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A freethinker is one who maintains that the basis for all beliefs should be science, logic, and reason, rather than faith, authority, dogma, or tradition. Freethinkers are defenders of separation of church and state. Freethinkers are opposed by religious ultra-fundamentalists, who believe there should be no secular government and all government should be based on divine revelations.
The term has not always had such a positive connotation. In Europe in the seventeenth century, for example, the term was used as a synonym for a variety of non-Christians. In my research on Bishop Edward Stillingfleet (1635-1699), I came across the term many times and it was always used pejoratively. Usually, it clearly meant someone who rejected the divine origin of the Bible, but it was also often used to describe those who rejected traditional Christian beliefs such as the Trinity (the belief that their god is three persons in one being) or the Incarnation (the belief that Jesus was both a man and a god). The term was also used to describe atheists like Thomas Hobbes and Baruch Spinoza. It was also used, along with terms like "Socinian" to mean Deist or Unitarian. John Toland (Christianity Not Mysterious, 1696) is typical of the kind of thinker whose work would have been labeled by his opponents as the work of a freethinker. Anthony Collins' A Discourse of Freethinking, occasioned by the Rise and Growth of a Sect called Freethinkers (1713) is, as far as I know, the first defense of freethinking and use of the term to describe it as a desirable trait.
Historically, many freethinkers were Deists or agnostics, not atheists, but like many atheists were opposed to the authoritarian, dogmatic, and often irrational beliefs and practices of organized religions.
The United States has seen conflict between freethinkers and dogmatic Christians from the country's inception (see Jacoby 2004). The common thread of freethinking in this country has been the insistence on reason rather than scripture as the basis for beliefs and actions. Ethan Allen's Reason the Only Oracle of Man (1794) and Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason (1804) are good early examples. Others to whom freethinker applies are Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Ingersoll, William Lloyd Garrison, Elizabeth Cady Stanton (and her Woman's Bible), Ernestine Rose, and Clarence Darrow.
It has most often been the freethinkers, not the Christian fundamentalists, who have fought for such things as abolition of slavery, woman's suffrage, and civil liberties. In one of the many ironies of American history, it has been the freethinkers, too, who have fought the hardest for religious liberty. In the forefront of that fight one of the prominent leaders has been the American Civil Liberties Union, a group universally hated by religious fundamentalists, conservatives, and other slaves to tradition and irrational faith who desire to impose their beliefs on the rest of society.
books and articles
Clifford, W. K. 1879. The Ethics of Belief (online). "It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence."
Arkansas sued for rejecting group’s display at Capitol A group hoping to counter a nativity scene at the Arkansas Capitol during the holidays sued the state Thursday for rejecting its proposal for a nonreligious winter solstice display.
The Arkansas Society of Freethinkers sued Secretary of State Charlie Daniels in federal court, accusing him of violating the group’s constitutional rights in not allowing its display.
Freethinkers sue secretary of state The ACLU, on behalf of the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers, is suing Secretary of State Charlie Daniels because his office has again denied the society's request to erect a temporary winter solstice display on the Capitol grounds.
The federal lawsuit contends the society met rules for Capitol displays, but was denied on account of the "tone." Later, the office said it wouldn't be consistent with other decorations. The only temporary display on the grounds currently is a crèche, once part of the official Capitol Christmas decorations, but now the work of a nonprofit group set up to separate the religious display from state control. The secretary of state also decorates the Capitol inside and out for Christmas season.