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The Age of American Unreason

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I spied this book while browsing Amazon. It looks interesting to me and I'm going to sample the first chapter on my Kindle. Has anyone else heard of her or read any of her other books? This one seems to be a multi-tiered explanation of the assault on the American intellect and general dumbing down of the nation.

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Has anyone else heard of her or read any of her other books?

I read her book The Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. It was interesting. Basically, it describes different prominent figures in American History who have promoted secularism through actions or words. These individuals include, but are not limited to, Abraham Lincoln, Robert Ingersoll, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Justice Hugo Black and the like.

The main drawback of the book was her pro-Democratic economics views, which she gently interspersed throughout the work as if anyone who would read the book would agree that these values are self-evidently good. Nevertheless, I would still say that it is an interesting read, if you want to learn more about how religious various important figures in American History were.

Although I have not really explored into the subject, my perception is that "freethinkers" is an attempt to turn atheism from a negative belief into a positive belief. "Freethinking" seems to stand for valuing the separation of church and state, being pro-science and embracing secular arguments for altruism.

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She seems to think it goes a bit beyond that. (I haven't read her books, so I'm only basing this on a quick perusal of some Google hits.)


In the above, Jacoby describes freethinking as "resistance to ecclesiastical authority." To her, it's a social/political movement more than a philosophical stance. Not all freethinkers are atheists, and she specifically pegs Ayn Rand as a non-freethinker. (On that grounds that she's a "right-wing Social Darwinist," on par with Mencken.)

I've had her book Freethinkers on my shelf for a while. It just became a bit less interesting.

-- SpiralTheorist --

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She seems to think it goes a bit beyond that.

After reading the article you have provided, I would agree that she does think the movement goes beyond that. I suppose that I overlooked this fact when I first read her book.

This is the definition provided from Wikipedia:

Freethought is a philosophical viewpoint that holds that beliefs should be formed on the basis of science and logic and not be influenced by emotion, authority, tradition, or any dogma. The cognitive application of freethought is known as freethinking, and practitioners of freethought are known as freethinkers.

This is a larger quote from the Susan Jacoby article:

I would like to correct a common misapprehension, expressed in many comments over the past few months, about the relationship between American freethought and atheism. Freethought refers to a movement, rooted not in atheism but in resistance to ecclesiastical authority, that extended, roughly from the late 17th century until the early 1920s. The lovely words "freethought" and "freethinker," which first entered the English language in the 1690s, are somewhat archaic--though I believe they are enjoying a modest revival as a result of my book.

American freethought has run the gamut from deism--belief in a God who set the universe in motion but takes no active role in the affairs of men--to outright atheism. Freethinkers are not necessarily atheists (neither Thomas Paine nor Thomas Jefferson were atheists, but both were freethinkers), and atheists are not necessarily freethinkers. The novelist Ayn Rand and the satirist H.L. Mencken, both well-known for their atheism, were devotees not of the democratic freethought tradition but, ultimately, of right-wing social Darwinism.

She seems to both aggrandize and obfuscate what freethought is. I suspect that the concept Susan Jacoby denotes by the word "science" is much more broader than the concept that an Objectivist would denote with the word "science". Specifically, her concept probably includes Kant's views on metaphysics and epistemology.

In general, I am initially very skeptical of anyone who claims an absolute need to adhere to "science" and "logic" while leaving what constitutes a valid epistemology or metaphysics open for interpretation.

Edited by DarkWaters
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