January 01, 2005


Susan Jacoby | First published 2004 | Amazon

I wanted to like this book more than I wound up able to like it. There's a lot of excellent material here, especially in the 19th century coverage, and Robert Ingersoll comes to life in a way I hadn't seen before. The connections between feminism, abolitionism, and various kinds of free thinking get excellent coverage, and Jacoby does a great job of exploring how difficult it has been at various periods to speak about religion in anything other than a worshipful way. Material I've seen more heavily covered elsewhere, notably the Founding Fathers and Thomas Paine, is done well.

The last chapter, "Reason Embattled," left me mostly annoyed. She does an excellent job of telling the story from the secularist position, but I kept wishing for more attention to the questions that drive the current tension. Why has the conflict between secular and religious viewpoints become so much sharper in the last thirty years? Are there plausible strategies for reducing the conflict? I didn't find much more than "we're right and they're wrong" at the closing. This was maybe a start:

To make an effective case to their fellow Americans, secular humanists must reclaim the language of passion and emotion from the religiously correct.

I think she's right about the need for passion and emotion, but "reclaiming" isn't going to be an easy process for liberals, much less secular humanists, especially as she notes later in the same paragraph:

Secularists frequently present themselves, and are perceived by others, as a cool lot, applying intellectual theories to social questions but ignoring the emotions that move religious believers.

There may be room for reason with emotion, and her thinkers throughout the book demonstrate it quite well, but I hear a lot of rhetoric these days from people who just plain don't value emotion (including faith) when it comes to making political decisions. People who consider themselves pure rationalists aren't much fun to deal with, I'm afraid.

Posted by simonstl at January 1, 2005 09:56 PM