Thursday, March 27, 2008


As I’ve said before, I read many books. I read to be informed (among other reasons). Usually I both agree and disagree with the books I read. Occasionally I’ll read a book that cracks my old mind open. Susan Jacoby's, THE AGE OF AMERICAN UNREASON is one such book and is a much needed book. In an age when the very word "intellectual" is a dirty word, someone needs to come to the defense of thinkers. Jacoby speaks out against what she terms "popular anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism." She finds many roots for our current situation: the rise of religious fundamentalism and the equating of intellectualism with liberalism; she says that Americans have become not illiterate but a-literate; she blames much of this on "the greater accessibility of information through computers and the Internet."

She traces the history of thought and anti-thought from the pre-revolutionary freethinkers, through the era of the sixties to our present day, covering much of the same ground as in her previous book, FREETHINKERS, A HISTORY OF AMERICAN SECULARISM. As a matter of opinion, I'd recommend reading FREETHINKERS first to prepare for the greater depth of this book.

I loved reading this book and on nearly every page I found something to which I could say amen. Jacoby writes with style and humor, even though at times she sounds a bit curmudgeonly.

Some might be disappointed that most of the material is devoted to history and analysis, while very little is devoted to solutions. I believe that this is the strength of this book. There are no quick cures. We must first face the problem before we can work out the solutions.

One caveat: Jacoby is clearly and unapologetically an atheist. She has little use for what she terms "supernaturalist fundamentalism." While she concedes that there may be intellectuals in this camp, they are, in her view, irrational. According to her, “Supernaturalist fundamentalism is by definition anti-rational, because it cannot be challenged by any countervailing evidence in the natural world” (page 44). Using her definition, one would almost be forced to agree – if “the natural world” is the only source of evidence, if we are restricted to only evidence that can be attained through our senses. If we presuppose that we are bound by a materialistic universe, we have no place for the supernatural. It is the common circular argument.

Jacoby takes swipes at religion throughout the book and displays some prejudices and at times she seems downright mean. I suppose many of my evangelical friends would dismiss her forthright. I won’t.

Sometimes we need to listen to our critics, and Susan Jacoby is one that needs to be listened to, even when we think she is wrong. And she frequently is. But I also believe she is correct in many of her criticisms. To name a few: the fear of science among many believers; the twisting of history to make America a Christian nation; the blind allegiance to the political right.

I have taught for many years – as a college professor, as a pastor, an adult Sunday school teacher, small group teacher, etc. I have found that there is, among a growing number of believers and non-believers, not only ignorance, but almost a pride in ignorance. I find this even among educated people: ignorance of the Bible, of history, of theology, of other cultures. We fit right in with the folks that Jacoby berates.

Anyone who is concerned about the dumbing down of American life and thought, should read Jacoby! I especially recommend her book to my thinking Christian friends.

Bill Ball