Women in Secularism: Interview with Susan Jacoby

Photo Credit: Chris Ramirez

Women in Secularism 3 is only five weeks away. The speakers list includes, in addition to myself, our very own Amy and Debbie as well as the previously-interviewed Lindsay Beyerstein. Today, I am honored to present my interview with Susan Jacoby. To call her an accomplished freethinking writer and journalist would be an understatement. Personally speaking, her book, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism was not only the first female-authored book on non-belief I read, but the first I had encountered that took a comprehensive and historical look at America’s history of non-belief. Here are her thoughts on the history and present of freethought, secularism, literature, and journalism.

Your work addresses, among other things, the often neglected history of freethought and secularism in the United States. If you could eradicate one misconception about that history from the minds of all Americans, which would it be?

I would most like to eradicate the false mantra of the religious right: that the United States was founded as a “Christian nation.” At the time the Constitution was written, the majority of Americans were indeed, overwhelmingly, practicing Christians of various denominations. But the founders did not want to transform a people composed of many religious beliefs into a nation in which laws supported any one form of Christianity — or any religion. The Constitution does not say a word about Christ or any other deity. This was, in fact, a subject of considerable debate at state ratifying conventions. Attempts to amend the Constitution to acknowledge God or Jesus Christ as the source of all governmental power cropped up regularly, and were defeated, throughout the nineteenth century (most notably during the Civil War). These amendments would never have been proposed had the founders established a Christian nation in the first place; they were proposed precisely because the Constitution does not establish a Christian nation/government. Abraham Lincoln, when presented with a draft by Protestant ministers who wanted to add not only God but also Jesus Christ to the Constitution, replied cagily that he would “take such action upon it as my responsibility to my Maker and our country demands.” His wise action was to take no action at all.

Helen Gurley Brown
Helen Gurley Brown

You have written for a number of incredible number of diverse publications, some considered general interest and some considered to be for a particular target market. Have you faced any kind of backlash for having written for more female- or pop culture- oriented publications?

Unless you are an heiress to a fortune, or have written a blockbuster softcore porn fantasy success like Fifty Shades of Grey, you have to find a way to pay for the years it takes to write a serious book on intellectual history, atheism, or whatever your concern is. While I have, over the years, written for many women’s magazines (when they existed as financially viable publications), most of my career has been spent writing for general-interest magazines and newspapers in order to finance the long years it takes to write books. The person I owe the most is the late Helen Gurley Brown, the founder and long-time editor of Cosmopolitan, for paying me enough for articles on such subjects such as relationships between adult siblings to finance my research on American intellectual history.

In recent years, my books have fared much better commercially than they did earlier in my career. Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, published in 2004, was the first book I ever wrote that earned back its advance. I like to think that the culture has caught up with me.

Having spoken and held leadership positions in both literary and freethought circles, what do you think those in freethought can learn from the literary side, and vice versa?

Somehow, I don’t really see any “leadership positions” in either freethought or literary circles. As a freethinker and atheist, I consider it my responsibility to explain secularism to people who may not be familiar with such concepts. One of the worst things about the secular movement today (indeed, about all movements based on ideas) is that we tend to talk only to those who already agree with us.

Robert G. Ingersoll
Robert Green Ingersoll

This question seems to imply a division between “freethought” and “literature” that doesn’t really exist. For that matter, I don’t think it exists if you substitute the word “religion” for freethought. Robert Green Ingersoll, the most important freethought leader in nineteenth-century America, was a passionate lover of Shakespeare; his lectures on Shakespeare were as popular as his lectures excoriating religion. The spirit of inquiry and free imagination are the essence of both freethought and all real literature. I don’t mean that there aren’t and haven’t been great writers who are also religious, but simply that there is no great literature that does not honor the free mind. This is why, for instance, I don’t consider Ayn Rand either a freethinker or a good (forget great) writer. She doesn’t honor the free mind but instead preaches a frozen ideology of selfishness (not individualism) enshrouded in as stultifying an ideology as any form of religious fundamentalism.

In 2011, you wrote about how the rise in profile for secularists in the United States had not been matched by a rise in influence for said secularists. Do you believe that the situation has changed during the ensuing years?

In 2011, I wrote a piece for The New York Times in which I said that the increase in the number of Americans who don’t identify with any church and who hold a predominantly secular view of public affairs had not led to a corresponding increase in secular influence over public affairs. I do not think this situation has changed significantly.

To give a very specific political example, one of the main reasons there has been no real progress on progressive legislation in Washington is the disproportionate representation in the House of Representatives by legislators who come from noncompetitive districts dominated by political and religious conservatives. These districts and states are much less competitive in non-presidential election years, because the young, women, and minorities come out to vote in much smaller numbers. Secularist organizations should, in particular, be active in getting more young voters to the polls. The young are much more opposed than the middle-aged and old to the imposition of religion on public policy.

The rift between, to somewhat generalize the matter, Ayn Rand atheists and humanist atheists is something you have remarked upon in the past. Are there any other areas where you feel there are divisions among the secular? Without a centralized authority or scripture under which to unite, what are some ways you think the non-religious can work together?

Secularists, as many polls have shown, tend to be, as a group, more politically “progressive” than religious Americans, but that’s a very gross analysis. The polls also show that there is very little difference between secularists and the majority of lay American Catholics on issues like contraception, abortion, divorce, and gay rights, though there is a big difference between the average American Catholic and the conservative church hierarchy.

I think that secularists and atheists, in addition to promoting their own goals individually and through their own organizations, should join with any other groups, religious or not, on issues where we agree. Organizations like American United for Separation of Church and State, whose executive director is a minister of the United Church of Christ, also fight for our goals, which include everything from beating back the fundamentalist attack on the teaching of real science and history in public schools to seeing that federal funds are spent by secular, rather than unconstitutional religious, rules.

I’ve been called a “soft” atheist for believing in this kind of cooperation. I think this distinction between “soft” and “hard” atheists is nonsense. I am both an atheist and a secularist and, as I’ve written before, I think every atheist should stop backing away from what is still, in America, a naughty word. And I do mean women, who tend to be even more reluctant than men to drop the non-euphemisms for “atheist.”

If you’re a secularist who isn’t an atheist, fine. But if you’re both, stand up and say so. I have two nieces who aren’t shy about calling themselves atheists, and, in this respect, I do think the prospects for the secular movement have improved in recent years. Nice girls do say the A-word.

Heina Dadabhoy

Heina Dadabhoy [hee-na dad-uh-boy] spent her childhood as a practicing Muslim who never in her right mind would have believed that she would grow up to be an atheist feminist secular humanist, or, in other words, a Skepchick. She has been an active participant in atheist organizations and events in and around Orange County, CA since 2007. She is currently writing A Skeptic's Guide to Islam. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

Related Articles

One Comment

  1. This is fantastic. Thank you for the interview. And thank you, Susan Jacoby. I read “Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism” in 2006 and it was an eye-opening experience, more so than other secularist/atheist books coming out at the time. Until then, I hadn’t realized just how much American history had been left out of my history classes, and how much influence secularists had on the women’s rights movement and on civil rights in general.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to top button