BILL MOYERS: Zack Kopplin is just the latest in a long line of dissenters and freethinkers.

Since America’s beginning, every generation has had to engage in the battle over freedom of religion and freedom from religion -- whether it’s Roger Williams fighting Puritan intolerance in New England, the deism of Jefferson and Thomas Paine in the early days of independence, or a man you may never have heard of – an orator so famous in the 19th century that standing-room-only crowds turned out wherever he went -- just to hear him speak.

He captivated audiences -- with his wit and warmth -- and enraged them, too, with his outspoken views on evolution, religion and reason, the separation of church and state, and women’s suffrage.

Robert Ingersoll was his name and he’s the subject of a new biography by scholar and journalist Susan Jacoby. She’s a writer possessed, as the New York Times has written, of a “fierce intelligence and nimble, unfettered imagination.”

Susan Jacoby specializes in American intellectual history with several books to her name including this favorite of mine, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism.

Her new, must-read book, is The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought.

Susan Jacoby, welcome back.

SUSAN JACOBY: I'm very happy to be back here today.

BILL MOYERS: Robert Ingersoll, once our most famous orator, a towering public intellectual between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the 20th century? What drew you to him?

SUSAN JACOBY: It's hard to exaggerate how famous he was in the last two decades of the 19th century. Lecturing was then the chief form of mass entertainment, even though newspapers-- newspapers were read and widely circulated, there was no TV. There were no movies. Lecturing is what people went to to be entertained as well as informed.

And like everybody of his generation, his dates are 1833 to 1899. He was in the Civil War. He joined the Republican Party during the Civil War, because he was an abolitionist. But after the Civil War, something happens to him.

He starts speaking out on behalf of separation of church and state, against what religion was silent about, about slavery for so long, and what religion was still silent about, about what needed to be done to provide true equality and education for former slaves. He is an active Republican. He has strong political ambitions. But he decides that speaking out on behalf of reason, on behalf of Darwin's theory of evolution, against attempts to introduce more religion into government, that this is more important to him than his political ambitions.

Which is the thing that first attracted me to him. Because I look around now at people, at congressmen who are so scared about what's going to happen two years from now that they can't vote against the National Rifle Association. And I think, "Who do we have in public life today who would give up big ambitions like that?

BILL MOYERS: You say he was one of those indispensable people, who keep an alternative version of history alive. What was the alternative version of history he kept alive?

SUSAN JACOBY: Well, first of all, he should be famous in American intellectual history if he'd done only one thing, which he did. He revived the memory of Thomas Paine. The historical reputation of Thomas Paine so famous, say, by 1800 because of the role he played in the revolution. "These are the times that try men's souls." Even school kids today know that. But he had really been eclipsed.

He was driven out of England, charged with treason, for writing The Rights of Man. His book The Age of Reason, which was published in 1793, the first part of it, in which he put forward the astonishing idea that the Bible was written by men, not actually directly handed down by God. The Age of Reason was published when he was in jail in France under the Jacobins, for opposing the execution of Louis the XVI, because he didn't believe in capital punishment as no free thinkers ever have.

Teddy Roosevelt, the future president, wrote a biography in which he called Paine "a filthy little atheist, which esteems a dirty bladder of water” -- bladder meaning a sack to carry in, not bladder the organ in the body – “as something to throw on all religion." So Ingersoll revived Paine's reputation.

You can say that because we're not a nation in which the majority of people are freethinkers, although secular America is growing we know from the Pew poll. You can say that he deserves to be obscure. But that's not right. Because history is a relay race. It's not some kind of a thing in which people's attention and views turn overnight.

Look how long it took to obtain women the vote. He is important because he kept this alive into the 20th century, until after the Scopes trial. Stupid intellectuals in New York and Boston decided that religious fundamentalism was dead, because Clarence Darrow had humiliated Williams Jennings Bryan on the stand. Well, as we know now, it wasn't dead at all. It just retired a bit from politics and was biding its time.

BILL MOYERS: You call Robert Ingersoll, quote, "One of the most important champions of reason and secular government in American history." And he raised the issue of religion, as you say, the role of religion. That the role it ought to play in the public life of the nation for the first time since the founding generation that wrote the Constitution.

SUSAN JACOBY: That's part of his importance, and he made a lot of people aware of something that had been forgotten, which were that ours was the first constitution in the world -- well, the first constitution, basically. I mean, you can't really call the Magna Carta anything like a constitution. It separated church and state. It didn't mention God.

BILL MOYERS: At a time when every government in Europe was uniting church and state.

SUSAN JACOBY: The fact that the Constitution didn't mention God still stands as -- religious fundamentalists are constantly trying to explain this away, saying it was an accident. Like men like Adams and Washington and Madison did things with words by accident. As Ingersoll pointed out and is true today, the fact that there was no God in the Constitution was debated at every state ratifying convention.

It was said that, "Under this constitution, an atheist, a Jew, or God help us even a universalist could become president," which was true in theory, but has actually not turned out to be true in practice. One thing that was true is you did not have to belong to a church throughout the 19th century to become president, as Ingersoll often spoke of Lincoln. And it very much shows what the attitudes were during the Civil War, which was thought by many to be God's judgment. And Lincoln certainly could not have been an atheist, but he wasn't religious in any conventional sense.

And anyway, this Protestant ministers came to Lincoln and they wanted to amend the Constitution to replace "We the people" not with God, but with Jesus Christ. And Lincoln said, "Well, I will do what my conscience and my sense of my duty to my country command." And what his choice to do was absolutely nothing. And Ingersoll talked about this, about these secular traditions.

BILL MOYERS: He actually said the glory of the founding generation was that they did not establish a Christian nation. And he praised those founders who wrote our Constitution for establishing the “first secular government that was ever founded” in the world at a time when government in Europe was still based on union of church and state.

"They knew that the recognition of a Deity would be seized by fanatics and zealots as a pretext for destroying the liberty of thought." Was that the intellectual grounding for his opposition to the claim that we were a Christian nation or that we should have God in the--

SUSAN JACOBY: Yes. And I would say that probably the majority of the founders believed in a kind of providence, a deity. They were speaking in the language of natural rights.

They weren't saying there's this kind of God or that kind of God that created you. They were saying, "We're all equal by nature." But it is in fact very important, the Declaration of Independence, while a declaration of independence, did not found our government. That's why we had to have first the Articles of Confederation which didn't work, and then the Constitution.

And it is very significant that they did not put this language in the Constitution. And, of course, the reason they didn't do it wasn't that they were all atheists or anything like that. The reason they didn't do it is they looked at what went on in Europe. And they said, "We don’t want any part of it."

One of the things Ingersoll again pointed this out. The last execution for blasphemy in France took place only ten years before the writing of the Declaration of Independence in the town of Abbeville -- the Marquis de la Barre.

It happened only ten years before the writing of the Declaration of Independence, 20 years before the Constitution. This is what the founders were looking to. And it's very understandable that they didn’t want to found, not just a Protestant nation, but a Christian nation. They saw what that did there.

BILL MOYERS: It turned to war, violence. In fact one of my favorite Ingersoll quotes is from the centennial address he gave in Peoria, Illinois, on the centennial of the Declaration of Independence in 1876. Recollect that, “the first secular government, the first government that said every church has exactly the same rights and no more. Every religion has the same rights and no more. In other words, our fathers were the first men who had the sense, the genius to know that no church should be allowed to have the sword.” They knew what the sword and faith had done in Europe.

SUSAN JACOBY: And they also knew the history of our own country, which loves to talk about the Puritans as if they were religiously tolerant, when the first thing the Puritans did was set up a theocracy in Massachusetts. And, this not being Europe instead of killing Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams, there was plenty of places, there was Rhode Island for them to go to.

BILL MOYERS: Exile them.

SUSAN JACOBY: Yeah, but it was all right. They could start their own form of religion then. I mean, just as the Mormons got chased all the way across the country. But eventually, there was still land where they could set up and start persecuting Indians who didn't -- who didn't believe, and also other kinds of Protestants who didn't believe with them.

But one of the things was, then when the Constitution comes along, the states still all have all of these laws privileging Protestant Christianity. So also what they were doing in the Constitution is saying, "The federal government isn't going to allow this. We're going to let everyone run for office."

BILL MOYERS: Do you think any American politician would dare describe the secular spirit and letter of the Constitution as Ingersoll and others did in his time?

SUSAN JACOBY: No, no. Because an American -- the only declared atheist member of Congress, Pete Stark, retired this time. I'm sure Congress is exactly like the polls. I'm sure there are plenty of atheists and various kinds of unorthodox religious people in Congress. But they don't talk about it. You never hear President Obama making a speech about separation of church and state. He will occasionally allude to it.

But I think that either proclaiming allegiance to a religion or shutting up about it is still an absolute requirement.

BILL MOYERS: I wonder if you just turn off your mind when you hear or look the other way when you hear or don't even think about it anymore when you hear politicians, including the president, end every speech with "God bless America." They do that routinely, ritualistically.

SUSAN JACOBY: Nobody realizes that nobody ever did that before 1980. Politicians did not, when I was growing up in the 1950s--

BILL MOYERS: Same here. So what do you think when you hear that? I heard it the other day twice in one of the president's speeches.

SUSAN JACOBY: Public religiosity has become more important. And this is an idea I borrowed from really the great American religious historian Martin Marty. He said, "What this emphasis on symbolism is about is about ownership. It's not about religion. And it's also about a religion which is much more insecure than it was 50 or 100 years ago."

In other words, if you have confidence in the viability of your religious institution and your own faith, you don't need to hear the president saying, "God bless America." Quakers and Baptists in the early 18th century would have hated that, because they were opposed to government getting in on the religious attack.

But they would have been absolutely horrified at that. Teddy Roosevelt even, who is probably one of the most devoutly religious presidents we ever had. He tried to get "in God we trust" off the coinage. And he was attacked by the then religious right, this religious president, for being atheist.

The reason Teddy Roosevelt wanted God off the coins is the government in his view had no business putting God on money, putting God and maman together. So we really see how many of these issues that Ingersoll was dealing with, they mirror the things today. We have no spokesman like Ingersoll.

And while we have many spokesman for atheism, among the new atheists, we don't have anybody who is part of sort of the regular public fabric of the nation who talks about these things from all formats all the time, not in terms of -- I never do debates about the existence of God. Why would you do that? Who are you going to convince? I like to talk about public issues. But we don't have in Ingersoll somebody who's that well-known and important, who will come out and talk about the relationship of religion to public issues in this way.

BILL MOYERS: How do young people respond to you when you say, "I'm an atheist"? What questions do they ask?

SUSAN JACOBY: Bill, I get asked to lecture mostly at religious colleges, historically religious colleges, whether they're Catholic or Lutheran or Episcopalian, not too many of those left, or Baptist. I think because they're more interested in presenting a whole range of views, their questions at religious colleges are extremely intelligent. They know more about secularism than students at secular colleges do, because part of instruction at a liberal religious college with lots of faculty who aren't members of that faith, whether it's Georgetown or whether it's Augustana College.

Part of it is education, not only in different religious traditions. But -- this is why they have people like me to speak, but also secularism, freethought, atheism -- a lot of their parents think they're sending their kids there to get a good orthodox religious education, but what they often get is their first exposure both to kinds of religion and ideas that they haven't.

And I'm often asked questions about – they, in other words, they're more likely to know that there isn't God in the Constitution than kids at secular universities are. Because they've had courses that discuss the role of religious freedom and religious repression and secularism in the founding of the country. They aren't likely, they aren't likely to be people who, for instance, like this moronic Texas school board, which in its list of thinkers who influenced the revolution two years ago. And it's now, two years ago replaced Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence with Thomas Aquinas. Anybody at a good religious college would know that wasn't true.

BILL MOYERS: How do you explain the political agility of fundamentalists to get their worldview inserted into the textbooks?

SUSAN JACOBY: How I account for it is they're better organized. Ingersoll was always saying that. That religion is an organization for the perpetuation of its own values.

Freethought is never -- and that was true, by the way, of feminism for a long time. So I think one reason Ingersoll has been forgotten, as Paine was, nobody's come along to do for Ingersoll in this century what he did for Paine. I'm not an orator who gets asked to speak in 50 states or I would gladly do it.

BILL MOYERS: He was ahead of the times in so many--

SUSAN JACOBY: In everything.

BILL MOYERS: He was a feminist. He was for women's rights. He was for eight-hour working days. This in the Gilded Age, when the great wealth was spreading.

SUSAN JACOBY: And he was a Republican.

BILL MOYERS: He was Republican. His great fear was that invoking divine authority in politics, simply shut down the discussion.

SUSAN JACOBY: And how right he was. That what it's intended to do. Because if you believe in divine authority, then how can there be any other answer but what divine authority tells you.

BILL MOYERS: And he defended blasphemy, which is impiously speaking of religions, not because he despised religion, but because he wanted to stop the appeal to an authority that could make all the discussion and debate irrelevant.

SUSAN JACOBY: Well and there were still a lot of state blasphemy laws, which were never enforced because they so clearly violated, you know, not only the 1st, but the 14th Amendment by then. But at the time, you know, it's not until the 20th century that the 14th Amendment gets applied to the rest of the Bill of Rights. And so what Ingersoll was against was anti-blasphemy laws that could send people to jail. And while they weren't enforced, they were still on the books. And there was a blasphemy trial in New Jersey.

BILL MOYERS: Morristown, New Jersey.

SUSAN JACOBY: Yeah, in Morristown, New Jersey.

BILL MOYERS: A free thinker was on trial for circulating a pamphlet that denied the Bible was authorized by God and infallible.

SUSAN JACOBY: Yeah, the same Thomas Paine thing a hundred years later.

BILL MOYERS: One of my favorite sites in Morristown is the drum head depicting Thomas Paine writing "Common Sense."


BILL MOYERS: Here's what Ingersoll said in the defense of the fellow who was on trial. "I deny the right of any man, of any number of men, of any church, of any state to put a padlock on the lips, to make the tongue a convict. Blasphemy is the word that the majority hisses into the ear of the few."

SUSAN JACOBY: Yeah. And it's interesting. After that trial, a number of ministers who attended came up and shook his hand, as well. The jury, of course, found the blasphemer guilty. Although the governor saw to it that he didn't get sent to jail. The governor of New Jersey then was not somebody who wanted New Jersey to go down as the last state that sent somebody to jail for blasphemy. So he commuted it to a fine which Ingersoll paid.

BILL MOYERS: $200 bucks I think it was.

SUSAN JACOBY: Yeah, something like that.

BILL MOYERS: In those terms. But here's the paradox to me. Politicians still, in Ingersoll's time, politicians still had to pay greater obeisance to religion than in the founding generation a century earlier.

SUSAN JACOBY: Much more.


SUSAN JACOBY: Because this idea that we had been created as a Christian nation was, and particularly in Ingersoll's day, this was a period of great unease for Protestant religion, which basically, it wasn't just Christianity. It was Protestant Christianity. And here come all these immigrants after 1880. A lot of them are Jewish from Eastern Europe, who are obviously not Christians. And a lot of them are Catholics from Southern Italy and the Slavic countries. And at that point, the power structure of American cities was still run by Protestants.

Well, with all those Catholics coming up and setting up their parochial school system, the first really large scale religious school system, this is a period of great unease about how -- and American Protestantism itself is splitting in a way that affects our country, as you know very well, to this day, in that we have Protestants of the Henry Ward Beecher variety, who say, "Let's see how our religion can accommodate to the secular knowledge of Darwin's theory of evolution." And you have fundamentalists for whom William Jennings Bryan was the great spokesman, although he wasn't nearly as conservative as some of the anti-evolutionists today.

BILL MOYERS: No, he was quite liberal in social policy.

SUSAN JACOBY: Oh, in social matters, yes. But even on religion, who say, "No, no, every word in the Bible is literally true." And this split in American Protestantism, which really begins to affect every aspect of politics in the late 19th century, which is why Ingersoll's issues were so prominent. This is the split we have today, too. Except that now Protestants have joined forces with the conservative wing of American Catholicism.

BILL MOYERS: I’ll be back with more from Susan Jacoby in just a moment. But first, this is pledge time on public television. That’s why we’re taking a short break so you can show your support for the programming you see right here on this public television station.

BILL MOYERS: For those of you still with us, sixty-five years ago, the Supreme Court voted eight to one to uphold the rights of one woman and her fifth-grade son who went up against popular opinion to keep religious education out of public schools. Vashti McCollum was the woman's name. She and her family lived through two lower court losses, intimidation from her community in Champaign, Illinois, and three years of what she called “headlines, headaches and hatred.” Here’s a brief look at the Peabody Award winning documentary, “The Lord Is Not on Trial Here Today,” the story of her fight for the separation of church and state in America.

ED DESSEN in The Lord Is Not On Trial Here Today: She had a terrible time. The town hated her.

RON ROTUNDA in The Lord Is Not On Trial Here Today: She was not the hero to many people, she was somehow the devil incarnate.

NARRATOR in The Lord Is Not On Trial Here Today: She was called “that awful woman” by her neighbors, and “that atheist mother” by newspapers across the country. Her friends stopped returning phone calls rather than risk speaking with her. She was branded a communist, and the Illinois State Legislature nearly stopped her and her husband from ever working at the state university again. She received up to 200 letters a day, some of the writers claiming they would pray for her; many wishing for much worse.

VASHTI McCOLLUM in The Lord Is Not On Trial Here Today: They heard this down at the Piggly Wiggly down there on Main street, They’re going to lynch you. Oh I said, is that all?

NARRATOR in The Lord Is Not On Trial Here Today: All because, in 1945, Vashti McCollum, a young mother of three from Champaign, Illinois, would file a historic lawsuit that would forever change the relationship between religion and public schools in America.

VICTOR STONE in The Lord Is Not On Trial Here Today: It has been listed as the foundation case for prayer in school and religious education in school.

DAVID MEYER in The Lord Is Not On Trial Here Today: What McCollum did, was it endorsed a view of the first amendment that pushed public life and religion into separate spheres divided by this wall of separation. I think public opinion polls show that a majority say they think the term, a wall of separation between church and state is written into the text of the First Amendment, and of course it’s not. It’s an idea, it’s a metaphor, that is contestable, but it’s one that the Supreme Court put the weight of the Constitution behind in the McCollum decision.

JIM McCOLLUM in The Lord Is Not On Trial Here Today: All cases involving the crossing of the line regarding establishment of religion – crèches on public property, ten commandments in public buildings and on public property, prayers in schools and this sort of thing, all these stem from the McCollum case. That’s basically the significance of the case.

NARRATOR in The Lord Is Not On Trial Here Today: The case would shine a national spotlight on this small, central Illinois town, turning Vashti McCollum into an unlikely champion of the separation of church and state.

WALTER FEINBERG in The Lord Is Not On Trial Here Today: What courage it must have taken for a mother and her young children to stand up to that and say “this is something that you can’t do. You cannot bring g-d into the public school”.

ANNOUNCER: We now return to Moyers & Company.

BILL MOYERS: You mention that Pew Research study, which shows that the number of people who say they have no religion at all, they call nones, N-O-N-E-S.

SUSAN JACOBY: Oh, I hate that so much.

BILL MOYERS: But they're growing in number.

SUSAN JACOBY: Well I think that there are many more members of that group who are atheists than will admit it. Again, I think a lot of that group just says, "Oh, well, I don't belong to any church." But if asked, "Are you an atheist?" they won't say so.

All of Americans have absorbed the fact that atheism is a bad word. And they think there are a few more who call themselves agnostics. Others prefer to call themselves humanists. You can be all three. An atheist, agnostic, a secular humanist, a freethinker. I'd answer to all of them. But I'm an atheist. And I think a lot of those people are, too. There is a particular group in the Pew Poll, who won't say they're atheists, they say, "I'm spiritual but not religious."

I don't respect people like that very much. Because I think that they've bought into the idea that to be a humanist, to be concerned about your fellow human beings, to show that concern, that you can't say you're an atheist, because that's what so many people think.

It’s important to show that atheists who move about in the world, who get married, who love their children, who buy clothes and like makeup, we're just, we're like everybody else who's a humanist in many of our values. We are not--

BILL MOYERS: You're just not going to heaven.

SUSAN JACOBY: We’re just not going to heaven. We're not somebody -- no, but once you can't demonize people, once you know that this person down the block you like is an atheist, you can't think about atheists in the same way. When you began to know that they were people you knew.

BILL MOYERS: What's hard about being an atheist in an obviously pluralistic society soaked in religiosity?

SUSAN JACOBY: There's nothing hard about it in New York City, obviously. What is hard about it, I can really answer that question, because the "Dallas Morning News" reprinted the piece I wrote about atheism, which mentioned Ingersoll's views that atheism and agnosticism were the same. But this piece I wrote was reprinted in full in the "Dallas Morning News" the week after it ran at the Times.

My author website nearly crashed with e-mails from people of all ages, from all over Texas, saying how thrilled they were to read this piece talking about what their lives were like in small towns in Texas. The oldest person who wrote me a letter was an 85-year-old African American man from Amarillo, who talked to me not only about his experiences as an atheist in Texas, but as an atheist in the African American community in Texas.

In other words, groups in which African Americans are among the most religious people in the country. And while it doesn't translate into economic conservatism, many of them are very religiously conservative. And he said how wonderful it was to have something to show his friends. And I thought, "My God, there really is a hell, an African American atheist for 85 years in Amarillo." He was somebody who revered WEB Du Bois, who, of course, was an atheist, but never got much traction in the African American community on that issue.

BILL MOYERS: Why are you an atheist?

SUSAN JACOBY: Why? Because it's what makes sense to me. I look at the world around me. I'm an atheist because of -- which has made a lot of people an atheist, because of the theodicy problem. The problem of if there is this all good, all powerful, all loving god, you know, how come kids are shot in Newtown? How come people when I was young died of polio-- a child I knew? How come?

It started me thinking about what every religious thinker has thought about and had to come to grips with, which is how do you account for the problem of evil beside your belief in an all-powerful God? Well, the classic Christian answer, which satisfied Augustine, does not satisfy me or any atheist. Which is that we have free will. And we are responsible for all the evil in the world.

No, I think the evolution of the polio virus and Darwin's theory of how it happened is responsible. That there is no such thing as intelligent design. If God had been an intelligent designer, what purpose would polio serve? Well, the answer to that is it's a mystery. We don't know what God's plans are. That's what my mom told me when I was a kid. My mom stopped going to church when she was 85 years old.


SUSAN JACOBY: I asked her why. I knew it couldn't be my influence, certainly. She said, "I've been thinking about the problem of evil. And it makes no sense." She said, "Why should people suffer?" because, of course, she knew so many people unlike her who had lost their minds to Alzheimer's. She said, "This makes no sense." She said, "I do not believe that there can be a God whose plan this could be a part of. I never could have said this when my parents were alive. If being old is good for anything, I can do exactly what I want."

BILL MOYERS: What Robert Ingersoll come to mean to you in the great intellectual tradition of America?

SUSAN JACOBY: He -- first of all, he shows how even if you don't get remembered for it in perhaps the way you should later on, that doesn't deny the role you play anymore. Nobody knew who Elizabeth Cady Stanton was from about 1900 until the new feminism really began to take hold in the 1980s, because she was written out of the suffragists movement for writing a book called "The Woman's Bible," which criticized all the misogyny in the Bible.

The fact that nobody knows about you and maybe history doesn't give you your just reward and certainly not in every time, because there are fashions in history, doesn't mean that you didn't play an important role.

So he carried on a tradition. And just as those feminists who got written out carried on a tradition which was picked up later on. And the second reason he's so important is that he is a model of what you have to do to fight for an unpopular idea. And you can't do it by hiding behind other labels, because other people are going to criticize you for it.

BILL MOYERS: You quote Ingersoll saying that the result of all of this public religiosity that was surrounding him and surrounds us today is that quote, "We reward hypocrisy and elect men entirely destitute of real principle. And this will never change until the people become grand enough to do their own thinking."

SUSAN JACOBY: And to admit to their own thinking.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?

SUSAN JACOBY: Not just to do their own thinking, but to open up their mouths and tell other people about their own thinking. When he died, an editor in Kansas said, "There will come a time when men--" he talked about the political career Ingersoll did. "There will come a time when men may run for office and speak their honest convictions in matters in religion. But not yet," he ended his editorial. Can't we say that now? "But not yet."

BILL MOYERS: Robert Ingersoll said of Thomas Paine, "His life is what the world calls failure and what history calls success." Can the same thing be said of The Great Agnostic?

SUSAN JACOBY: I hope so. What I would like to see is history calling his life a success more than it has since the 1920s. That's my aim here. His life was a success. And it should be recognized as a success and a very important contribution to the cause of reason in this country, one which is just as relevant today that was when we were fighting about the same issues 125 years ago.

BILL MOYERS: The book is The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought. Susan Jacoby, thank you very much for being with us.

SUSAN JACOBY: Thank you. It's a real pleasure.

Susan Jacoby on Secularism and Free Thinking

Journalist and historian Susan Jacoby talks with Bill about the role secularism and intellectual curiosity have played throughout America’s history, a topic explored in her new book, The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought.

“I’m sure there are plenty of atheists and various kinds of unorthodox religious people in Congress, but they don’t talk about it,” Jacoby tells Bill. “I think that either proclaiming allegiance to a religion or shutting up about it is still an absolute requirement.”

Partway through the interview, Bill presents a short clip from the documentary The Lord Is Not on Trial Here Today, the story of how Illinois mother Vashti McCollum faced down three years of “headlines, headaches and hatred” to fight for the separation of church and state in her son’s school. Her efforts resulted in the landmark 1948 Supreme Court decision that struck down religious education in the public schools.

Interview Producer: Candace White. Editor: Rob Kuhns. Associate Producer: Julia Conley.

The Lord Is Not on Trial Here Today courtesy of Jay Rosenstein Productions.

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  • Easkey Stewart

    Excellent Show. Thank you.
    I have long thought Religion is the Dogma we make of out Beliefs – where the two are quite different – Dogma is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow; whereas Beliefs move with what we learned today.

    Arguments are couched in an ontology, whereas an education always argues in epistemology.

    I particularly liked the “Liberty of Thought”, where Religion may work to hold thought in a ransom.

  • elizabeth s allen

    I am so inspired.

  • Albie Farinas

    These are the conversations that we must engage in our daily lives in order to live in the light of dignity…. Religion is oppression’s most useful tool, it does not merit our respect…

  • Strawman411

    It appears that, long ago, Seneca had a similar view:

    “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”

  • RP

    Mr. Moyers,
    Thank you (and your colleagues and staff behind the scenes) so very much for your
    ongoing efforts to present balanced thinking and exemplify American Journalism.

    I listened,
    with interest, to your interview with Ms. Susan Jacoby. One reason behind the
    founding of the United States of America was freedom of religious belief. I strongly
    believe that such freedom should be respectfully extended to atheistic and
    non-Christian beliefs. Ms. Jacoby reasons and chooses correctly for herself in
    this area and she is entitled. A lack of
    faith or belief in a central deity does not make a person inherently bad.

    I must take
    strong exception to Ms Jacoby’s comment of not respecting individuals who claim
    no religion but do profess some level of “humanistic spirituality”. To
    my mind, religion is a business. Faith is something altogether different and
    clearly varied and personal. Ms. Jacoby advocates for respect for Atheists but
    would withhold same for someone who is either retaining their spiritual beliefs
    outside an organized church setting or perhaps in the process of questioning the
    existence of a deity but wanting to define themselves in a non-organized-religious
    but spiritual or humanistic sense. To my way of thinking, such a statement
    comes across as stunningly hypocritical regardless of the selective context. Who is she to anticipate or judge the intention
    of someone who expresses such a position?

    Perhaps Ms.
    Jacoby might care to take an example from the past two Catholic Popes who were
    able to respectfully acknowledge and receive the Dalai Lama.

  • Andrew M

    I really have to give a strenuous objection to what she said about people who say they are spiritual not religious. First, she said she doesn’t respect them because they really are atheists who are afraid to say so. How arrogant! As someone in that group, I can state emphatically I’m not an atheist and I don’t appreciate atheists telling me how and what I think and believe about spirituality any more than I like religious folk telling me what I think and believe. Other than that, most of her interview was good.

  • Kathy Y. Futch

    If you have separation of church and state we should have separation of lobbyists and state.

  • Beth

    For the record Congressman Pete Stark did NOT retire from Congress he was voted out. The young Democrat who won the seat is from Dublin California.

  • Jay Athey

    I find it funny, the lost trying to get people to join her cause…obviously she never understood the purpose of life…Unless you have a relationship with God, you will never understand it…God does give you freewill, yet all your actions have consequences…You can be a good person and be an atheist, no one is debating that…the only thing you need to understand or question is do you have a Soul? if so what is it’s purpose…if not, what is your purpose here on earth? To accumulate as much stuff as possible before you die, why get married, why consider anything a sin…Where do animals get their morals? We are all born Animals, look at the people in Jails, most lack morals, they were never taught to be anything but an animal…Survival of the fittest….Kill or be killed, and eye for an eye…And take whatever you want or need to survive…Watch animals in Nature…what separates us from them…Nothing without God…Laws can be loopholed around, But morals have no loopholes…God knows all…So if you want to believe there is no Heaven, or Hell, no angels, no Demons, and no God and no Devil….so be it…You will find out sooner or later if you are right…I am here to tell you, Your wrong…and you have until the day you die to figure it out…So Hopefully you will…and if you do, you will understand God…and you will experience the most love you have ever felt in your entire life…Yes the road to hell is wide and well traveled, and the Stairway to Heaven is not Easy…But again that is the Game of life…Winners Make it to Heaven ….Losers live in Torment forever…Nightmares are a preview of Hell…Once you win the game of LIfe…No more Nightmare…you receive Peace of Mind…and you are no longer lost…Good luck on your journey thru hell, some will make it out…most will not …

  • Sara Hopkins

    I agree with a previous comment about Ms. Jacoby’s criticism of people who say they are not religious but are spiritual. She exhibited a total lack of understanding about why someone would say this. She should stick to speaking about what she does know about. I am one of those people, and, yes Ms. Jacoby , I am not an atheist. However, I don’t ascribe to any one religion, yet have an active and meaningful spiritual life. This is definitely possible, and the speaker did show her ignorance on this matter, though admittedly did have some other points to make.

  • Anonymous

    Being neither religious or atheistic, that one comment seemed harsh. Jacoby has, however, enlightened me to the source of many of our current problematic social and political thinking. Even she needs to speak within the framework of labels that compartmentalize us all. What she calls humanism might be the spirituality I feel as a connection with all life and the cosmos. That her ideas are grounded in helping to improve peoples intellect and humane circumstances is a tangible contribution. I look forward to hearing more from her.

  • Joanne Zych

    I find that my friends won’t accept the fact that I am an atheist. They are sure that I really am not. It seems to be beyond their comprehension

  • doris

    Ditto! Glad to see someone expressing my exact sentiment. The arrogance of a fundamentalist atheist is every bit as offensive as the arrogance of a fundamentalist Christian. There is no way to prove or disprove either theory, which makes me join Margaret Atwood in being a “confirmed agnostic!” There is a spirit energy of life that simply can’t be explained.

    And yes, other than that statement,the interview was good.

  • jessie

    The ability to think clearly, to use logic about one’s own position rather than against that of others, is a sign of intelligence, justice, and compassion. Ranting is mental diarrhea.

  • jessie

    That vehement rejection also struck me. I think she tended to avoid personal reflection at every pause moment in the interview, which I eventually found to be exhausting to listen to. She may avoid psychologically the possibility that there can be a constant dialogue in the human being between the consciousness of and activity of possession and the consciousness and activity of transformation, which continuously transforms things from ‘nothing’ to something and back to ‘nothing’. The dialogue can exist without us calling either of those activities names.I think this dialogue is the also at the centre of poetry, music, art-maybe all the non-didactic arts. (Maybe it’s also at the centre of love too)

  • Jay Athey

    Exactly, ignorance is just plain ignorance…the blind leading the blind…on the other hand, the enlightened opening your mind and eyes to God, and your purpose for life…without God, Peace of mind is unattainable…you fear death, and continue to search for the meaning of existence which you can never find…they say you only use 10% of your brain, the other 90% is unlocked once you discover God…it will truly blow your mind…which expands it into true freethinking and opens your world to all possibilities…trust me God wants you to use all of your brain… Sent from my Kyocera Hydro

  • Strawman411

    True, the Founders were, as we are today, all over the map as to religious convictions, but the Deists and freethinkers among them mostly held sway on which principles in our founding documents made the final drafts.

    The scattered references to “God” and “Creator” in those documents were more a convention of the times than a profession of the writers’ religious fervor. Only the previously convinced can, by cherry-picking words and phrases out of context, make the case that we were founded as a Christian nation.

    True also, social support programs run by religionists are more common than by atheists or humanists, but don’t most sects command their followers to “bring in the sheep”? I don’t argue the good done, but question the underlying motive, which is — first and foremost — to proselytize.

    When was the last time a team of atheists knocked on your door, handing out leaflets and presuming to “show you the way”?

  • Ken Williams

    Susan Jacoby you have jolted my psyche on my own thoughts and feelings about Religion, Spirituality and God

  • Anonymous

    ….your conversation with Ms. Jacoby regarding Robert Ingersoll was positively enlightening….congratulations Mr. Moyers, for having the best TV program on Sunday morning….

  • Anonymous

    With time, I’ve come to agree with Susan’s conclusion that most people who claim to be “spiritual” but not “religious” are not being honest with themselves. Of my friends who maintain this position, when pressed, they admit that their “spiritual” nature isn’t really so much a case of believing in a supernatural god-power out there in the ether somewhere, but rather just a nagging lack of clarity about how things came to be.

    One might call that “spiritual,” I suppose but I’ve now concluded that they’re conflating scientific uncertainty with spirituality. They are SO not the same.

  • Yvonne Russell

    Thank you for this deep and intelligent discussion. Well worth hearing it out. I am finally old enouph admit to my own thinking!

  • Jay Athey

    Lets Eliminate every Religious Book, Church, and just let science handle everything…if that were possible We could create anything right, Stemcells can grow new organs, we can create test tube babies, and genetic engineer the next race of humans, Marriage is unnecessary after all that concept is in a religious book…We don’t need a base for all moral behavior…We have Countries that almost any lifestyle is legal…So if you want 10 wives move to that country…if you want to have sex with someone under 18 and your an adult move to the country where that is legal…If you want to eat Dogs move to that country, If you want to sacrifice people and animals and eat them, move to where that is common place…If everything is legal somewhere, Why have any morals…Burn all the religious books, burn down all the churches and let all the people out of jail, and send them to the country where their crime is legal…and we can all coexist right? Or do we need a common law…where Morals are defined …so universal Book, printed in all the languages so everyone can understand what Common Morals we must agree to so we can truly Coexists …what a concept…Maybe a list of ten commandments….and you don’t even need to follow all of them….just the ones that harm others…What if…

  • Jay Athey

    Then what if there was a book with a story of a reason to not sacrifice People or Animals to cover your breaking the Commandments, And contained Stories of People who Broke those commandments and what happened as a result…It would be a owners manual for the Human being…Or we could just all try to figure it out ourselves …and make our own rules and then try and convince everyone else we are right, funny huh…No wonder Peace on Earth is Not attainable without some set of rules and common guidance to follow…And why not have places where people could go to find there way when they are lost…and we could call it a Church…No we don’t need that now do we …We can handle it all on our own…Ok …Who’s gonna make the universal rules everyone must follow…A KIng? a Ruler? a President ? a dictator ….Or How about A God…I’m going with that one…

  • Wally/ Milton, WI53563

    I like very much listening to Bill Moyers give his own views or thoughts…anything said by this man is worth listening to and I generally come away from all he says and am the wiser for it and he has taught me how to think much better and to be more tolerant to all who think whatever they do. Susan Jacoby is great to listen to and made me understand more about my own faith…I am a man of Christian faith but have come to the point where I hesitate to use words like evangelical, even the word Christian itself for they do not connote what they used to ….the last 30-35 years so many who declare themselves evangelical or Christian is in no way how I see or think of my faith. I see this radical right wing caught up in politics, crazy politics with crazy candidates and I do not identify with any of that. I think most of them are not Christian at all or a true evangelical in any true sense of what those words used to mean…as perhaps the Church of England man J C Ryle or the famous Baptist preacher Chas. Spurgeon of England were ( I believe) and practiced what Jesus said and did by their love towards all mankind and sought to love their neighbor as themselves.

    Thanks you PBS for all you do and for Bill Moyers.

  • mike

    Damn that is good. I have said this a thousand ways, “religion is a tool of oppressive government.” Seneca is better.

  • Frank Soriano

    As a Roman Catholic I will cut to the chase.Why evil? No, why anything. The big bang, yes, no problem. Prior to it the explanations are as incomprehensible as my faith. If I live my belief, I look forward to meeting Susan Jacoby and her firm belief in heaven.

  • James E. Walker Jr.


  • James E. Walker Jr.

    Great interview, Bill. Thank you for your years of skillfully engaging the better angels of our nature.

  • SWA

    Religion is for the “repressed” to stay unconscious and
    shift responsibility toward a deity.

  • Kathy Wnuk

    It amuses me that some people believe that just because a person doesn’t believe in a deity, then that person must be amoral. Ever heard of secular humanism? It actually takes more moral fibre to do the right thing in the absence of a god than to god’s will because you’re afraid of punishment or seeking reward.

  • Kathy Wnuk

    While I don’t believe in a deity as described in most religions, I understand that humans need to belong to a group and they also need rules. Religions provides that to many (let’s not get into the power play by those in charge of religion, that’s for another day). I lean more toward Taoism – there isn’t a god separate from creation, indeed, god is everywhere and as for life after death? We don’t know.

  • Jay Athey

    Who’s seeking reward…it’s a simple guidance to avoid karma shall we say…Just love thy neighbor as yourself and things will be just fine…you do not have understand God to live on this earth, but if you do you will truly experience the true meaning of Life…it’s that simple…Hate is not part of the Kingdom Of God…Hate is a huge part of this world, why…simple they have no clue about the purpose of life…Have a blessed day… Sent from my Kyocera Hydro

  • RestoreAmericaj

    In the absence of light is darkness…we are living in some of the darkest times…Food for thought…FYI ….God is Light…and Love…Darkness is Hate…

  • Ted

    All your rationalizations for god can be used to believe in ghosts, spirits, magic, ESP, etc. They boil down to “I can’t see it therefore I don’t know it isn’t there.” Put another way, “if I can imagine it then it must be true.” It may feel empowering to think anything is possible but that’s not how reality works. The real question is why do you and other “spiritual” believers NEED to believe in such things for which there is NO evidence? What makes you so certain, other than your personal conviction and need to believe? That’s what we have science for. Science sets the bar very high for truth claims. Religion does not. The realization that we are alone (no god) is empowering because we must decide for ourselves what life is for.

  • Jay Athey

    My person relationship with God did not come from the Bible…I found God in Nature, Challenged what i found, and he showed me, and guided me…I cross referenced what happened to me with the Bible and it fit…I was an Atheist prior to being touched by God…I too wanted proof, well once you have faith God will open your world and your mind…If it was easy to find God and have Faith everyone would being doing it…It’s not, you must truly go thru hell to make it to Heaven. Watch Martin Luther Kings last speech before he was killed…He knew God, and Knew he served his purpose God called him to do…Just as Moses, freed his people, so did MLK …Jesus also knew that he had a purpose to serve that involved his death…that’s how it works…But Eternal life is just that…Eternal life, if it was easy everyone would be great leaders…but it takes shall we a say a calling from God to truly change the world for Good…God inspires music lyrics, they are in every form of music…once you know God, the world becomes alive…you see his hand and influence everywhere…yet most are blind and will spend their whole life trying to prove the non existence of God…if we were so smart we would already have definitive proof of non existence of God…but then the Game would be over now wouldn’t it be…so neither can be proven…so you must have faith in something bigger than yourself…God leaves clues everywhere…yet most never connect the dots…so the game of life continues. The beauty of the game it’s different for every player…why so no one can cheat their way to Heaven…we all must walk our own path with God…Good luck in your quest for the truth i hope you find it… Sent from my Kyocera Hydro

  • SnowyOwl

    You insult other animals. As far as I know, the rest of our animal kindred don’t wage religious wars on each other, torture and kill one another over minutia of dogma, or for money, or for a cellphone, or … well, you get the idea. “Mere” animals have a lot to recommend them, more than a lot of human beings do, quite frankly. For example, a loyal dog would never sell you out or betray you, and would willingly lay down its life for you. That’s more than I can say for all too many supposedly “spiritually advanced” humans.

  • Jay Athey

    Animals only like you because you feed them…People only like the Government because they feed them…Think about it…stop feeding your dog, and let your neighbor put some food out…whamo your dog has a new master…When Food stamps, unemployment, and welfare, social security dries up, who will listen to the government…No one…they might get angry and grab their guns…wait…they are taking the guns away…so at that point you just have to take it…Remember we owned slaves…we went to other countries and bought people…Brought them home and whipped and chained them…If they didn’t have chains they would have ran away…even if you fed them…So again what was your point ? Love is the only thing that matters, give it freely, no matter what, Forgive others, because we have all made mistakes…Ask the Native Americans, do they forgive US…we fed them and kept them in a cage, and we did the same for African Americans …We all make mistakes…So it is really hard to judge others, when they can turn around and judge you…Yet Americans feel superior to everyone on the planet…the Humble man wins in the end…God teaches us to be Humble and forgive others, spread love, and help the needy …How can that be wrong…My two cents…

  • Anonymous

    “…as for life after death? We don’t know.”

    ….I’m a struggling believer

    ….often, when I’m alone, I’ll try to remember how it was before I was born, convinced that’s how it might be after I’m dead….

  • Jay Athey

    Wally, i agree …love their neighbor as themselves, yet no one gets the most basic message of Jesus…Forgive them Father they do not know what they are doing…No one seems to …as the bible says, there is no one righteous, not one , Everyone falls short of being Perfect…So no one can judge another…yet we all do…hence the problem of saying your a Christian …people attack, they think you have to be perfect to be a Christian …All you have to do is believe in Jesus…and repent your daily sins…since we all sin…

  • SnowyOwl

    For someone so “humble” you sure do a lot of judging.

  • Jay Athey

    Just a little tough love…so you can see clearly…if i just said God is love, the truth and the light…You could just blow that off, and say I am crazy there is no God…So sometimes i need to explain what is really going on in this world…If that is judging, ok, if that makes me not Humble ok…Forgive me, My mission is to awaken you to God’s love…If someone was going to jump off a cliff into the abyss, would you yell at them and say stop your going the wrong way, your gonna die, or would you just say i love you no matter what , go ahead and jump…Lessons are learned one of two ways…by wisdom or failure…If me sharing my wisdom stops you from failure, i feel i saved you some headache, torment and time…So since i know something to be true, does that make me not Humble? or does that make me become your savior …Remember the saying Body of Christ …well it’s true…Holy Ghost or spirit within you…It’s true…So i humbly refer to My Father…God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit…yet i must do his work…God empowers people to do his work…I am just doing my job, defending my Father…

  • Danny Fairchild

    While I think there are people who call themselves spiritual, not religious who are just afraid of the stigma that comes with “I’m an atheist,” that’s a pretty heavy blanket to throw over everybody who claims this. Some of them are atheists who are afraid to admit it. The rest are just trying to have their God and eat It, too.

  • David Aaron Orlans

    Nationalism and Racism are the true tools of rulers. Invoking a god is but an embellishment.

  • David Aaron Orlans

    A religion is but an ethic set with allegories and traditions. There is nothing wrong them as they serve to comfort and provide social order. The anger in the heart of atheist appears to be the rules that cross their interests. The “reason” aspect comes across as more of arrogance than sensibility, especially with he vocal lot.

  • Wayne

    Great show tonight, Bill. Thanks for having Susan Jacoby on the show.
    Susan Jacoby, thank you for your work and for raising my awareness of Ingersoll. I learned a lot this evening and am always happy when I see someone like yourself speaking openly, confidently, and with kindness, about their views and thoughts.

  • Dan Martin

    I found this interview with Susan Jacoby quite interesting following my comments last week regarding the failure of our leaders today, to rely on Divine Providence and Godly Wisdom in their political decision making. Reliance on Divine Providence is different than making decisions based upon one’s professed religious beliefs. Most religions today have adopted principles compatible with market capitalism and believe income inequality is acceptable because it allows those at the top to funnel their wealth to religious institutions [churches, colleges, hospitals, etc.]
    There is no man-made media generated celebrity free market captialism with God. There is just Love, Justice and Righteousness with “the rain falling on the righteous and the wicked all the same.” At our nation’s founding, rain was a good thing as it produced a healthy and vigorous agricutural [aka aggrian] economy.

    As for secular humanism and the placing of man at the center of the universe, rather than God as the Almighty Creator, the consequences are quite evident. We have an overly narcissistic and self-centered society that has no regard for human life and believes our existence on this earth has no meaning. Accordingly, we should not be shocked when school children, theator goers and other innocent bystanders are shot and killed for no apparent reason.
    God fearing people don’t need guns. God is not likely to “Bless America” until we, [Democrats, Republicans, Independents,Libertarians, Buddists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, etc.] accept that principle. This is Dan Martin reporting with news and commentary….

  • Ted

    Science: I’ll believe it when I see it. Even then, I might be wrong if better evidence comes along.
    Religion: I’ll see it when I believe it.

    Which is the more humble, honest approach?

    How is religion a *quest* for truth? It already has the truth: god did it. Well, if you believe god (or anything) exists then of course you can find ways to confirm what you believe. But if you are honest and you want to set the bar higher, you’ll find ways to disprove what you believe. Religion offers comfort and community and clever arguments but no solid answers to how the natural world works.

  • Michael A. Mowatt Jr.

    And what is darker than black?
    Are black people “hate” people?
    Why do people point to shadows as if their existence is an issue?
    Where are you casting your light, Lucifer?

  • Jay Athey

    It’s called taking a leap of Faith…your 100% correct, you must believe to see, once you do that you get all the evidence you need…it’s seems to go against logic, but it really doesn’t, if you believe there is no God, then your brain will find ways to prove that theory, So it works both ways. If you do not believe you have a soul, since you cannot see it, it must not exist right? Yet anyone who is spiritually connected would strongly disagree with you. Trust me, you have a soul, what you do with it is 100% up to you. Ignore it, or connect it to something bigger than yourself, within that moment is where the humbling begins. Your whole world opens up to all possibilities, since it was a world you could not see unless you believed, at that,point you see, yet others have no idea they are still blind . You try to explain it, yet people just attack you, but once you realize its just their demons keeping them away from Heaven…remember it’s called the game of life…your journey is a quest for facts and clues, questions with no answers, yet once you win, it all becomes clear, and know you are of the spirit, yet it was there all along trying to guide you on the path to Heaven, yet you felt you knew it all , hence not being humble enough to believe. Sent from my Kyocera Hydro

  • Rick Woosley

    She is BRILLIANT and so spot-on! I loved this interview and had never heard of her before. An acquaintance directed me to this interview, and man oh man am I glad she did! Just brilliant!

  • roadshowrigoletto

    If one accepts the premise that being “spiritual” is arguably a bit of weak-willed thinking, a bit of ‘go along to get along,’ a typically American unwillingness to be hard about our thinking (and this is a premise that I don’t expect many to accept in the end), then Jacoby is pretty spot on. Most of the people I know who talk about being spiritual have a pronounced inability to face the intellectual contradictions of their “spirituality.” Mostly its just sloppy thinking and a certain bourgeois liberal demand to have everything that they would like to be true accepted as something that IS true. Yeah, not gonna happen.

  • James H.

    I wonder if part of the problem for Christians is in identifying which god they believe in. The god of the Bible murdered countless fetuses, newborns, toddlers and children of all ages in the Great Flood. He also murdered countless Egyptian children during the original Passover, for no other reason than they were the first born to their mommies and daddies. He also murdered countless children in the conquest of Canaan in the book of Joshua for no other reason than to be able to steal their parents’ land so that he could give it to his Jewish friends. There are other such examples in the Bible. Some Christians have invented an all loving god who would never harm a child, but this is not the god of the Bible. When someone asks me if I believe in god I always want to know which god they are asking about.

    In medical school I learned that more than 30% of all conceptions end in spontaneous abortions, so called, “acts of god”. The god of creation is therefore the most prolific abortionist since the beginning of time. How can Christians worship this god and not be in favor of abortion?

  • Barry F. Keaveney

    A new series started last week: “The Bible,” and I was interested in seeing how it was presented…but it was just too much psychosis in this idea that God is talking to you — that God causes diseases, disasters and bad fortune to punish you, etc. And this still goes on though most people, if you told them God was talking to you, they would think you’re crazy: you’re hearing voices, you’re out of touch with reality. Yet this mental disease goes on and on: hallucinations and delusions and impaired insight

  • Ted

    I think you confuse “idea” with “possibility.” Just because you can imagine an idea does not make it a possibility, let alone a reality.

  • Jay Athey

    Can you imagine a baby that evolved from matter that miraculous formed from a big bang raise itself…I cannot…can you imagine a egg of a chicken miraculous appearing to hatch and raise itself, I cannot…but i can imagine i have a soul, something i cannot see, that connects me with a creator again that i cannot see…but that’s just how my imagination works…but that’s just me and billions of others throughout history from many cultures and many languages …again, at it seems every culture has a religion that miraculously appeared out of thin air…so that’s allot of collective imagination don’t you think…kinda like a collective soul connecting everyone with their creator… Sent from my Kyocera Hydro

  • Ted

    Who knows, maybe your active imagination can come up with a new god or religion. Enjoy your imagination, it’s obviously the most important thing to you. I’m done here.

  • Jay Athey

    How can you truly separate Church from State, When If you believe in God, every decision you make is based on your Morals and beliefs of what is good for Mankind…I don’t see what the Big deal is Obama Claims to be Christian, yet Was Muslim, and now seems to be more of an Atheist…Why do we Vote for a President based on his Beliefs…If someone did not Believe in a God or Karma they could Make up their own rules and rule the world as they see fit…Kinda like the Government is doing today…They tell you what you want to hear, then take special interests Money and do what the money dictates…Realize if we had people with a higher moral value in the Positions of Government we wouldn’t be in 16 trillion dollars of Debt…How do you recklessly run a country into that much debt…when it wasn’t even your money you were spending…A budget prevents debt…Fiscal cliff, stimulus, sequestration, weapons of Mass destruction, Domestic terrorism, Global war on terror…are just marketing words to spend money that you do not have…Scare the pubic into submission…FBI, CIA, Homeland security, Domestic Drones, IRS, TSA, And now Cyber Terrorism…Sounds like we are a paranoid Country or Government who doesn’t want the same tactics used against itself…Who really feels safer than before 9/11 …No one…its an illusion…Nuclear Weapons Detour any country from invading US…Yet supplying weapons to other countries rebels so they can over throw the Governments seems Crazy…When those same guns are used to kill American troops stationed in those countries…or get in the hands of drug mafias …Oh yeah, we have a war on drugs going on also…yet Americans are the biggest consumer of drugs in the world…It seems pretty clear we have over stepped our capability to control the world…We passed so many laws, we have become a Prison society…We seem conflicted, Before we would go to war to raise our flag and conquer new lands so we could expand our Nation…Now, Instead of taking over and making it a better, we invade, destroy, and create terrorists who’s Number one goal is to destroy US…So now we fight a war on terror which a Nuclear deterrent means nothing…So what is the Solution…Simple Create a sovereign nation policy…Let north korea destroy itself, let Iran destroy itself, We have the ability to shoot down any missile launched anywhere in the world at any time… If we continue to Sanction and invade country’s we will always be paranoid that someone will attack US…If we leave them alone, Civil war will break out and they will solve their own problems…Syria is the same way…America had a civil war, the result Millions of Americans died fighting themselves to determine what is right for this Country…not the world…If we are going to determine what is right for the world…we must Overpower them and Raise our flag…you can’t have it both ways…We could treat the world like each state in the Union…Then have a governing Body overseeing Peace on earth…so each state doesn’t attack its neighbor…but the Laws and state Government is controlled by the state…Then you simply live in the state where you like the Laws …Like Vegas is a Gambling, 24hr Drinking party town, and prostitution is legal in the outskirts of town…So How can we live under these rules that do not apply to US as a whole…We just do…so you cannot outlaw everything , they tried that with prohibition…It created corruption and Mafias…Let people be people…when you try to control them, You create criminals and terrorism…America the land of the Free, or is that just a marketing slogan to get you to pay Taxes…think about it…

  • Anonymous

    I always enjoy hearing Susan Jacoby speak, and agree with much of what she says. But I too heard this with a jolt. It made me remember my
    20-year-old self as a Junior in college, coming out of a closed fundamentalist upbringing, beginning to question the things I’d been taught all my life, but not yet brave enough or intellectually equipped to abandon everything I’d known or been taught; questioning what had been my religion, but still hoping to find a legitimate spiritual alternative. Oddly, I remember describing myself as “spiritual but not religious”, never having heard that phrase used anywhere else before; and then being surprised to hear so many other saying it too. I respect Ms. Jacoby enough to believe that she would reconsider her words, and regard more gently people who are coming out of religion and searching for a better Truth; perhaps not completely able to reconcile themselves with atheism yet, but at the same time trying to separate from the dogma and extremes of ‘religionism’.

  • Ted

    I said I was done with you but I can’t let you get away with lies. You wrote “I know something (God, Jesus) to be true.” Absolutely not true. You do NOT know that. I can say with 100% certainty you do not know that. If you did know it then you could prove it–you can’t. You don’t understand the diff. between knowledge and faith. Scary. Worse, you say you’re just being humble by claiming to “know” something you can’t possibly know. that’s not humility, that’s arrogance. You are a classic example of self-delusion by faith and confirmation bias. Like you, I used to want to believe in god, I tried to see the evidence that so many people claimed to see. I finally realized it was all a mind virus that has spread to billions of uncritical people. The more certain someone is of their religious belief the more deluded they are.

  • David Drago

    If they’re your friends, then you should be able to discuss it without accusing the others, or them accusing you, of not being smart enough to comprehend. A child can understand these things, so I suspect you and your friends can, too.

  • David Drago

    I found Jacoby to be disappointing on this matter. Not completely incorrect, but she wasn’t thinking about someone such as Ludwig Wittgenstein, who most thinkers assert wrote the most important philosophical work of intellectual logic of the 20th century, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

    The book presents 7 propositions that are self-evident. His task was, for the sake of mental clarity and certainty, to unpack our language to see if it has any real connection with reality, and to define the limits of science. Wittgenstein’s work changed his doctoral dissertation advisor’s, Bertrand Russell’s profoundly. Russell’s theory of signs, hi most important contribution to philosophy, spawned entirely from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. Wittgenstein spawned a plethora of intellectual movements, and as I type today I cannot think of one Western university department of philosophy where Wittgenstein’s ideas aren’t dominant.

    At any rate, I strongly urge anyone to read this great work, but I should cut to the chase, assuming I’ve not already lost any reader of this comment, LOL …

    Some of the most interesting propositions in the book, in my reading, undermine Jacoby’s accusation that the “spiritual not religious” people are conflating their uncertainty with spirituality. I will leave it to you to deduce how because I’ve already written too much! Here we go:

    “Proposition 6.44 –

    Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.”

    “Proposition 6.52 –
    We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all.”

    “Proposition 6.522 –
    There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical.”

    “Proposition 7 –
    Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

  • David Drago

    While I am with you on your criticisms of Jay Athey, and about being indignant toward those who start religious wars, religion is not to blame for them anymore than atheism is to be blamed for the most genocidal murderers in history, who killed between 30 million to 80 million people each, Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong.

    Religion might be used as a justification for war, and atheism might be enforced at so citizens are loyal only to the state, but in all of these cases religiosity or the lack thereof is a red herring. It’s really about power. It’s always about power, no matter the justification. Always.

    Ps. I’m with you on animals, at least some, possessing the capability to feel love, sorrow, happiness, sadness, loyalty, fear, etc., etc. For those who don’t think this, you haven’t spent enough time with your pets and you should learn more about elephants, dolphins, & primates, among others in the animal kingdom..

  • David Drago

    You aren’t going to awaken anyone to God’s love in a comments section where you are thought of as hostile by many. If you want to share God’s love with people, then turn off your computer and visit with and offer your empathy to the homeless, elderly, sick, or poor.

    You’ll only encourage contempt in forums like this. It’s counterproductive.

  • David Drago

    You were doing great there until you made such a sharp distinction between faith and knowledge (which I assume you mean reason) and in calling religion a “mind virus.” I don’t care what you are ideologically, but don’t assume that you have a privileged position of clear perception & superior critical thinking skills than those who believe in any religion. By saying that you are putting yourself above a lot of great thinkers, activists, clergy, academics, and the list goes on.

    I would urge you to read more of the great thinkers and what they say abut faith and reason, and to apply your last sentence not to just religious belief, but to everything, all facets of human epistemology. To wit:

    The more certain someone is of their belief or ideology, the more deluded they are.

    If I may be so bold, here are a few books I highly recommend to help you make a more informed decision about religion, irreligion, theism, atheism, human reason, faith, and what we humans can or cannot know (epistemology)

    -Myth and Meaning by Claude Levi-Strauss;
    -The World’s Religions by Huston Smith;
    – Science & the Modern World by Alfred North Whitehead;
    – The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant; and
    – The Case for God by Karen Armstrong

  • David Drago

    You two were just picking up steam and about to make real progress and you back out now? You deferred to him with an ad hominem attack signifies defeat. I didn’t see him getting you in checkmate, so to speak, but it appears like you did, so you quickly grabbed the board and pieces and took your chess set home to prevent something you saw coming that you didn’t like. Why?

    You even said something meant to be a putdown that is a compliment by most standards, scientific or otherwise, when you said, “Enjoy your imagination, its obviously the most important thing to you.” You do realize that the famed and often-quoted Einstein said that very thing and it is how E=MC2 came to him, right?

    I’m disappointed that this discussion was prematurely abandoned.


  • David Drago

    Proselytizing is not the main objective for mainline religious sect and denominations. Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Southern Baptists, and other evangelicals do this, but you will not find most United Methodists, Catholics, American Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, United Church of Christ, etc., knocking on your door to proselytize, but you will find, especially among the United Methodists thanks to their founder John Wesley, that most social outreach is done without any other motive than either genuine care for people. Much of the time the recipients aren’t even aware of the religiosity of the people who are providing social support. Try it. Go to a few food pantries in your nearest city or town, watch and listen.

    I don’t know about that “Creator” mention in the Declaration of Independence being merely a convention of the times. As a secularist I’ve often wondered why it was included. I don’t think anything was included just as a means of convention in the Declaration. I think it was used in that context to say that humans, no matter who they are or what the earthly rulers say, have certain unalienable rights that cannot be taken away because they are granted by the higher “Creator.” Hence, humans cannot strip other humans of their rights because they are who we are.