Review: Freethinkers

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I read the following book review by Christopher Hitchens of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism

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, by Susan Jacoby.

As a friend pointed out, the US has a strict separation of church and state (no mention of God in the US Constitution), but a healthy practice of religion in its political life. Meanwhile, the UK (sans NI) has an established church, but an absence of religion in its politics (again, sans NI).

Hitchen’s review:

When the Supreme Court recently listened to debate about the words “under God” as they appear in the Pledge of Allegiance, it heard arguments from those who think that the expression endorses religion, and thus violates the “establishment” clause of the First Amendment, and from those who believe that acknowledgment of the Almighty is somehow beyond religion and/or no bad thing. What is generally overlooked is that the Pledge was initially composed without those two words, which were inserted only during the Red scare of the 1950s. Or to put it another way, the United States managed to survive two world wars, a depression and the first decade of the Cold War without any such invocation. Thus those who want the Pledge restored to its authentic version can claim to be acting as strict constructionists with a solid defense of “original intent.” 

The great virtue of Susan Jacoby’s book is that it succeeds so well in its own original intent: showing that secularism, agnosticism and atheism are as American as cherry pie. Indeed, this is the first and only country to adopt a Constitution that specifically excludes all reference to a higher power. (I say “specifically” because those meeting in Philadelphia did consider, and did decisively reject, any such reference.) Many were the bishops and preachers of the time who warned that God would punish such profanity, but many were the preachers who said the same about the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom, which did no more than state that no citizen could be obliged to pay for the upkeep of a church in which he did not believe. 

Two of the great books of the 18th-century Enlightenment were Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason and Constantine Volney’s The Ruins. Thomas Jefferson wrote in praise of the first and helped translate the second from the French. Abraham Lincoln read both, and we have his great colleague William Herndon’s word for it that his own agnosticism was the result of Lincoln’s persuasion. I think it could fairly be said, however, that American schoolchildren are not taught that Jefferson and Lincoln were unbelievers, or that Jefferson took a razor blade and cut out all the passages of the New Testament that he found offensive to reason or common sense — leaving him with a highly condensed version. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, co-founder of the movement for female emancipation, was to develop this idea into the Woman’s Bible, which blamed the religious mentality for the degradation of her sex. The refusal to establish any religion, or state support for same, helped spare the United States the fate of Europe, where slaughter between discrepant Christian sects had come close to extinguishing civilization. It did not, however, prevent Americans from invoking the blessing of heaven on whichever cause they favored. The Rev. Timothy Dwight, celebrated president of Yale, denounced smallpox vaccinations as a blasphemous interference with God’s design. The upholders of slavery claimed (correctly) that there was biblical warrant for the “peculiar institution.” The abolitionists also warred in the name of the divine. The pulpits were just as much divided during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. 

In lucid and witty prose, Jacoby has uncovered the hidden history of secular America, and awarded it a large share of credit in every movement for social and political reform. It’s nice to read again of the friendship between Walt Whitman and Robert Ingersoll, the greatest anti-religious lecturer of his day. It’s sobering to be reminded of how many states practiced overt sectarian discrimination, against Jews, Catholics and Quakers, even after the Founding Fathers had made plain their abhorrence of all such practices. And, of course, it is salutary to be reminded of how much plain villainy and stupidity has been promulgated from the platforms of the godly, many of whom would still like to retard the elementary teaching of science. 

If the book has a fault, it is the near-axiomatic identification of the secular cause with the liberal one. Susan Jacoby has what might be called ACLU politics. To read her, you would not know that two of the most prominent intellectual gurus of American conservatism — Ayn Rand and Leo Strauss — were both determined nonbelievers. H.L. Mencken, who if not exactly a conservative was certainly not a liberal, had vast contempt for religion but is cited only briefly here for his role in the Scopes trial in Tennessee. Still, when Billy Graham can be asked to give the address at a service for the victims of Sept. 11, and can use the occasion to say that all the dead are now in heaven and would not rejoin us even if they could, it is essential to be reminded of our rationalist tradition — and also of the fact that our current deadliest foe is conspicuously “faith-based”.

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