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Feb 26 2005
Susan Jacoby Speaks on Moral Values, Secularism

Published on Friday, February 25, 2005

Historian Speaks On Moral Values, Secularism

Writer Susan Jacoby addresses filled Science Center A


Contributing Writer

Harvard students, staff, and members of the broader Cambridge community filled Science Center A last night to hear historian and writer Susan Jacoby discuss her latest book, “Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism.”

Jacoby, director of the Center For Free Inquiry in New York City, was invited by the Humanist Chaplaincy of Harvard to speak on the much-publicized “moral values” issue in American politics.

Jacoby grounded her argument for a more secular government in the opinions and beliefs of the founding fathers of the United States as well as such influential American thinkers as poet Walt Whitman, scholar Robert G. Ingersoll, Abraham Lincoln, and John F. Kennedy ‘40.

Jacoby said in her speech last night that the Constitution created a clear break between church and state—a system which has worked for more than 200 years.

She claimed that “secular civic values are in greater danger than they are at any other point” in the country’s history, endangered by the views of the religious right and the policies of the Bush Administration.

During the question-and-answer session, a student commented on the relative lack of young people attending the speech and asked what could be done to “undemonize” secularism for youth today.

Jacoby replied that secularism “has to be relearned in each generation,” and that she finds it is currently “uncool” to promote secularism or atheism on campus.

Tom Ferrik, the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University and moderator of the discussion, pointed out that secularism was a hot-button issue in the 1960s, when even Time Magazine famously asked in a cover story at the time, “Is God Dead?”.

Ferrik encouraged secular and atheist students to express their beliefs with passion, stating that with courage and boldness, great things can be accomplished for secularism on campus and beyond.

Susan Jacoby claimed that “the problem [we face today] is religion melded with political ideology and power”, creating a society where heated debate still rages over evolution and public welfare.

The religious right, she said, uses faith to justify war and the death penalty, as government officials claim that “God is on our side” and favor belief over rational thought.

Jacoby used her speech as a platform to espouse what she sees as the values of secular liberals; beliefs grounded in reality, such the idea that everyone in society has an obligation to look out for other citizens.

She urged those at the speech to “reclaim the language of passion and emotion from the religious right” and integrate the intellectual spirit of humanism and secularism with the fervor of the opposition.

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