Monday, July 19, 2004

Freethinkers vs. Secularists: Susan Jacoby

Overall, I think Susan Jacoby's Freethinkers is a marvelous book. Her research helps me with the project I'm working on, and it's quite well written.
At the very least, I think it will lead to a renewal of general interest in Thomas Paine and Robert Ingersoll. Jacoby draws a vivid picture of each, and finds some particularly compelling quotes from their respective works. I already cited one of the great quotes from Ingersoll, in my 'pre-review' of the book last week. The kernel: "Secularism teaches us to be just here and now." 
Thomas Paine
Paine is extraordinary -- he nailed several major veins of acceptable discrimination, and devoted (sacrificed, really) his life to ending them. To begin with, he spoke out against the disabilities against English Jews when he was still living in England (here he was almost 100 years ahead of his time). Then, after moving to Philadelphia in 1774 on Ben Franklin's suggestion, he helped to found the first U.S. anti-slavery organization, and wrote fiery editorials denouncing the hypocrisy of the pro-independence American settlers. As Jacoby puts it: 
Paine regarded it as particularly ironic that Americans should complain with increasing vociferousness of injustices done them by Britain while the colonists themselves enslaved other men. Six weeks after the article was published, the first antislavery society in America was established in Philadelphia, with Paine as a founding member. Certain that American independence would lead as inevitably to the abolition of slavery as to a revolution in religion, the English immigrant soon became one of the most ardent and articulate advocates of rebellion against England.
He went back to England for a visit that ended up turning into something more. He wrote The Rights of Man as a response to Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Burke condemned the French Revolution; Paine, in contrast, extolled its possibilities. England was hostile to the French revolution at the time, as it had dangerous implications for the local aristocracy. Paine was forced to flee to France; he was "tried and convicted of sedition in absentia, barred from ever returning to the country of his birth, and burned in effigy." In France, he soon fell afoul of the violence of the Jacobins. He was thrown in prison by the Jacobins, and spent nine months in a French prison before James Monroe got him released (1793-4). Sick with a suppurating ulcer, he then lived, rather meekly, in James Monroe's house.

In 1802, Jefferson invited him to come back to the U.S. But because of Paine's extremely aggressive 1794 book The Age of Reason, Paine found himself in the hot-seat yet again. Here Paine moved from attacking the injustices of Britain's treatments of its religious minorities, the foul American institution of slavery, and the terroristic violence of Jacobin France, to attack religion itself. This is Jacoby's quote from Paine:
Every national church or religion has established itself by pretending some special mission from God, communicated to certain individuals. The Jews have their Moses; the Christians their Jesus Christ, their apostles and saints; and the Turks their Mahomet, as if the way to God were not open to every man alike. Each of these churches show certain books, which they call revelations, or the Word of God. The Jews say that their Word of God was given by God to Moses; face to face; the Christians say their Word of God came by divine inspiration; and the Turks say that their Word of God (the Koran) was brought by an angel from heaven. Each of those churches accuses the other of unbelief; and for my own part, I disbelieve them all.
The fire here reminds me of Voltaire.
The Absence of "God" in the U.S. Constitution
Many people (especially colleagues in Europe) seem to think that America is somehow less secular than European countries, because America is a more religious culture than the northern European societies are.
But it's not really true. Politically, the United States is every bit as secularized as Europe, and in some cases (in education especially), the Jeffersonian idea of a "wall of separation between Church and State" has led the country to a form of secularism that is much more rigorous than that practiced in England, Germany, or the Netherlands. Thanks in large part to the revolutionary vision of Thomas Jefferson, America's constitution is framed entirely in the world of human rights and human obligations; it has no references to God.
Even the references to "the Laws of Nature and Nature's God, "our Creator" and "Divine Providence" in the Declaration of Independence, point to an essentially Deist entity, where God is acknowledged as a creator but not as an active presence. Even in the Declaration, the onus is on human beings to make laws and voice protest using their own judgment as a guide. (And Jacoby argues that the phrase "the Laws of Nature and Nature's God" points more to Isaac Newton -- the laws of Nature being those of science -- than it does to the Bible.)
Which isn't to say that this country is perfect on matters of tolerance of dissent, or treatment of minorities. Despite the federal requirement for disestablishment, states have been sometimes painfully slow to remove a fabric of laws that essentially reflect a Christian worldview. Jacoby argues that standing controversies like abortion, the death penalty, and the censorship of film and literature are as much about religion and secularism as the more obviously religiously-inflected issues like prayer in schools, "Under God," and federal funding for "faith-based" organizations.
Where the book's argument begins to show its seams is in the role of the freethinkers in achieving the real secularization of American society through the juridical resolution of the above issues (generally, to the favor of a secularist perspective). Jacoby argues that "freethinking" and secularism are essentially one and the same (this appositeness is even suggested in her title: Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism). But her actual historical research, especially in the 20th century, shows that the phenomenon of Paine, Ingersoll, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the Grimke sisters, Madalyn Murray O'Hair, etc., were in actuality a relatively small component of the long struggle to achieve and sustain American secularism.
Jacoby laments that the current movements to ensure the maintenance of secularism as well as continued secularization, through cases like Michael Newdow's, are generally supported by people who refuse to criticize religion per se (the ACLU figures particularly strongly in many of the major Supreme Court decisions after World War II). But I think the critique of organized religion isn't necessary, and potentially does more harm than good in the sense that it writes off the many people of faith who are supportive of strong secularism in the United States.
I have much more to say about this book -- Jacoby has some great bits on Antonin Scalia (she nails him), American feminism, John F. Kennedy, and the Civil Rights movement. But I'm toying with the idea of writing a proper book review for a magazine somewhere (anyone got a suggestion?) so perhaps I should save some things for later.


Rob Breymaier said...

Makes me want to read the book. I think the nod to Newton is interesting. From what I've read on the 18th Century it certainly seems logical that Jefferson would be referring to Newton. Take that Cal Thomas.

10:44 AM  

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