Journalist and scholar Susan Jacoby offers a history of American secular icons, trends, and controversies. From early political and cultural icons like Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, to the golden days of the Great Agnostic Col. Robert Ingersoll and Elizabeth Stanton, as well as many others, Jacoby weaves a narrative of struggle and fortitude worthy of digesting.
Early American secularists were primarily concerned with keeping religion out of government and vice versa. There can be no doubt about the will of men like Jefferson in establishing a clear wall between church and state matters. Often, as Jacoby narrates, church leaders even supported this stance, understanding that a separation protected all flavors of religion.
The struggle of secularists did not end with church and state matters, especially when the abolitionist and feminist movements began to gain steam. Secular leaders such as Elizabeth Cady Standon and William Lloyd Garrison led charges against the clerical nature of religion and forwarded the rights movements with the help of many other secular proponents.
For me, the highlights of the book include the histories of the anti-evolution, anti-feminist, and prayer-in-school movements. The past anti-evolution movement closely mirrors the intelligent design ignorance movement of the modern age. Jacoby destroys that often-espoused sectarian notion that religion championed women's rights, abolition, and other rights (see debate points by apologist Dinesh D'Souza, for instance). While some religious leaders did in fact champion these progressive causes, there were uncountable religious forced allied against them. Slavery, in particular, was often justified by bible-thumping Christians as ordained by God himself. The hatred and bile spewed by conservative Christian leaders over the centuries does not reflect well on the role of religion at all.
Anyone who wants to understand the fight for free speech, free religion, and freethinking should read this book. While it does not delve deeply into most of the people or events involved, it offers a broad history with many key stories that make clear how important, and fragile, the pursuit of secular, freethinking goals are in America. Four stars.
(posted on my blog: davenichols.net