Freethought Revival

Susan Jacoby dissects the history of secularism in the U.S., and argues the time is right for a new secular hero.

Journalist Susan Jacoby is the director of the Center for Inquiry Metro New York, a rationalist research and advocacy organization. She is the author of seven books, including "Wild Justice: The Evolution of Revenge," which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Jacoby's latest book is "Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism." Jacoby spoke with Beliefnet about America's secular beginnings, freethought heroes, and the battles ahead between secularists and the religious right.

What does "freethinker" mean?

Freethinker and freethought are terms that date from the end of the 17th century. Freethinker basically meant someone who did not believe in the received word of the bible or the authority of religion. Freethinkers have often been described as people who didn't believe in God, but it's more accurate to see freethought as a kind of a broad continuum, ranging from those who really didn't believe in God at all to deists who believed in a God who set the universe in motion but afterwards didn't take an active role in the affairs of men.

By the end of the 19th century, freethinkers even included liberal Protestant denominations and Unitarians. Even though they believed in God and in some form of Christianity, they did not believe in any hierarchy of religion. So there was a spectrum of people in the freethought community, but all were opposed to the religious orthodoxies of their day.


Who would the term freethinker encompass today?
I would say my definition of freethinker from the past is just as good a definition of freethinker today. I prefer it to agnostic or atheist or deist or anything else you might come up with. It also encompasses the belief that if God did create man, he created rationality as the supreme instrument for understanding the natural world. Freethinker is kind of an archaic word, but it's very descriptive.

More descriptive than Bright, for example?
I think Bright is an idiotic term. It did not exactly get a rousing response, even from the non-believing community.

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