Author: Susan Jacoby

Type: Non-fiction, single subject

Full title: Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism

Published: 2004

I read it: June 2010


Susan Jacoby crafts a lucid and engaging history of the non-religious movements that have done so much to shape our country. It’s the kind of book one would hope is taught in school in some far-off utopia where “In God We Trust” is removed from coins and “under God” in the pledge can be seen as the embarrassment that it is. Sigh, one can dream.

Jacoby’s book is comprehensive without seeming muddled, and conveys a reverence (if you will) for great thinkers and speakers that have been sadly relegated to history’s footnotes, if they even make it there. Who the hell is Robert Green Ingersoll anyway? If you were even a common, educated layman in the late 1800s, you would surely have known the name and maybe even have made an effort to see him speak as he came to your state. Other figures, such as Thomas Paine, get proper treatment from Jacoby amidst a modern history that would have us only mildly celebrate his contributions to the American revolution (which were substantial), and set aside any concern that his irreligious writings cast him shamefully from the public sphere in an age when those ideas were the most needed breaths of fresh air.

One of the best parts of the book is the structure: the arc is chronological and the chapters are broken down into large enough sub-narratives that it can be used as a handy reference guide. Want to refresh about feminism, Abraham Lincoln, evolution, Christian business models, abolitionism, or the Golden Age of Freethought? Flip to a chapter and you can get a comprehensive but not long-winded overview.

More than anything, I’m glad I read this book close to the 4th of July. The stress is on the importance of the ironclad separation of church and state that the forefathers intended, which is a tradition to be cherished, especially as it erodes in front of our eyes. This country has been full of poets, orators, and visionaries, and it’s encouraging to know that so many of them were moved by humanistic morals and a willingness to shape a future without the feeble hand of an outdated deity. With work, I think we can get back to a point where American religion can once again become personal instead of public.

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