The Meaning and Value of Freethought
by Chapman Cohen
I will commence with a definition. Freethought may be defined as the rejection of authority in matters of opinion. It sets the persuasion of fact against the coercion of force. A Freethinker is one who forms his own opinions on the facts as he sees them. Right or wrong, his opinions are his own. He is a voice, not an echo.
Historically, freethought has become identified with the rejection of religious doctrines. This is because it is from the side of religion that the impulse to intolerance has come. Human society is born in the shadow of religious fear, and in that stage the suppression of heresy is a sacred social duty. Then comes the rise of a priesthood, and the independent thinker is met with punishment in this world and the threat of eternal damnation hereafter. Even to-day it is from the religious side that the greatest danger to freedom of thought comes. Religion is the last thing man will civilise.
Considerable progress was made in the old Greek and Roman civilisations in the way of establishing freedom of thought. Neither had anything in the shape of a sacred book warning men not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge, and, in Greece particularly, every question of religion, ethics, science and philosophy was discussed with the freedom that Europe subsequently lost and has never altogether regained. Indeed if it were possible to revive an Athenian of, say, the time of Socrates and place him in the centre of Europe at any date from the 5th to the 16th century, and if he had seen the prison, the stake and the torture chamber being used to prevent criticisms of religion, he would have thought that the world had been overtaken with an epidemic of insanity.
The intellectual freedom of Europe died with the establishment of the Christian Church. Bible in hand, the Church met every new idea with a "Thus saith the Lord." On the ruins of the ancient civilisation, she placed the flag on an interested dogmatism, and opened one of the most hideous chapters in the history of mankind. Enquiry was forbidden, freedom of speech was taboo, a premium was offered for cowardice and hypocrisy, a tax was placed upon intellectual sincerity. Intolerance became a virtue and persecution a habit.
Nothing more demoralising has ever existed. Where religious heresy was concerned, no man could feel himself safe. In the name of religions, a man was taught to denounce his neighbour, a wife her husband, a child its parent. The Church went further, and made man a policeman over himself, until men feared to think, lest they should be led to doubt. The thinker was everywhere suspect. The credulous fool was held up as the model of religious perfection. It was the vilest system the world has ever known.
In prohibiting the free play of ideas the Church struck at the foundation of progress. Throughout the whole of animate nature variation is one of the conditions of development. The opposite process is elimination, by which unfavorable or undesirable variations are weeded out. The Church adopted the latter policy. Every variation against its teaching was crushed. It imposed conformity on all with the result of achieving stagnation -- and worse. A sheep-like attitude was inculcated, and where men are trained like sheep they share the fate of sheep -- they are sheared and eaten.
Had a bench of Bishops existed amongst our simian ancestors, the human race would never have arisen. The first variations toward a more human type would have been crushed as a blasphemous innovation.
In the history of every institution where is a time when it has to face the challenge of new knowledge. The man who makes this challenge is an asset of great social value. He compels us to something like a mental stocktaking, to get rid of unusable goods and to restock on better lines. The greatest need of to-day is to create an environment that is completely hospitable to new ideas.
The vote spreads political power over a wide area but carries no guarantee of its right use. All can read, but reading without the critical habit is of but small value. The Press flashes its lightning, and the mass of the public are without a conductor that will protect them from its dangers. There never was a time when there was greater need for independent thinking than there is to-day. Unfortunately, fifteen centuries of Christian rule have made intolerance of unorthodox opinions fatally common.
In Christian mythology, it is noted that man's primal sin was an act of disobedience. He ate of the Tree of Knowledge, and the Gods cannot forgive that offense; yet knowledge is the greatest need of mankind. It is that which has raised him from savagery to civilisation. It is that which makes him more than the equal of the Gods. It lifts him above them. But you cannot acquire sound knowledge without the courage to examine, modify and reject what is already established. This is a painful and troublesome process; but the pain is that of a new birth, the trouble that if clearing away things that have outlived their utility.
Freethought, then, claims the fullest possible freedom of thought, speech, publication and action. It asks for these, not as luxuries, but as necessities; it asks not for their toleration, but for their encouragement. They must be the unquestioned and inalienable rights in a society where men and women can exist with dignity and self-respect.