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Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism

4.05  ·  Rating details ·  4,440 ratings  ·  193 reviews
"Jacoby accomplishes her task with clarity, thoroughness, and an engaging passion."
-Los Angeles Times Book Review

At a time when the separation of church and state is under attack as never before, Freethinkers offers a powerful defense of the secularist heritage that gave Americans the first government in the world founded not on the authority of religion but on the bedro
Paperback, 370 pages
Published January 1st 2005 by Holt McDougal (first published April 5th 2004)
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 ·  4,440 ratings  ·  193 reviews

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Matthew Wesley
Sep 07, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book was a shock to me in many ways. I was unaware of the very early opposition to the godless constitution of the United States. Quite unrealistically, I had thought the cultural wars debating the role of religion in government and the role of government in religion originated in the 20th century.

The book also introduced me to the works of Col. Robert Ingersoll, who seems to be an amazing speaker on the topics of religion, government, and liberty. I am quite appreciative that I have found
Jan 10, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: everyone
Shelves: religion
I get so weary of hearing people say that the United States of America is a Christian nation. It is not.

Freethinkers explains this essential fact in an interesting fashion.

Susan Jacoby chronicles secularist thought from the revolutionary period until the present, bringing it to life by profiling Americans like Bob Ingersoll, "The Great Agnostic."

I strongly recommend this book to everyone. Those who believe that the USA is a Christian nation will learn that it is not; those who know the truth w
Jan 29, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, philosophy
This is an excellent and fair history of American secularism. Susan Jacoby reclaims American history from the religious right. She writes of freethinkers, deists, atheists, agnostics and other dissenters and their involvement in the drafting of the constitution, the abolition and suffragist movements, the progressive and freethinker movements, and the attacks on secularism from the red scare, the Scopes Trial and McCarthyism. This is a great book for those that have bought the lie that the US is ...more
Jakob J.
Nov 02, 2011 rated it really liked it
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I cannot overstate how insightful, useful and dare I say, necessary ‘Freethinkers’ truly is. Not only does Jacoby lay out the best defense of secular values that has ever been written (with the possible exception of the Constitution itself), but she also offers an extremely thorough account of American history through the vision of some of America’s most important figures from the past and present.

It is strange to think, how even the late-nineteenth c
Lukas Sotola
Mar 27, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
A brilliant, insightful work of history that covers an immense amount of ground in a surprisingly small space. Anyone who thinks that the United States is a "Christian country" or that religious leaders were the primary movers in fights for social justice--from the feminist movement to the abolitionist movement to the Civil Rights movement of the '60s and '70s--should read this book. The truth is that the United States has a rich tradition of freethinkers who were completely secular, often criti ...more
Joshua Buhs
Mar 21, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: history, non-fiction
I appreciate the point of view of this book, and it is truly sad that no one could, today, stand up and celebrate America's secular foundations.

Having said that, the book is not particularly interesting or persuasive. It is a history of so-called forgotten freethinkers (read secular humanists), although I am not sure the degree to which Thomas Paine and William Garrison are forgotten or ignored. (I'll give her Ingersoll.) Nor am I sure the degree to which Abraham Lincoln's conflicted views of re
Jun 24, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: atheism-religion
Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism by Susan Jacoby

"Freethinkers" is a fascinating historical account of the role of freethinkers in United States. This book provides an important narrative of the impact of freethinkers in the creation of the first secular government in the world. This 448-page book is composed of the following twelve chapters: 1. Revolutionary Secularism, 2. The Age of Reason and Unreason, 3. Lost Connections: Anticlericalism, Abolitionism, and Feminism, 4. The Beli
May 14, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism presents Susan Jacoby’s cheerful, well-informed voice in a great review of American history from a secular and liberal point of view, extending from Thomas Paine to George W. Bush. Jacoby is quite clear in showing that many conservative values – anti-abortion, anti-communism, pro-guns, anti-science, and others – stem from the belief that the Christian religion should be a dominant force in American government.

Jacoby begins with the stories of Thomas
Feb 03, 2010 rated it really liked it
This book makes a good follow up to Jennifer Michael Hecht's book Doubt: A History: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson. Freethinkers is both an engaging treatment of the influence of secularist thought through American history and an impassioned polemic against the dangers of mixing religious and political power. Despite her passion for secular government and her clearly evident lack of religious belief, Jacoby treats ...more
Dec 08, 2010 rated it really liked it
Excellent introductory history. I feel cheated that I never learned about the contributions of Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Lucretia Mott in more than a glossed-over fashion in my American history studies, nor of Robert Green Ingersoll at all.

These people, along with a host of better-known names such as Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, as well as other lesser-knowns, had the courage of their convictions despite the social pressures of living in an overtly religious society. One point Jacoby's bo
Igor Faynshteyn
Sep 06, 2013 rated it really liked it
In this book, Susan Jacoby examines the beginnings of United States as a nation through historical perspective, chiefly focused on its secular roots and its founding fathers. From the beginning of the book, it becomes obvious and clear that the book is thoroughly researched with rich information, including many quotations from such people as Paine, Jefferson, Ingersoll, Stanton, Goldman and many more. It is through quotes and their interpretation/analysis that Susan Jacoby is able to construct a ...more
Apr 03, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Before I started reading this book I was afraid that it might be more an anti-religion tirade than a history book. I'm happy to say that my assumption was unfounded. Jacoby's history of secularism in America is well researched, mostly unbiased, and nicely written. When she occasionally strays away from straight history and into editorialism, her thoughts are well thought out and soundly argued. It isn't until the final chapter, however, that she really steps completely out of history and into pe ...more
Stephie Iris Williams
May 02, 2015 rated it really liked it
I felt it was a real good book on the history of freethought and secularism in American history. Although, working from mostly secondary sources, Jacoby presents a readable volume on how the enlightment of rational thinking has influenced poltics in America. She kept the narative going with understandable prose, good characteristics for any writer, but especially for one who is writing about more complex subject matter. Her conclusion for modern day freethinkers is not encouraging. It seems like ...more
Tyler Anderson
Jan 18, 2010 rated it it was ok
I'm taking a break from this book. It's not long, but it's been kind of a slog for me, and I have trouble getting very far at a stretch. The information is relatively interesting, but the writing seems to wander around, almost verging on "filler" at times. It also has the timbre of a condescending talk-radio monologue; it's sprinkled with asides that might have been framed as interesting comparisons, but instead come across as prissy freshman self-righteousness. I might finish it later, maybe I' ...more
Mitch Rogers
Jul 22, 2018 rated it really liked it
A great book that not only explains the role of religion and non-religion in American history but also maps out the coalitions of sects and societies that have formed and realigned repeatedly in our history. At times Jacoby does get polemical, but the history itself remains rock solid.
May 21, 2019 added it
Great book!
Joseph Stieb
Jul 08, 2014 rated it really liked it
Jacoby's history of American secularism is an openly polemical book with a clear agenda. She wants to bring out the strong secular undercurrent in many key parts of American history, most importantly the founding. Overall the book is a success in this regard, presenting a side of history that most Americans probably don't think about. As a secularist myself, it's empowering to see that "my people" have their own history and traditions in America. Jacoby helps modern secularists arm themselves wi ...more
mad mags
Oct 12, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: reviewed
The history of America is the history of American secularism.

In FREETHINKERS: A HISTORY OF AMERICAN SECULARISM, author Susan Jacoby traces the origins and development of freethought in America – and demonstrates how the history of America is intimately intertwined with the history of American secularism.

Starting with the American Revolution and working through American history up to the present day Bush administration, Jacoby offers a concise - but colorful! – overview of secularism, freethough
Mar 07, 2014 rated it it was amazing
A solid (albeit a trifle long) history of atheism, agnosticism, secularism, and 'free thinkers' in America. I knew some of this history, but much of it was new to me. If anything, this book has reinforced the necessity for a separation of religion and government in my mind, something that, in recent years, has faded a bit from my thinking. The Founders did not set out to create a Christian nation. Teaching evolution in schools is not something that is controversial outside the fever swamp of fun ...more
NJ Wong
Jan 20, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Reading this book reminded me of the book "Doubt: A History" by Jennifer Michael Hecht. Both books are about the history of free thought, but Susan Jacoby's book is intensely focused on the happenings in the US, while Jennifer Hecht's book has a global scope. Both books are equally delightful.

The strangest thing about the US today is its great religious (read Christian) fervour, sometimes bordering the intensity of that of Islamic countries. Yet, the US is a country founded on secular terms, and
Aug 18, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Jacoby states the case for the necessity of secularism in our society. Through the lives of American secularists, she shows the unending struggle to keep the separation of church and state. Some of the lives highlighted are Thomas Paine, William Lloyd Garrison, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Abraham Lincoln, Robert G. Ingersoll, Emma Goldman, and Clarence Darrow.
Ingersoll is one of the more remarkable figures of American history, all the more so as he is almost completely forgotten today. Perhaps the
Dec 16, 2015 rated it it was amazing
All men and women are created equal.

"We are laying the foundations of the grand temple of the future -not the temple of all gods, but of all people -wherein, with appropriate rites, will be celebrated the religion of Humanity. We are doing what little we can to hasten the coming of the day when society shall cease producing millionaires and mendicants -gorged indolence and famished industry -truth in rags, and superstition robed and crowned. We are looking for the time when useful shall be the h
Jan 11, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I took this book as the rallying cry it was meant to be. If you read it and emerge from it apathetic, then you are truly lost. "Secularists", atheists, and their ilk should understand that they should not be interested only in themselves or their own causes, but in the causes of all of humanity, religious and nonreligious. Assaults on science and secularism threaten to undermine not just the civil liberties and the average intelligence of Americans, but the entire moral code of the nation. How c ...more
Paul Fidalgo
Jan 10, 2009 rated it really liked it
Truly eye-opening. You can not only see how secularists and nonbelievers have been written out of our history, but how it is happening before our eyes today. Even more alarming, is the process by which religious interests of today claim the successes and sacrifices of yesterday's secularists for themselves. Read this and see history differently. ...more
Brian Steed
Great topic, but I remember finding this one a bit of a slog to get through. Some scattered vignettes of interest, but Jacoby’s prose sometimes came a little too close to sweeping hyperbole, which doesn’t do justice to the subject.
Dec 30, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Everyone
I learned so much and could not stop turning the pages. So much good done by reality based independent thinkers.
Jinxi Caddel
Sep 25, 2009 rated it it was amazing
A must-read for freethinkers!!
Jan 24, 2021 rated it it was amazing
I read Freethinkers shortly after it was published, and so some of my review will be asked on fuzzy memory. But the lessons from this book have staid with me. What I had seen as a conflict or tension specific to my time, I now understand as part of a long running tension between two ways of thinking that had have been part of America since its founding. This kind of historical perspective was very new to me, and having now glimpsed it I want to preach it to others.

And while I learned some things
Sarah Wagner
Nov 16, 2018 rated it really liked it
If anything, this book is a bit dated (it was published in 2004), but the issues the author details about debates regarding the separation of church and state are still relevant today. As someone who often aligns more with a secular approach to most issues, this book is refreshing and inspiring in its journey through the secular history of the United States and its focus on the well-known (like Jefferson and Lincoln) and the less well-know (like Thomas Paine and Robert Ingersoll) as a very Ameri ...more
Jack Greenrose
Mar 22, 2018 rated it really liked it
Susan Jacoby knows her history. This is a very interestingly written package about the life and struggles of secularists and feminists of the yesteryear. The only minus is that the book was published in 2004 and a lot has happened in 14 years: the rise and fall of ISIS, suppression of criticism of Islam in Europe, crazy yet secular Social Justice Warrior and crackpot postmodernist feminist activism with their trigger warnings and safe spaces. Under the light of these contemporary phenomena, some ...more
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Susan Jacoby is an independent scholar and best-selling author. The most recent of her seven previous books is The Age of American Unreason. She lives in New York City.

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