone out of use in the English language that most dictionaries do not even include the word (many people, uncomfortable with the term write it in its two word form-- free thinker). Unfortunately freethinkers, secularists, agnostics, and atheists today stand as the most hated and unrepresented minority in America, yet it came from these people who gave us our civil freedoms.

To her good credit, Susan Jacoby attempts to restore the honor, dignity and history of American freethinkers that began with their Enlightenment ideas that resulted in the first secular government in the world. The first American legislature had the courage to declare that men of reason can trust themselves with the formation of their own opinions, without the need of gods, priests, or churches. The American Constitution still stands as a secular document, with the purposeful omission of God, Jesus, and Christianity.

Jacoby carefully documents the path of secular thought from the Constitutional Convention, Thomas Paine's influence on American political thought, widespread acceptance of Jefferson and Madison's separation of church and state, and the losing battle to put religion into the Constitution. We see how Biblical thought influenced slavery which, in large part, resulted in the Civil War and the religious revival that followed (which resulted in putting 'God' on our coins).

At every step, freethinkers had to fight against religious bigotry and intolerance in order to give blacks, women, and minorities the freedoms which they take for granted today. Americans have forgotten names such as William Lloyd Garrison who published influential freethought ideas in his early American newspaper; Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who fought for women's rights and published the best seller, The Woman's Bible; Ernestine L. Rose, an atheist who openly spoke against slavery and the subordinate status of women; and many more.

Of the more familiar freethinkers, Jacoby reveals Abraham Lincoln's religious skepticism, and how religious conservatives try to make him look like a faithful Christian (Lincoln never belonged to a church and even declared himself a non-Christian).

We discover during the post Civil War, how Darwin's theory of evolution influenced American thought and even helped secularize Protestant Christians, and how Herbert Spencer's distorted view of Darwin's theory led to Social Darwinism (a political rather than a scientific view). Spencer coined the term "survival of the fittest" a term that Darwin never used, and allowed Christians and secularists to embrace a false version of Darwin's theory.

According to Jacoby, the period from, roughly, 1875 to 1914 represents the high-water mark of freethought as an influential movement in American society. The most influential freethinker of all, Robert Green Ingersoll (called the Great Agnostic) gave political force to the freethought movement and he gave masterful articulations of the secularist view throughout America.

Unfortunately, the secular movement slowly began to lose momentum while the religiosity of America grew to dangerous levels, especially during the Red Scare in the McCarthy era. This required the formation of the ACLU to fight this anti-secular view (one of the few defenders of separation of church and state in America today). After World War II, The Catholic Church became the most powerful denomination, exercising its clout on morality, business, and public policy. Fighting for birth control rights became a long fought battle for women's freedom of choice, and thus began the modern feminist movement, and according to Jacoby, "was thoroughly and fundamentally secularist."

As always, freethinkers have stood in the forefront to uphold constitutional rights for minorities (even religious minorities), and without them, most of us would not experience the American dream. Unfortunately, the religious-right has garnered so much political power today that our freedoms stand in danger of extinction. Jacoby reveals the blood-curdling words of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia where he shows that he has no regard, whatsoever, for the secular Constitution (he sees that government power comes from God, and not from "We the people."). Today, we see 'god' in our schools where the Christian-right successfully overturned our history of secure education to teach creation-science in public schools while trying to exclude evolution; where children have to recite the Pledge of Allegiance with its annexed wording of "under God"; where religious conservatives attempt to destroy the concept of separation of church and state; where George Bush attempts to make the United States a Christian nation with his faith-based initiatives. If anything describes "slippery-slope," nothing could give a better example than the slow but ever growing influence of religion on our government, in direct opposition of the intent of the Framers of the Constitution.

Jacoby closes with a call to "revive the evocative and honorable freethinker, with its insistence that Americans think for themselves instead of relying on received opinion. The combination of free and thought embodies every ideal that secularists still hold out to a nation founded not on dreams of justice in heaven but on the best human hopes for a more just earth."

I hope that this book will inspire a few young readers to become the next Robert Ingersolls or Elizabeth Cady Stantons. If Americans (believers and nonbelievers) wish to retain our freedoms, we have a long struggle to prevent the politically religious-minded from taking our human derived rights away from us. This book deserves a read from every American.

A few quotes from the book:

In eighteenth-century political discourse, the adjective civil was the closest equivalent of secularist, and many of the founders used the word to refer to the public, nonreligious sphere of government, as distinct from the private role of religion.

American freethought derived much of its power from an inclusiveness that encompassed many forms of rationalist belief. Often defined as a total absence of faith in God, freethought can better be understood as a phenomenon running the gamut from the truly antireligious-- those who regarded all religion as a form of superstition and wished to reduce its influence in every aspect of society-- to those who adhered to a private, unconventional faith revering some form of God or Providence but at odds with orthodox religious authority.

Thomas Paine, the preeminent and much-admired literary propagandist of the Revolution, was the first American freethinker to be labeled an atheist...

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. Jefferson's plan was the first plan in any of the thirteen states to call for complete separation of civil and religious authority, and seven years of fierce debate and political bargaining would pass before a version of his bill was enacted into law... it would become the template for the secularist provisions of the federal Constitution.

Petitioners opposing religious assessments outnumbered supporters twelve to one. In the end, the secularists and dissident evangelicals easily carried the day.

The rejection of any mention of Jesus, Jefferson would recall thirty years later, proved that the law was meant to protect not only Christians, , and not only religious believers, but nonbelievers as well.

Expressing his pride in Virginia's leadership, Jefferson observed that "it is comfortable to see the standard of reason at length held in vassalage by kings, priests, and nobles, and it is honorable for us, to have produced the first legislature who had the courage to declare, that the reason of man my be trusted with the formation of his own opinions.

The First Amendment's prohibition against government interference with religious liberty cannot be detached from the body of the Constitution, with its prohibition against religious tests for public office.

Perhaps surprisingly, the omission of God was not a major source of controversy at the Constitutional Convention.

Although there were numerous attempts by state ratifying conventions to amend the Constitution, and subvert the intent of the preamble, by declaring that governmental power was derived from God or Jesus Christ, the proposed religious amendments were defeated.

That many Americans could embrace evangelical revivalism while voting for the deist Jefferson attests to the widespread acceptance of separation of church and state in the young republic.

Between 1790 and 1830, approximately half of the tax-supported Congregationalist churches in Massachusetts were transformed into Unitarian congregations.

Another way of looking at Unitarianism is that it moved religion itself into the camp of enlightenment rationalism.

Paine died on June 8, 1809 at age seventy-two. Like so many other famous freethinkers, he would be pursued beyond the grave by false reports that he had asked for a minister and recanted his antireligious views on his deathbed. In fact, he died in his sleep.

The expanding white southern homogeneity and hegemony of faith in an infallible God led inevitably to a moral and utilitarian justification for slavery...

That the more conservative clergymen and established 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.

By contrast with abolitionism, women's rights movements in all of their American incarnations have generally been seen, and rightly so, as a threat to religious orthodoxy.

Neither the abolitionists nor the early feminists set out to take on organized religion; they did so only when the concluded that the conservative religious institutions of their day were a positive obstacle to social reform.

...they identified religion itself as one of society's most important social problems, as a major contributor to and defender of evils that included, but were not limited to, slavery, poverty, and the subordinate status of women.

The wall of separation between church and state was seen by American Jews as the guarantor of their safety.

Rose reminded her audience that America's "present crisis" had been created by a system of slavery long upheld by many religious leaders in the North as well as the South.

The words "under God" do not appear in Lincoln's first or second handwritten draft of his address...

In the first year of the [Civil] war, the American Bible Society published 370,000 more Bibles than it had in 1860... The intensity of the Christian imagery associated with the Union cause--never equaled before or since the war-- represented an extremely successful effort to supersede the compromised and compromising religion that had consented to the existence of slavery for so long. "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," one of the most powerful calls to arms ever set to music, was not only religious but Christian to the core.

As a general rule, the post presidential acquaintances emphasized Lincoln's religiosity, while those who had known the president from his young manhood emphasized his religious skepticism.

"Mr. Batemen, I am not a Christian-- God knows, I would be one," Lincoln reportedly told Bateman.

If Lincoln was indeed a devout believer, why would the majority of clergymen in his hometown have opposed his candidacy? And why would he have felt "obliged" to conceal his true respect for religion from his friends-- not to mention all of those unfriendly ministers, who might well have changed their opinion of him had he professed his devout Christianity to them?

"Now let it be written in history and on Mr. Lincoln's tomb: 'He died an unbeliever.'" [William H. Hendon, Lincoln's law partner]

If one substitutes "doubter" or "skeptic" for "unbeliever," the sixteenth president of the United States surely qualifies.

[Herbert] Spencer was also the favorite philosopher of religious Americans who wished to have their God and evolution too... his brand of social Darwinism, with its appeal to religious believers as well as to secularists, had a long-term impact on American culture.

Spencer's metaphysics: "survival of the fittest"-- a term coined by Spencer, not Darwin-- applied not only to man in a state of nature but to civilized man.

There is a special place in the pantheon of rationalist heroes for the short list of freethinkers, including Ingersoll and Ernestine Rose, who unflinchingly and unfailingly rejected the idea that it was possible to communicate with the spirits of the dead.

The period from, roughly, 1875 to 1914 represents the high-water mark of freethought as an influential movement in American society.

The one political concern that did unite all freethinkers was their support for absolute separation of church and state...

The most influential freethought publication-- the only one with a truly national circulation-- was the Truth Seeker.

But while freethinkers and liberal religious believers agreed on a definition of decency, religious conservatives emphatically disagreed and cited select passages from the Bible in support of harsh standards of punishment-- including starvation rations, beatings by guards, and prison chain gangs.

The nineteenth-century confrontation over censorship ranged from semicomical attempts to put fig leaves on statues of nudes to serious attempts to impose an early frost on the literature and art...

The Woman's Bible created all the commotion Stanton could have hoped for. It became a bestseller, going through seven printings in sex months and appearing in several foreign-language translations.

Freethinkers were the only consistent opponents of censorship from the 1870s until the First World War; nearly a half century before there was an American civil Liberties Union, without a body of judicial precedent to bolster their argument, freethinkers spoke out in defense of those accused of obscenity and blasphemy...

Americans who espoused both freethought and progressivism, and who wished to help the more defenseless members of society, followed Darwin rather than Spencer in rejecting the extension of "survival of the fittest" to man in a state of civilization.

Because religion imprisoned the mind with visions of eternal rewards and punishments in the afterlife, it prevented men and women from devising rational solutions to finite earthly problems.

It is easy to forget, since the Catholic Church is now the only large American religious denomination whose ecclesiastical hierarchy continues to oppose birth control, that only a century ago the leaders of nearly all churches were united in their resistance to any public discussion of the subject.

"I have always felt that doubt was the beginning of wisdom, and the fear of God was the end of wisdom." [Clarence Darrow]

The long clerical campaign to shut down the post office on Sunday, for example, was successfully resisted for decades by business leaders who wanted to keep their products moving.

The church's opposition to birth control, like the fundamentalist attack on evolution, was an expression of an overarching hostility to secularism and all its works.

The twenties also marked the end of the freethought movement as a distinct intellectual force in American life.

What happened, quite simply, is that the catholic Church-- even though it represented only a minority of the American population-- became the nation's most powerful denomination, exercising its spiritual and temporal clout at the confluence of morality, business, and public policy.

As always, in one of the great and enduring ironies of American history, secularists stood in the forefront of efforts to uphold the constitutional rights of disdained religious minorities.

...the wartime law signed by Roosevelt did not allow atheists or agnostics to claim conscientious objector status: pacifism had legal standing only if invoked in the name of God.


1 : Revolutionary Secularism
2 : The Age of Reason and Unreason
3: Lost Connections: Anticlericalism, Abolitionism, and Feminism
4 : The Belief and Unbelief of Abraham Lincoln
5 : Evolution and Its Discontents
6 : The Great Agnostic and the Golden Age of Freethought
7 : Dawn of the Culture Wars
8 : Unholy Trinity: Atheists, Reds, Darwinists
9 : Onward, Christian Soldiers
10 : The Best Years of Our Lives
11 : Culture Wars Redux
12 : Reason Embattled
Appendix: Robert Ingersoll's Eulogy for Walt Whitman, March 30, 1892
Selected Bibliography

To purchase this book online, click below:

Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism

Other books by Susan Jacoby:

Wild Justice: The Evolution of Revenge

Half-Jew: A Daughter's Search for Her Family's Buried Past