Is American Humanism a Failed Project?
Probably no better quote can be found about fundamentalist religion’s theological stance towards intellectualism, the need for reason, the progressive nature of human knowledge, the inevitable rise of specialization and expertise in a complex world, and the institutions that promote and sustain them, and the folly of superstition and dogma, than this from Bill Donahue writing for the radically theocratic Catholic League: “Susan Jacoby…. is not ready for the asylum, but she is ready to find a home in the asylum’s first cousin—the academy. Indeed, there are few colleges or universities that wouldn’t be proud to hire her. And that is because she entertains a radical secular world-view, one in total harmony with the elites on campus.”
Ms. Jacoby is a historian, journalist, astute cultural and sociological analyst, and leading figure in the secular movement in the United States today. Donahue was reviewing her first major book publication Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (Metropolitan, 2004) and wrote the aforementioned quote in reference to Jacoby’s observation of the Bush presidency’s continued assault on the the First Amendment’s separation clause: “It is no secret that the Bush administration is engaged in the most radical assault on the separation of church and state in American history.” Mr. Bush, we remember, wasn’t able to keep very much secret, especially a remarkable lack of interest in history and his persistent abasement of the English language.
Four years later, Jacoby would publish what would be a more focused recent history detailing the trend in the cultural and psychological make-up of the American population, and her conclusions were not optimistic. The events of the past four years should inspire anyone interested in the origins of the strain of mass insanity racing through the American citizenry as fast as COVID-19 to check out The Age of American Unreason (Pantheon, 2008). She introduces the book with a tribute to Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life as a work that “provides the foundation for insights that may lie decades or centuries in the future. She explores the thesis that the most recent version of American anti-intellectualism “can best be understood as a complex of symptoms with multiple causes, and …over time possesses the potential to turn a treatable, livable condition into a morbid disease affecting the entire body politic..” She narrows the vectors of anti-intellectualism to the two she considers as foundational: mass media, and secondly—in an indirect rebuke to Donahue’s nonsense–the recent resurgence of fundamentalist religion.
In the chapter “The New Old-Time Religion”, Ms. Jacoby recounts a time within the past 75 years that, for a vast majority of the American public, religion seemed to assume its logical place as a guide for living and a way of looking at life’s big questions that accommodate such direction: its place as a private belief and understanding, and not as a force in legislating its tenants as matters of public policy in a secular government. After the sensational Scopes “Monkey Trial”, fundamentalist political meddling seemed to go into hibernation. But we learned that hibernation is a time to rest, refresh, and re-group. As early as the mid-1950s we witnessed the beginning of its return to the public sphere with large revivals, now televised on America’s new favorite pastime, the television execs apparently inspired by the popularity of The Greater Los Angeles Billy Graham Crusade, a literal old-time tent revival in 1949 in the heart of LA that drew over 350,000 in eight weeks. “As we now know, the conclusion that American fundamentalists were a dying breed was a misjudgment of historic (dare one call it biblical?) proportions. The growth of fundamentalist denominations at the expense of mainstream and liberal Protestantism, which began in the fifties, accelerated throughout the sixties, seventies, and eighties and gave birth to the Christian right.”
Borrowing the name from previous religious revivals in the country, one could think of the current spiritual fervor as a “Third” Great Awakening, after the first in the mid-18th century and the second in the early 19th, as a “cyclical manifestation” and “course-correction in an unsettled society. But today’s revival is more troubling for a couple of reasons, a double-edge sword swung by archangel St. Michael that promises to make the current trend an indefatigable and cunning foe in the culture wars. The first is what she calls the “disjunction of the fundamentalist faith and the sum of human knowledge.” Today we simply know much more about how the world works than we did in recent centuries past, and we have it all accessible at our fingertips for those able or interested in discovering it. Failing public education–and private, in a different way–are certainly to blame. But this choice between learning or fantasizing about the world may be involved a feedback loop with the second edge of that sword. That problem was never more obvious than in the last presidential cycle: “the political engagement of modern fundamentalists on the side of one party and their belief that it is both a right and religious duty to institutionalize their moral values” (italics mine).
I’ve left out of this one-chapter snapshot of Jacoby’s magnum opus examples making her points, and some of those examples could easily be updated with fresher ones. And thumbnail peeks into other chapters titled “Social Pseudoscience in the Morning of America’s Culture Wars,” “Junk Thought,” “The Culture of Distraction,” and “Public Life: Defining Dumbness Downward” have been left as possible motivations for the reader; but all suggest the cause for Jacoby’s admission of the book’s pessimistic outlook. She concludes that in America’s new age of unreason, the inescapable theme of our time is the erosion of memory and knowledge. She does not conclude without at least suggesting several conditions that could offer some hope out of a modern day Dark Age, all primarily concerning recapturing the those two eroding qualities that separates humans from real progress. It should go without saying that Bill Donahue and his Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim counterparts are not a part of the solution and therefore a part of the problem.
Reporting for The Humanist Advocate
March 3, 2021