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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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Revolutionary FreeThought

I have recently finished reading Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. It is in my opinion an essential read in understanding the history of FreeThought and Secularism in America. I have re-read a number of sections and followed up on other articles and a number of historical points.

It’s hard for me to understate what an enormous impact this book has made in my understanding of freethought and secularism. I’ve had bits and pieces before, like the secular roots of the American Constitution, Robert Ingersoll and the role of many humanists and secularists during abolition, women’s suffrage and the early civil rights movement. But I’ve never had these pieces woven together into a cohesive history.

I’m so impressed I’ve decided to write a 4-part post on this one book alone. I won’t make any one post too lengthy however it looks like the book and the history of secularism in America could be broken into 4 rough periods. The first is the remaining portion of this post, Revolutionary FreeThought (c. 1776-1861)*, specifically the role that secular thought played in the founding of America, the way minority religious sects embraced secularism and the early foundations of freethought activism in the form of abolition and feminism.

I have posted in the past regarding the secular and specifically non-Christian origins of the American Constitution however this book spends only a small portion of the first chapter talking about the beliefs of Jefferson, Adams, Madison and other Founding Fathers. Instead, Jacoby focuses on the debate that raged around the wording of the Constitution and how any mention of any God was a strong point of contention among religious clerics at the time..

Secular Thought During the Revolution

During the formation of this country with rare exception each State had an official and established state church. And in some of those states you had to take an oath supporting that church in order to hold public office, elected or appointed. The Founders knew that if there was going to be strong and unified Federal government then religious tests for office would have to be eliminated and hence the following line shows up in Article 6 of the Constitution

…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States

To further extend the clear fear that the Founding Fathers, particularly Jefferson and Madison, had of sectarian strife within the new nation, they clearly infused the American Constitution with the same philosophy that embodied Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom. Madison conveyed his views on the dilemma posed by sectarian differences (let alone the pluralistic society we live in today) to the Virginia Assembly to proposed funding of religious schooling

Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? That the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever? 

Thomas Paine

Perhaps the most notable Freethinker during this revolutionary period was Thomas Paine. A man that contributed directly to the people’s support of the American Revolution to only be reviled as the Arch-Infidel upon his return from imprisonment in France. Of course, the author of Common Sense and The Rights of Man, the former a support for the American Revolution and the latter a support for the French Revolution and a critique of hereditary rule, was looked upon quite differntly after publishing The Age of Reason.

The Age of Reason was a scathing critique of many of the Biblical doctrines at the time. He soundly rejected divine revelation and miracles. He wholesale discounted all supernatural aspects of the Bible, Old and New Testament alike. He puts forth not a disbelief in God, despite the accusations of atheist at the time, but a belief in a deistic God. One who could be known through Nature’s Laws.

Religious Support of Secular Government

The most notable subplot, if you will, during this period was the role that early Evangelicals played in supporting the secular nature of government. As you can imagine some of the most outspoken critics of the Constitution at the time came from established, state-sponsored Christian denominations, such as The Episcopal Church (official church of Virginia) or to Protestantism in general. Catholics in America at the time were highly distrusted due to the perceived dual obligations to the papacy and to the civil governments. For example, Massachusetts only allowed Catholics to hold office if they renounced the papacy’s authority in all matters civil. New York, ironically, allowed Jews the right to hold office but not Catholics.

In the previously mentioned debate in Virginia regarding special assessments to fund private, religious education it was the minority religious sects, such as, the Quakers, Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians who opposed the special assessments and ultimately would support Virginia’s religious freedom act.

It’s not at all surprising although ironic that the early roots of the Evangelicals around today would fight so strongly to oppose religious language only to turn around in the 20th century to fight to have it included. It only goes to show that the Founding Fathers were right to fear the mixing of religious and political power. Because yesterday it was the Episcopal Church and today it’s the Baptists.

I have also posted over on FreeThought Fort Wayne’s blog about a need to cultivate religious advocacy of secularism in America. I now have a better understanding that I wasn’t proposing anything new and that there is a history of support that needs to resurface

* I know the timelines don’t have “clean” demarcation but it helps to give an idea of the time periods involved.

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The US is not a Christian nation… amen

Ok I didn’t make it very far through this book (more Brain Food) before I felt compelled to post again…

Michael and Edward Buckner have an essay titled, The US Is a Free Country, Not a Christian Nation. Man… are they on it or what? The essay begins by putting forward the following structure for their argument,

…But anyone who wants to claim that our government should support Christianity (or any other religion) must explain away American history, contradict our decidedly unchristian form of government, and, finally and most crucially, demonstrate that separation of church and state is not in everyone’s best interest.

And they back it up. They put the Declaration of Independence in its proper context, expose a number of fallacious (at worst) or unsupported (at best) quotes from some of our Founding Fathers that seem to support a Christian origin to our government and show that the Constitution imposes rules and restraints that are decidedly unbiblical.

They finish up with a kind of, Ok, fine. You reject everything we say. Then what would a perfectly Christian US look like, of course, don’t base anything on the Trinity (because not all Christians accept that). When should everyone be baptised or should they? Good luck finding a happy compromise on that one.

You say, let’s just say Christianity in general and not anything specific. Fine, but as James Madison wrote (in a petition to stop legislation in Virginia that would have allowed using taxpayer’s money to support Christians of all denominations),

Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity in exclusion of all other religions may establish, with the same ease, any particular sect of Christians in exclusion of all other sects? That same authority which can force a citizen to contribute threepence only of his property for the support of any one establishment may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?

Oooh… pre-Victorian smackdown.

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