Taking the 50 book challenge, and book one: Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers

Reading Will Baude (of Crescat Sententia fame) today, I decided to take up the 50 Book Challenge: read 50 books this year and blog about them. This ought to be fairly easy, because I managed to read quite a few more than this in 2004. How many more? If I told you, you’d really know how little social life I had last year. So let’s just say if I stay on the same pace, I can spend much of autumn watching bad movies and catching up on Tivo…

Book One was Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. Billing itself as a history of secularism, the book can equally be read as a history of religious opposition to secularism in America. Jacoby performs a great service, however, by elucidating the context of Founding commitments on religious tolerance. In particular, I was fascinated to learn of the tactical coalition between southern Evangelicals and secularist Northerners in supporting the constitutional ban on religious tests and the need for Establishment Clause protections. The irony of that founding coalition increases daily as the culture war unfolds in the United States.

Much of the book is an effort at historical revision (in the best sense of the term), retelling the stories of Thomas Paine, Robert Ingersoll, and other infamous "freethinkers" whose importance to contemporaries was immensely greater than the short shrift they’ve received in historical recollection. Jacoby demonstrates how diverse and variable the abolitionist and women’s rights movements really were, as opposed to the now-standard accounts of both as conventionally Christian reform efforts. In reviving the history of diverse secularist thinkers, Jacoby performs a great service: demonstrating that morality and reform have never been the exclusive province of religion in this country, and that the secular left can be justifiably proud of its accomplishments, even as we work to find a modus vivendi within an increasingly religious America.