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The Future of FreeThought

I have spent the last few days putting my thoughts to digital paper but they weren’t really my thoughts. They were thoughts that I only think are mine but really have come about from reading Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers, A History of American Secularism. In my first post on the matter I mentioned how profoundly this book has changed my view. How I feel to some extent a sense of connection with the past.

I liken it very loosely* to what I can imagine perhaps a homosexual in America might feel and may I be so bold as to draw a comparison between FreeThought and Homosexual Rights. The first step in the acceptance of homosexuals was the acknowledgement that “they” exist and that there is a community of them. I suppose step 2 was try not to get killed but then came step 3 begin to discover a shared history. There hasn’t been much of history for the GLBT community to draw on, they sort of sprang out of nowhere as you might be led to believe. Of couse, it’s becoming more and more apparent that there is an extensive “gay history” however it hasn’t been very pleasant and we’ll never know the full extent to which the homosexual community has always been around.

I suppose this is the natural evolution, if you will, of all groups as they struggle for identity.

This brings us to the main point of this article, the Future of FreeThought. What does tomorrow or even 5 years bring. Maybe we should be saying to ourselves, “Forget about the future. What does the present look like?”

Where we stand today

There are plenty of very good reasons to be pessimistic about the future of FreeThought considering the last 20 years in one sense hasn’t been that great. We’ve seen the ascendancy of the Religious Right during the 70’s through such organizations as Falwell’s Moral Majority and their ability to shape the political landscape of today (not to mention their power within the Republican party out of proportion to their numbers). The 80’s brought us the almost laughable Satanic Panic. The 90’s brought us the Republican Revolution and the rise of the Christian Coalition led by Ralph Reed. The 21st century was kicked off with a bang, specifically 4 bangs on 9/11. An event that should have led to soul-searching within religious circles on the power of faith and that without some kind of check or measure like reason and evidence all ideology particularly religious ideology can lead to some of the greatest atrocities of mankind. Instead, in America, the various Christian sects circled the wagons and drew Us vs. Them distinctions while the liberal left called Islam the Religion of Peace and tried to categorize the 19 young men as fundamentalists or extremists. No doubt they don’t represent the mainstream muslim but there are some very basic questions that are not being asked.

Today secularists and skeptics, atheists and agnostics face some of the same recurring issues that have cropped over the decades, nay, centuries. That thing called Intelligent Design (AKA warmed-over creationism) has been making inroads or at least the strategy has changed again to “academic freedom” bills. The broad support for faith-based initiatives and school vouchers is a reincarnated version of the very same kind of bill that was working it’s way through the Virginia Assembly that attempted to get the state of Virginia to fund religious education. The very thing that Madison and Jefferson worked vigorously to oppose and many evangelical groups of the day also opposed.

Susan Jacoby begins the final chapter of her book with a recent speech given by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia [full text here],

… the real underpinnings of Scalia’s support for the death penalty are to be found not in constitutional law but in the justice’s religious convictions. He believes that the state derives its power not from the consent of the governed – “We, the People,” as the [Constitution] plainly states – but from God. God has the power of life and death, and therefore lawful governments also have the right to exact the ultimate penalty. Democracy, with its pernicous idea that citizens are the ultimate arbiters of public policy, is responsible for the rise of opposition to the death penalty in the twentieth century. “Few doubted the morality of the death penalty in the age that believed in the divine right of kings,” Scalia noted in his speech. He would have been just as accurate had he pointed out that most subjects in absolute monarchies also supported the right of kings to torture and to impose the death penalty by drawing and quartering. To bolster his argument, Scalia turned to the perennial favorite of conservative politicians the evangelist Paul: [quotes Romans 13:1-4]

And this is from a Supreme Court justice. What happens when abortion makes it’s way to the SCOTUS? I wonder what a devout Catholic will make his decision based on, clearly not case law or prior precedent or any other impartial manner. I wouldn’t doubt if he quotes Psalms 139:13-16 in his opinion.

Now all of that is kind of a drag and I’m generally an optimistic person.

A Plan for the Future

If you are looking for me to start making predictions of what will happen in the future you can stop reading now. I don’t know and neither does anybody else but I do have some ideas about what we can begin to build today.

1) Identify that non-believers exist, acknowledge that you exist

  • A recent Pew Study shows that approximately 10.3% of the U.S. population identifies itself as either atheist, agnostic or secular-unaffiliated, there’s an additional 5-6% of the U.S. population that is religious-unaffiliated, maybe they just need to be told it’s OK to not believe. 
  • Read that again 10% (that’s about 30 million people). We more than exist, we are significant chunk of the population.

2) Recognize that you have a history

  • I hope the last 3 posts have given you a taste of the extremely rich history that secular and free thought have in America. If you don’t know about the last 3 posts here they are:
  1. Revolutionary FreeThought
  2. The Golden Age of FreeThought
  3. FreeThought in the 20th Century

3) Get involved

  • Join a group or start one. I live in Fort Wayne, Indiana, not exactly a liberal bastion by any stretch. We have a group, you can find us here, freethoughtfortwayne.org. Feel free to contact me if you are interested in starting your own.
  • Groups like CFI On Campus provide excellent resources for starting college campus groups.
  • Write letters to the editor, attend speeches and conferences promoting secular thought, scientific literacy and freethought.
  • Write your story, start a blog, write a book. We don’t live in an age anymore where you have to jump through hoops and sell your soul to get published anymore. You can self-publish. Every piece of literature out there adds to the growing number of freethought voices.

4) Begin Building Bridges

  • Instead of fighting or resisting religious groups, we should be defining where we have common ground. I suppose this goes back to that old adage, “The frontiers that trade won’t cross, armies will”, or something like that. If we won’t engage with religious groups we will only ever exchange volleys and that won’t get us anywhere
  • I’ve said it before and I say it again, we really should promote advocacy for secular government within the religious community.

Let’s do what we can to change the tone and tenor of the nation. If you are unhappy about the invasion of religion into every nook and cranny of our political discourse then speak up. Write your congressman, yours can’t be any worse than mine, Mark Souder (R) – 3rd Dist. IN. He or she works for you, remember that.

I would be interested in your comments. AM I missing something? Am I too optimistic?

* Of course, I’m a heterosexual, middle-class white guy, so what do I really know about being gay or even oppressed for that matter. Like I said “very loosely” based on the recent history of homosexuals.

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FreeThought in the 20th Century

This is the 3rd in a series of posts exploring the Past, Present and Future of FreeThought. In this installment I would like to discuss how poorly FreeThought faired in the early parts of the 20th century but I promise to end on a high note. The primary focus will be from the turn of the century to the about the 70’s.

Comstock Laws, Contraception and Catholics

To understand the problems that eventually overwhelmed FreeThought in the first half of the 20th century we must first start with the enacting of the Comstock Laws of 1870’s. These laws essentially allowed the federal government the right to inspect and seize anything moving through the U.S. Postal service deemed “obscene” as determined by the local postmaster. Those things that were deemed obscene were anything from “diatribes against marriage to advertisements for veneral disease remedies”. Ingersoll himself spoke against the government being in the business of censoring and ultimately defining what was obscene.

Until the early 20th century the Catholic church held very little sway and was still considered a suspicious minority religion. However despite their small numbers the Catholic church actively began to crusade against public (and therefore secular and godless) education and contraception. Margaret Sanger, the inventor of the term birth control and it’s biggest crusader was ultimately arrested in New York City at the prompting of the local Catholic clergy. While opposition of contraception didn’t seem to win the Catholics any Protestant fans their eventual embrace of some of the most virulent, anti-communism would finally assuage the mainstream Protestant fears.

Bolshevism and the Red Scare

As the dawn of the Great War approached many freethinkers were imprisoned for sedition (such as Eugene Debs, a socialist, vocal opponent of the America’s entry into the Great War and an Indiana State Representative). After the Great War, the Bolshevik Revolution created a backlash against those that were perceived as godless and therefore un-American. Mainstream Protestantism began to link bolshevism and eventually communism with evolution much like the Catholic church linked communism and atheism. While true the Bolsheviks ostensibly embraced atheism it didn’t prevent them from replacing the State as the new religion. This of course didn’t stop the link from being made.

During the decades preceding the second World War, 2 Catholic personalities emerged on the national stage, Charles Coughlin and Fulton Sheen. Charles Coughlin was,

… dubbed “the father of hate radio” by a recent biographer, was destined to rise no higher in the church than the priesthood: his early populist message of Christian justice for the working man turned in the thirties into an anti-New Deal, pro-Nazi, and anti-Semitic – as well as anticommunist – platform. Coughlin’s diatribes were tolerated by Vatican officials and encouraged by his bishop for much of the thirties, but he was finally muzzled by an embarrassed hierarchy after Pearl Harbor.

Fulton Sheen on the other hand was an unblemished darling of the church hierarchy. His Catholic Hour radio show was broadcast by 106 radio stations throughout the 1940’s to eventually become a television star in the 1950’s with his show, Life is Worth Living, reach an estimated 5.5 million viewers. There is no doubt Sheen was virulently anticommunist as Coughlin even going so far as to advocate for spying on school teachers who might celebrate May Day (a socialist holiday, and one shared by labor unions). A close friend of J. Edgar Hoover, that bastion of free speech, Sheen would often get his personal friends appointed to what would ultimately become the FBI.

What does all of this mean for freethought in the first half of the 20th century? Nothing good. Freethinkers were more often labeled socialist (which many were) or communists. In general, an unpleasant period in freethought history.

Let the good times roll

I will end this section on a high note before I delve into my opinions on the Future of FreeThought. A number of important court cases would be decided in the mid-century. Everson v. Board of Education (1947) and McCollum v. Illinois (1948)  would all but prevent public funds (even indirectly) from being used for religious instruction. The McCollum case would directly challenge “released time” when students would be released during the school day to receive religious instruction from local religious groups. Brown v. Board of Education (1954) which desegregated schools. Engel v. Vitale (1962) found that even non-denominational school prayer was unconstitutional. Roe v. Wade (1973) which protected a woman’s right to have an abortion.

Within the political arena a Catholic would be elected president and give a speech clearly stating that, “I do not speak for my church on public matters – and the church does not speak for me”. A clear difference that was lost on Mitt Romney. Of course, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would finally pass The Congress.

I won’t detail the activities of secularist involved in the struggle for civil rights, such as, Andrew Goodman Michael Schwerner and James Chaney (who were eventually killed by racist shitbags), Stanley Levison and W.E.B. Du Bois. And modern day feminism, such as, Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan. I will simply assume you know all about it 😉

More in this series:

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The Golden Age of FreeThought

In my continuing series on the history of freethought and secularism in America I would like to spend a little time focusing on the “Golden Age of FreeThought”. It’s called by the author of Freethinkers, A History of American Secularism, Susan Jacoby, the Golden Age for good reason. During the period following the Civil War it was perhaps the most open period in American history to disagree with religious authority and even mock the more irrational aspects of religion. This openness wasn’t nearly as utopian as it may sound.

Unbelief during the Civil War

Perhaps the most telling comments about the status of secular thought during the 19th century comes from the following passage of Susan Jacoby’s book,

Today’s Christian conservatives frequently use the slogan “let’s put God back into the Constitution,” thereby implying that “secular humanists” have managed to overturn what was originally intended to be a marriage of church and state. Nineteenth-century clerics knew better and were honest about their desire to reverse what they regarded as the founders’ erroneous decision to separate church and state.

The late nineteenth-century was merely a foreshadowing of the kinds of vitriol that would be poured out on our elected leaders in recent decades. “In God We Trust” was first engraved onto our currency during the end of the Civil War and was soon made the butt of a number of jokes, such as “In gold we trust” during the debates surrounding the removal of U.S. currency from the gold standard. 

Theodore Roosevelt, one of the most devout Christians ever to be elected president, attempted in 1907 to dispense with the motto precisely because of the sacrilegious puns. He succeeded only in arousing a storm of criticism from ministers who had previously been among his strongest supporters. Roosevelt, who had dubbed Paine a “filthy little atheist,” was himself called an infidel for his attempt to remove God from American money.” 

Ah, the irony is overwhelming.

The Great Agnostic

Much as Thomas Paine was perhaps the most reviled infidel of his time, Robert Green Ingersoll was much admired and called the Great Agnostic. Ingersoll wrote many pamphlets during his time (c. 1870-1899), including the Gods and Other Lectures and Some mistakes of Moses.

Unlike today, the American people often went to see speakers give lectures. In fact, you could make quite a living going on the lecture circuit. Ingersoll was an extremely popular speaker with many connections to the Republican party of the day. In many of his talks he did not pull any punches in his ridicule of religious belief and social issues such as slavery and women’s rights.

From the Gods and other lectures, after quoting Deuteronomy chapter 20 from the Old Testament detailing the slaughter of men and the… uh… acquisition of the women,

Is it possible for man to conceive of anything more perfectly infamous? Can you believe that such directions were given by any being except an infinite fiend? Remember that the army receiving these instructions was one of invasion. Peace was offered upon condition that the people submitting should be the slaves of the invader; but if any should have the courage to defend their homes, to fight for the love of wife and child, then the word was to spare none – not even the prattling, dimpled babe.

And we are called upon to worship such a god; to get upon our knees and tell him that he is good, that he is merciful, that he is just, that he is love.

The book, called the bible, is filled with passages equally horrible, unjust and atrocious. This is the book to be read in schools in order to make our children loving, kind and gentle! This is the book to be recognized in our Constitution as the source of all authority and justice!

Reading Ingersoll is like reading Dawkins or particularly Hitchens. In fact, I dare say The God Delusion and god is not great are modern day versions of the very lectures that Ingersoll was so famously recognized for and the Four Horseman are so roundly criticized for.

FreeThought Activism

I don’t want to make it sound like the late-nineteenth century was a free and unfettered time to be a freethinker. In fact, the roots of what would ultimately become the “red scare” and much of the McCarthy-ist persecution was beginning to take root at this time particularly during the turn of the century. I will wait to delve into those issues with the next post, FreeThought in the 20th Century.

Among perhaps one of the most astounding things of the mid to late-1800’s was the prevalence of Freethought literature, newspapers and pamphlet printing organizations. Throughout the 1800’s FreeThought periodicals began popping up everywhere, the most famous of the bunch would be D.M. and Mary Bennett’s Truth Seeker. Some of the other periodicals were the Boston Investigator, the Blue Grass Blade, the Free-Thought Ideal and Free-Thought Vindicator, and my personal favorite the Lucifer, the Light-Bearer. Of course, like all “movements” they are rarely centralized and cooridinated as evidenced by the Iconoclast of Austin, Texas run by William Cowper Brann, a strident racist who was ultimately shot in the back by an enraged Baptist. The diversity of thought among those who wore the FreeThought banner was loosely held together by the almost universal opposition to organized religion and their support for a clear separation of church and state.

During this time period the roots of feminism were planted beginning with attempts to gain women the right to vote and the dissemination of information regarding contraception. There are so many famous figures from the women’s rights movement who came to fame during this time period, William Lloyd Garrison, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony and Ernestine L. Rose.

There are so many things that happened during this time period that I have only barely scratched the surface. I only glossed over Ingersoll’s life and almost the entirety of the women’s suffrage movement and spoke nothing about the emancipation of the slaves and Abraham Lincoln’s beliefs. I guess you’ll just have to read the book 😉

More in this series:

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The subtle art of Disinformation

I am currently reading the compilation by Disinformation title “Everything You Know About God is Wrong: The Disinformation Guide to Religion”. There is so much good stuff in here. I haven’t even gotten a fraction of the way through the book and I already feel compelled to blog about the first essay.

 James A. Haught’s Everyone’s a Skeptic – About Other Religions makes a very good point. It even lists a number of core beliefs from a number of religions.

Douglas Rushkoff’s Faith = Illness: Why I’ve Had It With Religious Tolerance asks why can’t the Bible be book of stories? Why must it be a literal history? I’m not trying to give you too much but this section just sticks with me

… the stories in the Bible are less significant because they happened at some moment in history than because their underlying dynamics seem to be happening in all moments. We are all Cain, struggling with our feelings about a sibling who seems to be more blessed than we are. We are always escaping the enslaved metality of Egypt and the idolatry we practiced there. We are all Mordechai, bristling against the pressure to bow in subservience to our bosses.

But true believers don’t have this freedom…

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What I would have answered

Christopher Hitchens gives another great talk. This time @Google, see it here at YouTube.

When you get to about the 37:10 mark he is asked a question where someone questions the accuracy of some of his observations, specifically (here’s the leadup and the question, this is not an exact quote but it’s pretty close),

“You say that religion feeds into an innate human nature for being told what to do or not having as much freedom. Well, in the United States you have one of the most freedom loving countries in the world… yet you have one of the most arguably religious nations in the world. How do you explain this contradiction?”

Hitchens goes on to answer in his own rather rambling manner however he never gives the answer I was hoping he would make. I think the best answer to that question would have been,

“There really is no contradiction in fact I think you can see that your statement actually goes towards proving my point about religion. Our country was founded as a secular government with separation of church and statement and specific prohibitions against the establishment of religion as some of its founding principles. [insert pithy remark about “sounds to me like the founding fathers were afraid of religion”]. Anyway, look at today and you say that we are one of the most religious nations and yet we now have some of the most egregious assaults by our current very religious administration and the erosion of some of those very basic freedoms. You could argue this is only coincidental however I think any reasonable person would fit the two trends together. In fact, this is why I think you are seeing a certain resurgence in atheism today.[insert joke about what would the constitution have looked like if Jerry Falwell were one of the founding members]”

Anyway that concludes today’s “What I would have answered”

Also at about the 48:00 minute mark he is asked the question that I frequently hear and that is. How can you say atheism is better than religion when the Stalinist regime did many of the same things in the name of atheism. I think he answered it well.  

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