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This is part of a series

Jan 30, 2015

Freethought and Freedom: Introduction

Smith begins his series on the historical relationship between religious skepticism and libertarianism.

As many of my readers know, I have written three books on atheism—the best known being Atheism: The Case Against God (1974), which I wrote in my early twenties. My two subsequent books—Atheism, Ayn Rand, and Other Heresies (1991) and Why Atheism? (2000)—contain considerable material on the history of freethought, some of which I will also cover in this series. But my primary purpose in this series is not to defend any particular position on religion but rather to explore the relationship between freethought and ideas about freedom, especially those found in various strands of the libertarian tradition, such as radical whiggism, republicanism, and nineteenth-century classical liberalism.

I mention my books on atheism because I wish to acknowledge the personal bias that may crop up in this series. Although I shall not focus on religious controversies per se, it is necessary in many cases to explain the beliefs of freethinkers that frequently subjected them to legal persecution; and in doing this it will usually be apparent where my sympathies lie. I have long maintained that historians who write about an intellectual tradition, and who have strong personal beliefs about the controversies in that tradition, should inform readers upfront about their personal beliefs, so that readers may assess for themselves whether personal bias has influenced the objectivity of the historian. Most modern historians, unfortunately, decline to do this, apparently thinking that any such admission would reflect on them unfavorably. Modern historians will almost always present themselves as objective, but part of objectivity, in my judgment, is transparency about one’s own point of view. This is not to say that modern historians deliberately slant their accounts. This rarely happens (at least among better historians), but bias rarely exhibits itself overtly. Rather, it is in the tacit judgments of historians, as when they decide which material is worth discussing or which advocates of a given position are important enough to be discussed, that personal bias takes its toll. I therefore believe that historians (especially historians of ideas) should acknowledge their personal beliefs, and then strive for objectivity within that framework. This preliminary alert is a matter of common courtesy, at the very least, since it permits readers to assess for themselves whether or not a particular historical account has been skewed, however inadvertently, by the historian.

When I became active in the libertarian movement during the late 1960s, Ayn Rand was a dominant influence, so many libertarians identified themselves as atheists. The other major influence, Murray Rothbard, also called himself an atheist, though he was sympathetic to the Catholic tradition of scholasticism. As the movement grew, however, so did the mix of religious beliefs, and today Christian libertarians are quite common. I regard this as a positive development. Although early libertarian freethinkers were highly critical of Christianity, especially since many of them suffered imprisonment or worse from Christian governments, there has also been an important strain of Christian libertarianism since the seventeenth century. British nonconformists in particular—especially Congregationalists, Baptists, and Quakers—were among the most consistent advocates of libertarian principles. In British liberalism we see a strong coalition of nonbelievers and believers fighting for the same causes, such as free trade, private property, limited government, religious freedom, and freedom of speech and press. The classical liberals included Congregationalists (e.g., Edward Miall, editor of the Nonconformist; and Edward Baines, Jr., editor of the Leeds Mercury), Quakers (e.g., John Bright and Samuel Morley, a prominent figure in the anti-slavery movement), Baptists (e.g., Thomas Price, editor of The Eclectic Review), Anglicans (Richard Cobden; and Rev. Thomas Spencer, the uncle of Herbert Spencer), Unitarians (e.g., the minister Joseph Priestley), agnostics (e.g., Herbert Spencer and the historian John Morley), and atheists (e.g., the historian George Grote, a colleague of Jeremy Bentham, who was probably an atheist himself; and Charles Bradlaugh, the most infamous atheist of the Victorian era).

Although modern freethought organizations typically slant to the political left, this trend, generally speaking, did not begin until the late nineteenth century. Before then freethinkers were closely affiliated with libertarian ideas and causes, and this is the tradition that I will discuss in this series. Unfortunately, even many modern libertarians are unaware of important figures in this tradition. True, they may be familiar with the better known names, such as the deist Voltaire, the atheist Denis Diderot, and other luminaries of the French Enlightenment; but important British liberals, such as the deist John Toland and the atheist Richard Carlile, remain obscure and barely known, if known at all.

As the tide of socialism grew in Victorian England, a number of prominent freethinkers and atheists spoke out against it. We see this in debates that occurred within the freethought movement. For example, the atheist G.W. Foote, a classical liberal and editor of The Freethinker who was imprisoned for blasphemy, debated the socialist freethinker Annie Besant on the topic Is Socialism Sound? (1887)—a debate that consumed four evenings. Likewise, Charles Bradlaugh, editor of the freethought periodical The National Reformer and the most prominent atheist in late Victorian England, confronted Besant in Socialism: For and Against (1887); and he squared off against the prominent socialist Ernest Belfort Bax in Will Socialism Benefit the English People?(1887). Bradlaugh also published numerous critiques of socialism, such as Some Objections to Socialism (1884), which was presented as an installment of “The Atheistic Platform.” And we should keep in mind that many nineteenth-century freethinkers who defended “socialism” (most notably George Jacob Holyoake) were in fact referring to the voluntary socialism advocated by Robert Owen, whose advocacy of “co-operation” recommended that workers form their own profit-sharing economic communities. This type of voluntary socialism was far removed from the compulsory, state socialism of a later time.

I shall now give brief accounts of two key labels, namely, freethinking (or freethinker or freethought) and atheism. In later installments I will discuss other important terms, such as deism, agnosticism, and rationalism.


The terms freethinker and freethinking came into common use in early eighteenth-century England. Although some writers protested that these labels should not be confined to religious skepticism or to critics of Christianity, that is exactly what happened. The decisive text in this development was A Discourse of Free-Thinking, published in 1713 by Anthony Collins, a protégé and friend of John Locke. (Locke’s uneasy alliance with freethinkers, such as Anthony Collins and John Toland, is something I may discuss in a future essay in this series.) Although Collins professed belief in God and has traditionally been classified as a deist, David Berman (in A History of Atheism in Britain. 1988, pp. 70 ff.) has argued that Collins was actually a closet-atheist. This is not an implausible claim on its face, since many deists and other early freethinkers soft-pedaled their views in an effort to avoid the legal penalties and social stigma that any overt profession of atheism would bring in its wake. Because of these liabilities it is often necessary to read the works of early freethinkers (especially deists) between the lines, so to speak, as Berman did with Collins. Even so, I do not find Berman’s case fully persuasive, though I do think it likely that Collins’s religious views were more radical than he was willing to admit in print.

Freethinking, according to Collins, means “the use of the understanding in endeavoring to find out the meaning of any proposition whatsoever, in considering the nature of the evidence for and against it, and in judging of it according to the seeming evidence in its favor.” A contemporary critic of Collins, the renowned classical scholar Richard Bentley, ridiculed this notion of freethinking. No one, he said, would dispute it, so Collins was silly to parade freethinking as a mark of intellectual independence. No one can control our thoughts, after all.

Bentley’s criticism, which was echoed by other critics of freethought, missed the point. “Freethinking,” as Collins used the word, conveys moral implications that many theologians of his day found unacceptable. As Collins put it: “we have a right to know or may lawfully know any truth. And a right to know any truth whatsoever implies a right to think freely.” This assertion of a moral right to think freely, which followed Spinoza’s earlier call for “free philosophizing,” is highly significant. Collins obviously opposed any legal interference in religious beliefs and practices, but he meant more. He contrasted freethinking with the moral restraints imposed by religious creeds—tenets that are supposedly sinful to doubt or disbelieve.

If we shackle the reason of others through law, or if we shackle our own reason through moral prohibitions, then we “must run into the greatest absurdities imaginable both in principle and in practice.” To illustrate his point Collins drew a parallel between religious faith and “eye-sight faith.” Suppose a group of men decide that some great purpose requires everyone to believe alike in matters of sight, so they compose a list of articles to which everyone must assent. These articles of eye-sight faith state that “a ball can go through a table; that a knot can be undone with words; that one face may be a hundred or a thousand,” and so forth. No one is allowed publicly to contradict these beliefs; moreover, if a philosopher questions them, he will be told that the propositions of eye-sight faith are “above, but not contrary to, eye-sight.” Collins continued:

Instances will be given of ten-thousand mistakes in using our eyes. It will be esteemed dangerous trusting to carnal eye-sight, and be said that we ought to rely on the authority of those men who have pensions and salaries on purpose to study those things, and would not deserve what they receive should men use their own eye-sight. And as for those few men who should dare to use their own eyes, the least evil they could expect would be to be rendered odious to the multitude under the reproachful ideas of “skeptics,” “Latitudinarians,” “free-seers,” men tied by no authority.

Collins pointed out that our knowledge of astronomy, originally “rude and imperfect,” improved over time “by gradual progress in thinking.” This is the way of all knowledge, including religious knowledge. But opponents of freethinking proclaim some opinions to be literally “damnable”; so, rather than champion freethinking, they insist that everyone must hold the same opinions in matters of religion, if those opinions are deemed necessary for salvation.

In contrasting freethinking with beliefs based on authority, Collins struck a keynote that would recur throughout the history of freethought. And this theme, when applied to political doctrines, naturally and inevitably led to radical, anti-government ideas in political theory.


In 1623, the Friar Mersenne declared that there were 50,000 atheists in Paris alone. Yet just two years later, another Catholic theologian, Father Garasse, could count only five atheists in all of Europe (two Italians and three Frenchmen). How can we explain this discrepancy? Either thousands of atheists had suddenly converted within a two-year period, which is highly unlikely, or these Catholic observers had radically different things in mind when they used the term “atheist.”

The word “atheist” was traditionally used as a smear word—a “bugaboo epithet,” as the historian Preserved Smith once described it. To call someone an atheist was more often an accusation than a description, an invective hurled by orthodox Christians against any and all dissenters, including other Christians.      

Some theists have been called atheists for disbelieving in the god (or gods) of the orthodox majority. Early Christians, for example, were frequently accused of atheism by their pagan critics. “We are called atheists,” wrote Justin Martyr in the second century, “[a]nd we confess that we are atheists, so far as [the pagan gods] are concerned, but not with respect to the most true God.”Another Christian apologist, Athenagoras, dismissed as “exceedingly silly” the charge that Christians are atheists, because pagans disagree among themselves, some believing in gods that others do not. Hence if Christians qualify as atheists owing to their disbelief in the pagan gods, then everyone is an atheist of some sort, since those who believe in the god (or gods) of one religion will necessarily disbelieve in the god (or gods) of other religions.

Atheism was sometimes used to describe a doctrine that, if carried to its logical conclusion, would allegedly result in disbelief. Montaigne, one of the most intelligent and sophisticated Catholics of the sixteenth century, had this in mind when he condemned the teachings of Martin Luther as implicitly atheistic. Protestants had rejected the Catholic Church as an intermediate authority between God and man, arguing instead that individuals should search their own conscience for divine inspiration and understanding of the Bible. But this was a dangerous innovation, according to Montaigne, because the feeble and unreliable judgments of individuals will generate diverse and conflicting religious beliefs, and eventually terminate in atheism. The “novelties of Luther” were “shaking our old religion,” and this “new disease would soon degenerate into loathsome atheism.”

It was rare to find atheism mentioned in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries without being preceded with adjectives like “loathsome” and “wicked.” Montaigne was also following the custom of his day in referring to atheism as a “disease.” Equally common was to label atheists as “monsters” of one kind or another. Post-Reformation Christians, Catholics and Protestants alike, regaled their readers with dire accounts of how the disease of atheism was rapidly infecting many thousands of people, and how atheistic monsters were stalking the land, devouring all morality and decency that lay in their path. The Elizabethan writer Roger Ascham blamed the freethinking Italians for infecting many of his countrymen with atheism. These “Italianate Englishmen are incarnate devils…for they first lustfully condemn God, then scornfully mock his word, and also spitefully hate and hurt all the well wishers thereof….They count as fables the holy mysteries of religion.” Another Englishman of that era claimed to have found more atheists in Oxford and Cambridge alone than in all of the rest of Europe.

In 1645, the Presbyterian Thomas Edwards expressed alarm at a new breed of atheistic monsters who were “now common among us – as denying the Scriptures, pleading for a toleration of all religions and worships, yea, for blasphemy, and denying there is a God.” (The advocate of religious toleration was sure to find himself condemned as an atheist, for who else would dare call for the legalization of blasphemy, heresy, and other heinous sins?) In 1652, Walter Carleton, formerly a physician to the king, complained that England had produced and fostered “more swarms of atheistical monsters” than any other age or country. A decade later Bishop Stillingfleet noted an alarming but fashionable trend of atheism among educated Englishmen, who considered disbelief in Christianity to be a mark of wit and good judgment. Sir George Mackenzie—nicknamed Bloody Mackenzie for his zeal in persecuting heretics—was perplexed because “the greatest wits are most frequently the greatest atheists,” while in 1665 Joseph Glanville similarly noted that it is “now accounted a piece of wit and gallantry to be an atheist.” Matters had apparently become even worse by 1681, when Archdeacon Parker testified that “atheism and irreligion are now as common as vice and debauchery”—a warning that was seconded by Archbishop Tillotson, according to whom “atheism hath invaded our nation and prevailed to amazement.” 

From the late seventeenth century to the mid-eighteenth century dozens upon dozens of books and tracts were published in England that purported to refute atheism. But this “atheism scare” (as one historian has described it) should be taken with a grain of salt. Many of these attacks were aimed at various Christian heresies, most notably Socinianism (the precursor to modern Unitarianism), a more radical variant of the ancient heresy known as Arianism. Both Arianism and Socinianism were types of anti-trinitarianism, that is, both rejected the orthodox (Athanasian) doctrine of the Trinity and demoted Jesus to a status below God. Some prominent Christian intellectuals, such as John Locke and Isaac Newton, embraced Arianism (though both tried to keep their position under wraps), while some more radical Christian Socinians went so far as to deny the divine status of Jesus altogether—a position that could easily blend into deism. As orthodox Christians saw the matter, any version of anti-trinitarianism undercut Christianity at its roots, so defenders of this heresy were atheists for all practical purposes.

According to David Berman (A History of Atheism in Britain, pp. 110 ff.), “the first avowedly atheistic book” by an English writer was not published until 1782. Titled Answer to Dr. Priestley’s letters to a philosophical unbeliever, most of this pseudonymous work was probably written by Dr. Matthew Turner, a libertarian physician and chemist from Liverpool. Until this time most English freethinkers embraced some version of deism (or, to a lesser extent, pantheism). As we shall see in subsequent essays, the deistic movement, more than any other current of freethought, was deeply enmeshed in the early history of libertarianism. 

This is part of a series