Susan Jacoby – American Freethought Heritage

March 17, 2006

Susan Jacoby is the author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, now in its tenth hardcover printing and recently published in paperback. Freethinkers was hailed in the New York Times as an “ardent and insightful work” that “seeks to rescue a proud tradition from the indifference of posterity.” Named a notable nonfiction book of 2004 by The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times, Freethinkers was cited in England as one of the outstanding international books of 2004 by the Times Literary Supplement and The Guardian.

In this interview with DJ Grothe, Jacoby talks about the role that freethinkers played in American social justice movements, and discusses the forgotten history of Robert Green Ingersoll.

Also in this episode, Tom Flynn asks Did You Know?, detailing facts about Robert Green Ingersoll and new data about nonbelievers from University of Akron, and Lauren Becker shares some thoughts on Darwin and Oliver Sacks and what these scientists teach us about ourselves.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, March 17th, 2006. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank affiliated with the State University of New York at Buffalo with branches in Manhattan, Tampa and Hollywood. Each week on point of inquiry, we look at some of the most fundamental assumptions of our culture, focusing on three research areas. First, pseudoscience and the paranormal. Second, alternative medicine. And third, secularism and religion. We do this by drawing on the Center for Inquiry’s relationship with the leading minds of the day, including Nobel Prize winning scientists, public intellectuals, social critics and thinkers and renowned entertainers. On today’s episode of Point of Inquiry, I talk with Susan Jacoby, author of the acclaimed book Freethinkers A History of American Secularism about Freethought in American History. But first, Tom Flynn asks, did you know? 

Did you know that for the first time in American history, people who explicitly live without religion have joined the 10 percent club? In a recent article in The Atlantic Monthly, the CEO of Beliefnet and an author of a recent University of Akron study used new data to break down the American electorate into twelve ethnic, religious and world view groups at ten point seven percent of the population, explicitly secular, atheist or agnostic. People constitute the fifth largest of those 12 groups after groups that the researchers dubbed the religious right, the religious left, heartland culture warriors and moderate evangelicals. That’s almost 32 million Americans whose state explicitly that they are atheist, agnostic or not at all religious. Did you know that none other than Mark Twain once referred to Robert Green Ingersoll, the famed 19th century American free thinker, lawyer and orator, as America’s Shakespeare writing to his wife after hearing an Ingersol speech. Twain also said What an organ is human speech when it is played by a master. Did you know that some famous inventor, Thomas Edison, is first audio recordings made at his West Orange, New Jersey laboratories in the late 80s and 90s were recordings of Robert Green Ingersoll’s voice. Ingersoll recorded seven brief orations into a prototype phonograph while visiting the lab of Edison, who was himself an atheist. Three of these recordings still exist and can be heard at North America’s Only Freethought History Museum. The Council for Secular Humanism is Robert Green, Ingersoll Birthplace Museum in Dresden, New York. 

I’m David Capsule, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism and an associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. Free Inquiry is the council’s flagship publication and recently celebrated its 25th anniversary as a leading journal of secular humanist thought and opinion. The February March issue is now on shelves and better bookstores and can be ordered online from w WW Secular Humanism dot org or by calling our toll free number one 800 four five eight one three six six. Please pick up a copy or call us for a complimentary issue of free inquiry and support freedom of inquiry in all areas of human endeavor. I’d really like you to see what we’re all about. So give us a call at one 800 four five eight one three six six mentioned point of inquiry and ask for your free copy today. 

It’s my pleasure to welcome back on Point of Inquiry, Susan Jacoby, who is the author of Freethinkers A History of American Secularism, which is now in its 10th hardcover printing and just out in paperback, Freethinkers, who was hailed in The New York Times as an ardent and insightful work that seeks to rescue a proud tradition from the indifference of posterity. Philip Roth, the novelist, has said that in the best of all possible, America’s every college freshman would be required to take a course called the history of American secularism. The text would be Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers as necessary, a book as could be published in the Ministry of George W. Bush. Susan is joining us from New York City, where she serves as program director for the Center for Inquiry’s Manhattan branch. Welcome to Point of Inquiry again, Susan. Glad to be here again. Last time you were on the show, you defined freethinkers for us, for any of our listeners who are new to the subject. Why don’t you tell us what a free thinker is again, freethinker. 

Is anyone from someone who doesn’t believe in God at all, to someone who believes in the unconventional God, who set the universe in motion and then left us all to fend for ourselves? Although I don’t know why anybody called God would do that. 

Thing that unites all two kinds of free thinkers is that they believe in separation of church and state and they’re opposed to churches telling people what to do and making their decisions about what kind of God they want to believe in. 

So according to your definition of a liberal religious person could be a free thinker. Right. But all free thinkers believe in the separation of church and state. 

So and have and have since since the term first started to be used at the end of the seventeenth, beginning of the 18th century. 

Another term that you explore at great length in your book, which let me just mention to our listeners, you can get a copy of Susan Jacoby’s book on our Web site, Point of Inquiry dot org. A concept that you explore a lot in your book is secularism. Where does secularism fit into American religious history? America is said to be a Christian nation. 

Well, we have we have it we have a religious history and a secular history. The secular history is what feeds into the Constitution, which separated church and state. And and also it’s very closely related to religious liberty, because without a secular government, you can’t have religious liberty, as the founders of the Constitution understood very well. Secularism has, in a way, with this focus on religion we’ve had for the last 20 years. It’s kind of been written out of American history. You would almost never know from the way history is taught that the Constitution, for example, deliberately omitted God, that there were good reasons for that. What were those reasons? 

Because the last execution for blasphemy in France took place only 20 years before the Constitution was written. The people who wrote the Constitution were men of the Enlightenment. And one of the characteristics of the Enlightenment was seeing what horrors the Union of Church and State had right in Europe. A part of the idea of the American government was to was to leave behind some of these things. And there is no contradiction. It’s often that the religious right is always at all the founding fathers. They all believed in God or we were always a Christian people. Yes, a religious people with a secular government. That’s the whole point. These people try to blur those things. 

So we were from the get go. A secular government. Are we secular government now? 

Well, that’s that’s the question is we where we’re really at an extraordinary point where the legislative executive and we don’t know yet about the judicial branches of the government are controlled by people who have very little respect for these traditions of separation of church and state. Every single one of George Bush’s nominees, in one way or another, has suggested that the separation of church and state has gone, quote, too far. Well, and that, in fact, is what you hear from from people who are trying to conceal their real agenda all the time, which is to write their religious views into law. Separation of church, as I say, has gone too far. This isn’t what the founders ever intended. Well, I didn’t question I would pose, which is how can you go too far in the right direction? We have we are we have this tremendously religious people as tremendous, tremendous proliferation of religious denominations. How can religion do any better under any system? And it’s done in America. Yeah. 

In fact, the lack of religion in government seemed to create a great environment, a kind of a hotbed for religion in America. It’s more fervent in here than anywhere else. Absolutely. 

Because. Because there was no union of church and state. People were poor, were free to go off and find whatever religion they wanted to. And the number of new religions who founded America in the 19th century is is quite astonishing because there was no link between one church and the state. People were free to do that. You know, often when people disagreed with their church, let’s say in France, all they could do was be opposed to the established political order as well because the two were united. But here it was quite possible to support the political order, but still be going off on tangents and founding your own church. 

Want to get back to what you mentioned regarding the Constitution? You say there’s no mention of God in the Constitution, even that there was a fierce debate over omitting God in the Constitution. Tell me who the players were, who was involved in that debate and why did the secular agenda win out? 

Well, the players who wrote the Constitution, John Adams, James Madison and so on. They were the players who wrote it and who wrote Separation of church and state and the Constitution. The debate came at the state levels when states had to ratify the Constitution. The fact that God was left out was very controversial. Still, the religious right of its day lost that battle and the way a lot of what’s going on today. There were many proposals from 19th century to add a Christian amendment to the Constitution, and they all failed. One thing that’s important about this is it shows what a lie it is. Would people like Justice Scalia say that the founders intended this to be a religious government? You know, that man calls himself a, quote, originalist, meaning he believes the Constitution can mean only what it meant in the 18th century. Well, that’s one point. But if you really believe that, then he would have to believe in separation of church and state since the Constitution never mentions the God that he’s so convinced is the source of our governmental power. This is the hypocrisy of this whole thing, because the fact that the Constitution doesn’t mention God, the fact that the Constitution prohibits religious tests for public office, it’s a huge barrier to these people. So what people like Scalia do, who is a brilliant legal scholar and knows better, is they somehow imply that the fact that there are many Christians in this country and we’re in the 18th century means that this was a Christian government as opposed to a Christian people. And it doesn’t look at the founders, people like Madison, Jefferson, Adams. They were very smart guys. They were all guys who could write. By the way, too. In contrast to some of the people who are nameless, who are running our government today, and if they had wanted to put God into the Constitution, they would have. 

So it’s it’s deliberate. It’s obvious. It’s a godless constitution by design. 

Yes. And they said so. 

Susan, in elsewhere in your book, after you talk about our founding, America’s founding, you talk about the history of social movements, civil rights, feminism, suffrage ism. You touch on other social movements and you talk about the vital role that secularism and freethinkers have played in those social movements. That’s news to a lot of people. Most people look at the civil rights movement and think that that came from kind of a religious sensibility for justice and fairness. 

I never said that religion didn’t play a vital role in the civil rights movement. It did. One of the things that’s so terrible about people who want to write secularism out of American history is they suggest that if you point out that secularists also made a big contribution to these things, that you’re somehow denying the role of religion. Not at all. Let’s start with the recent history with the civil rights movement. That’s the driving force in the early civil rights movement where the black churches of the south is absolutely undeniable. 

But this was not just a religious movement. 

I might add that one of the genius of Martin Luther King, for example, was that that he accepted and encouraged help from people of all sorts of religion or no religion. His personal lawyer and closest white friend was a Jewish atheist. And they used to have this. They talked almost every day and they used to have phone conversations. And Martin Luther King actually couldn’t believe that that his friends believed in racial justice but didn’t believe in God. He would say to them, you know, you believe in God, you just don’t know it. Stand secularists, particularly secular Jews, played a vital role in the civil rights movement. And what is more important, is it so wrong to talk about, quote, religion? There was a particular kind of liberal religious person who played a vital role in the civil rights movement. But the religious right was as opposed to the civil rights movement as it could possibly be. And one of the most disgusting things today is to see people claiming and talking and claiming people like George Bush talking about it’s important to have religion in government because of the role religion played in the civil rights movement, the kind of southern white churches which George W. Bush’s inherited were completely opposed to the civil rights movement. And here’s something else. Also, for example, Apple, a good reason for opposing faith based financing for social programs. Imagine if the black churches of the South in the 1950s had been partly supported by the government. How free would they have been to push their moral agenda if they owed some of their salaries to the government? Part of the great moral force of the religion that played a role in the civil rights movement came because it came from outside the government. 

There wasn’t some government supported SAPI church that couldn’t do anything on its own. 

Susan, you mentioned the godless constitution, but there are other instances. Some would argue the government endorsement of religion or society, there’s in God we trust on our dollar bills. There’s under God in the pledge. Are these issues that should mobilize people, rile people up? 

Well, first of all, when you can’t rely on a law, what you do is you start talking about custom and a lot of the arguments that are cited about how really we do have guided our government, their customs, rather than laws. A Pledge of Allegiance is a great example, which wasn’t written till 1892. It has nothing to do with the Constitution at all, was written in 1892 and it didn’t have anything about God in it. Under God was added in 1954 to distinguish us from the godless Soviet government. It was it was really it was a very big push on the part of the Knights of Columbus, which was then the big Catholic lay organization. And so this is a this is a custom of recent origin which has been seized on as though it was one of the pillars of the American government. How can anything that was instituted this into an extra governmental pledge? How how is this a sacred custom upon which our nation depends? I have to say, I I have great admiration for Michael Newdow, who brought that suit. You know, probably on my hit list of church state issues I care about, it wouldn’t be number one. And a lot more concerned about things like the teaching of evolution in public schools and so on. However, these symbolic issues are unimportant, if only because what they’re really about, things like the Ten Commandments cases, what they are really about is saying to people, we’re still a Christian people and don’t you forget it. These are more about ownership than religious belief. Obviously, people who believe in the literal truth of the Bible and so on, they don’t need to have it in a courtroom. Presumably it’s in their hearts. I would hope so, if they really believe it. There are a million avenues in our society for people to express their religious beliefs. Wanting to have it forced on people in public settings is about ownership. It’s not about freedom of religion. 

I want to remind our listeners that you can purchase a copy of Susan Jacoby’s book Freethinkers A History American Secularism on our Web site Point of Inquiry dot org. Susan, in your book, you talk about the golden age of free thought. 

When did it occur? 

Well, the golden age of free thought in terms of influencing people who hadn’t thought about these things before was probably roughly 1880 to 1914. And one of the reasons it was the golden age of free thought is this great figure. Robert Ingersoll, who is the best known orator of the 19th century, came forth and spoke to millions of people about everything from Thomas Paine to evolution and public lectures were a form of public entertainment. Then people used to go to hear controversial speakers. They would stand in the rain for hours. They would listen to three hour lectures. And of course, this is also an era in which Darwin’s theory is beginning to be widely known, which certainly did pose a challenge to traditional Orthodox religion. So you and you also the last quarter of the 19th century was an era of really expanding education. Many more people went to high school than ever had before. So you had a lot of factors that converged to make public interested Freethought. Very great. This is not to say that the overwhelming majority of Americans accepted these ideas, but they became incorporated. For example, one of the things that happened in religion during this period is Protestantism split off into new. Into two branches. One were the more liberal Protestant sects who accommodated themselves to this new knowledge, for example, who made an accommodation between Darwinism and religion. And the others were the fundamentalist people best represented by William Jennings Bryan, who said, no, never. These things are compatible. 

You mentioned Robert Green Ingersoll. He seems to be a central figure in your book in in the history of American secularism. Why was he forgotten? 

Because the ideas he espoused were were controversial because he was he was known as the great agnostic, because secularism is or has been a lot like feminism in that in every generation someone comes forth. It was Thomas Paine in the 18th century, and it’s almost as if it gets written out of our history by the Orthodox and the next generations is brought out again. In the case, it was Robert Ingersoll who revived Paine’s popular reputation in the last quarter of the 19th century. So it’s as if these are lessons and thoughts that have to be relearned and brought forward over and over again. It’s one of the things that happened with the first women’s movement, which started the eighteen forties, is that the radicalism of it was lost. That had to be rediscovered again. One hundred and twenty years later, secular thinkers in America. It’s been very much like that as well. 

Was there a Freethought movement or a Freethought component in suffrage ism or the beginning stirrings of feminism? 

The first women’s rights movement was totally opposed to Orthodox religion because it challenged all of the beliefs that Orthodox religion had about women. What happened with the suffragist movement at the end of the 19th century as it gathered steam to pass the women’s suffrage amendment? Was this they decided that they needed religious women if they were ever going to get majority support for this, that they needed to distance themselves from their non-religious past. And so one of the things that happened there is Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who is a real radical, who believes that the vote alone wouldn’t solve the problems of rights for women. She wrote a book called The Woman’s Bible. In the 80s, 90s, which the ideas of which that religion supports patriarchy are very familiar now. But they weren’t revived again until a second wave of feminism in the 1980s. And Elizabeth Hastin, which is virtually unknown for why it’s no accident that Susan B. Anthony is profile. She was also an agnostic, by the way, but she played it down. And so she became the figure to represent the, you know, the suffragist movement. But the suffragist movement in particular was almost entirely a secular movement, as indeed is recognized today by the opposition of the religious right to feminism. Because basically, when you’re talking about real feminism, you were talking about overturning ideas that very conservative religion and many parts of the Bible have proclaimed about women for thousands of years. Let’s not even get into the Koran, which is even worse if possible. 

The motto of the National Organization for Women or its slogan, isn’t it? No gods. No masters. 

Yes. Well, that comes from Elizabeth Cady Stanton. No gods. No Masters was her line. 

Susan, we have time for one more question I’d like to ask you in your study of the history of American free, saw the movement secularism. Do you see or can you make any prognostications, though? I imagine you’re a skeptic about prophecy, about the future of the movement? 

Well, one of the reasons why Freethought has one or two reasons, really, why Freethought has. Never been a mass. Who? One is simply. But churches are financial institutions. They are permanent institutions with buildings and membership rolls. And religion, by definition, is almost a permanent mechanism for transmitting its own beliefs to the next generation. Freethought tends to be much looser, much more iconoclastic. You call something the church of free thought. You’ll just get along. 

But the Freethought movement is far more diverse and eclectic and in a way, it doesn’t have the solid base. 

Even though there I mean, most recent polls show that 15 percent of Americans say that their outlook is wholly or predominantly secular and public affairs. You would not know it from the representation in the public arena of people who call themselves secularists or freethinkers. 

And this is partly because, you know, we haven’t built the institutions. But also there’s something else about when we put Freethought up against the religious right. Freethinker, secularists, whatever you want to call us. We’re engaged in a lot of things. You know, you don’t get up in the morning, look yourself in the window and say, hey, what am I going to do for secularism today? But in fact, a lot of people being a member of a right wing church is a way of life. It’s not just an idea. It’s not something they do once in a while. I do believe that a lot of people who are devoutly religious do get up and look in the mirror and say, what can I do to spread my faith today? And it’s very you know, it’s almost a temperamental thing as well as an organizational one. I mean, I think one of the things that has to happen before Freethought and secularism can be made respectable in America is people have to start speaking up. People have got to got to stop hiding and and pretending that they believe things they don’t believe. And it’s, you know, it’s it’s very difficult. 

So one thing you would encourage your listeners to do is to be open about their views regarding these subjects. 

Absolutely. I think, you know, one of the great drawbacks of free thought is religious people proclaim their views loudly. Freethinkers often don’t. Or when they do, they proclaim them to one another. 

All right. Susan, thanks for being on the show again. We look forward to having you back. Thank you. 

You’ve seen the headlines, Paranormal Goes Primetime Vatican hosted conference on Intelligent Design, More clinics to offer alternative medicine. Christian Fundamentalism Drives U.S. Extremism. These stories sum up the immense challenge facing those of us who defend rational thinking, science and secular values. What one adviser to the Bush administration dismissed as the reality based community. Who could have imagined that reality would need defenders? The educational and advocacy work of the Center for Inquiry is more essential than ever. And your support is more central than ever. Show your commitment to science, reason and secular values. By becoming a friend of the center today, whether you are interested in the work of psychology and skeptical Inquirer magazine, the Council for Secular Humanism and Free Inquiry magazine, the Commission for Scientific Medicine, or a Center for Inquiry on campus. By becoming a friend of the center, you’ll help strengthen our impact. If you are just learning about CFI, take a look at our Web site. W w w that center for inquiry dot net. We host regional and international conferences, offer college courses and conduct nationwide campus outreach on our Web site. You’ll also find information regarding our new representation at the United Nations and important national media appearances. We could not pursue these projects without your support. Please become a friend of the center today by calling one 800 eight one eight seven zero seven one. Or visiting w w w dot center for inquiry dot net. We look forward to working with you to expand our reality based community. 

And now Point of inquiry contributor Lauren Becker shares with us some views about Darwin, which she recently presented at the Center for Inquiries. Darwin Day celebration in Amherst, New York. 

Last month, while researching a talk for Darwin Day, I came across an article by Steve Silberman called The Fully Immersive Mind of Oliver Sacks. It seemed unrelated to my task, but I soon realized that sex and Silberman could help me get a better understanding of the cultural controversy over evolution and find an even greater appreciation for the gift of Darwin’s grand idea. Dr. Oliver Sacks is probably best known for his book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, a collection of case histories exploring an amazing variety of neurological experiences. In his writings, we discover remarkable people, a Tourette’s patient who becomes a successful surgeon, an autistic patient who flourishes as a doctor and engineer, and a painter who sees more when he loses his ability to see in color at a time when diagnosis was the end goal of clinical studies. Silberman explains that Dr. Sacks went beyond the naming of a disease to figure out how patients might survive it, how they might go on living. Despite the chaos in their minds, faced with new and challenging conditions, how could they discover a new identity in a world completely changed by their disorder? Each story is a triumph of understanding, acceptance, growth and adaptation. Dr. Sacks showed how patients could redefine their existence and become whole again. In some ways even more well than before they got sick. Along the way, he discovered that the act of recovering one’s own story was itself healing. We all know that Darren and his ideas of descent with modification and natural selection caused problems from the very beginning. The implications of his research seem to say that we are more monkey than we are God, more matter than we are spirit. So what’s the matter with matter? The most recent attacks against Darwin and evolution have come from a group of creationism, intelligent design advocates housed at the Discovery Institute in Seattle. Like many faithful people, their identity is defined by God. Bound up in his attention and love, their relationship with God defines meaning for their lives and brings purpose to their existence. So each time scientific research pushes humanity further away from special creation, they attack science for diminishing man’s relationship with God for faithful believers. Science causes an identity crisis. Current publications reveal their anxiety and their coping mechanism, a wedge strategy to, quote, replace materialist explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God, unquote. But here’s the thing. Thanks to Darwin, we now understand that we are material beings, part of the earth, an animal species among millions, part chance, part natural selection, and just the most recent iteration of Bipeds de Grace the planet. Many blame Darwin for bringing about a sort of cultural depression and degradation, a nihilistic decline in morals and morale without a heavenly father and the meaning he brings to life. They think we must be just orphans, left alone, adrift and without direction. Of course, the opposite is true. Kepler gave us direction. Newton gave us force. And Darwin gave us company. Six billion cousins every day. Should be a big family reunion. Darwin has given us our diagnosis matter. We are not special creations. But part of a vast continuum of life. This is our condition. But if this new understanding is a disorder, if it has caused an identity crisis, then science, too, as in so many other cases, offers relief. How might we go on living despite Darwin’s diagnosis? Remember Dr Sacks? We know we have an innate capacity for recovery and growth, creativity and adaptation, the very adaptation that has enabled us to come this far. Darwin’s work challenges our cherished beliefs, our definitions, both of God and of ourselves. As Adam Phillips explained in his book Darwin’s Worm Because of Darwin. We must rebuild our identity and retool our hopes, but also because of Darwin. We know we can. He has given us our story, but it is not a nightmare of meaningless existence. Darwin tells us stories about what keeps life going. If the reality of evolution cuts too deep. Darwin has given us the freedom to discover our own story and thereby begin to heal. We might even become more well than before we got sick. Far from crisis and despair, the hope and promise of Darwin is that the world we live in is made more livable because of his description of it. By sharing his stories of human nature, we discover who we truly are. Prepare for transformation and come back to life. 

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Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded at the Center for Inquiry here in Amherst, New York. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiry’s music, as written and composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Wailin. Contributors include Tom Flynn, Lauren Becker, Paul Kurtz, Benjamin Radford, Joe Nickled, David Capsule and Sarah Jordan. I’m your host, DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.