Freethought is an epistemological viewpoint which holds that beliefs should not be formed on the basis of authority, tradition, revelation, or dogma, and should instead be reached by logic, reason, and empirical observation. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a freethinker is “a person who forms their own ideas and opinions rather than accepting those of other people, especially in religious teaching.” The cognitive application of free thought is known as “freethinking”, and practitioners of free thought are known as “freethinkers”. Modern freethinkers consider free thought to be a natural freedom from all negative and illusive thoughts acquired from the society.[i]
In his essay “The Ethics of Belief,” 19th-century British mathematician and philosopher William Kingdon Clifford stated that: “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” Regarding religious beliefs, freethinkers typically hold that there is insufficient evidence to support the existence of supernatural phenomena, especially gods and their alleged miracles.
A prominent freethinker of the 19th century, Robert Ingersoll, wrote many essays and lectures on this subject, claiming that religious belief was a prison for free thought. “A believer is a bird in a cage, a free-thinker is an eagle parting the clouds with tireless wing.”
Here are some excerpts from one of Ingersoll’s lectures titled “Individuality:”[ii]
Religion does not, and cannot, contemplate man as free. She accepts only the homage of the prostrate, and scorns the offerings of those who stand erect. She cannot tolerate the liberty of thought. The wide and sunny fields belong not to her domain. The star-lit heights of genius and individuality are above and beyond her appreciation and power. Her subjects cringe at her feet, covered with the dust of obedience.
Luther denounced mental liberty with all the coarse and brutal vigor of his nature; Calvin despised, from the very bottom of his petrified heart, anything that even looked like religious toleration, and solemnly declared that to advocate it was to crucify Christ afresh. All the founders of all the orthodox churches have advocated the same infamous tenet. The truth is that what is called religion is necessarily inconsistent with free thought.
In short, Christianity has always opposed every forward movement of the human race. Across the highway of progress it has always been building breastworks of bibles, tracts, commentaries, prayer-books, creeds, dogmas and platforms, and at every advance, the Christians have gathered together behind these heaps of rubbish and shot the poisoned arrows of malice at the soldiers of freedom.
At present, owing to the inroads that have been made by liberals and infidels, most of the churches pretend to be in favor of religious liberty. Of these churches, we will ask this question: How can a man, who conscientiously believes in religious liberty, worship a God who does not?
There can be nothing more utterly subversive of all that is really valuable than the suppression of honest thought. No man, worthy of the form he bears, will at the command of Church or State solemnly repeat a creed his reason scorns. It is the duty of each and every one to maintain his individuality. “This, above all, to thine ownself be true, and it must follow as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” It is a magnificent thing to be the sole proprietor of yourself. It is a terrible thing to wake up at night and say, “There is nobody in this bed.” It is humiliating to know that your ideas are all borrowed; that you are indebted to your memory for your principles; that your religion is simply one of your habits, and that you would have convictions if they were only contagious. It is mortifying to feel that you belong to a mental mob and cry “crucify him,” because the others do; that you reap what the great and brave have sown, and that you can benefit the world only by leaving it.
Surely every human being ought to attain to the dignity of the unit. Surely it is worth something to be one, and to feel that the census of the universe would be incomplete without counting you. Surely there is grandeur in knowing that in the realm of thought, at least, you are without a chain; that you have the right to explore all heights and all depths; that there are no walls nor fences, nor prohibited places, nor sacred corners in all the vast expanse of thought; that your intellect owes no allegiance to any being, human or divine; that you hold all in fee and upon no condition and by no tenure whatever; that in the world of mind you are relieved from all personal dictation, and from the ignorant tyranny of majorities. Surely it is worth something to feel that there are no priests, no popes, no parties, no governments, no kings, no gods, to whom your intellect can be compelled to pay a reluctant homage. Surely it is a joy to know that all the cruel ingenuity of bigotry can devise no prison, no dungeon, no cell in which for one instant to confine a thought; that ideas cannot be dislocated by racks, nor crushed in iron boots, nor burned with fire. Surely it is sublime to think that the brain is a castle, and that within its curious bastions and winding halls the soul, in spite of all worlds and all beings, is the supreme sovereign of itself.
The style of the 19th century oration above probably sounds a bit overwrought to you. But the thoughts Ingersoll conveyed are as pertinent today as they were when he uttered them a hundred and fifty years ago.