First, let me explain why I use the terms Freethought and Freethinker and let me define those terms. There are many labels hung on the non-orthodox (those who depart from the religious norms). Such labels are atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, humanists, non-conformists, unbelievers, heretics, infidels, rationalists, sceptics, protestants, etc, most of them denoting a particular and sometimes narrow field of view. Sometimes those labels are hung on us by ourselves and sometimes hung on us by others.

Heretic was a label popular several centuries ago; I doubt that it was a self-adopted label because, as Thomas Aquinas the great medieval theologian puts it, the sin of unbelief is greater than any sin which occurs in the perversion of morals, and heretics should be exterminated from the world by being put to death after the third offence.

At this point it is interesting to note that the pagans labelled the early Christians as heretics because this new grouping of people rejected the popular and traditional gods of the time. What, then, describes this collective group of atheists, non-believers etc?

A convenient term is Freethinker which means (Concise Oxford Dictionary) “a rejecter of authority in religious belief” and, by allowing that to be even a partial rejection on some narrow point, and by taking a wide definition of the words ‘religious belief’, we can cast a wide net and call ourselves Freethinkers. Thus, choosing our own terms of reference, we can trace Freethought and Freethinkers back through a long history spanning 26 centuries, back to the Chinese sages such as Lao Tse and Confucius, who taught love and the brotherhood of man, without linking such virtues to supernatural deities. By the standards of his day, Confucius was agnostic and a rationalist. His moral system was Do not unto others what you would not have done unto yourself. He rejected the Taoist canon of returning good for evil which says:
If you reward EVIL with GOOD, with what will you reward goodness? – and said instead
Reward GOOD with GOOD and EVIL with JUSTICE.

The arrogant assertion of being a custodian of Absolute Truth, which assertion has been responsible for so much bigotry and persecution throughout history, was alien to the Confucian outlook. Long before empiricism and rationalism were intellectually formulated, Confucius encouraged an outlook, which was humble before the facts of experience, tentative and tolerant in drawing conclusions. He insisted that men should think for themselves. This represented a breakthrough from the dictates of the ruling emperor and priest clique. Hence I think that we are justified in thinking of Confucius as one of the very earliest recorded Freethinkers.

From early China, let us jump to Greece and Rome of just a few centuries later and we feel more at home, for it is on the literary, artistic and philosophic works of ancient Greece that so much of Western culture is based. It is in those works of ancient Greece that the focal interest is Man. The Greek philosopher Protagoras wrote: Man is the measure of all things and he also wrote: of the gods I cannot say whether they exist or not. But in their culture there was no inference that man was all-powerful. On the contrary, they were much aware that life was transient and uncertain. Homer likens the life of man to that of leaves; nevertheless it was not the shadowy-beyond-death scene that interested them but the affairs of men in this life, in this world.

In his lifetime, Euripides was reviled as an atheist. It would have been dangerous indeed, in an age which resented the impiety of Protagoras and Socrates, to have publicly denied the existence of the gods. Euripides did the next best thing. In his plays the gods appeared in person but they were detestable. His contempt for popular superstition could not be hidden.

To Socrates, Greek medicine was remarkably empirical; he was guided by observation and rejected supernatural explanations of disease. Aristotle, who saw the unity of man and his spirit, rejected the current religious idea of the dualism of body and soul and personal immortality. He dealt with one of the most difficult problems that confronts secular morality, namely unless there is an after-life, what motive is there for our behaviour in this life?

By the standards of his time, Euripides was truly a Freethinker. He attacked some of the most cherished social conventions, namely the degraded status of slaves and women.

So we can see that over 2000 years ago there were thinkers who have denied the relevance of the supernatural to human life. During many periods of human history, however, it was dangerous for a person to deny the gods, so such denials have not been very common or else they have been expressed satirically. The wrath of the godly is terrible, even if the wrath of the gods is debatable.

We come now to an interesting facet in the history of Freethought. In Margaret Knight’s book HUMAN ANTHOLOGY the list of contents reads:

Lao Tse6th Century BC Cicero/Lucretius1st Century BC
Confucius5th Century BC Seneca/Pliny the Elder1st Century AD
Thacydides4th Century BC Plutarch/Epictetus1st Century AD
Mencius/Epicurus3rd Century BC Marcus Aurelius/Celcus2nd Century AD

Thirteen names in one book over a span of 5 to 7 centuries; yet the next entry after the 2nd Century AD is Montaigne of the 16th Century. There is a break of 1300 years during which the Western world has not recorded very much at all in the way of Freethought or Freethinkers.

One must look to the Islamic Middle East to such names as Al Biruni 973-1O5OAD. He was an astronomer, historian, botanist, poet, pharmacologist, geologist, philosopher, mathematician, geographer and humanist – a man who, because of his views, had to keep moving from court to court seeking new patrons.

Where do we find notable freethinkers in Christendom? Well, there are some recorded in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries and interestingly enough some of them were right in the bosom of mother church. One was Abbe Meslier 1664-1729.

Meslier was appointed priest in the champagne province of France and he was a vigorous campaigner against the social injustices of his day. He was in frequent conflict with ecclesiastical and civil authority but even that did not prepare his parishioners for the discovery after his death of manuscripts entitled MY TESTAMENT in which he made a scathing denunciation of Christianity. It was after his death because, as he said, I did not wish to burn until after my death.

I quote from My Testament one extract which has been translated and abridged. It is entitled The Abbe’s Apology to his Flock –

It was not from cupidity that I was led to adopt a profession so opposed to my convictions: I obeyed my parents. I would have enlightened you sooner if I could have done so with safety. You are my witnesses that I have never exacted the fees which attach to my office as curate. I discouraged you from bigotry and I spoke to you as seldom as possible of our wretched dogmas. I had to carry out the duties of my office but how I suffered when I had to preach to you those pious lies that I detest in my heart! A thousand times I was on the point of breaking out publicly and opening your eyes but a fear stronger than myself held me back and forced me to keep silence until my death.

Erasmus of Holland was another such freethinker from within the church; he was a Rotterdam Augustine monk who espoused the view that man stood in direct relation to god without the need of an intermediary – not a popular view of the day. It was a Christian view on a religious topic, not an atheistic pronouncement but, for its day and age, it was a freethought view, inasmuch as it went against the prevailing religious authorities’ views and probably helped to pave the way for even more departures. On the grounds that Erasmus was a rejector of religious authority (to return to our dictionary definition), I think we can label him a freethinker.

An entire lecture could be devoted to the Italian Renaissance and its subsequent spread across Europe but here I will mention only one person, Leonardo Da Vinci, who, in his younger days, with other young radicals, narrowly escaped death for publishing pamphlets attacking the church.

The eighteenth century was the first century after the Middle Ages in which it was relatively safe for European thinkers to declare publicly their scepticism about the supernatural. Famous sceptics of that time included Voltaire and Thomas Paine (who were actually deists), Diderot and Hume.

The 19th century produced many distinguished atheists and agnostics. By that time they were starting to be known by those terms – such names as John Stuart Mill, Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley, George Eliot, Swinburne, Marx etc. It was Huxley who coined the term ‘agnostic’ and who later defended Charles Darwin and his theories against the attacks of the established church which couldn’t abide the new idea that man was not a special creation. Charles Darwin was raised as a Christian but was led to doubt and to agnosticism during his voyage on the Beagle.

In 19th century England Freethinkers’ associations, secular societies, rationalist associations and other groups, critical of the claims of established religion, flourished. Some of the more unorthodox Christian groups such as Unitarians and Universalists had close associations with these early freethinking groups, especially in the USA where the famous American atheist lecturer, lawyer and politician, Robert Ingersoll, frequently spoke to Unitarian congregations. Later in the 19th century this alliance of Unitarians with freethinkers and rationalists gave rise to the Humanist movement in the USA.

We must remember that the thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries were not familiar with the knowledge and ideas which we now accept as commonplace; they were continually toying with new concepts – the earth moves around the sun; the world may be infinitely old and not specially created for humans; humankind may have actually evolved from other forms of life: ideas which had to be carefully worked over and thought through.

Darwin, for instance, wrote of the voyage on the Beagle –

During those two years I was led to think much about religion. Whilst on board the Beagle I was quite orthodox but later I had gradually come to see that the Old Testament with its manifestly false history of the world, with its Tower of Babel, the rainbow, burning bushes etc as signs and from its attributing to God the feelings of a vengeful tyrant, was no more to be trusted than the sacred books of the Hindus or the beliefs of the barbarians.

Darwin also wrote –

Although I did not think much about the existence of a personal God until a considerably later period of my life, I will give here the vague conclusions to which I have been driven. The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered. We can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man. There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows. Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws.

That was written by Charles Darwin in 1839 and was probably read by Robert Ingersoll a few years later when, in 1876, he wrote-

Would an infinitely wise, good and powerful God, intending to produce men, commence with the lowest possible forms of life; with the simplest organism that can be imagined and, during immeasurable periods of time, slowly and almost imperceptibly, improve upon the rude beginning, until man was evolved? Can the intelligence of man discover the least wisdom in covering the earth with crawling, creeping horrors that live only upon the agonies and pangs of others? Who can appreciate the mercy of so making the world that all animals devour animals; so that every mouth is a slaughterhouse and every stomach a tomb? Is it possible to discover infinite intelligence and love in universal and eternal carnage? What would we think of a father who should give a farm to his children but before allowing them to take possession should plant upon it deadly shrubs and vines; should stock it with ferocious beasts and poisonous reptiles, and take pains to put a few swamps in the neighbourhood to breed malaria? Yet this is exactly what the orthodox God has done…….

They are thoughts which perhaps we take for granted nowadays but in those days to think and preach such ideas was to be branded a freethinker and sometimes to have to suffer for it, as Ingersoll suffered at the hands of the superstitious in America. It was Ingersoll who published what was probably the first recorded freethought creed. This creed, which represents a big breakthrough of over 100 years ago, is as follows –

We are not endeavouring to chain the future but to free the present. We are not forging fetters for our children but we are breaking those our fathers made for us. We are the advocates of inquiry, of investigation and thought. This of itself is an admission that we are not perfectly satisfied with all our conclusions. Philosophy has not the egotism of faith. While superstition builds walls and creates obstructions, science opens all the highways of thought. We do not pretend to have circumnavigated everything and to have solved all difficulties but we do believe that it is grander and nobler to think and investigate for ourselves than to repeat a creed. We are satisfied that there can be but little liberty on earth while men worship a tyrant in heaven. We do not expect to accomplish everything in our day but we want to do what good we can and to render all the service possible in the cause of human progress. We know that doing away with gods and supernatural beings and powers is not an end. It is a means to an end – the real end being the happiness of man…

If he had kept quiet about this unbelief Ingersoll could have had the office of Governor of Illinois – it was offered to him on this conditions but he refused to compromise his beliefs, saying It is a magnificent thing to be the sole proprietor of yourself.

The Enlightenment of the 18th and 19th centuries was basically led by freethinkers and in this phase of our history the affairs of humankind began to be conducted in a more reasonable and dignified manner. It was an era of the beginnings of social reforms when the division grew between those who supported organised religion and those who opposed it. This state of affairs became further accentuated in the 19th century through the Utilitarians and Radicals. With the rise of scientific rationalism, such names as Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley, Charles Bradlaugh and Marie Stopes were openly challenging the beliefs Imposed on people by religious authorities largely with State backing.

It was Charles Bradlaugh who made it possible for an atheist to sit in the English Parliament. Three times he was refused admission because he would not take the oath on the Bible and three times at by-elections his constituency returned him, until Parliament relented and he was allowed to take his seat. This was another significant break-through for freethinkers.

Marie Stopes, who gave women the beginnings of control over their own fertility and hence direction over their own lives, was gaoled for so doing and was vilified by churchmen and churchwomen.

This brings our condensed history up to the 20th century where we find such names as Bertrand Russell – mathematician, philosopher, writer, scholar; also Sir Julian Huxley of United Nations fame and who is a grandson of Thomas Huxley who defended Darwin against his detractors in the church. There are others – no lesser figures than Somerset Maugham and Albert Einstein who, in his essays titled SCIENCE AND ETHICS, wrote: Scientific statements of facts and relationships indeed cannot produce ethical directives. However, ethical directives can be made rational and coherent by logical thinking and empirical knowledge. It is the privilege of man’s moral genius, impersonated by inspired individuals, to advance ethical axioms. Amongst other names which spring to mind are Jacob Bronowski (Ascent of Man) and Alex Comfort.

So we have traced a long history of Freethought and Freethinkers through two and a half thousand years; not in a continuous unbroken line but in tenuous links drawn together by thinkers of one era who have inspired those of a later period. The repeated emergence of the human spirit cannot be dominated by irrational forces requiring blind unquestioning obedience.

Many of those I have mentioned were deists and some were theists but without the collective strivings of these men and women whom I call freethinkers, even though some did not freethink very far from the narrow path, I do not think that we would have travelled as far as we have to the present day.

Innovative thinkers have forever been concerned with promulgating the good life; Confucius in China, Socrates in Greece, Moses in Palestine were such men. Their vision of the good life made such a deep impression that it continued to mould the character of countless generations. But where Confucius and Socrates rested their claims on reason instead of supernatural authority, Moses spoke as the mouthpiece of a deity and we can distinguish in those early times the beginnings of two different cultures; one religious and one secular; one based on submission to religious authority, the other based on a human’s need to question and reason for her or himself. Totally different attitudes, yet somewhat similar purposes.

Humankind everywhere has similar purposes. Humankind everywhere has similar problems and the number of answers is limited – not to commit murder, not to steal, not to bear false witness are universal prohibitions because they are essential to social order. But the freedom from which non-religious people claim to choose their own standards imposes the responsibility for giving reasons for our choices. We must each ask ourself What is the good life? And the answers given by the great freethinkers of the past are a rich source of material on which to draw because they all reinforce the central contention of freethought that we must all seek out knowledge and then use reason to work out solutions to problems through human effort and not bow down to religious authority.

I think that as freethinkers (or whatever label we hang upon ourselves) we have a responsibility to acquaint ourselves with these past thinkers and their works so that our lives may help perpetuate their memory.


Don Ellis 1926 – 1990

Donald Geoffrey de vere Ellis had a long association with freethought movements and was a member of the Rationalist Assoc of South Australia before the name-change to The Atheist Foundation of Australia Inc in Oct 1970. 

He was Treasurer for many years, re-drafted the Constitution and made his services available for non-religious funerals and naming ceremonies.

Don was involved in the formation of the South Australian Voluntary Euthanasia Society and was an office-bearer. He recognised atheism as the logical foundation for a satisfying life of service.

By Donald G Ellis

Share This