From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"When we recall that Buckle, who was a free thinker in religious matters, still clung to the idea of immortality of the soul because he could not tolerate the thought of never meeting his dead mother." --The Erotic Motive in Literature (1919) by Albert Mordell
Freethought is a philosophical viewpoint that holds that beliefs should be formed on the basis of science and logical principles and not be comprised by authority, tradition, or any other dogma. The cognitive application of freethought is known as freethinking, and practitioners of freethought are known as freethinkers.
In Buddhism a type of freethought was advocated by Gautama Buddha, most notably in the Kalama Sutta. The web of transmissions and re-inventions 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), and in other civilizations, as the Chinese, (e.g. the seafaring Southern Sòng's renaissance), and on through heretical thinkers of esoteric alchemy or astrology, to the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation.
French physician and writer Rabelais celebrated "rabelaisian" freedom as well as 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 the hero of his book, Pantagruel, journeys to the "Oracle of The Div(in)e Bottle", he learns the lesson of life in one simple word: "Trinch!", Drink! Enjoy the 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.
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 of literal belief in the Bible. The beliefs of these individuals were centered on 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.
The Freethinker magazine was first published in Britain in 1881.
In France, the concept first appeared in publication in 1765 when Denis Diderot, Jean le Rond d'Alembert and Voltaire included an article on Libre-Penseur in their Encyclopédie; the article was strongly atheistic.
Rest of Europe
In Germany, during the period (1815-1848) and 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, belief in the rights of man, tolerance among men, and humanism grew, and by 1859 they had established the Bund Freireligiöser Gemeinden Deutschlands (Union of Secular Communities in Germany). 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 (German Freethinkers League) as the first German organization for atheists. In Hamburg in 1882 the social-democratic Freidenker-Gesellschaft was formed.
Freethinkers were persecuted alongside Jews and other minorities in Nazi Germany.
The Free University of Brussels (Université Libre de Bruxelles / Vrije Universiteit Brussel), along with the two Circles of Free Inquiry (Dutch and French speaking), defend the freedom of critical thought, lay philosophy and ethics, while rejecting the argument of authority.
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, and making an argument against the concept of simplistic newtonian determinism.
Driven by the revolutions of 1848 in the German states, the 19th century saw an immigration of German freethinkers and anti-clericalists to the United States (see Forty-Eighters). In the U.S., they hoped to be able to practice their beliefs, without interference from government and church authorities.
These groups of German Freethinkers referred to their organizations as Freie Gemeinden. Others followed in Pennsylvania, California, Washington, D.C., New York, Illinois, Wisconsin, Texas, and other states.
Freethinkers tended to be liberal, espousing ideals such as racial, social, and sexual equality, and the abolition of slavery.
Freethought in the United States began to decline in the late nineteenth century. Its anti-religious views alienated would-be sympathizers. The movement also lacked cohesive goals or beliefs. By the early twentieth century, most Freethought congregations had disbanded or joined other mainstream churches. The longest continuously operating Freethought congregation in America is the Free Congregation of Sauk County, Wisconsin, which was founded in 1852 and is still active today. It affiliated with the American Unitarian Association (now the Unitarian Universalist Association) in 1955.
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.
The Canadian Secular Alliance is an active community.