It seemed like a good idea to read Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism by Susan Jacoby.  And the first 141 pages were going so well.  Jacoby discussed Robert Ingersoll, the great agnostic; the perfidy and betrayals of George W. Bush; deism amongst the founders;Thomas Paine, who suffered for rationalism; John Adams; Thomas Jefferson; Jewish participation in the founding of America; Virginia’s religious freedom act; differences amongst the state constitutions of circa 1777; the vital importance of no religious test, ever, for any federal elective or appointive office in the federal constitution of 1787; The Age of Reason; the disestablishment of the Congregational church in Connecticut in 1818; Jenner’s smallpox vaccination; William Bentley of Salem; Ethan Allen’s Reason the Only Oracle of Man; Elihu Palmer; anti-clericalism, abolitionism, feminism; William Lloyd Garrison; Elizabeth Cady Stanton; Lucretia Mott; the Grimke sisters; Lincoln, Seward, the American civil war and the radical Republicans; Charles Darwin and evolution; and a harsh criticism of Henry Spencer.  Just about every topic on freedom of thought, unleashing the human spirit from thousands of years of religious oppression, and shedding prejudices of all kinds.

Then Jacoby writes, “Many freethinkers and religious liberals were admirers of Spencer’s unrestrained individualism even though, unlike Spencer, they recognized the need not only for basic government services like the post office but for social action to ameliorate the harshest aspects of industrial capitalism.”  And I’m gone.

What need for a post office as a government service could she possibly mean?  Hasn’t she heard of Lysander Spooner and the American Letter Mail Company?  A quick check of the index reveals no mention of Spooner, or, at least, not one that was indexed.  But how could that be?  How could a book on freethinkers fail to  mention the  American individualist anarchist, political philosopher, deist, Unitarian abolitionist, legal theorist, entrepreneur, and supporter of the labour movement Lysander Spooner?

It is going to be tough making the effort to finish the remaining 220 or so pages.  I’ll give it some time, since Jacoby’s writing has never failed to put me to sleep, in about six nights of episodic reading.  But it does seem that the new idolatry is the problem.

Spencer is bad because, according to Jacoby, of his unrestrained individualism.  A post office is a basic government need, not an undeserved monopoly that the government has never managed properly, always used to spy on everyone.  Industrial capitalism requires social action to ameliorate its harshest aspects – aspects made harsh entirely because of government industrial policies favouring the few, creating privileges, attacking and eliminating competition.  Apparently, the topic of free thought fails to bring up the man who built a company that not only competed with the US Postal Service but also reduced the price of sending a first class letter, dramatically, until the US Supreme Court shut down his company.  Which seems odd, since Spooner was significant as an abolitionist, deist, and free thinker.

I strongly suspect that Jacoby is a member of the other religion, the religion of state worship.  How much can she really have to say about freedom of thought and independence from religious doctrine if she’s succumbed to the doctrines of government idolatry?  The state isn’t anything, it isn’t possessed of God-like powers.  The state is only people, just men and women who have ambition, do whatever they want, and get away with murder and other crimes because they have state sanction.

Is it possible for a scholarly work to be written on the topic of free thought by someone unwilling to shed doctrines and superstitions about state power?  Call me a sceptic.  I very much doubt it.