A Good Day to Tell the Kid about Freethought

A Good Day to Tell the Kid about Freethought October 12, 2015

Freethought: (n) Thought unrestrained by deference to authority, tradition, or established belief, especially in matters of religion.

As you guys know already, I’m a big advocate for religious literacy — and, specifically, for using religious holidays to provide structure for such talks.

But I also believe in secular literacy. Kids need to know about alternatives to religious philosophy and concepts and ideals. They need to know that atheism and agnosticisms are two increasingly popular schools of thought, and that understanding them is as much a part of  building tolerance as religious literacy.

Unfortunately, we don’t have all that many holidays to help guide us through these latter discussions, so we have to maximize them when they do come around.

And today one did.

Happy Freethought Day!

A judge checks a girl for marks that would identify her as a witch in this painting by Thompkins H. Matteson
A judge checks a girl for marks that would identify her as a witch in this painting by Thompkins H. Matteson

It is strange to think that a day celebrating freethought would get its start amid one of the most irrational periods in American history, but that’s just what happened. It was 323 years ago that Massachusetts Gov.  William Phips commenced the now infamous Salem witch trials, which culminated in the deaths of 24 people during a four-month period, most of them on the gallows.

Calling these things “trials,” though, is really pretty misleading. The standard of evidence was so far from fair, balanced, rational or logical — the way we think of the American judicial system today. On the contrary, these trials allowed what’s called “spectral evidence,” which meant that accusers (also known as lying liars) were allowed to testify that a person’s spirit or “spectral shape” appeared to him or her in a dream while the accused person’s physical body was at another location.

Yeah, it was Crazy Mc-Cray-Cray up in there.

Anyway, in October 1692 — the 12th, to be exact! — Phips finally wrote a letter to the Privy Council of the British monarchs acknowledging that the witch trials had become a fucking mess. (He probably didn’t use the f word.) A lot of people speculate that the accusers were broadening their targets to include members of well-known families, which would have led to political pressure to end the trials. Regardless, from that day forward, spectral evidence was discredited, and Phips issued pardons for those convicted on such grounds — which was everyone, of course. Later, spectral evidence was banned in the courts altogether.

As Tim Gorski, pastor of the North Texas Church of Freethought (what a cool church!) said in a 2008 church bulletin that this wasn’t exactly a victory for freethought. In fact, most people at the time, including Phips, continued to believe in demons and devil work and witchcraft. This was simply an inevitable end to a truly and increasingly chaotic situation. As Gorski tells it, Phips and his community of preacher men ended the idiocy only “because they had to.”

Here’s a wonderful passage by Gorksi:

Winston Churchill once remarked that ‘What the wise do in the beginning, fools do in the end.’ Churchill also said that ‘You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else!’

For, you see, eventually, at some point, and to some degree, people simply have to act rationally. You have to open doors before walking through doorways. You have to turn the key in your ignition before you drive home today. No amount of faith and prayer can allow anyone to do otherwise. And despite all the rhetorical flourishes of the superstitious believers, that’s the way it’s always been and always will be. Indeed, this truth is becoming more and more important every day.

It’s also the essence of the role of the law: to hold people to a standard of dealing with one another that’s based on reason. That’s the basis of every shall and shalt not that there is, not some divine command of ‘do it or else.’

Still, history has given freethought some credit for ending this dark era in our history. And so today, we celebrate it. In fact, not only is today Freethought Day, but this whole week is Freethought Week, and this month is Freethought Month.

Now, I don’t know about you, but freethought is a word my daughter doesn’t know yet. Today, when I pick her up from school, I plan to fix that.

First I’ll offer her the above definition, making sure she knows the meaning of “authority” (a person in a position to give orders or make decisions — parents, teachers, police, the president, etc.), “tradition” (a behavior passed on from one generation to the next — saying “thank you,” for example), and “established belief” (a common opinion that people have.)

I will explain that freethought is a word most often used in relation to religion. Many people make decisions based, in part, on religious authority, religious tradition or established religious belief. And that there are times when that can become a problem — for example, the Salem witch trials.

“But,” I’ll say, “freethought isn’t just about religion or religious beliefs. It’s about life in general. Everyone struggle sometimes to stay true to themselves. Life is always throwing a lot of stuff at you. But it’s really important to me that you try always to think for yourself and come to your own independent conclusions and decisions. Sometimes those decisions won’t be good ones — sometimes they’ll be downright terrible and you might regret making them — but at least they’ll be yours.”

Has anyone else had experience talking to their kids about freethought? If so, what have you said? If not, what you waiting for?

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