Customer Review

104 of 108 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An invaluable corrective, despite its faults and omissions, September 13, 2004
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
This review is from: Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (Hardcover)
"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."

Jacoby does occasionally overreach; she has a tendency to assert all-encompassing theses and easy generalizations that teeter on the shaky basis of her random sampling of people and events. Thus, "the more conservative clergymen and established churches in the North were slow to condemn slavery outright, and even slower to endorse any economic or political action that might bring about [its} end." Such a polemical statement cannot be proved by the anecdotes Jacoby relates and the footnotes she includes, and the sociological evidence required to support this type of thesis is beyond the scope of her research. In a similar vein, she overuses such loaded and imprecise terms as "conservatives," "the clergy", "orthodoxy," and "mainstream religions," and her occasional attempts at qualification only underscore their vagueness.

In addition (as other reviewers and readers have noted), the book presents only secularism of a liberal bent; politically conservative freethought is ignored altogether. I have no love for Ayn Rand, but her secularist influence on American politics is undeniable (as the ascendancy of Alan Greenspan attests); inclusion of such obvious examples would have actually strengthened Jacoby's survey rather than diluted it.

Yet the fault for these deficiencies is not entirely Jacoby's: so little has been written for general readers concerning the history of American secularism that such simplifications and omissions are perhaps unavoidable in any lucid reassessment of the historical record. The guts of the book--its stories, its heroes, and its underlying premise--provide a fundamental understanding of the tradition of American liberty that cannot be undermined by any of its failings.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No

Be the first person to comment on this review.

[Add comment]
Post a comment
To insert a product link use the format: [[ASIN:ASIN product-title]] (What's this?)
Amazon will display this name with all your submissions, including reviews and discussion posts. (Learn more)
Name:
Badge:
This badge will be assigned to you and will appear along with your name.
There was an error. Please try again.
Please see the full guidelines here.

Official Comment

As a representative of this product you can post one Official Comment on this review. It will appear immediately below the review wherever it is displayed.   Learn more
The following name and badge will be shown with this comment:
 (edit name)
After clicking the Post button you will be asked to create your public name, which will be shown with all your contributions.

Is this your product?

If you are the author, artist, manufacturer or an official representative of this product, you can post an Official Comment on this review. It will appear immediately below the review wherever it is displayed.  Learn more
Otherwise, you can still post a regular comment on this review.

Is this your product?

If you are the author, artist, manufacturer or an official representative of this product, you can post an Official Comment on this review. It will appear immediately below the review wherever it is displayed.   Learn more
 
System timed out

We were unable to verify whether you represent the product. Please try again later, or retry now. Otherwise you can post a regular comment.

Since you previously posted an Official Comment, this comment will appear in the comment section below. You also have the option to edit your Official Comment.   Learn more
The maximum number of Official Comments have been posted. This comment will appear in the comment section below.   Learn more
Prompts for sign-in