Oct 232013

Freethinkers Susan Jacoby FULL

 Tom Flynn, Executive Director of the Counsel for Secular Humanism and editor of their Free Inquiry magazine, is a 30-year veteran in the humanist/atheist struggle. A few years ago in an article titled, Why I don’t Believe in the New Atheism, he relayed some useful insights.

The article corrects the record by establishing Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism as the forgotten opening salvo in the literary debut of the New Atheism.

However, his article’s main thesis is that the only thing “new” about the New Atheism is its source. The anti-religious arguments found in their books have been made by generation after generation of freethinkers. Nevertheless, regarding New Atheism:

“Something new was afoot, but it was only this: for the first time, uncompromising atheists writing was coming out from big-name publishers and hitting best-seller lists. You could buy it at the airport.”

Flynn does not dig into what caused this change in mainstream media strategy nor does he identify the media conglomerates behind New Atheism. Moreover, he neglects to mention that coterminous with New Atheism’s literary debut was the appearance of a spate of pro-atheist stories in network television programs and in the pages of glossy magazines. This coverage focussed on the “Four Horsemen” of New Atheism (Harris, Dennett, Dawkins and Hitchens) and was often rationalized with references to the popularity of their respective recent books.

Suffice it to say: circa 2003 Big Media embraced Big Atheism big time. The books forming New Atheism’s Pentateuch are:

Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers (May 2004, Holtzbrinck)

Sam Harris’s The End of Faith (August 2004, W.W. Norton)

Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell (February 2006, Bertelsmann-Pearson)

Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion (September 2006, Houghton Mifflin)

Christopher Hitchens’s God is not Great (May 2007, published by Atlantic but distributed by Lagardere)

Of the above publishing ventures only Harris’s W.W. Norton claims to be a smallish independent firm – putting out a paltry 400 titles a year. (In any event, Harris quickly jumped ship; his subsequent books being published by CBS and Bertelsmann.) The remaining books were projects of huge diversified media concerns whose book publishing divisions carry on business through hundreds of different imprints.

Evidence of Big Media collusion is found in the fact that the first three books were written simultaneously while the latter two must have been at least in the planning stages before the ink of the first three had dried.

While the main target for ridicule in these books is America’s “Religious Right” (i.e. the Republican Party’s voter base), the corporate towers from whence these books emanated are mainly situated in Old Europa.

Nonetheless Jacoby’s Freethinkers remains a must-read and not merely because it was the first of the Pentateuch. Freethinkers provides something none of the other four books even attempt to assay – a history of America’s non-believer movement.

This is a movement without a memory. Wave upon wave of atheistic activism has crashed upon the shore yet few within the contemporary movement are cognizant of this. Time after time, such as in the wake of the 1925 Scopes monkey trial, American secularists have celebrated the slaying of the theocratic dragon only to have the next generation of secularists ride out afresh to confront the same dragon.

Not even the amnesia is new. The leader of the mid-19th century surge of anti-religious activism, William Garrison, was unawares Thomas Paine led a similar crusade sixty years before. Fifty years later an even greater wave of agnostic activism was led by the hugely popular Robert Ingersoll – a man since christened: “the most famous American no one ever heard of.” Collective amnesia does not just happen; it is caused.

Freethinkers also chronicles the interaction between America’s feminist and atheist movements. Women have always played prominent roles within the freethinking milieu and freethinking women have been among the most effective feminist agitators.

As well, only by reading Freethinkers can one properly ponder why Susan Jacoby was not welcomed into the corporate boy band billed as the Four Horsemen…

Back in tha’ day the common dismissive about the New Left was: “it is neither.” As one circumnavigates New Atheism one wonders whether the same quip might again apply.


Book Club will be reading Freethinkers in November.   Our book club tab has more information. 

 Posted by at 8:56 AM