Before there was The God Delusion and Letter to a Christian Nation, there was another excellent book on atheism: Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) by Susan Jacoby. I can’t recommend that book highly enough: it takes a purely historical perspective on American religiosity, and shows that it is a fairly recent aberration. I consider it superior to the more recent works by Dawkins and Harris; I wonder why it is so rarely acknowledged in the current interest in freethought?

Anyway, she has a recent short column well worth reading:

However, both atheism and secularism are still largely excluded from public dialogue about the proper role of religion in American politics–an omission that I consider much more important than pointless debates between believers and nonbelievers about the existence of God.

I have written NBC’s Tim Russert several times about the lack of secular representation on his many Meet the Presspanels concerning the relationship between religion and politics. Mr. Russert has never responded to my letters. This subject was discussed once again on the show on Christmas Eve and, once again, there was no secular voice to be heard.

When the influence of religion on politics is analyzed in the press, the dialogue usually ranges from religious conservatism to religious liberalism. No secularists or atheists need apply.

Much of what has gone disastrously wrong in American policy, especially foreign policy, in recent years can be attributed to a reliance on blind faith rather than evidence. When The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward asked President Bush whether he had consulted his father before going to war in Iraq, Bush famously replied that he had consulted a “Higher Father.”

Isn’t it fascinating that the voice of God always sounds suspiciously like one’s own voice? When politicians start citing God as the authority for whatever they want to do, they are usually promoting some policy that defies human reason.

Unfortunately, it’s in a section of the Washington Post called “On Faith” (I think it’s another example of Jacoby’s point that there don’t seem to be any papers that bother with a section called “On Reason”), and there are lots of comments, many from certifiable True Believers who are clearly driven even more deeply insane by the article.


  1. #1 John Lynch
    December 29, 2006

    Oh, and it is “superior to the more recent works by Dawkins and Harris” 🙂

  2. #2 writerdddd
    December 29, 2006

    Thanks for pointing out this book. Perhaps it is not often mentioned because people don’t usually think of (or don’t like to think of) women as atheists? I don’t know, just a thought. I would like to see women secularists represented more in these discussions, but the focus of late seems to be exclusively on Harris, Dawkins, and Dennett.


  3. #3 truth machine
    December 29, 2006

    Perhaps it is not often mentioned because people don’t usually think of (or don’t like to think of) women as atheists?

    Or perhaps not. Perhaps it’s because we don’t like to think of people with Jewish names as atheists. Or perhaps not. Perhaps it’s because we don’t like to think of Pulitzer Prize finalists as atheists. Or perhaps not. Perhaps its because chickens have feathers. Or perhaps not.

    I would like to see women secularists represented more in these discussions, but the focus of late seems to be exclusively on Harris, Dawkins, and Dennett.

    Um, these recently published fellows can’t help the fact that they are fellows. Dawkins and Dennett get a lot of attention because they are bigwigs with big name recognition; Harris has done an excellent job of promoting himself. Jacoby a) published earlier b) is not well known c) did not, AFAIK, go on a major book tour d) wrote a history, not an anti-religious polemic e) didn’t have the advantage of being one of a trio of major authors writing on the same subject at the same time.

    Wendy Kaminer is another atheist woman writer, author of “Sleeping With Extra-Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils of Piety”.

  4. #4 phat
    December 29, 2006

    I’d also put money on Dawkins agrreing with me, too.

    What do you say? Five bucks?

    Granted, that’s probably illegal, but really…

    Five bucks?


  5. #5 phat
    December 29, 2006

    Certainly, it doesn’t differ from “perhaps” in this case, I suppose.

    Look, if you’re not willing to admit that there has been and continues to be a bias in the popular discourse against a particular type of writing from women in this country I’m not sure there’s much more to say.

    I’m not saying that her book sales had suffered from that bias. I’m saying that it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if it did. I think there is plenty of evidence to believe that.

    I would guess that others here would agree with me. I would guess that Dawkins, Dennet and Harris would agree with me also. PZ probably agrees with me, too.

    I would guess that PZ made sure he posted this link to her work because he agrees with me.


  6. #6 truth machine
    December 29, 2006

    I have to say that I think the fact that Jacoby is a woman has had some negative affect on her acceptance among the discourse.

    I would say that a much stronger factor is that, unlike Harris, Dennett, and Dawkins, she hasn’t attacked religious belief; in fact, she’s a bit of a “Chamberlain”, attacking those who do:

    Unlike some atheists–whose dislike of religion has overwhelmed what ought to be every rationalist’s commitment to unbiased inquiry–I think that there is ample evidence suggesting that Jesus was a historical figure.

  7. #7 K. Michael Griffin
    December 29, 2006

    I read and greatly enjoyed Jacoby’s very rich historical book. I believe it’s more interesting and fun to read than Harris or Dawkins. Also, rather than question the beliefs themselves,( which should cetainly be done) progressives could point out that it is pretentious for anyone to claim they speak for a god, and this divinity has given them marching orders for the military, the best tax policy, etc. Many believers are offended that a poitical party has claimed the diety for their own purposes. To point this out publicly is probably taboo in Russert’s world also, though.

  8. #8 Steve_C
    December 29, 2006

    Isn’t Russert catholic? I’m tired of his aww shucks crap.

    Did Dawkins appear on any of the big networks or on any cable news network to promote his book?

  9. #9 grendelkhan
    December 29, 2006

    Saying that her work is superior to the recent books by Dawkins and Harris seems like a bit of apples-and-oranges to me; her book is a history intended to advocate the separation of church and state, while The God Delusion is a polemic intended to covert folks to atheism. (I didn’t read Letter to a Christian Nation, but I’d guess that it’s also not exactly the same book.) You might as well say that it’s better than A Fire Upon the Deep.

  10. #10 quork
    December 29, 2006

    I also recommend What is Atheism? by Douglas E. Krueger. (ISBN-10: 1573922145 ISBN-13: 978-1573922142, Prometheus, 1998). It is very direct and to the point. The section on philosophy is more detailed than Dawkins, and it has some good examples of Bible-bashing. You will love it, but your theist freinds will hate it.

  11. #11 Andres Aullet
    December 29, 2006

    I agree with grendelkhan and his comment about oranges and apples. One thing is to present a scientific alternative to the religious beliefs about both the emergence of life in this planet and the origin of the human species, and a different thing is to analyze the relation between religion and state during the history of the United States.

    Which book is perceived as more important depends on which problem we are trying to tackle. In my view, the scope of Dawkins’ wittings is wider than that of Jacoby’s


    Andres Aullet

  12. #12 Keanus
    December 29, 2006

    I’ve been busy today so I only just read PZ’s post. I picked up a copy of Jacoby’s book when it was published and read it in one or two nights. It’s a good read and very enlightening abouut the evolving place of atheism/agnosticism/skepticism in American life. Every reader of this blog should read it, especially if you’re not already informed about the history of American skepticism. Jacoby puts events of the last few decades in perspective and frankly gives one more optimism for the future than either Dawkins or Harris provide (I haven’t read Dennett yet).

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