excerpts from the book


a history of American secularism

by Susan Jacoby

a Metropolitan/Owl book, 2004, paper


American freethinkers have included deists, who, like many of the founding fathers, believed in a "watchmaker God" who set the universe in motion but subsequently took no active role in the affairs of men; agnostics; and unabashed atheists. 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 adduced from the natural world. It was this conviction, rooted in Enlightenment philosophy ...

Thomas Paine, the preeminent and much-admired literary propagandist of the Revolution, was the first American freethinker to be labeled an atheist, denigrated both before and after his death, and deprived of his proper place in American history. In 1776, Paine's clarion call for steadfast patriotism in dark times-"the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman"-had inspired his countrymen in every corner of the former colonies. But memories of Paine the patriot would long be obscured by denunciations of his heretical views. In The Age of Reason he put forth the astonishing idea that Christianity, like all other religions, was an invention of man rather than God. Paine died a pauper and, nearly eight decades later, would still be subjected to slurs by such eminent personages as Theodore Roosevelt, who dismissed him as a "filthy little atheist... that apparently esteems a bladder of dirty water as the proper weapon with which to assail Christianity. " Were it not for the unremitting efforts of Ingersoll, who, despite his nineteenth-century fame and notoriety, is ignored in standard American history texts, Paine's vital contributions to the revolutionary cause might have suffered the same fate.

... The only freethinkers who have received their due in American history are Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, in spite of the fact that they were denigrated by their Calvinist contemporaries as atheists, heretics, and infidels (then understood in its literal, original sense-unfaithful ones). It is impossible to consign former presidents or the authors of the nation's secular scriptures to a historical limbo.

Thus, Jefferson, Madison, and, to a lesser extent, George Washington, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin pose a vexing problem for twentieth-century political, religious, and social conservatives intent on simultaneously enshrining the founding fathers and denying their intention to establish a secular government.

According to a nationwide opinion poll of Americans' religious identification, conducted by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York the fastest-growing "religious" group in the United States is composed of those who do not subscribe to any faith. From 1990 to 2001, the number of the unchurched more than doubled, from 14.3 million to 29.4 million. Approximately 14 percent of Americans, compared with only 8 percent in 1990, have no formal ties to religion. Sixteen percent, and it is reasonable to assume that they make up essentially the same group as the unchurched, describe their outlook on the world as entirely or predominantly secular.

In a nationwide opinion poll released in the summer of 2003, fully half of Americans said that they would refuse to vote for an atheist for president - regardless of his or her other qualifications. Lincoln, who refused to join a church even though his political advisers - clearly not all-powerful "handlers" in the modern sense - argued that formal religious affiliation would improve his chances of election, might well be unacceptable as a major party presidential candidate today.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the eminent leader of the nineteenth-century woman suffrage movement, was censured by her fellow suffragists and all but written out of the movement's official record after the 1895 publication of her Woman's Bible, which excoriated organized Christianity for its role in justifying the subjugation of women. Only in the 1980S, when a new generation of feminist scholars rediscovered Stanton, was her reputation revived.

... secularists are not value-free; their values are simply grounded in earthly concerns rather than in anticipation of heavenly rewards or fear of infernal punishments. No one in public life today upholds secularism and humanism in the uncompromising terms used by Ingersoll more than 125 years ago. "Secularism teaches us to be good here and now," Ingersoll declared. "I know nothing better than goodness. Secularism teaches us to be just here and now. It is impossible to be juster than just .... Secularism has no 'castles in Spain.' It has no glorified fog. It depends upon realities, upon demonstrations; and its end and aim is to make this world better every day-to do away with poverty and crime, and to cover the world with happy and contented homes."'

from The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine

Every national church or religion has established itself by pretending some special mission from God, communicated to certain individuals. The Jews have their Moses; the Christians their Jesus Christ, their apostles and saints; and the Turks their Mahomet, as if the way to God were not open to every man alike.


Each of these churches show certain books, which they call revelation, or the Word of God. The Jews say that their Word of God was given by God to Moses; face to face; the Christians say that their Word of God came by divine inspiration; and the Turks say that their Word of God (the Koran) was brought by an angel from heaven. Each of those churches accuses the other of unbelief; and for my own part, I disbelieve them all.

Thomas Jefferson, notes on Virginia (1784)
... Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What have been the effects of coercion? To make one half of the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and terror all over the earth. Let us reflect that it is inhabited by a thousand millions of people. That these profess probably a thousand different systems of religion. That ours is but one of that thousand.

As always, war (WWI) had lowered the level of American tolerance for any kind of dissent; the difference between the First World War and previous conflicts was the presence of an immensely larger and more powerful federal apparatus to seek out and punish dissidents. Darrow later described the Red Scare as "an era of tyranny, brutality, and despotism, that, for the time at least, undermined the foundations upon which our republic was laid." Pacifists and socialists, including some, like Debs, who had merely spoken out against the war and others, like Baldwin, who had actually resisted the draft, went to jail under the Espionage Act of 1917. A sedition clause added in 1918, modeled after the notorious Sedition Act of 1798, prohibited .any disloyal,. . . scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States." The scope of the law was so broad that the justice Department brought more than two thousand prosecutions, which sent nine hundred people to jail, during the nineteen months of America's participation in the war.

The sermons of Norman Vincent Peale, Billy Graham, and Fulton Sheen, delivered from television studios as well as traditional pulpits, proclaimed the doctrine of American exceptionalism, imbued with the conviction that God had selected America as the beneficiary of His special blessings.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia

"... the more Christian a country is the less likely it is to regard the death penalty as immoral. Abolition [of capital punishment] has taken its firmest hold in post-Christian Europe, and has least support in the church-going United States. I attribute that to the fact that, for the believing Christian, death is no big deal."

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