by Fred Edwords
During the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution, one morning’s executions began with three men: a rabbi, a Catholic priest, and a freethinker.
The rabbi was marched up onto the platform first. There, facing the guillotine, he was asked if he had any last words. And the rabbi cried out, “I believe in the one and only true God, and He shall save me.” The executioner then positioned the rabbi below the blade, set the block above his neck, and pulled the cord to set the terrible instrument in motion. The heavy cleaver plunged downward, searing the air. But then, abruptly with a crack, it stopped only inches above the would-be victim’s neck. To which the rabbi said, “I told you so.”
“It’s a miracle!” gasped the crowd. And the executioner had to agree, letting the rabbi go.
Next in line was the priest. Asked for his final words, he declared, “I believe in Jesus Christ–the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost–who will rescue me in my hour of need.” The executioner then positioned this man’s head on the block. And he pulled the cord. Again the blade flew downward–thump! creak!–stopping just short of its mark once more.
“Halelujia,” shouted the priest. “Another miracle,” sighed the disappointed crowd. And the executioner for the second time had no choice but to let the condemned go free.
Now it was the freethinker’s turn. “What final words have you to say?” he was asked. But the freethinker didn’t hear. Staring raptly at the ominous engine of death, he seemed lost. The executioner had to poke him in the ribs and ask the question again before he would reply. But at length, the freethinker cried out, “You gullible, superstitious fools. Those weren’t miracles! You’ve got a blockage in the gear assembly, right there.”
That might explain why there are so few freethinkers today.
Of course freethought didn’t begin or end with the French Revolution. Nor has it been limited to the western world. Freethought has a long and ancient pedigree that has spanned centuries, continents, and cultures. But before we can trace its history we should first define what it is.
In his 1957 essay, “The Value of Free Thought,” philosopher and freethinker Bertrand Russell wrote:
What makes a freethinker is not his beliefs but the way in which he holds them. If he holds them because his elders told him they were true when he was young, or if he holds them because if he did not he would be unhappy, his thought is not free; but if he holds them because, after careful thought he finds a balance of evidence in their favor, then his thought is free, however odd his conclusions may seem.
By this definition, a wide range of people have been freethinkers: not only atheists and agnostics but also deists, liberal religionists, religious innovators, and those who have challenged the predominant orthodoxies in every field of endeavor, from science to politics to the arts. That adds up to a lot of people. And what it tells us is that almost every great individual in history had to, in some way or another, think free. That’s what made such people stand out. That’s generally why they became famous in the first place.
But I only have up to an hour to spend delivering this talk, so I won’t be able to regale you with biographical sketches of all the most significant contributors to human civilization who ever lived. I’ll need to narrow my topic some. Most dictionaries define a freethinker as one who has rejected authority and dogma, especially in religious thinking, in favor of rational inquiry. The term first came into use in England toward the end of the seventeenth century as a designation for those who inquired into traditional religious beliefs, tested them against experience, and dared to draw their own conclusions.
But with this understanding in hand, we can probe deeper into history, venturing into ancient times, and probe more widely, taking our search beyond England and Europe to include the whole world. And when we do this we discover that freethought has a rich and significant history.
Perhaps it began in ancient Egypt. Going back to the time of Cheops, builder of the Great Pyramid of Giza, who lived around 2550 Before the Common Era, we find that there were wisdom schools for the sons of wealthy men. Secular ideas were taught that provided practical instruction in maintaining emotional tranquillity, practicing social decorum, and getting ahead in politics. Out of this tradition grew the secular songs of the harpists who performed at banquets. And some of these songs brought critical thinking to bear on religious belief. Let me read from a translation by Miriam Lichtheim of some of the words from one of these pieces, lyrics from a papyrus in the British Museum dating back to 1300 BCE.
Since the time of our ancestors
Generations have come and gone and been replaced.
The gods who lived in former times, rest in their pyramids,
The dead nobles too are buried in their pyramids
And those who built the tombs-the places have disappeared
What has happened to them?
I have heard the words of Imhotep and Hordedef
Whose sayings men recite.
What has happened to their places today?
The walls are crumbled, and their places are gone.
And it is as if they had never been.
No one ever comes back from the beyond
To inform us about their condition
Or to tell us about their needs
Or to calm our hearts.
Until the time comes when we go where they have gone
Let your desire be strong
Let your heart forget funerary rites.
Follow your desires so long as you live.
How reminiscent this is of the Medieval Arabic wisdom in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, written in the year 1120 of the Common Era. Here are some relevant selections from the 1889 translation of Edward Fitzgerald.
Some for the Glories of This World; and some
Sigh for the Prophet’s Paradise to come;
Ah, take the Cash, and let the Credit go,
Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum!
The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon
Turns Ashes–or it prospers; and anon,
Like Snow upon the Desert’s dusty Face,
Lighting a little hour or two–is gone.
Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie,
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and–sans End
Oh threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise!
One thing at least is certain–This Life flies;
One thing is certain and the rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.
Strange, is it not ? that of the myriads who
Before us pass’d the door of Darkness through,
Not one returns to tell us of the Road,
Which to discover we must travel too.
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.
The sort of secular wisdom schools that had thrived in Egypt thrived in ancient Israel as well. We see evidence of this in a number of biblical proverbs. In the Book of Ecclesiastes, written during the fourth century BCE, we find the same acceptance of the finality of death that was sung by the Egyptian harpists. Humanist biblical scholar Gerald Larue translates Ecclesiastes 4:19-21 thus:
—The fate of men and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies so dies the other for all have the same breath of life. Man has no superiority over the animal, both are void of meaning. Both go to the same place; all are from the dust and all return to dust. Who knows whether the life of man ascends upward and the life of beasts descends to the underworld?
As for humans after they are dead, Ecclesiastes 9:5-6 tells us:
—they know nothing at all, and they experience no rewards and (ultimately) they are not remembered. Their love, their hate, their passions have completely perished, and never more do they have any part in what happens beneath the sun.
These wisdom teachings of the ancient Middle East weren’t atheistic, however. But the situation was different in the Indian subcontinent. Some divisions that developed within Hinduism during and after the sixth century BCE were decidedly godless. For example, Makkali Gosali founded the Ajivaka sect. Picking up on freethought sayings found here and there in the Vedas and Upanishads, this leader rejected the concept of karma in favor of a random chance cause of events. His sect lasted until the thirteenth century of the Common Era. The Mimamsa and Samkhya schools of Hinduism may have appeared as early as 400 BCE and the Vendanta system emerged in the eighth century CE-all atheistic.
Breaking off from Hinduism in the sixth century BCE was Jainism, an atheistic ascetic philosophy that accepts the law of karma. It was developed by Mahavira. Some decades later Siddhartha Gautama became the founder of Buddhism, a nontheistic system of virtue and resignation. Jainism and Buddhism so effectively rejected the Hindu practice of animal sacrifice that Hinduism itself changed in this regard.
Around this same time, Lao-tzu developed Taoism in China, a quietist system of agnostic mysticism. And shortly afterwards Confucius emerged to offer secular wisdom teachings aimed at creating ethical integrity. His ideas were agnostic and humanistic. But they didn’t become widely accepted until three centuries later when they were merged with a system of social regimentation. From that time, Confucianism became China’s state ideology.
Meanwhile in ancient Greece the preSocratic Ionian philosophers were trying out a variety of new ways of accounting for the universe and explaining nature without reference to gods. They were materialists. Thales said that all things were reducible to water. Anaximander argued for apeiron, a basic and undefinable primary substance. Anaximenes said everything was reducible to air. Xenophanes chose both earth and water. And Heraclietus posited fire, viewing the universe as energy in a constant state of flux guided by a law of cosmic reason. Heracleitus wrote:
— This world that is the same for all, neither any god nor any man shaped it, but it ever was and is and shall be ever-living Fire that kindles by measures and goes out by measures.
Regarding theistic concepts, Xenophanes held that the gods had been created by humans in their own image. He wrote:
— But mortals think the gods are born and have the same clothes and voices and appearances as themselves. But if oxen or horses or lions had hands and could draw . . . the horses would draw the forms of gods like horses, and the oxen of gods like oxen, and each would give them bodies like its own.
Leucippus and Democritus, who florished around the year 400 BCE, developed an atomic theory of the universe. The word “atom” means “uncuttable” and refers to an irreducible “smallest thing.” These Atomists maintained that everything in the universe could be reduced to these particles of matter that are so tiny as to be invisible. They noted that objects can be worn down by weathering and so concluded that invisible atoms must gradually be dissipating in order for the weathering to occur. About a century later Epicurus added to the theory, trying to explain, if the atoms had all originally been falling downward, how it was that they could start bumping into each other and begin coalescing into objects. His answer was that atoms have a property which makes them inexplicably swerve now and then, resulting in interaction between them. This random behavior also provides the basis for free will in an otherwise deterministic system.
Now then, how were these thinkers able to step outside Greek mythology and offer such ideas? Perhaps part of the answer lies in the nature of that Greek mythology, itself. The Greeks were less inclined to worship their gods than to cut deals with them. They saw themselves at times almost the equal of their gods.
Furthermore, Greek mythology found a uniquely freethinking divinity in the Titan Prometheus, something that is rarely manifested in the mythologies of other cultures. Prometheus stands out because he was admired by ancient Greeks as the one who defied Zeus. He stole the fire of the gods and brought it down to Earth. For this he was punished. And yet he continued his defiance amid his tortures. This may be a root of the ancient freethought challenge to authority, something that not only gave permission to inquisitive materialists but allowed for the overthrow of monarchy and the creation of democracy.
The next time we see a truly heroic Promethean character in mythology it is Lucifer in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. But now he is the Devil. He is evil. Whoever would defy God must be wickedness personified. That seems to be a given of traditional religion. But the ancient Greeks didn’t agree. To them, Zeus, for all his power, could still be mistaken.
This willingness to stand up to religious tradition shows in Plato’s Euthyphro, wherein Socrates shows that God is not necessarily the source of good, or even good himself. Socrates asks if something is good because God ordains it, or if God ordains it because it is already good.
It was in this spirit, during the Golden Age of Athens, that a philosophic circle developed around the politician Pericles. This included Anaxagorus, Zeno, Protagoras, and Pericles’ mistress Aspasia. Aspasia seems to have been the real leader of the circle and Socrates declared that she taught him much of philosophy. She was by all accounts a freethinker as well as a woman who lived free in a society in which other women were usually cloistered almost as much as they are in some Muslim countries today.
But the one who is remembered as the historical exemplar of unfettered freethinking inquiry is still Socrates. It’s easy to see why. After all this time, he still stands out uniquely among all the famous saints, sages, and martyrs from antiquity to the present. Every religion has its sage. Judaism has Moses, Zoroastrianism has Zarathustra, Buddhism has the Buddha, Christianity has Jesus, Islam has Mohammad, Mormonism has Joseph Smith, and Bahai has Baha-u-lah. Every one of these individuals claimed to know the absolute truth. It is Socrates, alone among famous sages, who claimed to know NOTHING. Each devised a set of rules or laws, save Socrates. Instead, Socrates used a method–a method of questioning the rules of others, of cross-examination and philosophic irony. And Socrates didn’t die for truth; he died for freedom and the rule of law. For these reasons, Socrates is the quintessential skeptical freethinker. He stands as a symbol, both of Greek rationalism and the Humanist tradition that it inspired. And no equally recognized saint or sage has joined his company since his death.
One of those who Socrates spars with in Plato’s Dialogues is Protagoras, who said, “Man is the measure of all things,” setting forth a basic Humanist principle that came to underlie philosopher John Dewey’s instrumentalism. The Internet Encyclopedia says, “Protagoras’ notion that judgments and knowledge are in some way relative to the person judging or knowing has been very influential, and is still widely discussed in contemporary philosophy.” Ancient historians maintained that Progagoras was ultimately put on trail in Athens for impiety because he had written that it isn’t possible to tell if the gods exist or not. His books were burned as a consequence.
Another great freethinker and Humanist in ancient Athens was the tragedian Euripides. His dramas criticize religious fanaticism, superstition, male domination, war, and other evils.
For example, in The Bacchae, Euripides expresses in poetic drama all the seductions and dangers of cultic and fanatical religious belief. His characters suffer personal tragedy to the very extent that they allow themselves to become caught up in the Bacchic frenzy, or to dogmatically and undemocratically work to suppress the Dionysian cult. And Dionysus, in the end, is exposed as the cruel, capricious, and vindictive god that he is. Through him, all his promises of joy through faith are ultimately broken.
In Iphigenia at Aulis, a priest declares that Agamemnon has sinned against a god, and this is why the wind has not blown and will not blow to send his thousand ships to Troy. Only penance through the sacrifice of his daughter will restore the god’s good graces. So, reluctantly, Agamemnon orders the daughter seized and burned at the stake. She is courageous in the face of death, while her father’s cowardice before the altar of superstition unwittingly dooms him also–he will later be murdered by his wife to avenge the daughter’s death. But, for now, the priest lights the flame, and, ironically, not a moment too soon, because the winds have already begun to blow.
Across history freethought has been expressed through the literary arts in this way. The names are legion: Moliere, George Eliot, Ambrose Bierce, George Bernard Shaw, Henrik Ibsen, Sinclair Lewis, Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, and Alice Walker, to name just a few. In the realm of music Mozart and Beethoven were just two of many creative freethinkers. There have been sculptors, painters, actors, and so many others. Isadora Duncan was a freethinker who brought innovation to modern dance. Gene Roddenberry was an atheist who created the Star Trek phenomenon. The list goes on. But let us return to ancient times.
Following Greece’s Golden Age was a period when a number of philosophical schools were established by Socrates’ pupils. One of them was the Cyrenaic school, founded by Aristippus of Cyrene. All of its philosophers were atheists who advocated that physical pleasure was the highest good.
Then came the Helenistic age, during which time numerous schools of philosophy flourished. One of them was the Epicurean. Epicurus was a quietist hedonist who held that mental pleasures could be superior to the physical ones advanced by the Cyrenaics. And instead of propounding atheism he advanced the view that the gods exist but, being immaterial, have no impact on nature and are unconcerned about human affairs. Philosophers of rival schools were quick to claim that this was a mere disguised atheism. But the philosophy flourished, debunking popular fears of eternal punishment after death, finding its greatest expression in Roman times through the epic-length naturalistic poem by Lucretius, On the Nature of Things.
Another school was that of the Skeptics. They held that no certain knowledge existed and therefore a totally agnostic approach to all issues was in order. Long after Plato’s death his Academy evolved toward this position but made the caveat that there was one thing you could know for certain and that was that you couldn’t know anything else for certain.
Greek Hellenistic philosophy was eventually transferred to Rome where it thrived. Specifically, the pantheistic, rationalist philosophy of the Stoics captivated those in positions of political influence. The skepticism of the New Academy influenced intellectuals like Cicero, whose book, On the Nature of the Gods, pitted Stoic, Epicurean, and Academic arguments against each other, leading the reader toward the conclusion that, though it is good and pious to worship the gods, there is no philosophical argument that can prove they exist. Cicero followed this book with On Divination, in which he vigorously debunked astrology, prophetic dreams, portents, auguries, and all the rest. Cicero wondered how two augurs could meet each other on the street without laughing out loud over the foolishness they were putting over on the public.
Seneca was a Roman Stoic philosopher who was critical of traditional religion and popular superstition. In the annals of freethought he is famous for saying: “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”
In the time of Augustus Caesar we have the poet Ovid, author of the Metamorphoses. He disguised his freethought in the mythical tales he told. Today scholars have figured out that the reason why so many of the first stories in his poem are the tales of rapes is because his aim was to subtly discredit belief in the gods.
Among freethinkers of Roman times who wrote in Greek, Lucian stands out. He penned numerous satirical essays and dialogues poking fun at mythology, the gods, miracle workers, and even philosophers. My personal favorite is “The Rival Philosophers,” a dialogue made up of arguments so structured that they could easily be turned to the purpose of undermining anyone’s religious convictions. The dialogue makes every reader ask, “Who has had time to give every belief a fair hearing before selecting the best and the truest one?”
In late antiquity one of the most surprising sources of persuasive freethought arguments is an early Christian writer by the name of Arnobius. His book, Against the Heathen, written about the year 305 of the Common Era, leveled a blistering series of attacks that thoroughly debunked the absurd beliefs of Roman paganism. He had hoped it would make him admired among Christian leaders of his time. But it didn’t. They all seemed to have understood something he had overlooked. His effective appeals to common sense could prove equally potent if turned against Christian doctrines! As a result, modern freethinkers have been among Arnobius’ most ardent readers.
These and other works are the sources which influenced the Christian humanists of the Renaissance and the freethinkers of the Elizabethan era and the Age of Enlightenment. Let us turn now to those freethinkers themselves.
Playwright Christopher Marlowe was the author of Dr. Faustus, The Jew of Malta, and Edward II, among others. He kept company with the leading intellectuals of London, many of whom were privately freethinkers. Then in 1593, when he began openly pointing out inconsistencies in the Bible, the government came to suspect him of heresy and conducted an investigation. They had his roommate tortured into giving evidence against him and Marlowe was to be brought before the Privy Council. But that never happened because he was killed in a tavern brawl that may have been set up to get him out of the way so he couldn’t testify against such important friends as Walter Raleigh.
As for Marlowe’s friend and competitor William Shakespeare, his plays clearly show his familiarity with freethinking ideas, both from the past and in his own time. But he kept the words in the mouths of his characters instead of expressing them himself.
It was in the eighteenth century, the Age of Enlightenment, where freethought truly came into its own. The French philosophes and other eighteenth century Enlightenment thinkers brought new ideas into the popular consciousness. The pen of Voltaire skewered the Roman Catholic church. Deism, the belief in nature’s God but not Judaism or Christianity, became popular among intellectuals in Europe and North America. But this revolution in thinking wasn’t only about beliefs. As with the Enlightenment itself, freethought went beyond religious critique to advance social reform. Freethinkers challenged the divine right of kings, sought an end to cruel and unusual punishments, and advanced civil and social rights–efforts that reached their peak, and excess, during the French Revolution. Out of that period come such freethinkers as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Denis Diderot, and so many others. Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason strongly challenged the Bible’s claim of divine authorship and thus popularized biblical scholarship.
In an article, “Caffeine and the Coming of the Enlightenment,” published in the Summer 2003 issue of Rutgers University’s Raritan, Roger Schmidt tells us that a major force behind the European Enlightenment was coffee.
You see, in the mid seventeenth century, after the invention of mechanical clocks, people started caring more about time. And after improvements in artificial lighting (such as candles with wicks at both ends, Thomas Paine’s smokeless candle, improved oil lamps, and uses of mirrors behind a flame to spread more of the light) people started “burning the midnight oil” to get more work done. For many people, sleep ceased to be viewed as a spiritually purifying time-in 1630 John Donne had said that sleep was “shaking hands with God”-and became something to be rid of.
Short, O short then be thy reign
And give us to the world again!
wrote Samuel Johnson in 1753. But it wasn’t just secular intellectuals who endorsed this change of heart. As Schmidt’s article reveals:
In 1728, clergyman John Law denounced sleep as “the poorest, dullest refreshment of the body,” one that produced either “insensibility” or “the folly of dreams.” He excoriated the Christian who chose to “enlarge the slothful indulgence of sleep, rather than be early at his devotions to God.” A few years later, Benjamin Franklin famously reminded slugabeds that time is money.
Naturally then, because of their ability to maintain wakefullness, coffee and tea became an integral part of the Enlightenment intellectual scene. Not only did thinkers stay up nights with it, but they met together in those great institutions of freethought, those catalysts of new ideas where great revolutions were hatched, the coffeehouses.
As we speak of Enlightenment thought and Enlightenment thinkers, we need to be aware that Enlightenment women are too often forgotten. So I want to make sure that we remember Mary Wollstonecraft (who was born in 1759 in London, England). Living in Paris with American Gilbert Imlay during the French Revolution, she was the first to pen a response to Reflections on the Revolution in France, the famous attack on the French and American Revolutions by British Member of Parliament Edmund Burke. Her A Vindication of the Rights of Man thus preceded Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man in upholding Enlightenment principles of human rights. She immediately followed with A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, considered the first feminist document. It argues vigorously not only for women’s rights but for the virtue of reason above organized religion and superstition. Part of the final chapter is even devoted to debunking fortune-tellers and faith healers, charlatans who often preyed on women.
In her various writings Wollstonecraft stood firmly against slavery and monarchy and for children’s rights, the value of breastfeeding, coeducational schools, animal rights, and other progressive ideas. As a deist she rejected the patriarchy of the church in favor of an unknowable but all-sufficient god of nature-though biographer Eleanor Flexner and others point to evidence that she died an agnostic. For her controversial views, some derided her as a “hyena in petticoats.”
Wollstonecraft had a daughter, Fanny, through Imlay, who she never married. Later she married William Godwin, who became the father of her second daughter, Mary, who grew up to wed atheist poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and write Frankenstein. But complications from that childbirth led to Wollstonecraft’s death in 1797.
In the early nineteenth century we find Richard Carlile who established himself as England’s leading atheist and, in 1826, published Every Woman’s Book, the first non-religious sex manual in English to promote contraception-a book that treated sexual enjoyment as natural and conversation about sex in mixed company as ethically appropriate. He was jailed for his various freethought and social reform activities.
But when one thinks of nineteenth century freethought what most often comes to mind are those who critiqued, debunked, or poked fun at religion. And certainly one of the best at this was Mark Twain, another atheist. In The Damned Human Race he tells this story of his scientific research.
Among my experiments was this. In an hour I taught a cat and a dog to be friends. I put them in a cage. In another hour I taught them to be friends with a rabbit. In the course of two days I was able to add a fox, a goose, a squirrel and some doves. Finally a monkey. They lived together in peace; even affectionately.
Next, in another cage I confined an Irish Catholic from Tipperary, and as soon as he seemed tame I added a Scotch Presbyterian from Aberdeen. Next a Turk from Constantinople; a Greek Christian from Crete; an Armenian; a Methodist from the wilds of Arkansas; a Buddhist from China; a Brahman from Benares. Finally, a Salvation Army Colonel from Wapping. Then I stayed away two whole days. When I came back to note results, the cage of Higher Animals [the dog and cat and so on] was all right, but in the other there was but a chaos of gory odds and ends of turbans and fezzes and plaids and bones and flesh — not a specimen left alive. These Reasoning Animals had disagreed on a theological detail and carried the matter to a Higher Court.
But there was also a positive, affirmative side to freethought that took pleasure in the liberation freethought brought to the individual, best expressed in these words of the popular American orator called the Great Agnostic, Robert G. Ingersoll:
When I became convinced that the universe is natural, that all the ghosts and gods are myths, there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood the sense, the feeling, the joy of freedom. The walls of my prison crumbled and fell. The dungeon was flooded with light and all the bolts and bars and manacles became dust. I was no longer a servant, a serf, or a slave. There was for me no master in all the wide world, not even in infinite space. I was free–free to think, to express my thoughts–free to live my own ideal, free to live for myself and those I loved, free to use all my faculties, all my senses, free to spread imagination’s wings, free to investigate, to guess and dream and hope, free to judge and determine for myself . . . I was free! I stood erect and fearlessly, joyously faced all worlds.
Enough to make a freethinker shout “hallelujah!”
Ingersoll was famous for both this positive expression as well as a good-humored debunking of faith. As Susan Jacoby writes in her 2004 book, Freethinkers: a History of American Secularism:
Even the most orthodox religious members of Ingersoll’s audiences were often charmed by his cheerful manmner and obvious enjoyment of his own jokes. A newspaper in Des Moines, Iowa, reported that a majority of those attending Ingersoll’s lecture “were strictly orthodox; and how they did roar. Foreordination laughs jostled freewill smiles; Baptist cachinations floated out to join apostolic roars, and there was a grand unison of orthodox cheers for the most unorthodox jokes.”
Back then there was a considerable latitude in public discourse on the subject of religion. In the nineteenth century, freedom of religion meant just that-the freedom to believe in and practice one’s creed. It did not mean that particular religious beliefs were exempt from public criticism or even from public ridicule.
But Jacoby goes on to note that
the journalistic emphasis on Ingersoll’s jibes at religion and the Bible . . . was almost never balanced by a fair exposition of the humanistic philosophical and ethical system with which he proposed to replace orthodox faith. . . . Then as now, the idea that an atheist or agnostic believes in nothing was a cornerstone of the orthodox mindset. . . . but he took his humanist creed very seriously and in all his speeches addressed the accusation that freethinkers had nothing to offer in place of religion.
But even with this, nineteenth century freethought wasn’t limited to just two options: to debunk and to be free. It’s primary efforts, in fact, were directed toward social change. Many of the freethought organizations were heavily involved in the labor movement and fought for social reforms like birth control and women’s rights. In this latter cause, one of the most outstanding leaders was Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who didn’t hesitate to argue how much the Bible was responsible for the subjugation of women. Freethinkers like Ingersoll also opposed slavery and racism, fought against child labor and unsafe living and working conditions. Freethinkers advanced public schools and promoted child-protection legislation. We see all this clearly in England in the work of Charles Bradlaugh, Annie Besant, and “Darwin’s Bulldog,” Thomas Henry Huxley.
In the United States, freethinking Darwinism played an important role in the development the first child protection legislation. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals launched the effort, declaring that because an abused child was a member of the animal kingdom, such a child was entitled to all the protections the law already accorded to other animals. That’s how it came to be that we have laws against child-abuse today.
One of the greatest but almost forgotten exemplars of nineteenth century freethought was Moncure Daniel Conway. Born in 1832 in Stafford County, Virginia, just north of Fredericksburg, he moved in 1838 into a brick house along the Rappahannock River. (The address of this Federal Style house, by the way, is 305 King Street in Falmouth. The home has at long last been placed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Virginia Landmarks Register, and become a site on the Network to Freedom / Underground Railroad. A historic marker appears across the street telling about Conway).
In 1851, at age 19, Conway abandoned his father’s dream of him having a law career and, inspired by a Methodist anti-slavery tradition, became a Methodist circuit-riding minister. But Methodist doctrine couldn’t fully satisfy a man entranced with the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. So Conway’s sermons began raising eyebrows as they emphasized fulfillment on earth rather than in heaven. And when Conway wrote to Emerson, the great man advised that Conway take up study at Harvard Divinity School. This he did, becoming a Unitarian and befriending not only Emerson but Agassiz, Thoreau, Longfellow, Theodore Parker, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and William Lloyd Garrison.
Conway gave his first public anti-slavery speech in 1854 at a rally where protesters against slavery didn’t burn the flag-they burned copies of the Constitution! And it needs to be noted that, in those days, abolitionists weren’t only opposed by Christian churches in the South but ignored by Christian churches in the North. This caused a high level of anti-clerical rhetoric among abolitionists, secular as well as religious ones. As a result, abolitionists were commonly decried by the public as “atheists.” How ironic it is, then, that, today, the abolition of slavery is viewed in the popular mind as one of the great accomplishments of Christianity.
That said, later in 1854, at age 22, Conway was hired as minister of the First Unitarian Church of Washington, DC, (which later became All Souls Church in Northwest). There, in 1856, as the conflict between abolitionists and proslavery forces in “bloody Kansas” dominated the news of the day, Conway began vigorously denouncing slavery from the pulpit. And within three months he was removed from his position.
Today, however, you can log onto the history section of the All Souls website at:
and find a special section devoted to the “Abolitionist Ministers” who this church now takes so much pride in. It reads:
Despite divisions within the congregation over the issue of slavery, many of the ministers who served the church in the years before the Civil War were abolitionists. These included Edward Everett Hale (1844), Samuel Longfellow (1847), Joseph Henry Allen (1847-1851), Moncure Daniel Conway (1854-1857), William D. Haley (1858-1861), and William Henry Channing (1861-1865).
In other words, this church went through a lot of ministers. The website goes on:
Over time, more and more of the congregation came to oppose slavery.
In his first sermon to the First Unitarian Church, Rev. Conway spoke about the church’s role in denouncing slavery:
“The Church must hold itself ready to pass free judgment on all customs, fashions, ideas, facts, on trade and politics, and in this country more especially . . . of all sins–human slavery.”
In any case, after being sacked by his congregants, only two months passed before Conway was welcomed to the Unitarian pulpit of the First Congregational Church of Cincinnati, Ohio. In Cincinnati he met and married Ellen Davis Dana, a Unitarian, feminist, and abolitionist, and came under the influence of the German free thinkers of the area. Soon he was questioning the veracity of biblical miracles, the divinity of Jesus, and even the Bible’s authority. This led, in 1859, to half of his congregation leaving to form a new church.
In 1860 Conway revived and edited the Transcendentalist periodical The Dial and in 1862 became coeditor of The Commonwealth, an antislavery weekly. Also, in the summer of 1862, Conway learned that, amid Civil War hostilities in Falmouth, 31 of his father’s slaves had escaped to Washington, DC. He immediately tracked them down in Georgetown and, in a daring adventure, got them on a train to Baltimore where, after they arrived, he had to help them dodge an angry mob to transfer them to another train that ultimately took them to Yellow Springs in the free state of Ohio. There the former slaves settled the “Conway Colony,” a name of their choosing. A historical marker indicates the site today.
Disillusioned with American Unitarianism, however, the Conways left the Cincinnati church and went to England to promote abolition and the cause of the North in the Civil War. While there, Conway abandoned theism completely and was hired as the minister of the South Place Chapel, a freethought church in London that had been founded as a Universalist congregation in 1793.
Living in London Conway befriended Charles Dickens, Charles Lyell, and Charles Darwin. There he became a prominent advocate of women’s suffrage, the scientific study of religion, and a wide range of social reforms. In 1888 the South Place Chapel became the South Place Ethical Society, a name it still bears, though it is now owned by the British Humanist Association. In 1892 Conway published what became a famous two-volume work on the life of Thomas Paine, which reintroduced Paine to Americans and the British. The death of his wife in 1897 brought Conway back to the United States, where he lectured on free religion and voting rights. He also spoke out against the imperialistic “spreadeaglism” of the Spanish-American War. Then, taking up residence in Paris, Conway, devoted the rest of his life to the peace movement, addressing the Paris Peace Conference in 1900 on ideas that presaged the United Nations. He died in Paris in 1907.
What Conway’s life shows, as do the lives of so many others like him, is that America’s fabled freethought forebears didn’t limit themselves to just searching out biblical contradictions and debunking paranormal claims. They were determined to show, as well, that a nontheistic worldview and a human-oriented system of ethics could make life better for all. They believed that, if the world is going to be made better, it is we who have to do it.
Such a focus on relevancy not only made freethought a powerful force in American social reform, it became one of the defining characteristics Ethical Culture. This movement emerged out of Reformed Judaism, free religion, and freethought to become a significant force in the northeast and St. Louis. And from its founding by Felix Adler it regarded notions of God irrelevant.
In 1877 Ethical Culturists established the first free kindergarten in New York and San Francisco. That same year, Ethical Culturists established the Visiting Nurse Service, the first of its type that did NOT do missionary work for organized religion but focused exclusively on the physical care of those in need.
In the 1880s, the Ethical Culture movement established schools for the children of the working class, engaged in relief work, founded the City Club to fight political corruption in New York City, established the first settlement house in the United States to address the social needs of urban slum communities, founded the Child Study Association to develop knowledge about the human nature of children, launched the Legal Aid Society, campaigned against child labor, worked for slum clearance and improved public health, and founded the Ethical Culture schools.
In the twentieth century, the movement advanced moral education for children, helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, engaged in union arbitration, helped launch the American Civil Liberties Union, aided refugees, developed adult education programs, and developed the Encampment for Citizenship, a progressive summer camp for youth later endorsed by Eleanor Roosevelt. It is activities such as these that gradually took the social reform momentum from the freethought movement and brought it to Humanism.
Freethinkers meanwhile remained active in the leading social reform movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including those for liberal studies in public schools (replacing theology and the classics), sex education, birth control, women’s suffrage, civil rights, animal protection, child protection, poverty relief, and improved labor conditions. A prominent freethought cause was and continues to be anti-censorship–an effort which has extended from the late eighteenth century to the present time.
But there were downsides and absurd offshoots as well. One of these was the penitentiary system. As an alternative to such things as capital punishment and placement in the stocks for the purpose of public humiliation, Quakers, Utilitarians, and freethinking social reformers advocated incarcerating wrongdoers in monastic-like prisons so they might meditate on their crimes and become reformed through penitence. Hence the name penitentiary.
Another development among freethinkers was the idea of scientific selective breeding of human beings: eugenics. This largely American movement readily led to an idealization of the characteristics of the ruling class and a delegitimization of those of lower classes. The ideas later found their way to Nazi Germany.
Among freethinkers as well as religious innovators emerged a variety of utopian experiments. And some freethinkers supported Bolshevism or forgave its excesses.
Beyond all this, there were freethinkers who left the fold, such as Lew Wallace, who had admired Ingersoll and would later write the following in his autobiography:
In 1875 . . . speaking candidly, I was not in the least influenced by religious sentiment. I had no convictions about God or Christ. I neither believed nor disbelieved in them. The preachers had made no impression upon me. My reading covered nearly every other subject. Indifference is the word most perfectly descriptive of my feelings respecting the To-morrow of Death, as a French scientist has happily termed the succession of life. Yet when the work was fairly begun . . .”
In what would become a famous novel, he adds, “I found myself writing reverentially, and frequently with awe.” This novel was completed in 1880 and entitled Ben Hur: a Tale of the Christ.
Another famous defector was the prominent British atheist Annie Besant, who went on to become a leading follower of Madam Blavatsky’s Theosophy and introduce the Indian mystical thinker Krishnamurti to the West.
In the opening years of the twentieth century an increasing number of liberal religionists, freethinkers, and academic philosophers began using the term “humanism,” a word borrowed from the Renaissance, to describe their human-focused, naturalistic world view. Then, around the time of World War I, two nontheistic Unitarian ministers, John Dietrich and Curtis W. Reese, joined together to promote humanism as a movement within Unitarianism. There it grew, as well as in academic circles, until the Humanist Fellowship was founded in 1927 at the University of Chicago, which became the Humanist Press Association in the 1930s, which reemerged as the American Humanist Association in 1941. Following World War II, three prominent humanists became first directors of major divisions of the United Nations: Julian Huxley of UNESCO, Brock Chisholm of the World Health Organization, and John Boyd Orr of the Food and Agricultural Organization.
Huxley, in particular, called for a global humanist vision. In his monograph, UNESCO: Its Purpose and Its Philosophy, he pointed out the necessity of transcending traditional philosophies, theologies, and political-economic doctrines and the importance of recognizing the evolutionary basis of culture. Science, he said, needs to be integrated with other human activities, and the general philosophy of UNESCO should be a scientific humanism, global in extent and evolutionary in background. But Huxley’s effort was only partially successful; representatives holding onto nationalistic and traditional views blocked and jettisoned the forthrightly humanist aspects of his proposal.
In postwar Europe, humanist secular organizations sprang up in a number of countries, particularly Belgium, Italy, and the Netherlands. In India, M.N. Roy launched the Radical Humanist Movement to reform Indian politics and Gora, an associate of Mohandas Ghandi, expanded the Atheist Centre, a humanistic social service institution he had established in 1940. Neru, the first prime minister of India, was an outspoken humanist. And Periyar led social reform activities in South India.
Then, in 1952, at the Municipal University of Amsterdam, Huxley chaired the first international humanist gathering. Over 200 humanist leaders from around the world, including Gilbert Murray of the U.K., Jerome Nathanson from the United States, and human rights activist V.M. Tarkunde of India met and formed the International Humanist and Ethical Union. Today this organization, representing over 3 million humanists worldwide, is involved in social action projects in various parts of the developing world and is active in the Council of Europe and the United Nations.
Speaking of the organization with which I have been most associated over the past thirty years–the American Humanist Association, first as a volunteer and then as a professional leader–activist involvements emerged almost from the AHA’s origin in 1941. Throughout the 1940s and 50s AHA humanists were involved in numerous civil liberties, birth control, and environmental protection cases tried in court. One of the most prominent of these Humanists was Corliss Lamont, a philosopher who successfully stood up to the House Un-American Activities Committee and Senator Joseph McCarthy. Another was Vashti McCollum; her U.S. Supreme Court victory in McCollum v. Board of Education established that American public schools must be religiously neutral. She was later president of the AHA. On the environmental front, a frequent issue was the value of restraint and how the environment is damaged by runaway population growth–matters which are still not adequately acted upon around the world.
Early in the decade of the 1960s the AHA became the first national membership organization to endorse elective abortion. Furthermore, many of the leading abortion-law reform groups that were established during this time were top-heavy with humanists. Also during the decade, the AHA and the American Ethical Union worked together to establish the rights of nontheistic conscientious objectors. Prior to this, one essentially had to be a Quaker to stay out of combat–humanists and atheists remained in the foxholes!
AHA leaders also actively worked to establish memorial societies that offered alternatives to the traditional mortuary-controlled burial arrangements dominant at the time. As a result of this humanist advance, cremation and humanistic memorial services became more widely available and less costly. Further in this connection, in 1974, the National Commission for Beneficent Euthanasia was established as an AHA program. It issued the groundbreaking statement, “A Plea for Beneficent Euthanasia,” a position paper signed by medical, legal, and religious leaders. It called for “a more enlightened public opinion to transcend traditional taboos and move in the direction of a compassionate view toward needless suffering in dying.” All of this was long before the activism of the Hemlock Society and Jack Kevorkian and before the current growth in interest in right to die legislation.
One of the things humanists have taken a particular interest in is social action programs that have been used in the past as tools of religious conversion. Thus, in the 1980s, American Atheists developed the American Atheist Alcohol Recovery Group (AAARG! for short), the Council for Secular Humanism developed Secular Sobriety, and the AHA developed Rational Recovery, three substance-abuse recovery programs that offered secular alternatives to the more traditional-religion based Alcoholics Anonymous. As a result, today, in many communities, the courts allow alcoholics and drug addicts more choices in the selection of a substance-abuse recovery program. And a newer humanistic program called SMART Recovery, promoted by many AHA chapters and affiliates, is spreading throughout the world.
Not all humanist or freethinking social reformers, however, have done their work through identifiably freethought or humanist organizations. A prime example of this would be Albert Einstein, who Time magazine named “Person of the Twentieth Century” at the beginning of 2000.
Although almost everyone knows that Einstein was a great physicist, few know he was a humanist social activist. Born March 14, 1879, to freethinking Jewish parents, he coauthored the Manifesto to Europeans in 1915, calling for an end to World War I; joined the advisory board of the First Humanist Society of New York in 1941; became chair of the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists in 1946; and published Essays in Humanism in 1950. Overall, his primary social action work was done individually or through issue-focused organizations. As his last act, Einstein joined Bertrand Russell in the Russell-Einstein Manifesto-issued over fifty years ago on July 9, 1955-which warned of “the perils that have arisen as a result of the development of weapons of mass destruction” and calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons along with an end to war. The document closed with these unifying words:
There lies before us, if we choose, continual progress in happiness, knowledge, and wisdom. Shall we, instead, choose death, because we cannot forget our quarrels? We appeal as human beings to human beings: Remember your humanity, and forget the rest. If you can do so, the way lies open to a new Paradise; if you cannot, there lies before you the risk of universal death.
This document was signed additionally by Max Born, Percy W. Bridgman, Leopold Infeld, Frederic Joliot-Curie, Herman J. Muller (1963 Humanist of the Year and president of the AHA), Linus Pauling (1961 Humanist of the Year), Cecil F. Powell, Joseph Rotblat, and Hideki Yukawa. Its issuance directly led to the emergence of the modern anti-war movement, in particular the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. These take their name from the location of the first meeting, which was held in 1957 in the village of Pugwash, Nova Scotia, Canada, birthplace of philanthropist and humanist Cyrus Eaton, who hosted the meeting. Twenty-two eminent scientists from around the world were in attendance to begin the mission of bringing “scientific insight and reason to bear on threats to human security arising from science and technology in general, and above all from the catastrophic threat posed to humanity by nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.”
More recently some of this work has been taken up by billionaire-philanthropist Ted Turner, the 1990 Humanist of the Year. When Turner accepted the award from the AHA, he spoke of his childhood religion, of being born again “about a hundred times,” but abandoning religion and belief in God when his sister died of leukemia. But he didn’t dwell on that. He dwelt on trying to save humanity and the planet, so he authored his proposed replacement for the Ten Commandments, called The Ten Voluntary Initiatives but nicknamed by the press as the “Ted” Commandments. They are as follows:
1. I promise to care for planet earth and all living things thereon, especially my fellow human beings.
2. I promise to treat all persons everywhere with dignity, respect, and friendliness.
3. I promise to have no more than two children.
4. I promise to use my best efforts to help save what is left of our natural world in its undisturbed state, and to restore degraded areas.
5. I promise to use as little of our non-renewable resources as possible.
6. I promise to minimize my use of toxic chemicals, pesticides, and other poisons, and to encourage others to do the same.
7. I promise to contribute to those less fortunate, to help them become self-sufficient and enjoy the benefits of a decent life, including clean air and water, adequate food, health care, housing, education, and individual rights.
8. I reject the use of force, in particular military force, and I respect the United Nations arbitration of international disputes.
9. I support the total elimination of all nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, and ultimately the elimination of all weapons of mass destruction.
10. I support the United Nations and its efforts to improve the conditions of the planet.
To many all of this social action by nontheistic people makes no sense. They assume that freethought and humanism ought naturally to lead to nihilism–that if we live in an uncaring universe, a universe that provides no cosmically guaranteed values, then we ought to have lives every bit as value-free and value-less, every bit as uncaring, as we believe the universe to represent.
But, in reality, the exact opposite is the case. As freethinkers see it, if the external universe doesn’t care, then all caring is left up to us. If the universe provides no a-priori ideals of right and wrong, then we must find them within our collective selves. If we are ever to enjoy a better world than the one we were born into, we must roll up our sleeves and make it so. If there are no supernatural inducements, no beyond-the-grave carrots and sticks to inspire good behavior in others, we must initiate these inspirational activities ourselves. In other words, it is precicely BECAUSE freethinkers and humanists are without God-given guarantees, without resources for tapping into some supernatural milennial rescue effort, that they are motivated to take the matter into their own hands. If there is ever to be a heaven, humans will need to make it themselves. Life is a do-it-yourself job.
Thus in practice, freethought isn’t just a set of ideas, or critiques of the ideas of others. It is a commitment to the principle that, if it is to be, it is up to me.
Fred Edwords is a former executive with the American Humanist Association. This lecture is copyrighted © 2005 and 2006, being a slightly revised version of the original text as delivered Saturday, April 2, 2005, to the Washington Area Secular Humanists in Washington, DC. All rights reserved. The author may be contacted for publication permission at firstname.lastname@example.org