October 01, 2014

Women of Doubt: Susan Jacoby is an enemy of irrationality in every form

Want to see the other Women of Doubt in this series? Click here.

photo credit: susanjacoby.com

Today, we are highlighting an author that I have not yet read, but am truly looking forward to reading--Susan Jacoby.

I am certain that I will be revisiting Jacoby as I dig into her work, but for now, let's take a look at this woman of doubt, and her contributions and influence.

While Jacoby's work spans over nearly five decades, the book that brought her on my radar is consistently included in lists of "must-reads" for new nonbelievers:

Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (2004), was hailed in The New York Times as an "ardent and insightful work" that "seeks to rescue a proud tradition from the indifference of posterity." Named a notable nonfiction book of 2004 by The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times, Freethinkers was cited in England as one of the outstanding international books of the year by the Times Literary Supplement and The Guardian. Freethinkers was featured in an interview on NOW with Bill Moyers. 1

Wikipedia describes her life far better than I could, honestly:

Jacoby, who began her career as a reporter for The Washington Post, has been a contributor to a variety of national publications, including The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The American Prospect, Mother Jones, The Nation, Glamour, and the AARP Bulletin and AARP Magazine. She is currently a panelist for "On Faith," a Washington Post-Newsweek blog on religion. As a young reporter she lived for two years in the USSR. 
Raised in a Roman Catholic home (her mother was from an Irish Catholic family), Jacoby was 24 before she learned that her father, Robert, had been born into a Jewish family. Jacoby explored these roots in her 2000 book Half-Jew: A Daughter's Search for Her Family's Buried Past
Her book Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism was named a notable book of 2004 by The Washington Post and The New York Times. It was also named an Outstanding International Book of the Year by the Times Literary Supplement (London) and The Guardian. Wild Justice: The Evolution of Revenge (1984) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Jacoby also won an Alicia Patterson Journalism Fellowship in 1974 to research and write about the new Americans: immigration into the U.S.
In The Age of American Unreason (2008) Jacoby contends that the dumbing down of America, which she describes as "a virulent mixture of anti-rationalism and low expectations", is more a permanent state than a temporary one whose basis is the top down influence of false populist politicians striving to be seen as approachable instead of intelligent. She writes that the increasing use of colloquial and casual language in official speech, such as referring to everyone as "folks", is "symptomatic of a debasement of public speech inseparable from a more general erosion of American cultural standards" and "conveys an implicit denial of the seriousness of whatever issue is being debated: talking about folks going off to war is the equivalent of describing rape victims as girls."
In February 2010 she was named to the Freedom From Religion Foundation's Honorary Board of distinguished achievers. Also in 2010, she was awarded The Richard Dawkins Award by Atheist Alliance International.
Jacoby asserts that the contributions of secularists to American history has been mostly edited out of our history by the religious right, an assertion I whole-heartedly agree with:

Jacoby has spoken about the important role secularism played in the development of political and social events in the history of the United States, and she has argued that this fact is often written out of American history by the religious right. One of the most important events in which Jacoby believes secularism played an enormous part was the writing of the United States Constitution. She has explained that it is a false claim that the founders of the United States intended the government to be religious. She believes instead that they were strongly in favor of the separation of Church and State, and that they purposely omitted the word God from the Constitution, partly influenced by the horrors occurred in places such as France under non-secular rule, as well as inspired by the ideas of the Age of Enlightenment. 
The idea that a secular government is, in fact, necessary for the existence of religious liberty, has also been defended by Susan Jacoby. She has suggested that the religiosity of the American people, as well as the proliferation of different religious denominations in the United States, are examples of situations that have occurred precisely thanks to the existence of a non-secular system. Jacoby has said that the separation of church and state offered people the possibility to disagree with their church without having to oppose the established political order, which would have been impossible under a system where church and state were united.

Jacoby's work covers a wide variety of subjects, most recently tackling aging in Never Say Die. I can't wait to read some of it, and after writing this, I would probably dig right in if I did not currently have three books going. Alas, it will be a reading for another day, and that's starting to feel like the story of my life.

A prolific author who is visibly fighting the good fight against the irrationalism of our culture? Sign me up.


“This mindless tolerance, which places observable scientific facts, subject to proof, on the same level as unprovable supernatural fantasy, has played a major role in the resurgence of both anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism.”
--The Age of American Unreason

“We do want our fellow citizens to respect our deeply held conviction that the absence of an afterlife lends a greater, not a lesser, moral importance to our actions on earth.” 

“How pathetic it is that such products now appeal to a huge market of people who do not understand that the way to introduce children to music is by playing good music, uninterrupted by video clowns, at home; the way to introduce poetry is by reciting or reading it at bedtime; and the way to instill an appreciation of beauty is not to bombard a toddler with screen images of Monet’s Giverny but to introduce her to the real sights and scents of a garden. It is a fine thing for tired parents to gain a quiet hour for themselves by mesmerizing small children with videos—who would be stuffy enough to suggest that the occasional hour in front of animals dancing to Tchaikovsky can do a baby any real harm?—but let us not delude ourselves that education is what is going on.”
--The Age Of American Unreason

“That so many manage to accommodate belief systems encompassing both the natural and the supernatural is a testament not to the compatibility of science and religion but to the flexibility, in both the physical and metaphysical senses, of the human brain.”
--Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism 


1 "About the Author". Susan Jacoby: A Voice of Reason. <http://www.susanjacoby.com/about.html> Accessed October 1, 2014

2 "Susan Jacoby". Wikipedia. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Susan_Jacoby> Accessed October 1, 2014

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