Criticism of religion as the first pillar of freethought

Excerpt from The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism, by Paul Cliteur (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). Reprinted with permission from the author.

From Chapter 2: Freethought I: Criticism of Religion

Test everything; hold fast to what is good. (1 Thessalonians 5:21)

It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. (W.K. Clifford, 1877)[1]

In Chapter 1 I was mainly concerned with atheism as an element of the secular outlook. But there is a second position that we immediately think of as being associated with secularist ideas. That is the tradition of freethought. In Chapter 1 I presented atheism as a private matter. Freethought, in contrast, has an important public function to fulfill. In Chapters 2 and 3 I will be concerned with freethought and the significance of that tradition for our contemporary world.

The English word “freethinker” turns up for the first time in Kehl’s edition of Voltaire’s Traité sur la tolérance (1763).[2] The idea was to become more common, however, in the nineteenth century. In an anthology of the Classics of Free Thought (1977) by the philosopher Paul Blanshard (1892-1980),[3] freethinkers are described as follows: “Isolated iconoclasts aim[ing] their verbal weapons at the primary enemy, organized religion.”[4] So freethought aims to criticize religion. Although this is an important element of freethought, and perhaps the element that freethinkers are most notoriously associated with, we should never forget the reason for their critical attitude towards organized religion. This reason was presented by the twentieth-century freethinker Chapman Cohen (1868-1954). Freethought is first of all free thought, he told us, that is, the free development of thought. And, because thought and the expression of thoughts are intimately connected, the tradition of freethought is also the movement favoring freedom of speech. Cohen spelled out his motivations for this: “Speech is, in fact, one of the great factors in human progress. It is that which enables one generation to hand on to another the discoveries made, the inventions produced, the thoughts achieved, and so gives a degree of fixity to the progress attained.”[5]

So freethought is intimately connected with critique of religion (Blanshard) and with free speech (Cohen). How do these two ideas come together? Cohen provided the answer to this question: “Freethought is that form of thinking that proceeds along lines of its own determining, rather than along lines that are laid down by authority.”[6] And because that authority was often claimed by religious institutions, freethought was also directed at precisely this pretension: “merely as a matter of history, the first active manifestation of Freethought should have occurred in connection with a revolt against religious teaching and authority.”[7]

The intricate relationship between criticism of religion on the one hand and the principle of free speech on the other is also emphasized by Joseph Martin McCabe (1867-1955), a freethinker already introduced in Chapter 1.[8] In his book The Existence of God (1933) McCabe presents at the outset “a historical truth that no religious writer ever notices.” What is that truth? “It is that during the last four thousand years disbelief in God or gods has spread always in exact proportion to the growth of knowledge and of freedom to express one’s belief.”[9]

These two elements (critique of religion and predilection for free speech) adequately sum up the movement for freethought. Nevertheless, many of the definitions of freethought are loaded with ideals and convictions that go much further than my own minimalist account. Freethought is also frequently connected with belief in progress. Blanshard is a case in point. In his anthology of writings derived from the tradition of freethought he assures us that the “pulpit is losing its once-magic power. Science and philosophic realism have replaced Christian orthodoxy as the standard guides of moral behavior.”[10] Here freethought comes close to an outspoken confidence that the world will increasingly be directed by science and rationality. Apparently, Blanshard subscribed to the secularization thesis. This kind of optimism is also voiced in his contention that “although ours is not yet a secular state – let no professed atheist try for public office! – it is rapidly becoming a true exemplar of religious freedom.”[11]

Although it should be acknowledged that in the work of individual freethinkers we encounter a broader range of convictions than the necessity of free speech and religious criticism, I nevertheless think that these elements are the core of the tradition. With regard to freethought we have to follow the same semantic strategy as in the case of atheism and free the concept from unfruitful associations. Belief in progress is one of these. I do not think contemporary freethinkers would exhibit the same kind of optimism as Blanshard with regard to secularization.

Every book on freethought seems to bear the marks of the time in which it was written. Susan Jacoby’s (1954- ) book Freethinkers (2004) was published during the Bush administration and voiced concern precisely about the increasing influence of religious groups on public policy.[12] The situation in the year 1921 (Cohen) was different from that in 1977 (Blanshard), which was different again from the situation in 2004 (Jacoby). Nevertheless there is a common core, and I will concentrate on this commonality. One can stick to the ideals of freethought without the sanguine confidence that those ideals will materialize within the foreseeable future.

In The Secular Outlook I will be concerned with freethought as defined by the two ideals formulated by Blanshard and Cohen, that is: first, the legitimacy and even necessity of critique of religion and, second, an affirmation of the importance of freedom of thought and speech, independent of all political and ecclesiastical authority. We could call these the “two pillars of freethought.”

Arguably, freethought comes close to the Victorian idea of agnosticism as developed by T.H. Huxley, W.K. Clifford, and Leslie Stephen. This is what I would like to call “robust agnosticism,” stipulating that we should always be critical and not accept anything on grounds of authority. Applied to religion it leads to a critical attitude towards religious creeds.

But this original “Victorian agnosticism” (Huxley, Clifford, and Stephen) soon degenerated into another type of agnosticism (even in Victorian times). If our reason is limited and cannot prove the existence of God then surely reason cannot disprove the existence of God either. This opened up new possibilities for the religionists. It opened the option of “maybe.” Maybe there is an afterlife. Who can say? The rationalist surely cannot disprove such a possibility. Unfortunately, the “maybe” variety of agnosticism proved to be more popular than the stern creed of Huxley and Clifford. The concept of “agnosticism” quickly acquired a totally different meaning. The agnostic party became the party of those who flirted with the transcendent dimension of existence without feeling obliged to present substantive reasons for it. Here we will concentrate on classical agnosticism, Victorian agnosticism, “robust” agnosticism, or on freethought as outlined above.

An advantage of this minimalist concept of freethought is that its contemporary significance clearly comes to the fore. It is on this contemporary importance of freethought that I will focus in Chapters 2 and 3 of The Secular Outlook.

Let us first dwell a little longer on the first pillar of freethought: the critique of religion. The first thing we have to explain is in what sense the critical position of freethought differs from atheism. This may be illustrated with references to two of the most important icons of the secular outlook.

“Écrasez l’Infâme”

First, Voltaire. For many people Voltaire is the archetype of the mocking atheist, as can be clearly read from William Blake’s (1757-1827) famous lines.

Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau;
Mock on, mock on, ’Tis all in vain.
You throw the sand against the wind.
And the wind blows it back again.[13]

Mocking he was, but atheism was something Voltaire rejected. Voltaire’s reputation for being a religious radical is undeserved. It would be better to say that he was vehemently anticlerical. That is to say, he subjected organized religion to rigorous analysis and criticism. He did not accept the Church as the one and only interpreter of religion, as was the norm in Catholic circles. And he expected religion to be purified as a result of analysis and criticism.[14] In particular, he opposed the organized religion of the Catholic Church and other – in his eyes – intolerant institutions. But, as indicated before, he was neither opposed to religion in general nor to theism in particular. He even dubbed his own position “theist.”[15] He proclaimed that we should favor the idea of an almighty, vengeful god to deter villains from breaking the law and tyrants from exploiting their citizens. Abolish the idea of such a god, and chaos and disorder would ensue. If God did not exist we should have to invent him.[16] So Voltaire was a freethinker without being an atheist.[17]

The Baron d’Holbach on the other hand, was quite a different character. Although sharing Voltaire’s predilection for religious criticism, d’Holbach was an atheist tout court.[18] D’Holbach’s attitude can best be summarized by saying that if God did exist, we should have to abolish him. This was also the attitude of the Russian anarchist Michael Bakunin (1814-1876).[19]

I do not want to elaborate on these differences between important thinkers from the secular tradition but expand on what they have in common: their critical stance towards the dark sides of religion. They are freethinkers in the sense that they are critics of religion, although with a different emphasis and motivation.

But, as I indicated before, freethinkers not only have a critical attitude towards religion in common. Their stance is also identified by a certain attitude towards free speech. What characterizes the freethinker is the fact that he combines his critical stance towards religion with high expectations about freedom of speech. The British agnostic and freethinker[20] Leslie Stephen (1832-1904) wrote: “I hold the pleasant old doctrine that truth has a tendency to prevail.”[21] For many Victorians this doctrine was blended with an evolutionist philosophy. Stephen again: “I believe that we may discern in the past history of mankind a slow approximation toward truth.”[22]

From these quotes by Blanshard, Leslie Stephen and others it is clear how we can easily slide from a predilection for free speech into a belief in progress. Stephen speaks of a “slow approximation toward truth,” but it is clear that from here we can easily move forward to a more substantial conviction of an inexorable march of reason through the world. Contemporary freethought would doubtless be better advised to refrain from such evolutionist, Spencerian, Hegelian, or Comtian approaches. Perhaps we may put it in the following way. Freedom of thought does not give us the guarantee of progress,[23] but the absence of such freedom is surely a harbinger of stagnation.

According to freethinkers, religion has to be publicly criticized, because only if religion is subjected to rigorous criticism can it be purified of some unfortunate elements and tendencies inherent in it. Does that imply that a freethinker is necessarily convinced that religion should be eradicated root and branch? I do not think so. There are many praiseworthy exhortations in Holy Scripture that a freethinker might defend. Take this famous passage from the New Testament: “Test everything; hold fast to what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). This is a beautiful quote. It is taken from the Bible. It may even be considered the essence of freethought. So not everything in the Bible is necessarily antiquated and to be rejected by modern thinkers. Here, in a nutshell, we find what has been called “the scientific outlook.”[24] There is a kind of optimism inherent in such an attitude: by testing we can make progress. We have to be careful of a “revolution of rising expectations,” but surely humanity can emancipate itself from some illusions and “poisonous opinions”[25] by critical discussion. The attitude of the freethinker was also aptly summarized by T.H. Huxley in the words:

That it is wrong for a man to say that he is certain of the objective truth of any proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty.[26]

The best-known formulation of the same idea was presented by W.K. Clifford in the famous sentence that is the motto of this chapter:

It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.[27]

But reading Clifford (a real joy, because, as W.R. Sorley rightly remarks, “there was insight as well as courage in all he wrote, and it was conveyed in a brilliant style”)[28] makes us also aware that no ideology, no book, no religion, no cultural practice may be exempt from criticism. That implies that, on the basis of “Test everything; hold fast to what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21), the Bible itself also has to be “tested.” Some passages are good, some are bad. The testing that 1 Thessalonians 5:21 encourages us to do has also implications for Holy Scripture itself.

How can Holy Scripture be considered “holy” if it has to stand trial like everything else? That depends on the meaning we give to the term “holy.” If “holy” means “elevated above all criticism,” no book can claim “holy” status.

That also applies to ideologies, cultural practices, religions. As Grayling says: “Everyone is free to believe what they want, providing they do not bother (or coerce, or kill) others; but no one is entitled to claim privileges merely on the grounds that they are votaries of one or another of the world’s many religions.”[29]

This is also in harmony with the principles of the secular state (laïcité). All our ideas, our political and religious convictions, must be debated and tested in order to judge whether they can withstand criticism or have to be abandoned for others. This attitude is also to be found (with different shades of emphasis) in the work of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804),[30] John Stuart Mill (1806-1873),[31] and, among contemporary thinkers, Karl Popper (1902-1994).[32] A freethinker is, in other words, an advocate of critical discussion’ and of freedom of thought and inquiry, freedom of conscience, and freedom of speech. As I indicated before, the freethinker is the Victorian agnostic.

The question is, is this merely stuffy old material from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries or does it have some relevance for our contemporary predicament? What is the meaning of freethought today?

Excerpted from The Secular Outlook by Paul Cliteur. Copyright © Paul Cliteur, 2010. All rights reserved.


[1] Clifford, W.K., “The Ethics of Belief,” 1877, in: W.K. Clifford, The Ethics of Belief and Other Essays, Introduction by Timothy J. Madigan, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY 1999, pp. 70-96, p. 70, p. 77. See on Clifford: Madigan, Timothy J., W.K. Clifford and “The Ethics of Belief,” Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Cambridge 2009.

[2] See Lalouette, Jacqueline, La libre pensée en France 1848-1940 [Freethought in France 1848-1940], Albin Michel, Paris 2001 (1997), p. 15.

[3] Not to be confused with his twin brother Brand Blanshard (1892-1987).

[4] Blanshard, Paul, “The Capricious Cannonade,” in: Paul Blanshard, ed., Classics of Free Thought, Prometheus, Buffalo, NY 1977, pp. ix-xi, p. ix.

[5] Cohen, Chapman, A Grammar of Freethought, The Pioneer Press, London 1921, p. 35.

[6] Ibid., p. 40.

[7] Ibid., p. 42.

[8] See on McCabe: Cooke, Bill, A Rebel to his Last Breath: Joseph McCabe and Rationalism, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY 2001.

[9] McCabe, The Existence of God, p. 4.

[10] Blanshard, “The Capricious Cannonade,” p. x.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Jacoby, Susan, Freethinkers. A History of American Secularism, Henry Holt and Company, New York 2004.

[13] Quoted in: Williams, David Allen, A Celebration of Humanism and Freethought, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY 1995, p. 215.

[14] This appears clearly from: Voltaire, Examen important de Milord Bolingbroke ou le tombeau du fanatisme [An Important Examination of Lord Bolingbroke or the Tomb of Fanaticism], (1736), in: Voltaire, Mélanges [Miscellaneous Writings], Texte établi et annoté par Jacques van den Heuvel, Gallimard, Paris 1961, pp. 1001-1099.

[15] Voltaire, “Théiste” [Theist], in: Dictionnaire Philosophique [Philosophical Dictionary], avec introduction, variantes et notes par Julien Benda, texte établi par Raymond Naves, Éditions Garnier Frères, Paris n.d. (1764), pp. 399-400.

[16] This quote is to be found in: Voltaire, Epître à l’auteur du livre des Trois Imposteurs [Epistle to the Author of the Book of the Three Impostors], in: Oeuvres complètes de Voltaire, ed. Louis Moland, Garnier, Paris 1877-1885, tome 10, pp. 402-405.

[17] Although perhaps there will always remain an element of doubt because Voltaire, like Hume, does not seem inclined to put all his cards on the table. See: Arnold, Ages, “Voltaire and the Problem of Atheism: the Testimony of the Correspondence,” in: Neophilologus, 68 1984, pp. 504-512.

[18] D’Holbach Paul Henri Dietrich Baron, Histoire critique de Jésus-Christ [Critical History of Jesus Christ], in: D’Holbach, Premières oeuvres [Early Works], Préface et notes Paulette Charbonnel, Les Classiques du Peuple, Éditions Sociales, Paris 1971, pp. 176-198, p. 179.

[19] Bakunin turned Voltaire’s words upside down in the motto of his book on religion and the state: “If God really existed it would be necessary to abolish him.” See: Bakunin, Michael, God and the State, 1916, ed. Paul Avrich, Dover Publications, New York 1970, p. 3 and 17.

[20] See in particular: Stephen, Leslie, Essays on Freethinking and Plainspeaking, Longmans, Green, London 1879 (republished 1969).

[21] Stephen, Leslie, “The Religion of All Sensible Men,” in: Leslie Stephen, An Agnostic’s Apology and Other Essays, Smith, Elder & Co., London 1893 (republished 1969), pp. 338-380, p. 343.

[22] Stephen, “The Religion of All Sensible Men,” p. 343.

[23] Bury, J.B., The Idea of Progress. An Inquiry into its Origin and Growth, Macmillan, London 1920.

[24] Russell, Bertrand, The Scientific Outlook, Routledge, London 2001 (1931).

[25] Stephen, Leslie, “Poisonous opinions,” in: Leslie Stephen, An Agnostic’s Apology and Other Essays, Smith, Elder & Co., London 1898 (republished 1969), pp. 242-383.

[26] Huxley, Thomas Henry, “Agnosticism and Christianity,” in: Thomas Henry Huxley, Agnosticism and Christianity and Other Essays, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY 1992, pp. 193-232, p. 193.

[27] Clifford, W.K., “The Ethics of Belief,” 1877, in: W.K. Clifford, The Ethics of Belief and Other Essays, Introduction by Timothy J. Madigan, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY 1999, pp. 70-96, p. 70, p. 77.

[28] Sorley, W.R., A History of British Philosophy to 1900, Cambridge University Press, London 1965 (1920), p. 145, p. 276.

[29] Grayling, Against all Gods, p. 16.

[30] In particular: Kant, Immanuel, An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? 1784 see http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/ethics/kant/enlightenment.htm.

[31] Mill, John Stuart, On Liberty, 1859, With the Subjection of Women and Chapters on Socialism, ed. Stefan Collini, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1989.

[32] Popper, K.R., “Immanuel Kant. Der Philosoph der Aufklärung” [Immanuel Kant. The Philosopher of the Enlightenment], in: Joachim Kopper und Rudolf Malter, eds., Immanuel Kant zu ehren [In Honor of Immanuel Kant], Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1974, pp. 335-347; Popper, Karl R., “Science: Conjecture and Refutations,” A lecture given at Peterhouse, Cambridge, in Summer 1953, in: Conjectures and Refutations, Harper Torchbooks, Harper & Row, New York 1968 (1962).

Paul Cliteur is professor of Jurisprudence at Leiden University, the Netherlands. He was also professor of Philosophy at the Delft University, the Netherlands (1995-2002), and visiting professor of Philosophical Anthropology, Ghent University, Belgium (2014). Prof. Cliteur’s research is in the field of ethics, the philosophical foundations of the law, more in particular moral dilemmas around multicultural society, fundamental rights and the relationship between law and worldviews. He is the author of The Secular Outlook (Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, 2010).

The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism
By Paul Cliteur
Wiley-Blackwell; 1 edition (13 August 2010)
ISBN-10: 1444335219
ISBN-13: 978-1444335217
£20.69

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