Those who contend that reason can attain to a truth that has been contradicted, obscured, or distorted by the official doctrines of a religious body which lays claim to divine revelation and the consequent right to compel assent to its teachings. In a more restricted sense, freethinkers are those 17th-, 18th- and 19th- century philosophers and scientists, e.g., Anthony Collins, (1676–1729), Lord Shaftesbury (1671–1713), Denis Diderot, Thomas paine, Charles darwin, and Herbert spencer, who maintained that the teachings of Christianity—as contained in Scripture, in the writings of approved theologians, and in the pronouncements of the various churches—were an impediment to the progress of science and enlightened morality. To achieve desired scientific progress and ameliorate various social evils, they insisted it was necessary for the scientist and the philosopher to be free in their thinking and liberated from the limitations imposed by religious authorities. In France, those who assumed this attitude were called libres penseurs, libertins, esprits forts, or franc-pensants; in Germany, the term was Freigeister or Freidenker.
The term "freethinker" was first used by William Molyneux in a letter to John locke (1697), in which the former called John Toland (1670–1722) "a candid freethinker." Fifteen years later, the term appeared in print again, in Jonathan Swift's Sentiments of a Church of England Man. Swift referred to "the atheists, libertines, despisers of religion, that is to say, all those who usually pass under the name of Free-thinkers." After the publication of Anthony Collins's Discourse of Free-Thinking, Occasion'd by the Rise and Growth of a Sect called Free-Thinkers (1713), the term was in common use. However, a certain ambiguity still attached to it, so that when Ambrose Philips began publishing his weekly journal, The Freethinker, in 1718, he was able to use the term freethinker to denote simply one who is "free from prejudice."
John M. Robertson, in his A Short History of Free-thought (London 1899, 3d ed. 1915), defines freethinking as "a conscious reaction against some phase or phases of conventional or traditional doctrine in religion—on the one hand, a claim to think freely, in the sense not of disregard for logic but of special loyalty to it, on problems to which the past course of things has given a great intellectual and practical importance; on the other hand, the actual practise of such thinking."
Early History. Throughout the history of Western thought, the problem that gave rise to the modern freethinkers occurred repeatedly within the context of various religious traditions. Each time it fostered a conflict between religious authorities and intellectuals whose scientific and philosophical inquiries led them to question the validity of the doctrines and sacred writings of the religion generally accepted in their society.
Greeks. The first Greek philosophers, Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes (sixth century b.c.), when pursuing their scientific inquiries into the nature, genesis, and function of the physical universe, found it necessary to reject the Homeric and Hesiodic accounts of how the gods had produced and continued to govern the world. Xenophanes (c. 500 b.c.) openly scoffed at the common anthropomorphic conception of the Greek gods. heraclitus, living in the same era, wrote, "Hesiod is the teacher of most men; they suppose that his knowledge was very extensive, when in fact he did not know night and day, for they are one." Heraclitus is reported as having said also that Homer deserved to be cast out of the lists and flogged. The fifth–century atomists denied the possibility that the gods could affect the earth in any fashion; rather, they said, all occurrences in the universe were the result of the chance movements of indivisible bits of matter. They also denied the immortality of the soul. socrates was condemned to death (399 b.c.) on the charge that he did not believe in the gods of the Athenian state. plato, in his Republic and various other dialogues, argued that the accounts of the Greek gods given by Homer and Hesiod could not be accepted in any literal sense, and that children ought not be exposed to the immorality contained in such tales. (see greek philosophy.)
Romans. In the first century b.c., Lucretius carried on, among the Romans, the same sort of freethinking that had been championed by the Greek atomists. Lucretius's explicitly stated aims in composing his lengthy philosophical poem, De rerum natura, have been the aims of most freethinkers since that time: to give a natural, materialistic explanation of all physical and social phenomena, and thereby eliminate from the minds and hearts of men the paralyzing fears that stem from believing that the gods have brought this world and man into being, that the gods intervene in the affairs of men, that the gods can be moved by sacrifices, and that there is an afterlife in which men will be judged and punished by the gods. (see materialism.)
Muslims. The Muslim world, with its official religious teaching based on the Qur’ān, has had its own freethinkers, who found their reason in conflict with orthodox religious doctrine. Ibn-Ishāq al-kindi (9th century), a devotee of Greek learning at Baghdad, gave considerable impetus to the development of a new school of Islamic theology, a kind of modernism that aimed at a reinterpretation of the Qur’ān along lines that would permit a reconciliation of Greek learning and Islamic doctrine. The resulting Mu’tazilite school, however, was soon challenged by a resurgence of fundamentalism. Then, in the 11th century, Omar Khayyām, the mathematician, astronomer, and poet whom J. M. Robertson calls "the most famous of all Eastern Freethinkers," openly rejected the limitations of Islamic orthodoxy. In the same century, avicenna made a new attempt to provide a philosophical interpretation of the Qur’ān and thus to reconcile orthodoxy and science; but his efforts served to provoke Algazel's fundamentalist Destruction of the Philosophers. Finally, averroËs, a 12th-century Arab living in Spain, reasserted the claims of reason over religious faith in his Destruction of the Destruction, aimed at algazel, and in his three sets of commentaries on the works of Aristotle. (see arabian philosophy.)
Christians. In the early Christian period the Manichaeans, who claimed that they were Christians, propounded a fanciful, but would-be scientific account of the genesis of the universe and its functioning, along with an interpretation of Scripture in accordance with the demands of their "science." However, orthodox Christianity asserted itself so powerfully that in the nineth century the Greek scholar and patriarch photius was considered by many to be a dangerous freethinker because he had maintained in a sermon that earthquakes were the result not of divine anger, but of natural causes. In the same centur john scotus eriugena gave a metaphysical explanation of reality in his Neoplatonic De divisione naturae that incurred severe ecclesiastical censures for its supposed heterodoxy.
In the 13th century, the influence of Averroës provided the occasion for the rise of a group of freethinking Christians, the Latin Averroists, who discounted the value of revelation and theology and accorded first place to reason and Aristotelian philosophy, which they regarded as the greatest accomplishment of human thought. (see averroism, latin.)
Modern Development. With the rise of modern science the tension between orthodoxy and reason became acute for many. The celebrated affair of Galileo galilei is a case in point. In addition, the Renaissance humanists provided the beginnings of a "higher criticism" of Scripture that questioned the generally accepted notions concerning the dates, authorship, and historical backgrounds of the various books of the Bible. With respect to the difficulties of both scientists and Scripture critics, the conflicts were exacerbated by a failure on the part of orthodox theologians to distinguish clearly between the message of revelation and its cultural matrix, a failure that was repeated at other times of intellectual crisis, e.g., on the occasion of Darwin's publication of his Origin of Species (1859). In the 17th-century B. spinoza had incurred the wrath of the orthodox, both Christian and Jew, with the publication of his Tractatus theologico-politicus, in which he anticipated much of the German 19th–century higher criticism of Scripture and presented a plea for freedom of thought and speech in religious matters. At approximately the same period, the British Deists were beginning to publish their objections to revealed religion (see deism). Shortly thereafter, the French encyclopedists made their contribution to freethought on the Continent. The 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man showed the influence of freethinking in its statement that "no one is to be interfered with on account of his opinions, even on the subject of religion, so long as their manifestation does not disturb public order as established by law."
Early in the 19th century, Robert Owen (1771–1858), English social reformer, gave evidence of the continuing conflict between science and revealed religion. On a visit to the U.S. in 1830, he challenged the American clergy in general to debate with him a set of freethinking propositions: that all religions are founded in ignorance; that all religions are opposed to the laws of nature; that religion is the principal cause of strife among men; that religion is the principal cause of human vice and misery; and that all religions are maintained only through the ignorance of the many and the tyranny of the few. For Americans, however, freethinking came to be typified by Robert Ingersoll (1833–99), lawyer, politician, author, and lecturer. As a result of his popular lectures on such subjects as "Some Mistakes of Moses"(1879) and "Why I Am an Agnostic" (1896), Ingersoll earned for himself the sobriquet of "The Great Agnostic."
Numerous organizations of freethinkers were established in Europe and America in the 18th and 19th centuries. Freemasonry's Grand Lodge, founded in London in 1717, was originally an association of freethinkers. Other organizations of freethinkers were the Theophilanthropists of France, the Abrahamites in Bohemia, Ernst Haeckel's Monistic Society in Rome, the National Secular Society in England, the International Freethinkers' League in Brussels, the American Rationalist Association, the American Secular Union, and the Freethinkers of America. Numerous freethinking publications sprang up. Robertson, in his A History of Freethought in the Nineteenth Century (2 v. London 1929), lists, for example, 13 such periodicals that began publication in England between 1819 and 1850.
Influence on Catholics. Within the Catholic Church, the pressures exerted by those who desired an adjustment in traditional teaching to bring Catholicism in line with advances in the sciences and in higher criticism were met by Pope Pius IX's encyclical quanta cura (1864) and its list of 80 propositions that came to be known as the Syllabus of Errors. The last of these anathematized propositions summarized the position Pius IX wished to condemn: "The Roman pontiff can and should reconcile and align himself with progress, liberalism, and modern civilization." Pius X continued Pius IX's policy in his encyclical pascendi (1907), which condemned the Modernist tendencies that manifested themselves at the turn of the century.
The term freethinker has become somewhat archaic in the second half of the 20th century, largely because the kinds of pressures formerly exerted by church and state to exact intellectual conformity in religious matters have generally given way to a respect for religious freedom and for freedom of thought in general. Within the Catholic Church, moreover, a conciliating factor has been the approval of new directions in scriptural interpretation, particularly in Pope Pius XII's divino afflante spiritu (1943), and the consequent removal of much of the troublesome tensions that formerly existed. Finally, the deliberations of Vatican Council II have resulted in an aggiornamento that encourages a fuller rapprochement between the Church and contemporary intellectual movements.
See Also: theophilanthropy; scientism; rationalism; atheism.
Bibliography: e. troeltsch and e. h. blakeney, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, ed. j. hastings (Edinburgh 1908–27) 6:120–124. k. algermissen, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiberg 1957–65) 4:318–322. k. hutten, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (Tübingen 1957–65) 2:1093–96. j. m. wheeler, Biographical Dictionary of Freethinkers (London 1889). j. e. courtney, Free-thinkers of the Nineteenth Century (London 1920). c. watts, A Defence of Secular Principles (London 1871); The Philosophy of Secularism (London 1871).
[r. z. lauer]