Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Book Review: Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism by Susan Jacoby

Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism [AmazonGoodreads] is exactly what it claims to be: A major piece of the missing history of secular thought heretofor diligently and thankfully incompletely surpressed. Jacoby has joined Jennifer Michael Hecht, author of Doubt: A History: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson [AmazonGoodreads], and Christopher Hitchens, author of The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever [AmazonGoodreads], as one of the preeminent historians of nonbelieving.
Negative reviews of Freethinkers invariably say that the book is "a slog", "packed with too much information" or describe Jacoby's writing style as "condescending". They are not completely without basis. Later chapters veer from the impassioned and erudite opening in which Jacoby, at her best, quotes the prominant nineteenth century orator Robert Ingersoll as saying, "We have retired the gods from politics" and immediately contrasting that sentiment strongly with President George W. Bush's post-911 sermon thunderingly delivered from the pulpit of the National Cathedral.
As Jacoby sings the praises of the secular founding of the United States, she fails to follow up on the irony of the National Cathedral itself. Why does a secular government have a National Cathedral? The answer goes back almost to the where Jacoby's history starts: 1792. That is when the architect of Washington, D.C., Pierre L'Enfant, set aside a place for a central church, prominantly on the National Mall between the Congress and White House. Congress itself chartered the building of the cathedral in the late nineteenth century and has designated the building as the "National House of Prayer". The Congressional mandate was made in spite of the operating of the building by the Episcopal Church or the ownership by the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation. Our nationwide conversation regarding the separation of church and state has never been fully resolved.
How many of the positive reviews of Freethinkers (sample: "A must-read for freethinkers!!") are due to the nearly complete removal of freethinking from history books adopted as texts in US schools?  Perhaps many atheists, agnostics and freethinkers have been simply stunned to discover that their thoughts should not make them lonely. I certainly have been.
Stealing history from a subculture does not make them love you. Yet it doesn't keep rulers from trying. Other modern examples of minority cultures losing their history include Australia's shameful Stolen Generations, the kidnapping of children by Nazi Germany for the purpose of "Germanification", stories of European Jews hiding their heritage from their children (who sometimes regained it). Earlier examples abound, especially in areas once controlled by native Americans, conquered in war or folded into empires. The hiding of American secularism from new generations hardly reaches near to these extremes. Nevertheless, a shock of recognition is bound to occur when the light is eventually allowed to shine.
Jacoby sometimes gets so close to her subject that she forgets that the rest of us do not command her source material as well as she. She refers to a petition signed by 'four hundred Quakers, wittingly signed "your real Friends".' The joke may well be lost on those coastal Americans unfamiliar with the Religious Society of Friends, who are only colloquially called Quakers for their founder's admonition to "tremble at the word of the Lord".
I am nearly forced at this point to interlude long enough for the only Quaker joke that I know (perhaps because it is one of very few):
A Quaker farmer is milking his cow. The cow had been walking through brambles and has a tail full of burrs. The cow whacks the farmer across the face with her tail. The farmer shakes his head and continues to milk. The half-ton cow then steps on the farmer's foot. The farmer puts his shoulder into the cow, pushes and extracts his foot. When the milking is finished, the farmer stands up. The cow kicks over the bucket of milk.
The farmer looks at the spilled milk and then walks around to look at the cow in her eye. "Thee knows," says the farmer, "that I may not strike thee. And thee knows that I may not curse thee. But what thee does not know is that I may sell thee to a Methodist."
It may be difficult for us moderns to comprehend the subtly and difficulties inherent in that recitation. What was it like in Western Europe or the fledgling United States at a time when Catholics and Jews were considered as heathan alongside the Deists, so prevalent in the countryside, scores of minor Protestant sects, outright atheists and the smattering of Asian faiths seeping in during the imperial precursor to globalization? So many sects abounded in the early US that it was in almost everyone's best interest to keep the others from gaining too much power. Our situation today is so different partly due to the widespread majority of Protestant Christianity of the evangelical nature. Evangelicals have forgotten, as Jacoby points out, that they were the natural political allies of atheists during the contentious negotiations leading to the Constitution. More to the point, they have fallen into the desire to wield their powerful majority when they have it. John Adams coined the phrase "tyranny of the majority" in 1788 and he knew exactly what he was talking about.
Those interested in learning more about Jacoby's star of the show, Robert Ingersoll, will be interested to learn that Jacoby recently reprised her biosketch in Freethinkers with a complete biography. The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought [AmazonGoodreads] has garnered the same high marks as its predecessor. Jacoby could not have initially benefited from Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Tim Page's distillation of Ingersoll's work in What's God Got to Do with It?: Robert Ingersoll on Free Thought, Honest Talk and the Separation of Church and State [Amazon,Goodreads] since it was published the year following Freethinkers.
Jacoby has many successes in this book and I do not wish to diminish them. There is one aspect of the book that did not stand up to the rest. She seems to have entirely missed the European atheistic influence on her American heroes.
Ingersoll seems to have been a staunch Utilitarian in his philosophy. Utilitarianism judges each course of action on its effects, positive or negative, to the greatest number of people. This ever-so-practical philosophy was pioneered by Jeremy Bentham in his 1789 book An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation [AmazonGoodreads] and was intended to form the underpinnings of an atheistic moral philosophy to replace the prevailing Judeo-Christian and Deistic philosophies of his day. Amazingly, and to Jacoby's theme, the word "atheist" does not currently appear on Jeremy Bentham's Wikipedia entry.
Ingersoll's following quotation is wholly in line with Bentham's "greatest happiness principle" and with the philosophy espoused by his British contemporary John Stuart Mill:
Happiness is the only good. The place to be happy is here. The time to be happy is now. The way to be happy is to make others so.
Bentham went on to have great influence on the founding of University College London, the first university in Britain to allow for the tertiary education of atheists, Jews, Hindus and members of other religious minorities. The leading universities of the time, Oxford and Cambridge, required membership in the Church of England. He was also the first person to donate his body to science. Prior to Bentham, anatomists acquired their corpses from graveyards with or without the permission of the law or by receiving the bodies of executed criminals. Bentham's body was publicly dissected in UCL's medical theatre by his friend Dr. George Fordyce, the remains later preserved, dressed in his own clothes and placed on permanent display in UCL's South Cloisters. His so-called "auto-icon" may still be seen there today. All of this was in accordance with Bentham's atheism, his Utilitarianism and his last will and testament.
Can we be certain that Betham influenced Ingersoll? Yes. Project Gutenberg contains a freely available copy of Ingersollia , or "Gems of thought from the lectures, speeches, and conversations of Col. Robert G. Ingersoll, representative of his opinions and beliefs". In that useful collection we find this particular gem: 'The glory of Bentham is, that he gave the true basis of morals, and furnished the statesmen with the star and compass of this sentence: "The greatest happiness of the greatest number."' Ingersoll himself admits the influence and yet Jacoby seems to have either missed it or ignored it. Interestingly, Hecht too seems to have missed the connection although she focuses more of her considerable attention on Bentham than on Ingersoll. To miss this connection is to suggest an Americanism to Ingersoll that belies its European inheritance.
Together Bentham, Mill, Ingersoll and other Utilitarians created the atheistic golden age in the nineteenth century. Jacoby's American-centric history inexplicably leaves out this European connection to Ingersoll's life and times.
Jacoby also failed to mention alongside the women's suffrage movement and that of civil rights that the expansion of voting rights has corresponded directly with the simplification of political speech. George Washington's first inaugural address is full of big juicy words as little understood by the common people of his time as by the uneducated of ours: "Among the vicissitudes incident to life, no event could have filled me with greater anxieties than that of which the notification was transmitted by your order, and received on the fourteenth day of the present month." Can one imagine Barak Obama or George W. Bush using a word like vicissitudes and getting away with it? Actually, Obama tried early in the 2007 campaign season and was castigated as being "professorial" as a result. There is little doubt in my mind that the democratic expansion of suffrage brought along the religious concerns of the masses.
The state of atheism and agnosticism in the US today is, as it always been, complicated. I agree with Jacoby that it is difficult in the extreme for an openly atheistic person to be elected to national office. Indeed, the Huffington Post reported earlier this year that 24 US congressmen reported being "privately" nonbelievers but would not say so publicly. American atheists and agnostics are, as a group, mostly in the closet.  This is slightly contrasted by the widely-reported 1997 survey of members of the National Academy of Sciences. The original article in Nature requires a subscription to access, but a summary is available via the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine. 93% of our nation's best scientists reported being either atheist or agnostic (72.2% atheists, 20.8% agnostics). A 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center confirmed a much higher secularism in all scientists compared to the general public. The sense of tension reported by Jacoby between theists and atheists, with agnostics sometimes caught in the middle, has survived intact through to the modern day, with the vastly increased pace of scientific discovery bringing the conversation to an uncomfortable head.
Jacoby's litany of examples from modern America, from Justice Antonin Scalia to President G.W. Bush to Al Gore, in her final chapter is well titled as Reason Embattled. It certainly feels that way. Scalia's repetitive quotations from St. Paul should make any of us wonder how he thinks about the New Testament's 1 Timothy 2:12. However, the First Amendment is still in force even in a period where the Fourth is held to be first among equals. We have not lost yet. Jacoby's call to arms to regain the pride of place for American secularism should be heeded or it is our fault indeed.

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