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Freethought is a philosophical viewpoint that holds that beliefs should be formed on the basis of science and logical principles and not be compromised by authority, tradition, or any other dogma. The cognitive application of freethought is known as freethinking, and practitioners of freethought are known as freethinkers.
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 beliefs on the basis of facts, scientific inquiry, and logical principles, independent of the factual/logical fallacies and intellectually-limiting effects of authority, cognitive bias, conventional wisdom, popular culture, prejudice, sectarianism, tradition, urban legend, and all other dogmatic or otherwise fallacious principles. When applied to religion, the philosophy of freethought holds 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." Since many laws, doctrines, and popular beliefs are based on dogmas, freethinkers' opinions are often at odds with commonly-established views.
The pansy has long been the symbol of freethought, originally being used 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.
There is a very old tradition and re-invention of individual intellectual freedom and freethought, in most philosophical and religious thought systems, against and despite the literalist interpretations and constraints. That tradition holds that everyone can find one's way, through personal effort, with help from friends and mentors. Its history extends from prehistoric shamans engaging on a personal journey to the superior world, to the Indo-Asian world, to the Mediterranean gnostic synthesis, to medieval Islam, to bright spots and trails of the Middle Ages, finally to the modern individuation from metaphysics through the scientific method of experimentation and falsification. In philosophical Buddhism, freethought was advocated by the Buddha, such as in the text 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."
The web of transmissions and reinventions of critical thought meanders from the Hellenistic Mediterranean, through repositories of knowledge and wisdom in Ireland and the Muslim civilizations (e.g. Khayyam and his unorthodox sufi Rubaiyat poems), in other civilisations as the Chinese (e.g. the sea-faring Southern Sòng's renaissance), and through heretical thinkers of esoteric alchemy or astrology, to the Renaissance and the protestant Reformation.
French physician and writer Rabelais, celebrated "rabelaisian" freedom and 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 his hero Pantagruel, journeys to the "Oracle of The Div(in)e Bottle", he learns the lesson of life in one simple word: "Trinch!", Drink!, Enjoy 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.
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 literal belief in the Bible. The beliefs of these individuals was centered around 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 when Denis Diderot, Jean le Rond d'Alembert and Voltaire included an article on Libre-Penseur in their Encyclopédie in 1765; the article was strongly atheistic. The European freethought concepts spread widely so that even places as remote as the Jotunheimen in Norway had well-known freethinkers such as Jo Gjende by the 19th century.
In Germany during the period (1815-1848) 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 the belief in the rights of man, tolerance among men, and humanism grew and by 1859 they established the Bund Freireligiöser Gemeinden Deutschlands. 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 as the first German organization for atheists. In Hamburg in 1882 the social-democratic Freidenker-Gesellschaft was formed.
The Free University of Brussels, also known as the Université Libre de Bruxelles / Vrije Universiteit Brussel (ULB / VUB), along with the two Circles of Free Inquiry (Dutch and French speaking) defend the freedom of critical thought, the rejection of the argument of authority, and lay philosophy and ethics.
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, against simplistic newtonian determinism.
Driven by revolutions of 1848 in the German states, the 19th century saw immigration of German freethinkers and atheists to the United States. They appear to be the first in the United States to refer to themselves as Freethinkers. Many of them settled in Texas, founding the town of Comfort, Texas, as well as others. Their settlements had no church buildings, and these newcomers were persecuted and sometimes killed for their opposition to the institution of slavery. In 1994, a few freethinkers founded the Church of Freethought, which now exists as two active congregations of freethinkers: the North Texas Church of Freethought and the Houston Church of Freethought.
German Freethinker settlements were located in –
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.
Canadian Freethought groups are essentially atheist, base their philosophy on freethought and humanist principles, and are increasingly popular. Examples of such freethought groups are the Society of Ontario Freethinkers and Toronto Secular Alliance.
- 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.
Regional Freethought organizations
- Freethinking Activist Nonbelieving New Yorkers - the Manhattan activist group
- Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia (FSGP)
- The Free Thought Society - Internet based writers' collective
- Freethought Association of West Michigan
- Society of Ontario Freethinkers
- The Houston Church of Freethought
- Individuals For Freethought (IFF) (Manhattan, KS)
- The North Texas Church of Freethought - has many Freethought articles and sermons
- Studiekring Vrij Onderzoek - Belgian Organization - has published a book in English, French and Dutch on the Bologna process
- Unie Vrijzinnige Verenigingen UVV (Union of Freethinking Organisations) - for the Flemish Community, Belgium
- Vrijdenkersverenging De Vrije Gedachte, The Netherlands
- The Union of Freethinkers of Finland (Vapaa-ajattelijain liitto)
- libertan project atheism, free-thinking, open-source
- BookTalk.org - the freethinker's book community
- A History of Freethought
-  - Freethought Forums... based in Lexington KY
- The Freethinker - Secular Humanist Monthly, since 1881
- The Freethinker - Online Magazine for Rational Freethinking Minds
- Albert Einstein: Becoming a Freethinker and a Scientist
- PunkerSlut Freethought
- The Freedom from Religion Foundation
- Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith
- FreeThoughtFilter Latest links to news articles of interest to free thinkers.
- TheInfidels.org Site and Forum
- Freethinkers - A History of American Secularism, a book on the subject
- The Infidel Guy - a popular radio show broadcast over the Internet.
- Freethought Radio, Internet Radio Station for Atheists and Agnostics, Freethinkers, Skeptics, Liberals, Transhumanists, Rationalists, Humanists, Naturalists, and Religious Historians.
- Free Inquiry, a magazine published by the Council for Secular Humanism, which addresses Freethought issues.
- Christians refuse to recognize heritage of Freethought in Texas
- Digital Freethought's Video series covering Atheism 101 on YouTube
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