Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear.
Freethought in America
It’s always of interest to me when I hear Christians fret about how the media, or society, or some other bogeyman discounts their importance in the fabric of everyday life. While the media doesn’t always get their story “right,” it at least gets a telling. What’s more troubling to me is how the history of freethought in the U.S. is not even known, and yet that history might be more compelling than any perceived persecution complex exhibited by right-wing religion in America. Even more important is how the history of the freethought, or rationalist movement was instrumental in the founding of our nation, the writing of the Constitution, and most major social justice movements in this country.
The following definition, found at Wikipedia is as good a concise definition as I have been able to find on the movement.
Freethought is a philosophical viewpoint that holds that beliefs should be formed on the basis of reason and logic applied to evidence, and should not be influenced by authority, tradition, or any other dogma. The cognitive application of freethought is known as freethinking, and practitioners of freethought are known as freethinkers.
America’s founders were freethinkers
Last Monday, I wrote my HMM post on Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson wrote that “the mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself.” He penned that in 1837, but it was never more pertinent than it is now. Americans have been terrible stewards of their intellectual heritage, allowing the memory of our past to fade in a blur of the trivial and the fleeting. Anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism are endemic to our time, in a way that is unprecedented in our nation’s history.
American freethought was inclusive, being comprised of those that were totally antireligious—those regarding all religion as a form of superstition and wished to reduce its influence throughout society—as well as having those Americans who held a private, unconventional faith, possessing some form of belief in God, or Providence, but at odds with an orthodox practice of that faith. Among freethinkers were also those calling themselves deists, many of them our nation’s founding fathers; deists believed in a deity that set the universe in motion, but took no active role in the affairs of men. Some would characterize this God as a “cosmic watchmaker.”
The common thread that held this odd amalgamation together was a shared conviction in a rationalist approach to the fundamental questions of human existence. Freethinkers believed that the affairs of man should be governed not by faith in a supernatural being, but a reliance on reason and evidence derived from the natural world. This conviction had its roots in Enlightenment philosophy.
Many preeminent freethinkers, like Thomas Paine, have all but been airbrushed from history books. Paine, who students learn about for his steadfast call to patriotism in one of America’s darkest periods, warning his countrymen to not be “summer soldiers,” has been deprived of his proper role, however, in American history primarily because in his book, The Age of Reason, written in 1794, he propagated the idea that Christianity, like all other religions, was the invention of man, rather than God. For daring to speak the truth, as he saw fit (exhibiting the same heroic traits that he did in fighting for liberty during the American Revolution), he died a pauper. President Theodore Roosevelt referred to Paine 80 years later as that “filthy little atheist.”
Among freethinkers from the founding period of our nation, only Thomas Jefferson and James Madison have received their due in American history, although many of their Calvinist contemporaries saw fit to tar and feather them, labeling them atheists, infidels, heretics, and probably some other choice names.
In a country where for the past eight years, our president, and many of his supporters have operated under some mistaken illusion that America’s fate has been ordered by a divine plan, the idea that our founders might not have been fundamentalist Christians will cause conservative Americans cognitive dissonance. In fact, I’d wager that most of them probably have tuned out by now, or are about to bail. Alas, that is part of the problem facing America. This inability to consider opposing viewpoints, instead, choosing to only listen, watch and read material that reinforces your viewpoint, no matter how shaky the foundation propping up that viewpoint it.
The golden age of freethought
In the U.S. the period from about 1875 to 1914 was considered the golden age of freethought, when it constituted an influential movement in society. Ironically, this period of time corresponded with a widespread expansion of all religious institutions in the country. Between 1850 and 1906, capital expenditures for church construction tripled. Much of this growth can be attributed to the establishment of new congregations in the south by former slaves. Interestingly, black Americans had little connection with the freethought movement. Some believe that this had to do with their attachment to their own churches after slavery, the one institution of theirs that was beyond the control of whites.
This high-water mark for freethought in no way suggests a unified movement, however. In fact, the lack of a common thread might be the most convenient way to characterize the movement. Their political views spanned the spectrum, from anarchism on the farthest left, to Spencerian conservatism on the right. A freethinker might be a Republican, Democrat, or even socialist, upper, or lower case. The one political concern that unified the group was their support for absolute separation of church and state. Like the deists of Jefferson’s time, which fought tax support for religious institutions, almost universally Protestant at the time, the nineteenth-century equivalent was driven by widespread concerns about the growth of school systems funded by the Roman Catholic Church. Given Pope Pius IX’s strident denunciations of religious pluralism, secular government, modernism, as well as science caused great concern among many freethinkers. It was not driven by any anti-Catholic bias, however. Freethinkers have always held the position that government has no business spending taxpayer money on any institution whose purpose is the promotion of religion of any kind.
A primary method of communication among freethinkers was the periodical. After the Civil War, there was a proliferation of publications, including the Boston Investigator, dating back to 1831, the Truthseeker, founded in 1873, in Peoria, Illinois, later relocating to New York City, Lucifer, the Light-Bearer in Topeka, Kansas, and the Iconoclast in Austin, Texas. Texas had a large freethought community, primarily due to the settlement of many German freethinkers who had left their country and came to America, after the revolutions of 1848.
Of all the various periodicals, the Truthseeker was the only one that had a national circulation. Its masthead proclaimed their mission of devoting its pages to “science, morals, free thought, free discussions, liberalism, sexual equality, labor reform, progression, free education, and whatever tends to elevate and emancipate the human race.”
Close connections developed, particularly in the cities, between freethinkers and German Jews, like Felix Adler (see HMM-01), the founder of the Ethical Culture Society. The Truthseeker regularly covered Adler’s lectures, and held him in the highest regard.
By the late-nineteenth-century, freethought in the United States began to wane, and eventually decline. Its anti-religious views alienated many would-be sympathizers. Additionally, the explosion and influence of fundamentalist Christianity began to make inroads among the lower classes, and non-intellectuals. The lack of cohesive goals and beliefs contributed to freethought’s demise. By the early-twentieth-century, most Freethought congregations had disbanded or joined other mainstream churches. America’s expanding prosperity allowed religious hucksters to not only convince followers that they could “lay up treasure in heaven,” but also accumulate wealth here on earth. Also, fundamentalists and mainstream denominations had learned how to utilize the newest tools of communication to spread their messages widely. Novels like Bruce Barton’s The Man Nobody Knows (1924), a runaway best seller, portraying Jesus as the greatest salesman, advertising copywriter, and executive of all time, helped sell the message joining religious faith with financial prosperity.
My own freethinking journey
Many of us can locate cairns along life’s pathway. Many times these become formative, and often pivotal events in our human development. One such period for me was the summer of 2001.
In May of that year, I had left an employer somewhat hastily over some perceived slight. At that time in my life, it had become easier to change employers, than to address some of the personal issues in my own life that stood in the way of my development, particular the areas where I had some real abilities and skills.
One of the opportunities that the summer of 2001 afforded me was a lack of structure. While my income was sporadic at best, piecing together several incomes streams derived from a newspaper distribution gig that I had developed during my time with my former employer, it also allowed me to put in a garden, and spend my afternoons basking in a series of books that encouraged me to embark on a quest for knowledge I’ve been on ever since. You might call it my entrance into intellectualism, at least according to the definition set forth by Richard Hofstader. For Hofstadter, an intellectual is someone who “in some sense lives for ideas—which means he has a sense of dedication to the life of the mind which is very much like a religious commitment.”
Since that time, I’ve maintained a consistent practice of reading regularly. For most of the past eight years, I’ve regularly visited libraries, either the main branch, on Congress Street in Portland, and over the past few years, the Maine State Library in Augusta, checking out books several times per month. While I won’t always read a book from front to back cover, I’d say that in that period of time, I’ve easily familiarized myself with the ideas of 300 to 400 nonfiction books, basing it conservatively on having at least one book per week that I’m working my way through, and often, I have multiple books going at once.
Over that period of time, I’ve experienced exponential growth in my own understanding of issues. I’ve also found that often, it’s increasingly difficult to share many of the ideas and subjects from the books I’ve worked my way through with co-workers, friends, and family members, particularly if they’re wedded to ideology, or the status quo that greases much of the daily interaction in present day America. Too much of that interaction is bland, and numbingly superficial.
A new development in my quest to better utilize my limited time and increase my knowledge, while being able to access writers that have something to say, is now books on CD. This is a format that my wife has been a fan of for years, but one that I’ve been somewhat slow to embrace.
Over the past couple of months, I’ve had the opportunity to listen to some terrific authors, and several books that I otherwise would have missed out on. One of them was Nick Taylor’s book that I’ve mentioned in prior HMM posts. My latest one is Susan Jacoby’s, The Age of American Unreason. Jacoby is a wonderful, erudite writer. Her searing indictment of America’s addiction to infotainment, both on television and the web, and her ability to parallel it with other periods from America’s anti-intellectual past has been helpful.
Much of this information for this week’s HMM post came from Jacoby’s latest book, as well as her prior book, the equally engaging Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. Additionally, I was able to find a copy of Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, his classic from the early 1960s. I read it two summers ago, but found it helpful again in helping me put much of Jacoby’s material into a historical context. I also found Sidney Mead’s book, The Lively Experiment: The Shaping of Christianity in America, also from the early 1960s, a great companion to my other reading.
As the old saying goes, onward, and upward!