[Paleopsych] The Revealer: The Secular Experiment

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The Secular Experiment
16 December 2004
    What's freethought got to do with it?

    Susan Jacoby, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism
    (Metropolitan Books, 2004)
    Reviewed by Brendan Boyle

    John Kerry would let Paris decide when America needs defending, teased
    the Bush-camp after the first presidential debate. Kerry cried foul,
    but he should have known better. He wasnt the first Catholic
    presidential candidate obliged to defend his independence from
    would-be interlopers. In 1960, not long before Election Day,[11] John
    F. Kennedy had to make it clear that he had no intention of
    outsourcing important decisions to the Boston Archdiocese, much less
    to the Vatican. Kennedy pledged his allegiance to an America where the
    separation of church and state is absolute where no Catholic prelate
    would tell the President, should he be Catholic, how to act and no
    Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote and
    where no man is denied public office merely because his religion
    differs from the President who might appoint him and the people who
    might elect him.
    Catholics arent the only ones whose loyalty has been called into
    question. American Jews have been the most frequent targets of this
    slander. A Jewish president, presumably, wouldnt take orders from the
    Vatican (or Paris). But he just might make Israel the centerpiece of
    American foreign policy. This hysterical accusation has an ancient,
    but not noble, pedigree. Susan Jacoby, in [12]Freethinkers: A History
    of American Secularism, quotes one eighteenth-century journalist who
    publicly worries that Should the president be a Jew, our posterity
    might be ordered to rebuild Jerusalem. In 1787, no Jew was just about
    to win the presidency. Protestants of varying stripes had a lock on
    that office. What occasioned this journalists consternation was the
    imminent adoption of a constitution that explicitly outlawed religious
    tests for office. [13]Article 6, section 3 guaranteed that no
    religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office
    or public trust under the United States. It was the mere possibility
    that a Jew, a Catholic, or worse, an atheist might take office that
    proved so troubling.

    Article 6 and its author Thomas Jefferson are the heroes of Jacobys
    temperamental book. Jacobys Jefferson is an avowed Enlightenment
    Francophile, a steely humanist wary of organized religion. She devotes
    much space to Jeffersons pre-White House, freethinking days in the
    Virginia assembly. There he honed his secularist chops by defending
    the separation of church and state against Patrick Henrys proposal to
    use public money to fund teachers of the Christian religion. Jefferson
    defeated this plan and then went on to author a sweeping declaration
    of his states commitment to religious freedom, the 1786 [14]Act for
    Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia, a rough draft of what
    would become Article 6. This article, Jacoby argues, became a kind of
    freethinkers manifesto.
    Freethinker isnt a very fashionable term. The adjective-noun coupling
    gives it a faintly archaic redolence. Susan Jacoby would like her book
    to inject new life into this once-venerable but now out-of-favor
    designation. The first two-thirds of the book is a loving treatment of
    an assortment of so-called secular humanists. Its a wildly mixed bag.
    Jefferson takes top billing, followed by Revolutionary insurrectionist
    [15]Thomas Paine, firebrand abolitionist [16]William Garrison,
    emancipator-cum-cipher Abraham Lincoln, Seneca Falls planners
    [17]Susan Anthony and [18]Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and the Great
    Agnostic [19]Robert Ingersoll. Along the way, [20]Walt Whitman,
    [21]Clarence Darrow, and [22]Margaret Sanger make brief cameos.


                              The Great Agnostic

    This roster is, with the notable exception of Lincoln, fairly
    by-the-numbers. Lincolns faith is a great source of pride for American
    evangelicals -- and not without reason. The [23]second inaugural
    promises that should the Civil War continue until all the wealth piled
    by the bond-mans two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall
    be sunk it must be said that the judgments of the Lord are true and
    righteous altogether. Jacoby huffs that this hardly makes Lincoln a
    believer, but she never comes to terms with just what kind of
    freethinker could use such haunting, Biblical language. She is much
    stronger after leaving Lincoln behind. She solidly demonstrates the
    secularist impetus behind many enlightened causes -- emancipation,
    womens suffrage, evolution, and, somewhat less convincingly, civil
    rights. In the case of the Jim Crow South, the moral stewardship
    provided by religious African Americans was so momentous that the
    contributions of Jacobys Northern secularists feel slim. She probably
    should have conceded this round to the theists and moved on. That way,
    she might have saved some energy for the books exhausted final third.
    By then, freethought has all but disappeared, replaced by series of
    ornery screeds against Catholicism, evangelical Protestantism, and
    other redoubts of irrationalism.
    Jacobys special pleading for freethought never catches fire because it
    never becomes clear what this motley bunch has in common. They all
    owed a vague debt to French Enlightenment humanism and all had good,
    skeptical temperaments. They resented religious orthodoxy and, for the
    most part, practiced a sensible, sober, progressivist politics. But
    even the most incendiary of the lot -- Paine and Garrison -- knew the
    time and place for compromise. Few were committed atheists. Most
    subscribed to a restrained, laissez-faire sort of agnosticism.
    Freethought, it turns out, is a rather weak and rickety contraption,
    held together by a few silken threads. Hooking a three-hundred-page
    argument to this vehicle becomes, as the book lurches toward its
    close, an increasingly unwise choice. Without much to go on, these
    heroic secularists come off flat, sounding the same anti-orthodoxy
    note time and again.

                  Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan

    To keep the book above water Jacoby resorts to some rather unseemly
    hectoring. Freethinkers have been vilified and demonized, harps Jacoby
    early on. And this is just the beginning. It is past time, shouts
    Jacoby, to restore secularism, and its noble and essential
    contributions at every stage of the American experiment, to its proper
    place in our nations historical memory and vision of the future. Her
    tone throughout is snide, hortatory, and aggrieved. The early writing
    of James Madison should be as familiar to students of American history
    as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; the diaries
    of Unitarian minister William Bentley, should have secured him a place
    in American cultural history; the religiously correct version of
    American history has never given proper credit to the central
    importance of the Enlightenment concept of natural rights. And so on.
    This kind of bullying sits ill with the ostensible subject of the
    book. So too does the remarkable lack of documentation. A book about
    freethought doesnt need a dozen footnotes per page, but it should have
    enough to allow readers to sift through the evidence and make up their
    own minds. That seems a reasonable -- perhaps even an Enlightened --
    Jacoby is embarrassed by the faintest whiff of religion in one of her
    freethinkers. Susan Anthony somberly mused that, if it be true that we
    die like the flower, leaving behind only the fragrance what a delusion
    has the race ever been in what a dream is the life of man. For this
    weakness of will, Jacoby bumps her down one notch in the secularist
    standings and elevates instead [24]Ernestine Rose, Polish emigre and
    hardened atheist who unflinchingly and unfailingly rejected the idea
    that it was possible to communicate with spirits of the dead. This is
    the lowest point of the book. To read Jacoby, we might have thought
    Anthony was leading a séance, conjuring up spirits from the other
    side. But of course she is doing nothing of the sort. Her existential
    sounding -- echoed by other freethinkers like Garrison, Lincoln, and
    Ingersoll -- is not a failure of nerve but expressions of a deeply
    felt human need to see purpose in the world. Even the books hero,
    Thomas Jefferson knew this. He, after all, spent a good many nights of
    his presidency [25]editing the Gospels into two neat volumes, The
    Philosophy of Jesus and The Life and Morals of Jesus. Jeffersons Jesus
    is, to be sure, extremely hygienic. He works no miracles. He preaches
    benevolence more than redemption. But he does witness the fact that
    religion can inspire -- and need not necessarily impede -- social
    justice. Jacoby, who must have met some very mean-spirited believers
    in her life, never fesses up to this fact and the book suffers for it.
    Brendan Boyle is a writer living in Chicago.

    Published at the Department of Journalism and the Center for Religion
                               and Media at NYU


   11. http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/johnfkennedyhoustonministerialspeech.html
   12. http://www.henryholt.com/holt/freethinkers.htm
   13. http://www.house.gov/Constitution/Constitution.html
   14. http://religiousfreedom.lib.virginia.edu/sacred/vaact.html
   15. http://www.ushistory.org/paine/
   16. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p1561.html
   17. http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAWanthony.htm
   18. http://www.nps.gov/wori/ecs.htm
   19. http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/robert_ingersoll/index.shtml
   20. http://www.whitmanarchive.org/
   21. http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/DARROW.HTM
   22. http://www.nyu.edu/projects/sanger/
   23. http://www.bartleby.com/124/pres32.html
   24. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/rose.html
   25. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/jesus/jefferson.html

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