Susan Jacoby

American journalist

Susan Jacoby (born June 4, 1945) is an American author.

Susan Jacoby (2012)



All quotes from the first trade paperback edition, published in 2005 by Owl Books, ISBN 978-0-8050-7776-6, 9th printing

  • What the many types of freethinkers shared, regardless of their views on the existence or nonexistence of a divinity, was a rationalist approach to fundamental questions of earthly existence—a conviction that the affairs of human beings should be governed not by faith in the supernatural but by a reliance on reason and evidence produced from the natural world.
    • Introduction (pp. 4-5)
  • Notions of the depravity of human reason, Allen argued, were cherished by priests because, if ordinary human beings were assumed to be perfectly capable of reasoning for themselves, the clergy would be out of work.
    • Chapter 1, “Revolutionary Secularism” (p. 18)
  • The Constitution is a secularist document because of what it says and what it does not say. The first of the explicit secularist provisions is article 6, section 3, which states that federal elective and appointed officials “shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” No religious test. This provision, much less familiar to the public today than the First Amendment, was especially meaningful and especially sweeping in view of the fact that the necessity of religious tests and religious oaths for officeholders had been taken for granted by nearly all the governments of the American states (not to mention those of the rest of the world) at the time the Constitution was written.
    • Chapter 1, “Revolutionary Secularism” (p. 26)
  • The second explicit secularist constitutional provision is of course the First Amendment to the bill of rights.
    • Chapter 1, “Revolutionary Secularism” (p. 27)
  • Without downgrading the importance of either the establishment clause or the constitutional ban on religious tests for officeholders, one can make a strong case that the omission of one word—God—played an even more important role in the construction of a secular foundation for the new government. The Constitution’s silence on the deity broke not only with culturally and historically distant precedents but with proximate and recent American precedents—most notably the 1781 Articles of Confederation, which acknowledged the beneficence of “the Great Governor of the World.” With its refusal to invoke any form of divine sanction, even the vague deistic “Providence,” the Constitution went even farther than Virginia’s religious freedom act in separating religion from government.
    • Chapter 1, “Revolutionary Secularism” (pp. 28-29)
  • Although there were numerous attempts by state ratifying conventions to amend the Constitution, and subvert the intent of the preamble, by declaring that governmental power was derived from God or Jesus Christ, the proposed religious amendments were defeated. In the end, the economic necessity for a federal union trumped all other concerns.
    • Chapter 1, “Revolutionary Secularism” (pp. 30-31)
  • Throughout their presidencies, Jefferson and his successor, Madison, never ceased to uphold the separation of church and state they had conceived as a model for the new nation.
    • Chapter 2, “The Age of Reason and Unreason” (p. 43)
  • The Civil War, like most wars, was a bad time for religious skeptics.
    • Chapter 4, “The Belief and Unbelief of Abraham Lincoln” (p. 104)
  • That so many manage to accommodate belief systems encompassing both the natural and the supernatural is a testament not to the compatibility of science and religion but to the flexibility, in both the physical and metaphysical senses, of the human brain.
    • Chapter 5, “Evolution and Its Discontents” (p. 132)
  • But the late-nineteenth-century advances in both scientific understanding and applied technology posed a particularly formidable challenge to orthodox religion because, taken together, they offered a logical explanation of processes once thought to be inexplicable curses or miracles. As understanding of natural causes expanded, the need for supernatural explanations decreased.
    • Chapter 5, “Evolution and Its Discontents” (p. 133)
  • The growing knowledge and acceptance of evolutionism—even though it bypassed important segments of American society—contributed significantly to a major expansion of the freethought movement in the United States in the 1870s and 1880s
    • Chapter 5, “Evolution and Its Discontents” (p. 144)
  • The period from, roughly, 1875 to 1914 represents the high-water mark of freethought as an influential movement in American society.
    • Chapter 6, “The Great Agnostic and the Golden Age of Freethought” (p. 151)
  • The one political concern that did unite all freethinkers was their support for absolute separation of church and state, which translated into opposition to any tax support of religious institutions—especially parochial schools.
    • Chapter 6, “The Great Agnostic and the Golden Age of Freethought” (p. 153)
  • For if freethinkers did not have a political platform, they nevertheless agreed on a wide range of social, cultural, and artistic concerns, which generated such fierce debate in the decades after the Civil War that they would form a template for the nation’s “culture wars” a century later. These included free political speech; freedom of artistic expression; expanded legal and economic rights for women that went well beyond the narrow political goal of suffrage; the necessity of ending domestic violence against women and children; dissemination of birth control information (a major target of the punitive postal laws, defining birth control information as obscene, that bore the name of Anthony Comstock); opposition to capital punishment and to inhumane conditions in prisons and insane asylums; and, above all, the expansion of public education.
    • Chapter 6, “The Great Agnostic and the Golden Age of Freethought” (p. 154)
  • Free public education for the many rather than the few was essential to the secularist vision of a society in which every individual, unhampered by gatekeepers who sought to control the spread of dangerous knowledge, could go as far as his or her intellect would permit. In the view of freethinkers, the most pernicious gatekeepers were religious authorities; thus, education must be both secular and publicly financed.
    • Chapter 6, “The Great Agnostic and the Golden Age of Freethought” (p. 155)
  • It is difficult, in an era in which most Americans acquire their information from packaged sound bites that require almost no effort from audiences, to convey the excitement of a time when people were willing to expend a good deal of energy looking at evidence, and listening to opinions, that challenged the received wisdom of previous ages.
    • Chapter 6, “The Great Agnostic and the Golden Age of Freethought” (p. 157)
  • The conservatives’ accusation was quite accurate: to say that a woman’s voice should count equally with a man’s in public decisions was to assault centuries of theological teachings and social assumptions about the innate inferiority of women.
    • Chapter 7, “Dawn of the Culture Wars” (p. 194)
  • Like so many other freethinkers, Moore originally turned against orthodox religion because of its support of slavery.
    • Chapter 7, “Dawn of the Culture Wars” (p. 211)
  • Political radicals regarded religion as merely one pillar of an unjust society, and they fully expected the pillar to collapse with the overturning of an economic order that favored the rich and oppressed the poor. Committed freethinkers, by contrast, regarded orthodox religion as the foundation of most other social evils. Because religion imprisoned the mind with visions of eternal rewards and punishments in the afterlife, it prevented men and women from devising rational solutions to finite earthly problems.
    • Chapter 8, “Unholy Trinity: Atheists, Reds, Darwinists” (p. 232)
  • As always, war had lowered the level of American tolerance for any kind of dissent.
    • Chapter 8, “Unholy Trinity: Atheists, Reds, Darwinists” (p. 238)
  • The twenties also marked the end of the freethought movement as a distinct intellectual force in American life….Freethought ideals did survive the disappearance of the freethought movement, but—unlike religious evangelism—they were ill suited, because of their emphasis on facts rather than emotion, to the new mass communications media.
    • Chapter 8, “Unholy Trinity: Atheists, Reds, Darwinists” (p. 263)
  • Dictatorial regimes recognized evidence-based freethought as an enemy.
    • Chapter 8, “Unholy Trinity: Atheists, Reds, Darwinists” (p. 266)
  • The Christian right would like today’s public to forget exactly where religious conservatives stood on civil rights forty years ago. One of the more repellent ironies of modern religious correctness has been the attempt by fundamentalists to wrap themselves in the mantle of those men and women of faith who risked their lives to fight racism. In the sixties, right-wing fundamentalists were, almost without exception, hard-core segregationists. The attacked the twentieth-century civil rights movement as their spiritual and often physical ancestors had attacked the nineteenth-century abolitionist and feminist movements. What they saw was what their predecessors had seen—not a struggle for justice but a conspiracy of atheism, political radicalism, and sexual libertinism.
    • Chapter 11, “Culture Wars Redux” (p. 326)
  • On this issue, however, the religious right is right: true belief in and commitment to the equality of women and men shakes the foundations of all religions. Religion and feminism can be reconciled only through a radical reconstruction of traditional religious practices and beliefs.
    • Chapter 11, “Culture Wars Redux” (p. 339)
  • For extremist conservatives of all faiths, the status of women is a line in the sand, a measure of their unwillingness to let secular laws and new secular customs overturn centuries of religious dogma and tradition. The real enemies of fundamentalism are rationalism and the modern world, and while this observation is most frequently applied by American pundits to radical Islamic theocracies, it also applies in some measure to any religion, fundamentalist or not, that treats women as the inferiors of men.
    • Chapter 11, “Culture Wars Redux” (p. 339)
  • However, bread-and-butter feminism was not so fundamentally threatening as to arouse the full ire of the religious right. It took the legalization of abortion, with its negation of sacred rationales for strict social control of women’s childbearing decisions, to join the battle between conservative religion and secularist feminism.
    • Chapter 11, “Culture Wars Redux” (pp. 341-342)
  • For the past four decades, the militant religious right has mounted a tireless assault on separation of church and state.
    • Chapter 11, “Culture Wars Redux” (p. 347)
  • In January 2002, Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia made a major speech so sweeping and extreme in its contempt for democracy, and so willfully oblivious to the Constitution’s grounding in human rather than divine authority, that it might well, in an era when American secularists were less intimidated by the forces of religion, have elicited calls for impeachment.
    • Chapter 12, “Reason Embattled” (p. 348)
  • Fanatics throughout history have always been convinced of the virtuousness of their visions.
    • Chapter 12, “Reason Embattled” (p. 359)
  • It is precisely because secularists do understand the power of religion, and the possibility that any intensely felt drive for righteousness may overwhelm dissenters in its path, that they insist on the fundamental importance of separation between church and state.
    • Chapter 12, “Reason Embattled” (p. 359)
  • There is a particularly strong connection between the revival of antievolutionism since 1980 and the political attack on separation of church and state, because the Christianization of secular public education has long been a goal of the forces of conservative religion.
    • Chapter 12, “Reason Embattled” (p. 360)
  • There is also a connection between the antievolution campaign and the lamentable state of American scientific literacy.
    • Chapter 12, “Reason Embattled” (p. 360)
  • The attack on science is a prime secularist issue not because religion and science are incompatible but because particular forms of religious belief—those that claim to have found the one true answer to the origins and ultimate purpose of human life—are incompatible not only with science but with democracy.
    • Chapter 12, “Reason Embattled” (p. 362)
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