Pharyngula

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Simon G.
    December 29, 2006

    I second that book! It’s very well-written, and fascinating. It’s so sad how far the USA has fallen from its original humanist ideals.

  2. #2 Christian Burnham
    December 29, 2006

    Yes, those comments are worth reading.

    Saying you’re an atheist in this country seems to elicit a worse reaction than admitting you’re a racist.

  3. #3 Rey Fox
    December 29, 2006

    I got about as far as the guy who said that atheists have a genetic flaw, and that knowledge of God is inborn but parents snuff it out before I decided to hit Back and spare my sanity.

    I wonder how long before some of them will show up here and try to god us into submission?

  4. #4 phat
    December 29, 2006

    You know, I have that book and haven’t read it yet. I’m going to have to read it now. I keep meaning to, but not much. And it’s still just a reaction to the conservative Christians.

    Jacoby is very good and her point about the openness of the debate is well-founded. It’s interesting, too, to consider that positions of a more liberal or progressive bent aren’t well represented in the popular discourse. But if you’re a liberal Christian, well, you get a little bit of the limelight.

    It’s funny, in another online forum we’ve had a few debates about this whole thing and the Christians seem to think they are being oppressed and insulted. One even went so far as to admit they didn’t like being called a Christian. It’s as if it was an insult. Now granted, they are likely in the minority in some manner on that message board. But we are in Nebraska. They are definately not in the minority in general.

    I’ll post this article on there and see what happens. I suppose I’ll get called pompous again. And the post-modernists, with whom I actually have some affinity with (from a lit-crit background) will get weird, too.

    I’ve recently dived into this whole thing again, so some of the debates are a bit striking.

    [/ramble]

    phat

  5. #5 phat
    December 29, 2006

    Aaagh! I hit preview and there still is something even I can’t correct now.

    Anyway, ignore the obvious gibberish in that previous post.

    phat

  6. #6 Bryson Brown
    December 29, 2006

    I agree that Jacoby’s book is considerably better than either Dawkin’s or Harris’. (In the case of Harris’, I was really put off by the strange excursion into middle-east politics & slagging Noam Chomsky). It’s wonderful to see such a clear account of the long and proud tradition of skepticism, agnosticism and atheism in U.S. history– something that is obviously unknown to far too many, given the tenor of the comments following Jacoby’s piece. But it’s painful to see how hard it is to get even token recognition of this point of view– Russert’s non-response reminds me, in a passive-aggressive sort of way, of Bush the elder’s infamous remark about atheist Americans…

  7. #7 John Lynch
    December 29, 2006

    As much as this might shock PZ …

    Yes, Jacoby’s book is very much worthwhile reading. Though I will say it deals with issues beyond atheism 🙂

  8. #8 John Lynch
    December 29, 2006

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

  9. #9 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.

    Donna

  10. #10 Fox1
    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?

    Wasn’t Madalyn Murray O’Hair regarded by the right as leading the evil atheist crusade for like, two decades? Combine that with the anecdotal link I’ve seen between railing against atheists and railing against feminists, and I would suggest that the opposition, at least, has no qualms linking women and atheism.

  11. #11 truth machine
    December 29, 2006

    Saying you’re an atheist in this country seems to elicit a worse reaction than admitting you’re a racist.

    Not so surprising considering that many of the reactions come from racists; one of the major functions of religion is to allow bad people to think they’re good.

  12. #12 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”.

  13. #13 phat
    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 don’t have any obvious evidence to show that. But I do have a strong suspicion.

    I don’t suppose I’ll apply for a grant to show it.

    But I know where I’d put my money if it came down to it.

    phat

  14. #14 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?

    phat

  15. #15 truth machine
    December 29, 2006

    I don’t have any obvious evidence to show that. But I do have a strong suspicion.

    Which differs from “perhaps” just how?

  16. #16 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.

    phat

  17. #17 truth machine
    December 29, 2006

    Some other influential and/or well known female nonbelievers:

    Susan B. Anthony
    Margaret Atwood
    Simone de Beauvoir
    Björk
    Susan Blackmore
    Susie Bright
    Elizabeth Cady-Stanton
    Patricia Churchland
    Marie Curie
    Ani DiFranco
    Phyllis Diller
    Barbara Ehrenreich
    Oriana Fallaci
    Jodie Foster
    Janeane Garofalo
    Nadine Gordimer
    Germaine Greer
    Angelina Jolie
    Katharine Hepburn
    Molly Ivins
    Diane Keaton
    Helen Keller
    Margot Kidder
    Florence King
    Ursula K. LeGuin
    Julianne Moore
    Madalyn Murray O’Hair
    Camille Paglia
    Katha Pollitt
    Paula Poundstone
    Robin Quivers
    Ayn Rand
    Lisa Randall
    Arundhati Roy
    Margaret Sanger
    Eugenie Scott
    Gloria Steinem
    Julia Sweeney
    Virginia Woolf

  18. #18 truth machine
    December 29, 2006

    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.

    Thanks for the lovely vague ad hominem strawman.

  19. #19 truth machine
    December 29, 2006

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

    You might want to actually read his post. But I imagine that you will “guess” that his “I wonder why” is really a statement that he knows why, and that his reasons are the same as yours.

  20. #20 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:

    http://www.slumdance.com/blogs/brian_flemming/archives/002417.html

    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.

  21. #21 truth machine
    December 29, 2006

    A review in the NY Times by Michael Kazin:

    http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9A0DE3D71639F932A05750C0A9629C8B63&n=Top%2fReference%2fTimes%20Topics%2fPeople%2fJ%2fJacoby%2c%20Susan

    Ms. Jacoby is no polemicist. She appreciates the pull of religion — as community and creed — while criticizing her own side for taking refuge in rational disdain…One lesson that secularists might draw from Ms. Jacoby’s challenging book is to pick battles they can win. The task of walling off state from church, synagogue or mosque has always been distinct from and far less marginal than the attempt to persuade Americans that religion is just a stew of unprovable myths.

  22. #22 Jud
    December 29, 2006

    Re the varieties of religious and non-religious experience, I’ve just run across this wonderful bit from the CV of R.F. Streater, a British physicist with a nice sense of humor:

    Religion –

    Agnostic (lapsed). Before that, atheist (non-practising).

    There’s lots to like in Streater’s pages, particularly for those interested in physics and applications of math to various issues of the day. Home page is http://www.mth.kcl.ac.uk/~streater/ .

  23. #23 J-Dog
    December 29, 2006

    Cool! Just one more thing Angelina and I have in common…

  24. #24 The Science Pundit
    December 29, 2006

    truth machine wrote:

    Some other influential and/or well known female nonbelievers:

    Don’t forget Acharya S.

  25. #25 KevinC
    December 29, 2006

    The Post does have a ‘reason section”, they publish a science section on Tuesdays (at least when I was growing up and delivered that CIA rag). It would be nice if they put it in Sundays though when they have more readers.

  26. #26 J. J. Ramsey
    December 29, 2006

    The Science Pundit: “Don’t forget Acharya S.”

    Acharya S may be a nonbeliever, but she’s still a credophile:

    http://forums.randi.org/showthread.php?postid=857739#post857739

  27. #27 quork
    December 29, 2006

    From the On Faith comments:

    Jason Bradfield:
    .
    Men like Greg Bahnsen and Gordon Clark, especially, have demolished atheism years ago. I have yet to see the atheist answer to the works of Gordon Clark.
    .
    http://trinityfoundation.org
    .
    As Bahnsen demonstrated in his debate with Gordon Stein, the atheistic worldview cannot account for the preconditions needed for any rational discourse.

    Gosh thanks, Mr. Bradfield, I was entirely unaware of that.

  28. #28 K. Michael Griffin
    December 29, 2006

    PZ,
    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.
    regards,
    Griff

  29. #29 decrepitoldfool
    December 29, 2006

    Our local paper has a “Values” section that is all about religion. Never seen a freethinker in that section.

  30. #30 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?

  31. #31 The Science Pundit
    December 29, 2006

    J.J.–
    Thanks for the link. It was informative. I should mention, though, that I wasn’t endorsing her work as I haven’t actually read it yet. It’s just that I’ve been on a “history of christianity” kick lately and she was on my radar screen. Even though she’s not as well known as Ayn Rand or Björk, I thought she belonged on truth’s list.

  32. #32 Jeff Chamberlain
    December 29, 2006

    A somewhat similar book I like is Doubt, A History, by Jennifer Michael Hecht.

  33. #33 Bryson Brown
    December 29, 2006

    Re. Bahnsen and ‘the preconditions of rational discourse’– of course, the religious explanation for these preconditions amounts to ‘goddidit’. Not exactly illuminating… By contrast, an evolutionary approach to the development of language and especially normative concepts (not to mention the development of the logical words themselves, by abstraction from lexical vocabulary) promises to arrive at a real explanation, and already constitutes a framework in which the normative can be seen to arise naturally, not in a puff of ‘fiat’.

  34. #34 Hank Fox
    December 29, 2006

    I’ll have to get Jacoby’s book.

    The Top 10 Myths About Evolution” is a new book by Cameron M. Smith and Charles Sullivan that’s worth a read.

    At the end, the authors say “To better understand the living world and our relationship to it, we need to battle the antiquated myths that distort our understanding of how evolution really works. And we need to battle the deliberately misleading arguments of religious ideologists who wish to replace the teachings of evolution with biblical literalism or theologically inspired ‘science.’ We hope that this book has equipped many for these battles.”

    The book has ten short chapters, is readable in a few hours, and lays out fairly clear arguments under chapters titles such as “It’s Just a Theory” and “The Missing Link” – and my two favorites: “Creationism Disproves Evolution” and “Intelligent Design Is Science” (remember, this is about MYTHS – wrong beliefs – surrounding evolution).

    The assertion that “religion and science can co-exist peacefully” comes into one of the chapters, and I wasn’t completely happy with that, but overall, it’s a nice little book.

  35. #35 Rey Fox
    December 29, 2006

    “The Top 10 Myths About Evolution”

    Gotta love the subversive title 😉

  36. #36 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.

  37. #37 quork
    December 29, 2006

    A somewhat similar book I like is Doubt, A History, by Jennifer Michael Hecht.

    I’ve read them both. They cover different time frames. The Hecht book covers everything from the dawn of history to the 20th century; the Jacoby book (IIRC) only covers U.S. history. I can recommend them both, but the Jacoby book has better scholarship and better writing.

  38. #38 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.

  39. #39 George
    December 29, 2006

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

    Anyone who goes on T.V. and reduces every topic to the stupidest level imaginable, which is what Russert does (like a good Catholic), is doing a real disservice and should be hounded off the air.

  40. #40 stogoe
    December 29, 2006

    Timmeh is just another dime-store propagater of the DC bubble.

  41. #41 J. J. Ramsey
    December 29, 2006

    The Science Pundit: “Thanks for the link. It was informative. I should mention, though, that I wasn’t endorsing her work as I haven’t actually read it yet. It’s just that I’ve been on a ‘history of christianity’ kick lately and she was on my radar screen. Even though she’s not as well known as Ayn Rand or Björk, I thought she belonged on truth’s list.”

    A word to the wise. As one who has looked at the Jesus-myth stuff, I have found that the scholarship at best involves a very forced reading of the texts, and at worst, it involves outright falsehoods. And I don’t mean trivial falsehoods, I mean huge whoppers. I remember reviewing for SkepticWiki Freke and Gandy’s book The Jesus Mysteries and checking its endnotes, and the level of intellectual dishonesty is astounding. In one case, I had trouble tracking down a statement attributed to Arnobius, and it turned out that this was because Freke & Gandy misquoted their source, who in turn misquoted his source! The god most blatantly misrepresented is Mithras. Not all the Jesus-mythers are this bad, but even the leading one, Doherty, has faced serious criticism.

    Sorry for the tangent, but since the Jesus-myth stuff had already been brought up ….

  42. #42 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

    cheers

    Andres Aullet

  43. #43 tikistitch
    December 29, 2006

    My fave comment to the Jacoby article:

    “Isn’t it fascinating that the voice of God always sounds suspiciously like one’s own voice?”

    Isn’t it fascinating that the voice of reason often sounds suspiciously like one’s own voice?

    Uh, yeah…..

  44. #44 Peanut Gallery
    December 29, 2006

    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.

    Myb Ssn Jcby nds t rmmbr tht th sbjct mttr ws Rlgn nd Pltcs NT Sclrsm nd Pltcs.

    r myb sh shld crt hr wn thst hldy (xymrn f crs) nstd f skng t dscrt th Chrstms Hldy wth hr chp n hr shldr.

    Bsds wht s sh cmplnng bt, ds sh nt hv hr pr jrnls t mk hr fl gd.

    [Hmmm…you guys must be kicking the Good Christian Man’s ass, because now he’s started changing his username, and I hadn’t even banned him yet!]

  45. #45 stogoe
    December 29, 2006

    All politics is secular. Besides, I’m sure she could keep her comments on topic. Whether or not religion should even be allowed anywhere near politics seems, to me at least, to be directly on-topic.

  46. #46 quork
    December 29, 2006

    Or maybe she should create her own atheist holiday (oxymoron of course) instead of seeking to desecrate the Christmas Holiday with her chip on her shoulder.

    You may have a point there. It would be obnoxious to subvert a holiday of another religion, complete with trappings, to serve a different cause.

  47. #47 Nes
    December 29, 2006

    Quork: Surely you wouldn’t be implicating that this holiday did such a thing, would you?

  48. #48 quork
    December 29, 2006

    Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!

  49. #49 The Ridger
    December 29, 2006

    Tangentially… you know, “holiday” means “day off” or “vacation” now. We have lots of holidays that have nothing to do with anybody’s religion – lots of them are related to wars of one sort or another (Memorial Day, Veterans Day, Independence Day) but not all (MLK, Presidents Day). Complaining that Christmas is a “holy day not a holiday” misses the point that language evolves and the argument from etymology is pretty damned silly – which, by the way, is from OE saelig meaning “happy”, so “Silly New Year!” everyone.

  50. #50 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).

  51. #51 Rey Fox
    December 29, 2006

    You sure that’s ACGM? It would explain the disdain for peer-reviewed journals. They’re so elitist, you know.

  52. #52 D
    December 29, 2006

    in a saner world there still wouldn’t be a ‘reason’ section, because reason would pervade the public discourse 🙂

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