Book Review: Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, Susan Jacoby (2004)

Tuesday, January 29th, 2008

The history of America is the history of American secularism.

five out of five stars

In FREETHINKERS: A HISTORY OF AMERICAN SECULARISM, author Susan Jacoby traces the origins and development of freethought in America – and demonstrates how the history of America is intimately intertwined with the history of American secularism.

Starting with the American Revolution and working through American history up to the present day Bush administration, Jacoby offers a concise – but colorful! – overview of secularism, freethought, and the separation of church and state. Though she does discuss the secular roots of the Constitution, only a small portion of FREETHINKERS focuses on the Founding Fathers and their religious beliefs (or lack thereof). Indeed, FREETHINKERS is not a treatise on the First Amendment; it does not claim to be. Volumes have been written on what sort of “wall” Jefferson, Adams, Madison, et.al., sought to erect; rather than add to the library, Jacoby offers her view and then moves on. What follows is an analysis of various social movements, such as abolition, women’s suffrage, labor rights and civil rights, with an emphasis on the role in which secularists and freethinkers played in each. Especially interesting are Jacoby’s accounts of abolition and women’s suffrage, what with all the wheeling, dealing and backstabbing that went on behind the scenes. It’s refreshing (or perhaps just downright depressing) to see how much contemporary political maneuvering resembles that of the golden days of freethought and radicalism.

As I devoured FREETHINKERS, I found myself wishing that I had been introduced to similar works during high school. Like many high school students, I found the sanitized, inoffensive history textbooks (both American and global) B-O-R-I-N-G. It wasn’t until I graduated from college and again had time for leisure reading that I discovered uncensored, true-to-life historical nonfiction – and actually took an interest in American history and politics. History doesn’t have to be boring, kids! In fact, it’s almost always as exciting, if not more so, than the latest flick that Hollywood has regurgitated onto the big screen.

Perhaps if books such as FREETHINKERS (as well as James W. Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me and Michael Farquhar’s A Treasury of Great American Scandals) were introduced into high school curriculums, we’d raise a new generation of politically engaged and active young citizens – knowledgeable voters who, armed with a profound respect for science, empiricism, and secularism, not to mention a healthy dose of skepticism, would not have elected dubya to office (twice!), and allowed him to wage a war based on 935+ “false statements”.

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)