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Ask Rob 1 – Non-Holy Writ, or Secular Lit: Lighting the Fire of Freethought


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Canadian Atheist

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2019/04/18

Rob Boston is the Editor of Church & State (Americans United for Separation of Church and State). Here we talk about freethinking literature.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Let’s start with some general historical context for this series, what were some of the earliest sources of freethinking writing in the world?

Rob Boston: I’m not an expert in this area, but I guess it depends on how far back you want to go and how you define “freethinking.” There were ancient Greeks who cast doubt upon the existence of the gods, so they were probably among the first freethinkers.

In the late Roman era, many cite the views of Hypatia, who has become a symbol of resistance to dogmatic Christianity even though she was herself a Pagan.

During the Middle Ages, church and state were combined in the Western world, and public expressions of doubt of the claims of Christianity could cost you your life. I’m sure there were freethinkers around then, but my guess is that they kept a low profile.

Jacobsen: Who were some of the first authors, and what were some of the first publications and books, for the secular and freethinking in the United States?

Boston: Many people would look to Thomas Paine’s “The Age of Reason” as the first American work of freethought. Paine was not an atheist, but he certainly cast doubt on the claims of revealed religion and championed Deism.

I would also argue for Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was also not an atheist but his editing of the Gospels in what is now called “The Jefferson Bible” and his attempts to merge rational thought with Christianity by stripping away its miraculous claims were, I think, important steps along the way.

From there we go to the men and women who wrote during what has been called the Golden Age of freethought in the late 19th century – Robert Ingersoll, Matilda Gage, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others.

For anyone who wants to learn more about this period, I highly recommend Susan Jacoby’s book “Freethinkers.”


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