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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Error: The world's first secular democracy was not
the United States (p. 364). It was and is Switzerland.