Freethinkers by Susan Jacoby

A noted author of several books as well as articles in such publications as The Washington Post, The New York Times, Newsday, and Vogue, Susan Jacoby  ( attempts to set the record straight by demonstrating just what sort of role both individual freethinkers as well as more general movements and groups have had on significant aspects of American history. Many people today recognize that at least in some of its guises, religion can be a tenacious and even violent impediment to social progress and liberty.

At the same time, though, they will also argue that “true” religion, when “properly understood,” can actually aid the causes of progress and liberty. Perhaps this is so – but it would be a serious error to think that religion is a necessary aid. Religion is, by its very nature, a conservative institution. It is a repository of the values, beliefs, morals, and practices of our ancestors and of generations gone by. Those values and practices can provide stability to society and they can certainly create a safe shelter during troubled periods. At the same time, though, those same values and practices can act as lead weights which inhibit progress and improvement.

What Jacoby’s book teaches us is that some of the most important figures in American history who pushed for liberty and reform regarded religion as an obstacle to progress, and thus regarded their fight as being against traditional religion as much as it was in favour of some improvement for society. This is not to say that they were all atheists, although some certainly were; but in so many cases their beliefs were so unorthodox that their contemporaries regarded them as being no different from atheists. Aside from their unorthodox beliefs and religious skepticism, there seems to be one other feature which most of the people and organizations in Susan Jacoby’s book have in common: they are largely forgotten (or, if not forgotten, then their beliefs are downplayed and ignored). This is a most valuable study of the whole subject.

417 pages in Owl Books paperback edition.

ISBN 978-0805077766

Susan Jacoby
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