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Freethought is a philosophical viewpoint that holds that opinions should be formed on the basis of science, logic, and reason, and should not be influenced by authority, tradition, or any other dogma.[1] The cognitive application of freethought is known as freethinking, and practitioners of freethought are known as freethinkers.[2]


Freethought holds that individuals should neither accept nor reject 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, cognitive bias, conventional wisdom, popular culture, prejudice, sectarianism, tradition, urban legend, and all other dogmatic or otherwise fallacious principles. Applied to religion, freethinkers have generally held that, given presently-known facts, established scientific theories, and logical principles, 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, symbol of freethought.

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 behind the pansy being the symbol of freethought 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 the month of August it nods forward as if deep in thought.[3]



In Buddhism a type of freethought was advocated by Gautama Buddha, most notably 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",[4] 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.

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),[5] 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.

Modern movements

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 by the Holy Inquisition.

England and France

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 article was strongly atheistic. 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 Deutschen Freidenkerbund (German Freethinkers League) as the first German organization for atheists. In 1892 the Freidenker-Gesellschaft and in 1906 the Deutscher Monistenbund were formed.[6] Freethought organizations developed "Jugendweihe", secular "confirmation" ceremonies, and atheist funeral rites.[6][7] 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.[8] More "bourgeois" organizations declined after World War I, and "proletarian" Freethought groups proliferated, becoming an organization of socialist parties.[6][9] European socialist free-thought groups formed the International of Proletarian Freethinkers (IPF) in 1925.[10] 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.[11] 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.[10] In 1930, the Soviet and allied delegations, following a walk-out, took over the IPF and excluded the former leaders.[10] Following Hitler's rise to power in 1933, most freethought organizations were banned, though some right-wing groups that worked with Volkisch associations were tolerated by the Nazis until the mid 1930s.[6][9]


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.

ULB physicist and chemist Ilya Prigogine (1917 - 2003) received the 1977 Chemistry Nobel Prize for his work on the entropy of dissipative and self-organizing natural systems, allowing a better lay understanding of the fundamental freedom of complex nature and life, and making an argument against the concept of simplistic newtonian determinism.

United States

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 U.S., they hoped to be able to live by their principles, without interference from government and church authorities.[12]

Many Freethinkers settled in German immigrant strongholds, including St. Louis, Indianapolis, Wisconsin, and Texas,[12] 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."[12] The first Freie Gemeinde was established in St. Louis in 1850.[13] Others followed in Pennsylvania, California, Washington, D.C., New York, Illinois, Wisconsin, Texas, and other states.[12][13]

Freethinkers tended to be liberal, espousing ideals such as racial, social, and sexual equality, and the abolition of slavery.[12]

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.[14]

German Freethinker settlements were located in:

  • Burlington, Racine County, Wisconsin[12]
  • Belleville, St. Clair County, Illinois
  • Castell, Llano County, Texas
  • Comfort, Kendall County, Texas
  • Fond du Lac, Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin[12]
  • Frelsburg, Colorado County, Texas
  • Hermann, Gasconade County, Missouri
  • Jefferson, Jefferson County, Wisconsin[12]
  • Indianapolis, Indiana[15]
  • Latium, Washington County, Texas
  • Manitowoc, Manitowoc County, Wisconsin[12]
  • Meyersville, DeWitt County, Texas
  • Milwaukee, Wisconsin[12]
  • Millheim, Austin County, Texas
  • Oshkosh, Winnebago County, Wisconsin[12]
  • Ratcliffe, DeWitt County, Texas
  • Sauk City, Sauk County, Wisconsin[12][12]
  • Shelby, Austin County, Texas
  • Sisterdale, Kendall County, Texas
  • St. Louis, Missouri
  • Tusculum, Kendall County, Texas
  • Two Rivers, Manitowoc County, Wisconsin[12]
  • Watertown, Dodge County, Wisconsin[12]


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 in 1891 by Toronto printer and publisher James Spencer Ellis when Watts returned to England.

The Canadian Secular Alliance is an active community.

South Asia

One of the most assertive freethought movements rose in a relatively poor country, Bangladesh, ignited by people like Taslima Nasreen and the late Humayun Azad.

See also


  3. A Pansy For Your Thoughts, by Annie Laurie Gaylor, Freethought Today, June/July 1997
  4. Bhikkhu Bodhi (2009). "A Look at the Kalama Sutta". Access to Insight. Retrieved 2009-12-14.
  5. Chinese History - Song Dynasty 宋 (
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Bock, Heike (2006). "Secularization of the modern conduct of life? Reflections on the religiousness of early modern Europe". in Hanne May. Religiosität in der säkularisierten Welt. VS Verlag fnr Sozialw. pp. 157. ISBN 3-8100-4039-8. 
  7. Reese, Dagmar (2006). Growing up female in Nazi Germany. Ann Arbor, Mich: University of Michigan Press. p. 160. ISBN 0-472-06938-1. 
  8. Reinhalter, Helmut (1999). "Freethinkers". in Bromiley, Geoffrey William; Fahlbusch, Erwin. The encyclopedia of Christianity. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans. ISBN 90-04-11695-8. 
  9. 9.0 9.1 Kaiser, Jochen-Christoph (2003). Christel Gärtner. ed. Atheismus und religiöse Indifferenz. Organisierter Atheismus. VS Verlag. ISBN 9783810036391. 
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Peris, Daniel (1998). Storming the heavens: the Soviet League of the Militant Godless. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press. pp. 110–11. ISBN 0-8014-3485-8. 
  11. Lamberti, Marjorie (2004). Politics Of Education: Teachers and School Reform in Weimar Germany (Monographs in German History). Providence: Berghahn Books. pp. 185. ISBN 1-57181-299-7. 
  12. 12.00 12.01 12.02 12.03 12.04 12.05 12.06 12.07 12.08 12.09 12.10 12.11 12.12 12.13 12.14 "Freethinkers in Wisconsin". Dictionary of Wisconsin History. 2008. Retrieved 2008-07-27.  Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Freethinkers in Wisconsin" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Freethinkers in Wisconsin" defined multiple times with different content
  13. 13.0 13.1 Demerath, N. J. III and Victor Thiessen, "On Spitting Against the Wind: Organizational Precariousness and American Irreligion," The American Journal of Sociology, 71: 6 (May, 1966), 674-687.
  14. "History of the Free Congregation of Sauk County: The "Freethinkers" Story". Free Congregation of Sauk County. April, 2007. Retrieved 2008-07-27. 
  15. "The Turners, Forty-eighters and Freethinkers". Freedom from Religion Foundation. July, 2002. Retrieved 2008-07-27. 
  • Jacoby, Susan (2004). Freethinkers: a history of American secularism. New York: Metropolitan Books. ISBN 0-8050-7442-2
  • Royle, Edward (1974). Victorian Infidels: the origins of the British Secularist Movement, 1791-1866. Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 0-7190-0557-4 Online version
  • Royle, Edward (1980). Radicals, Secularists and Republicans: popular freethought in Britain, 1866-1915. Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 0-7190-0783-6
  • Tribe, David (1967). 100 Years of Freethought. London: Elek Books.

External links

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