2016-11-18
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.

You categorize liberal Protestants as a type of freethinker. Do you think a liberal Protestant today would accept being called a freethinker by you?
That's an interesting question. It's a kind of archaic word, so I don't know. I know Unitarians would be happy to be called freethinkers. It's hard to tell when you're using a word which once had a very strong meaning and now is just sort of being revived.

Let's turn to the history of secularism. How does this history fit into American religious history?
The secularist strain in American culture has been very strong since the beginning, but the nation's secular heritage is virtually unknown to people. A secular government was developed to protect the rights of religious minorities. Most Americans don't know that God is not mentioned in the Constitution. It was a coalition of religious Evangelicals and freethinkers or deists who joined together to get this ratified. And why did the Evangelicals want this then? Because they were a minority and they deeply feared government interference with religion. This Constitution basically placed the Episcopal Church, the established religion in the South before the Revolution, on a level playing field with all of the Evangelical Protestant denominations that were sprouting up. The effect of this was to enable them to proselytize for their own religion in ways that if there had been a union of established church and state they never would have been able to do. Ironically, it's the separation of church and state that has probably enabled religion to flourish throughout the 20th century in this country in ways that it doesn't in other developed nations.

The history of secularism is also the history of a certain kind of religion. One of the interesting things that happened in this country is, between roughly 1780 and 1825 in New England, more than half of all of the once orthodox Calvinist churches transformed into the much more liberal, Unitarian churches, a development the orthodox of the day hated as much as the religious right hates secularists today. In fact, they referred to Unitarians as infidels and atheists. But those people led to a transformation of American religion. They were influenced by freethought and freethinkers were influenced by them. And later on when evolution came along, this part of American Protestantism accommodated itself to evolutionism, as it had accommodated itself to Enlightenment thought in the 18th century.

What was the period you call the "Golden Age of Freethought?"
The Golden Age of Freethought lasted from about 1870 to the first World War. It was an era in America when the influence of science was expanding and a lot of people were looking for answers to the meaning of life, which religious orthodoxy didn't satisfy. The Golden Age of Freethought was very closely connected to the dissemination of Darwin's theory of evolution.

Evolution was part of the process that drove the Golden Age of Freethought, but many other things were happening as well that were related to this. Certainly the supreme poet and the supreme novelist of the era, Walt Whitman and Mark Twain, were freethinkers, so there also was a great expansion of thought in art and literature. At the turn of the century, there was agitation for women's rights, which was opposed to the orthodox religious view of women and their proper place in the universe.

What do you mean when you say the orthodox religious view?
I stress the orthodox or right wing religious view because I don't like it when people talk about religion versus secularism. What they really mean is a particular kind of religion versus secularism. The general press has a tendency to say religious as if all religions were alike and all religious believers had the same beliefs.

The different eras that you write about all seem to have their own freethought hero of the time, like Tom Paine or Robert Ingersoll. Do you feel like we have anyone like that today?
No.

Do freethinkers need a hero today?
Yes. Robert Ingersoll was one of the most famous and influential men in America in his time , but he's virtually unknown today. Ingersoll stood up for secular values and explained that fundamentalist religious values have no place in running a civil government. There is no figure today who is courageous and influential in the way Ingersoll was, who makes it his business to challenge religion. What we tend to have is people challenging right wing religion on narrow issues, like creationism or school vouchers for religious schools or abortion.

What are the main battles ahead between secularists and the religious right?
First of all, I believe that this election is a battle between these groups. The religious right has a champion who is the president of the United States. This election is a battle about many things, but one of those things is between a secular view of public affairs, between people who believe in the separation of church and state, as secularists and freethinkers do, and people who don't. And the religious right does not believe in separation of church and state really. What they believe in is that their religious principles are the ones that ought to dominate government policy.

There are so many other issues. Will we depart from American tradition and provide tax support in the form of vouchers, for religious schools? Will we drain off support from public schools and provide support for schools operated by everyone from the Christian right to ultra-Orthodox Jews? Number two, will we push for laws to regulate people's private lives, such as gay marriage laws, in ways that are in accordance with the principles of the Christian right? Will we appoint judges--which is, I think, arguably the most important issue in this election--who don't believe that there should be any separation of church and state?

One of the more astonishing and dismaying public statements ever made was made by Antonin Scalia several years ago in an address about capital punishment to the University of Chicago Divinity School, which received very little publicity at the time, in which he said that God has the power of life and death and therefore governments, who derive their power from God, have the right to dispense life and death too. This is a horrifying thought. The idea of having judges who look to God for instructions in their decisions, not to "we the people," as our secular constitution says, it's a terrible idea. When you look to God for instruction, well everybody's God says something different to him. We can't decide government policy on the basis of people who think they have a pipeline to God.

You also address the importance of secularists defending science. How do some religious groups undermine science?
The perfect example is when the fundamentalist superintendent of schools in Georgia announced they were going to take evolution out of the high school biology textbooks, Jimmy Carter, who is himself a devout Baptist, just not that kind of Baptist spoke up and said, "This is nonsense. There's nothing in evolution which effects my religious faith. We don't have to believe that space aliens are landing on a flat earth in order to practice our religion."

Fundamentalist religion undermines science, and any attempt to codify a particular set of religious values in law undermines science. We're seeing that in stem cell research. Basically, the restrictions established by the Bush administration are inspired by the belief held by the Catholic Church hierarchy--I don't say Catholics because polls show that the majority of Catholic disagree with the Church hierarchy. But the Catholic church hierarchy and fundamentalist Protestants hold the belief that any research on embryos, even if they are five days old, is a form of abortion and abortion is murder and therefore we can't have it. And certainly having these kinds of religious views written into restrictions on science so as to impede any investigation of these things, is an example of the way, again in which a particular kind of religion impedes science.

I think Americans are increasingly ignorant about science and how it helps us understand the world. I don't mean that science is a god, but it's one of the tools for understanding how the world really is. And it's important to understand that it isn't only the religious right that's anti-science.

New Age beliefs are also dangerous for science because it's an irrational view of the world. It leads to people who believe in space aliens abducting people and taking them into space and sexually assaulting them and sending them back to earth. It looks for supernatural explanations whereas science looks for natural explanations. It prevents us from looking for the explanation that could lead to cures for cancer and things like that.

These New Age-y beliefs are an incredible example of the deterioration of American education. Polls show that a majority of Americans believe it's possible to communicate with the spirits of the dead. Europeans don't believe that. America is a hotbed of totally irrational beliefs.

I believe in rationalism as the freethinkers of the 18th and 19th century believed in it. I don't believe in explaining things by space aliens and crop circles, and I don't believe that the way you cope with death and suffering is by saying it's God's plan, or we could talk to those people we've lost on the other side. I think that these are dangerous beliefs for society as a whole because they discourage any real critical thinking about anything. It's not just a political issue, it's a larger cultural issue.

So with all of these battles, why hasn't another Robert Ingersoll emerged for the secularist cause?
Well I think the financial power, and the power to intimidate, of the religious right is enormous. I think people are scared of it. That's why most political candidates step around this issue. In the early days of the Democratic primaries, Howard Dean was tarred with the dreaded S-the scarlet S I call it-for secularist.

Suddenly, he discovers that he prays every day.

How refreshing would it be to have a candidate saying, "I believe in a secular approach to public affairs, and if anyone doesn't like it, tough."