Freethought is a philosophical viewpoint that holds opinions should be formed on the basis of logic, reason, and empiricism and not authority, tradition, or other dogmas.

The pansy is the long-established and enduring symbol of freethought, its usage inaugurated in the literature of the American Secular Union in the late 1800s. The reasoning lies in both the flower’s name and appearance. The pansy derives its name from the French word ‘pensée,’ which means ‘thought;’ it was so named because the flower resembles a human face, and in mid to late summer it nods forward as if deep in thought.

The experience of freethought is known as ‘freethinking,’ and practitioners of freethought are known as ‘freethinkers.’ Freethought holds that individuals should not accept ideas proposed as truth without recourse to knowledge and reason. Thus, freethinkers strive to build their opinions on the basis of facts, scientific inquiry, and logical principles, independent of any logical fallacies or the intellectually limiting effects of authority, confirmation bias, cognitive bias, conventional wisdom, popular culture, prejudice, sectarianism, tradition, urban legend, and all other dogmas. Regarding religion, freethinkers hold that there is insufficient evidence to support the existence of supernatural phenomena. A line from ‘Clifford’s Credo’ by the 19th Century British mathematician and philosopher William Kingdon Clifford perhaps best describes the premise of freethought: ‘It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.’

In Buddhism a type of freethought was advocated by Gautama Buddha, who challenged dogmas and urged people not to follow anything due to mere tradition. Similarity of his teachings and freethought can be observed in the ‘Kalama Sutta’: ‘It is proper for you, Kalamas [the people of the village of Kesaputta], to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are bad; these things are blameable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill, abandon them. ‘…Do not accept anything by mere tradition… Do not accept anything just because it accords with your scriptures… Do not accept anything merely because it agrees with your pre-conceived notions… But when you know for yourselves—these things are moral, these things are blameless, these things are praised by the wise, these things, when performed and undertaken, conduce to well-being and happiness—then do you live acting accordingly.’

However, Bhikkhu Bodhi argues against the idea that ‘the Buddha’s teaching dispenses with faith and formulated doctrine and asks us to accept only what we can personally verify,’ saying this interpretation: ‘forgets that the advice the Buddha gave the Kalamas was contingent upon the understanding that they were not yet prepared to place faith in him and his doctrine; it also forgets that the sutta omits, for that very reason, all mention of right view and of the entire perspective that opens up when right view is acquired. It offers instead the most reasonable counsel on wholesome living possible when the issue of ultimate beliefs has been put into brackets.’ Bhikkhu Bodhi’s interpretation is by no means universal to Buddhists or even to Theravada Buddhism, the tradition in which he is ordained.

The web of transmissions and re-inventions of critical thought meanders from the Hellenistic Mediterranean, through repositories of knowledge and wisdom in Ireland and the Iranian civilizations (e.g. Khayyam and his unorthodox sufi ‘Rubaiyat’ poems), and in other civilizations, as the Chinese, (e.g. the seafaring Southern Sòng’s renaissance), and on through heretical thinkers of esoteric alchemy or astrology, to the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation. French physician and writer Rabelais celebrated ‘rabelaisian’ freedom as well as good feasting and drinking (an expression and a symbol of freedom of the mind) in defiance of the hypocrisies of conformist orthodoxy in his utopian ‘Thelema Abbey,’ the devise of which was ‘Do What Thou Wilt’: ‘So had Gargantua established it. In all their rule and strictest tie of their order there was but this one clause to be observed, ‘Do What Thou Wilt’; because free people … act virtuously and avoid vice. They call this honor.’ When the hero of his book, Pantagruel, journeys to the ‘Oracle of The Div(in)e Bottle,’ he learns the lesson of life in one simple word: ‘Trinch!,’ Drink! Enjoy the simple life, learn wisdom and knowledge, as a free human. Beyond puns, irony, and satire, Gargantua’s prologue metaphor instructs the reader to ‘break the bone and suck out the substance-full marrow’ (‘la substantifique moëlle’), the core of wisdom.

The year 1600 is considered the beginning of the era of modern freethought, as it is marked by the execution in Italy of Giordano Bruno, a former Dominican Monk, by the Inquisition. The term ‘free-thinker emerged’ toward the end of the 17th century in England to describe those who stood in opposition to the institution of the Church, and of literal belief in the Bible. The beliefs of these individuals were centered on the concept that people could understand the world through consideration of nature. Such positions were formally documented for the first time in 1697 by William Molyneux in a widely publicized letter to John Locke, and more extensively in 1713, when Anthony Collins wrote his ‘Discourse of Free-thinking,’ which gained substantial popularity. In France, the concept first appeared in publication in 1765 when Denis Diderot, Jean le Rond d’Alembert and Voltaire included an article on ‘Libre-Penseur’ in their ‘Encyclopédie.’ The European freethought concepts spread so widely that even places as remote as the Jotunheimen, in Norway, had well-known freethinkers, such as Jo Gjende, by the 19th century. ‘The Freethinker’ magazine was first published in Britain in 1881.

In Germany, during the period (1815–1848) and before the March Revolution, the resistance of citizens against the dogma of the church increased. In 1844, under the influence of Johannes Ronge and Robert Blum, belief in the rights of man, tolerance among men, and humanism grew, and by 1859 they had established the ‘Union of Secular Communities in Germany.’ This union still exists today, and is included as a member in the umbrella organization of free humanists. In 1881, in Frankfurt am Main, Ludwig Büchner established the ‘German Freethinkers League’ as the first German organization for atheists. Freethought organizations developed ‘Jugendweihe,’ secular ‘confirmation’ ceremonies, and atheist funeral rites. More ‘bourgeois’ organizations declined after World War I, and ‘proletarian’ Freethought groups proliferated, becoming an organization of socialist parties. Activists agitated for Germans to disaffiliate from the Church and for secularization of elementary schools; between 1919–21 and 1930–32 more than 2.5 million Germans, for the most part supporters of the Social Democratic and Communist parties, gave up church membership. Conflict developed between radical forces including the ‘Soviet League of the Militant Godless’ and Social Democratic forces in Western Europe led by Theodor Hartwig and Max Sievers. In 1930, the Soviet and allied delegations, following a walk-out, took over the IPF (International Proletarian Freethinkers) and excluded the former leaders. Following Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, most freethought organizations were banned, though some right-wing groups that worked with Völkisch associations (folklorists) were tolerated by the Nazis until the mid 1930s.

In the Netherlands, freethought has existed in organized form since the establishment of ‘De Dageraad’ (now known as ‘de Vrije Gedachte’) in 1856. Among its most notable subscribing 19th century individuals were Johannes van Vloten, Multatuli, Adriaan Gerhard and Domela Nieuwenhuis. Since the 19th century, Freethought in the Netherlands has become more well known as a political phenomenon through at least three currents: liberal freethinking, conservative freethinking, and classical freethinking. In other words, parties which identify as freethinking tend to favor non-doctrinal, rational approaches to their preferred ideologies, and arose as secular alternatives to both clerically-aligned parties as well as labor-aligned parties. Common themes among freethinking political parties are ‘freedom,’ ‘liberty,’ and ‘individualism.’

Driven by the revolutions of 1848 in the German states, the 19th century saw an immigration of German freethinkers and anti-clericalists to the United States. In the U.S., they hoped to be able to live by their principles, without interference from government and church authorities. Many Freethinkers settled in German immigrant strongholds, including St. Louis, Indianapolis, Wisconsin, and Texas (where they founded the town of Comfort, Texas) as well as others. These groups of German Freethinkers referred to their organizations as ‘Freie Gemeinden,’ or ‘free congregations.’ The first such organization was established in St. Louis in 1850. Others followed in other states including Pennsylvania, California, and New York. Freethinkers tended to be liberal, espousing ideals such as racial, social, and sexual equality, and the abolition of slavery. Freethought in the United States began to decline in the late nineteenth century. Its anti-religious views alienated would-be sympathizers. The movement also lacked cohesive goals or beliefs. By the early twentieth century, most Freethought congregations had disbanded or joined other mainstream churches. The longest continuously operating Freethought congregation in America is the ‘Free Congregation of Sauk County, Wisconsin,’ which was founded in 1852 and is still active today.

Freethought has influenced the anarchist movement. In the United States, ‘freethought was a basically anti-christian, anti-clerical movement, whose purpose was to make the individual politically and spiritually free to decide for himself on religious matters. A number of contributors to Liberty were prominent figures in both freethought and anarchism. The individualist anarchist George MacDonald was a co-editor of ‘Freethought’ and, for a time, ‘The Truth Seeker.’ E.C. Walker was co-editor of the freethought/free love journal ‘Lucifer, the Light-Bearer.’ Many of the anarchists were ardent freethinkers who viewed the Church as a common ally of the state and as a repressive force in and of itself.

In Europe, a similar development occurred in French and Spanish individualist anarchist circles. ‘Anticlericalism, just as in the rest of the libertarian movement, in another of the frequent elements which will gain relevance related to the measure in which the (French) Republic begins to have conflicts with the church…Anti-clerical discourse, frequently called for by the French individualist André Lorulot, will have its impacts in Estudios (a Spanish individualist anarchist publication). There will be an attack on institutionalized religion for the responsibility that it had in the past on negative developments, for its irrationality which makes it a counterpoint of philosophical and scientific progress. There will be a criticism of proselitism and ideological manipulation which happens on both believers and agnostics.’ These tendencies will continue in French individualist anarchism in the work and activism of Charles-Auguste Bontemps and others. In the Spanish individualist anarchist magazines ‘Ética’ and ‘Iniciales’ ‘there is a strong interest in publishing scientific news, usually linked to a certain atheist and anti-theist obsession, philosophy which will also work for pointing out the incompatibility between science and religion, faith and reason. In this way there will be a lot of talk on Darwin’s theories or on the negation of the existence of the soul.’

In 1901, Catalan anarchist and freethinker Francesc Ferrer i Guàrdia established ‘modern’ or progressive schools in Barcelona in defiance of an educational system controlled by the Catholic Church. The schools’ stated goal was to ‘educate the working class in a rational, secular, and non-coercive setting.’ Fiercely anti-clerical, Ferrer believed in ‘freedom in education,’ education free from the authority of church and state. Ferrer’s ideas generally, formed the inspiration for a series of Modern Schools in the United States, Cuba, South America, and London. The first of these was started in New York City in 1911. It also inspired the Italian newspaper ‘Università popolare,’ founded in 1901.

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