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Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism Paperback – December 23, 2004

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Is America really one nation under God? Not according to Pulitzer Prize–finalist Jacoby (Wild Justice, etc.), who argues that it is America's secularist "freethinkers" who formed the bedrock upon which our nation was built. Jacoby contends that it's one of "the great unresolved paradoxes" that religion occupies such an important place in a nation founded on separation of church and state. She traces the role of "freethinkers," a term first coined in the 17th century, in the formation of America from the writing of the Constitution to some of our greatest social revolutions, including abolition, feminism, labor, civil rights and the dawning of Darwin's theory of evolution. Jacoby has clearly spent much time in the library, and the result is an impressive literary achievement filled with an array of both major and minor figures from American history, like revolutionary propagandist Thomas Paine, presidents Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Robert Green Ingersoll. Her historical work is further flanked by current examples—the Bush White House in an introduction and the views of conservative Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia in a final chapter—that crystallize her concern over secularism's waning influence. Unfortunately, Jacoby's immense research is also the book's Achilles heel. Her core mission to impress upon readers the historical struggle of freethinkers against the religious establishment is at times overwhelmed by the sheer volume of characters and vignettes she offers, many of which, frankly, are not very compelling. Still, Jacoby has done yeoman's work in crafting her message that the values of America's freethinkers belong "at the center, not in the margins" of American life.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Jacoby reclaims a key facet of American culture, secularism, or freethinking, the belief that public good is "based on human reason and human rights rather than divine authority," a concept codified in the Constitution's separation of church and state. Veteran author Jacoby feels that now is the perfect time for a thorough reexamination of America's secular tradition because, as she documents, it is being severely eroded by the politics of the Christian Right. Her cogent and engaging narrative presents myriad neglected yet significant historical episodes and compelling profiles of such clarion freethinkers as Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Paine, William Lloyd Garrison, Lucretia Mott, Walt Whitman, and John F. Kennedy. Jacoby reveals how the abolitionist and women's rights movements, archetypal freethinking efforts, challenged orthodox religious institutions as obstacles to social reform, and she dissects the church's role in organized censorship and negative impact on public education, especially its opposition to the teaching of evolution. As Jacoby critiques the rise of religious correctness and tracks President Bush's assault on the line between church and state, she reminds readers that humanist values are the bedrock of democracy. Enlightening, invigorating, and responsibly yet passionately argued, Jacoby's unparalleled history of American secularism offers a much needed perspective on today's most urgent social issues. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Holt Paperbacks (December 23, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805077766
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805077766
  • Product Dimensions: 5.7 x 0.8 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (119 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #86,461 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

The importance of Jacoby's book is that it fills a gap which for too long has existed in the study and presentation of American history.
Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty
A look at Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine brings to light the secular ideas for the Constitution, as well as the "wall" that separates church and state.
P. W. Duggan
This is an excellent history of secular thought or "Free Thought" in American and its painfully small influence in our "religiously correct" society.
R. Elliott Ingersoll

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

375 of 392 people found the following review helpful By Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty on May 12, 2004
Format: Hardcover
It could be that Susan Jacoby's latest book may finally put an end to the ignorance that most Americans exhibit about the role that secularism has played in the social, cultural, and political development of the United States. It is a fact that Americans are woefully deficient when it comes to knowledge about American history, a lack which permits those with specific socio-political agendas to perpetuate distortions about the part that secularism and religion played in the founding of this nation and continue to play in its evolution. This matter is especially crucial now because of the current issues surrounding church-state separation, including an important case soon to be heard before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The importance of Jacoby's book is that it fills a gap which for too long has existed in the study and presentation of American history. It is often forgotten (or ignored?) that America's evolution was influenced by two great traditions, not just one as so many cultural commentators have insisted. The Judaic-Christian religious tradition certainly had a major impact on the development of American moral thinking and practice. But, equally important if not more so, the pagan or secular Greco-Roman tradition had its impact on the formation of American political institutions and the development of American jurisprudence. Many books have been written about the Judaic-Christian contributions (regrettably, some historically inaccurate), but the pagan-secular contributions have tended to be either forgotten or ignored and this problem has now been corrected by Jacoby's treatise.
Generally speaking, "Freethinkers" is an historical survey of secularist thought and influence in American history with a special emphasis on the most important actors in this unfolding drama.
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279 of 292 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on March 27, 2004
Format: Hardcover
I've just finished reading this title, which I would best describe as a very important, thoroughly readable expose of our free-thinking history and the relentless, repetitive attempts to undermine that tradition. It's probably the most thought-provoking book I've read since Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club (If you haven't read it already, look it up), the author of which seems to share the same enlightenment bent as Jacoby. As you can tell, that philosophy reflects my world view as well. In fact, the only downside of this book is that you're most likely to enjoy and appreciate it if you, like me, already consider yourself a free-thinking, secular rationalist with an "enlightenment" perspective on history, including a strong belief in the separation of church and state. If you are a member of the Christian right, you will probably throw this book into the fireplace after the first few chapters (That would be the only alternative to having your views on the mixture of politics and religion painstakingly and devastastingly revealed as narrow-minded and undemocratic).
This is a "history" book, and rarely strays from the rationalist, dispassionate course you'd expect, but Jacoby's personal views are made amply clear: church and state were always meant to be and should remain separate institutions under our system of government. It's great to have someone like Jacoby on this (my) side, and to put it in print for the record, because she masterfully and precisely conveys the facts of history which, to put it plainly, make her opponents look silly.
For a few examples, she:
-catalogs a long litany of misdeeds and injustices that have been carried out in the name of religion, refuting the idea that religion is always a force for good in a political setting.
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104 of 108 people found the following review helpful By D. Cloyce Smith on September 13, 2004
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
"Freethinkers" is a worthwhile survey of the rich American metaphysical, spiritual, and philosophical heritage beyond the framework of organized religion. Although it has a number of shortcomings, Jacoby's spirited and opinionated overview serves as a corrective for the prevalent view that the history of the United States is that of a strictly "Christian nation" (whatever that term may mean).

The book is at its best when Jacoby discusses particular historical figures, treatises, movements, and events. She focuses on such stalwart and respected authorities as James Madison, Thomas Paine, Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ernestine Rose, Robert Green Ingersoll, Margaret Sanger, and Clarence Darrow. These biographical accounts include generous excerpts from and perceptive analyses of their writings and speeches. The lives and works of freethinkers are examined in the context of various movements and events, including Deism, anticlericalism, abolitionism, the Civil War, feminism, the first Red Scare, the Scopes trial, the growth of Catholic influence in urban politics, and the culture wars of the last two decades.

Nearly all this history is told as a series of captivating biographies and trenchant stories, and the result is unusually accessible and pleasurable reading. There are also some truly memorable anecdotes: the bravery required by Angelina and Sarah Grimke to inveigh against slavery in an era when women did not make public speeches; the issuance of the two-cent piece in order to accommodate the request by a small cadre of Christians to add "In God We Trust" to the currency; the uproar that greeted the publication of "The Woman's Bible.
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