Jacoby2 (1)

Susan Jacoby: Freethinkers, a History of American Secularism (Harry Holt & Co., Metropolitan Books, 2004) This is a useful sourcebook for some of the history of American atheism, but it suffers from significant lapses and a generally misleading orientation.

  1. The significant contribution of pornographers - not just success stories like Hefner and the articulate Flynt, but also thousands of pornographers like Bette Paige and her producers who performed and created for the love of their craft and often suffered horribly as a result - to the demand that the Bill of Rights, particularly the free speech provision be observed as written.
  1. Jacoby maintains a working assumption that freethinkers share the same moral values as those at least professed by the superstition based community. Much tut tutting is done concerning Xtian propaganda that Bolshevism, communism, free sex etc. come bundled with atheism. No mention is made that, for atheists like Marcuse and various sixties radical leaders, atheism does go hand in hand with a significant change in personal behavior and revaluation of social values and political organization. Jacoby makes much of emancipation from slavery and women’s suffrage but mention’s not at all the broader radical agenda. It is as if atheists and the superstitious differed only on the factual point of the existence of God, as if, once that were cleared up, the American social landscape would be virtually unchanged. There is much to be said that societies based on lies are untenable for many reasons. But the implications of atheism are much broader than rooting out one lie. Jacoby’s standpoint lays the ground for the powerful argument that religious superstition encourages behavior that would be characterized as evil under the terms of the superstition itself and therefore should be characterized as evil by those adherents of the superstition who do not engage in self-deception. However, room must be made for the further argument that other types of behavior either encouraged or tolerated by the superstition are, in the light of an alternative understanding of what is good and what is evil, themselves evil.
  1. Jacoby does identity her freethinkers with a specific political agenda, one that can be broadly labeled the viewpoint of American liberal Democrats. As far as rights issues are concerned, this is mostly true. But to assume an alliance on other issues is to give insufficient credit to economically conservative groups such as the American Libertarian Party whose platform should be far more attractive to atheists than that of the Democratic Party.
  1. Jacoby focuses on the United States partly to address the propaganda issue that atheists are somehow un-American and to tie the atheist tradition to the beliefs of the original revolutionaries and to the American Constitution. That point deserves to be made (particularly as it provides a particularly telling enactment of the Foucauldian drama of a society creating an artificial Other so as to take great satisfaction and self-definition in the destruction of the Other), but one wonders whether we should place any value at all on Americanism or American exceptionalism – or on excessive loyalty to any nation for that matter. Because of its America fetishism the book does not give itself any room to question why European post-religious societies have moved so much further than the United States not so much in the formal or legal specification of individual rights, but in the social awareness that largely makes the enforcement of such rights unnecessary.
  2. Error: The world's first secular democracy was not the United States (p. 364). It was and is Switzerland.