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Freethought or free thought is a philosophical viewpoint that holds opinions should be formed on the basis of logic, reason, and empiricism, rather than authority, tradition, or other dogmas. The cognitive application 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."
The pansy serves as the long-established and enduring symbol of freethought; literature of the American Secular Union inaugurated its usage in the late 1800s. The reasoning behind the pansy as the symbol of freethought lies both in the flower's name and in its appearance. The pansy derives its name from the French word pensée, which means "thought"; it allegedly received this name because the flower resembles a human face, and in mid-to-late summer it nods forward as if deep in thought.
Critical thought has flourished in the Hellenistic Mediterranean, in the 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 (from θέλημα: free "will"), 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 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 Bund Freireligiöser Gemeinden Deutschlands (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 Deutscher Freidenkerbund (German Freethinkers League) as the first German organization for atheists. In 1892 the Freidenker-Gesellschaft and in 1906 the Deutscher Monistenbund were formed. Freethought organizations developed "Jugendweihe", secular "confirmation" ceremonies, and atheist funeral rites. The Union of Freethinkers for Cremation was founded in 1905, and the Central Union of German Proletariat Freethinker in 1908. The two groups merged in 1927, becoming the German Freethinking Association in 1930.
More "bourgeois" organizations declined after World War I, and "proletarian" Freethought groups proliferated, becoming an organization of socialist parties. European socialist freethought groups formed the International of Proletarian Freethinkers (IPF) in 1925. 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 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 were tolerated by the Nazis until the mid-1930s.
The Université Libre de Bruxelles and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, along with the two Circles of Free Inquiry (Dutch and French speaking), defend the freedom of critical thought, lay philosophy and ethics, while rejecting the argument of authority.
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.
In 2009, Frans van Dongen established the Atheist-Secular Party, which takes a considerably restrictive view of religion and public religious expressions.
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".
The Free Thought movement was first organized in the United States as the “Free Press Association” in 1827 in defense of George Houston, publisher of The Correspondent, an early journal of Biblical criticism in an era when blasphemy convictions were still possible. Houston had helped found an Owenite community at Haverstraw, New York in 1826–27. The short-lived Correspondent was superseded by the Free Enquirer, the official organ of Robert Owen's New Harmony community in Indiana, edited by Robert Dale Owen and Fanny Wright between 1828 and 1832 in New York. During this time Robert Dale Owen sought to introduce the philosophic skepticism of the Free Thought movement into the Workingmen’s Party in New York city. The Free enquirers annual civic celebrations of Paine’s birthday after 1825 finally coalesced in 1836 in the first national Free Thinkers organization, the “United States Moral and Philosophical Society for the General Diffusion of Useful Knowledge”. It was founded on August 1, 1836, at a national convention at the Lyceum in Saratoga Springs, with Isaac S. Smith of Buffalo, New York, as president. He was also the 1836 Equal Rights Party’s candidate for Governor of New York. Smith had also been the Workingmen's Party candidate for Lt. Governor of New York in 1830. The Moral and Philosophical Society published The Beacon, edited by Gilbert Vale.
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 (see Forty-Eighters). In the United States, they hoped to be able to live by their principles, without interference from government and church authorities.
These groups of German Freethinkers referred to their organizations as Freie Gemeinden, or "free congregations". The first Freie Gemeinde was established in St. Louis in 1850. Others followed in Pennsylvania, California, Washington, D.C., New York, Illinois, Wisconsin, Texas, and other states.
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. It affiliated with the American Unitarian Association (now the Unitarian Universalist Association) in 1955. D. M. Bennett was the founder and publisher of The Truth Seeker in 1873, a radical freethought and reform American periodical.
German Freethinker settlements were located in:
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The earliest known secular organization in English Canada is the Toronto Freethought Association, founded in 1873 by a handful of secularists. Reorganized in 1877 and again in 1881, when it was renamed the Toronto Secular Society, the group formed the nucleus of the Canadian Secular Union, established in 1884 to bring together freethinkers from across the country.
A significant number of the early members appear to have been drawn from the educated labour "aristocracy," including Alfred F. Jury, J. Ick Evans and J. I. Livingstone, all of whom were leading labour activists and secularists. The second president of the Toronto association was T. Phillips Thompson, a central figure in the city's labour and social reform movements during the 1880s and 1890s and arguably Canada's foremost late nineteenth-century labour intellectual. By the early 1880s, freethought organizations were scattered throughout southern Ontario and parts of Quebec, and elicited both urban and rural support.
The principal organ of the freethought movement in Canada was Secular Thought (Toronto, 1887–1911). Founded and edited by English freethinker Charles Watts (1835–1906) during its first several years, the editorship was assumed by Toronto printer and publisher James Spencer Ellis in 1891 when Watts returned to England.
In 1968 the Humanist Association of Canada was formed to serve as an umbrella group for Humanists, atheists, freethinkers, and to champion social justice issues and oppose religious influence on public policy—most notably in the fight to make access to abortion free and legal in Canada. HAC, also known as Humanist Canada, is an active voice for Humanism in Canada and supports the activities of groups who wish to raise awareness about secular issues.
The Canadian Secular Alliance is an active community.
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; reprints from freethought papers such as Lucifer, the Light-Bearer, Freethought and The Truth Seeker appeared in Liberty...The church was viewed as a common ally of the state and as a repressive force in and of itself."
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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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