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Parsing Freethought

The Thinker. On the john.With the (minor) hoopla surrounding the recent atheist shindig in Washington, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a “freethinker.” A foundational plank in the public strategy of new skeptical movements is that religious belief is delusional and that atheism is the only truly rational position. When pressed as to why only atheism is reasonable, skeptics often appeal to the amorphous notion of freethinking, with the unbelievers portrayed as the epistemically virtuous freethinkers and the believers as mindless sheep who follow religious authorities over the cliff of Bronze Age stupidity.

This is nonsense, of course, but here I want to explain why. Contemporary atheists like Richard Dawkins embrace the idea of freethinking (Dawkins once suggested that “Think for Yourself Academy” would be a suitable name for a public freethinking school in the UK), but the modern secular movement finds its origins in the Enlightenment. In fact many early freethinkers were neither atheists nor theists, but deistic provocateurs like the philosopher Anthony Collins. Collins was a friend of John Locke, adversary of institutional religion, and proponent of freethinking in the 18th century. Here is Collins in A Discourse on Free-Thinking:

The Subjects of which Men are deny’d the Right to think by the Enemys of Free-Thinking, are of all others those of which Men have not only a Right to think, but of which they are oblig’d in duty to think; viz. such a of the Nature and Attributes of the Eternal Being or God, of the Truth and Authority of Books esteem’d Sacred, and of the Sense and Meaning of those Books; or, in one word, of Religous Questions.

1st. A right Opinion in these matters is suppos’d by the Enemys of Free-Thinking to be absolutely necessary to Men’s Salvation, and some Errors or Mistakes about them are suppos’d to be damnable. Now where a right Opinion is so necessary, there Men have the greatest Concern imaginable to think for themselves, as the best means to take up with the right side of the Question. For if they will not think for themselves, it remains only for them to take the Opinions they have imbib’d from their Grandmothers, Mothers or Priests, or owe to such like Accident, for granted. But taking that method, they can only be in the right by chance; whereas by Thinking and Examination, they have not only the mere accident of being in the right, but have the Evidence of things to determine them to the side of Truth: unless it be suppos’d that Men are such absurd Animals, that the most unreasonable Opinion is as likely to be admitted for true as the most reasonable, when it is judg’d of by the Reason and Understanding of Men. In that case indeed it will follow, That Men can be under no Obligation to think of these matters. But then it will likewise follow, That they can be under no Obligation to concern themselves about Truth and Falshood in any Opinions. For if Men are so absurd, as not to be able to distinguish between Truth and Falshood, Evidence and no Evidence, what pretense is there for Mens having any Opinions at all? Which yet none judg so necessary as the Enemys of Free-Thinking.

Collins’ charge is that religious believers blindly accept whatever their grandmother tells them without thinking through these matters independently, which they have the right and the obligation to do. Let’s move the clock forward. Read the rest of this entry »

The Original Reason Rally

The Reason Rally is billing itself as “the largest gathering of the secular movement in world history.” This is probably true, but whether you’re a supporter, detractor, or merely an inquisitive bystander when it comes to what’s happening today on the National Mall in Washington, don’t make the mistake of thinking that it’s the first time that atheists and secularists have come together to celebrate reason and secularism. I personally find the notion of celebrating reason to be very odd, but the gathering of Dawkins and the throngs of enlightened and self-assured skeptics with him is thoroughly unremarkable when compared to the original “Festival of Reason” that French secularists celebrated after the French Revolution.

Shortly after the overthrow of the Ancien Régime, the leaders of the Revolution attempted to quash religion by closing churches and replacing Christianity with a new secular religion. In Notre Dame, Reason was actually enshrined as a goddess (although portrayed by an actual woman), and the adherents of this new Cult of Reason held festivals around France as churches were converted into “temples of reason.” Here for your creepy reading pleasure are a few excerpts from a description of one of these festivals in Châlons-sur-Marne in 1794. These are taken from The Portable Enlightenment Reader, edited by Isaac Kramnick:

The festival was announced in the whole Commune the evening before; for this purpose, retreat was sounded by all the drummers and by the trumpeters of the troops in barracks at Châlons, in all parts of the town …

The former church of Notre Dame was, for lack of time and means, cleaned and prepared only provisionally for its new use, and in its former sanctuary there was erected a pedestal supporting the symbolic statue of Reason. It is of simple and free design, decorated only by an inset bearing this inscription:

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Read the rest of this entry »