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Freethought Pioneers


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): HerbSilverman.Com

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2020/04/02

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Legacies don’t come from one person, usually. They come from a collective mass of unknowns and the forgotten, where one person or representation gets the collective credit.But the vast majority of our benefit comes from the dead even before them. I can understand the ancestor worship, the praying for the dead, and the making divine of ordinary human beings who persisted and had some talents. I can see this as a source of reverence. Those we never knew gave us a bit of a better shot, bit by bit, then died. What do you owe to freethought pioneers?

Dr. Herb Silverman: Isaac Newton in 1675 said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Newton produced a mathematical understanding of motion, making the workings of the cosmos intelligible without any reference to supernatural belief. Yet he misguidedly said, “This most elegant system of the sun, planets, and comets could not have arisen without the design and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being.” Religious or not, scientists like Newton and Galileo contributed an enormous amount to the freethought movement before the Enlightenment. As Galileo learned, scientists often diverge from scripture at their peril. Scientific contributions have spread disbelief throughout the world because scientific arguments are settled through experimentation and evidence, not through authority or unproved claims of miracles found in so-called holy books. Scientists may not directly attack religious creeds, but they have undermined religious foundations. Nobody anymore believes that the earth is the center of the universe or that a deity made stars as an afterthought after creating the sun and the moon. 

I’ll even give a freethought shout-out to the anonymous biblical writer of Ecclesiastes who said that we all die, humans and animals alike, and that is it. From dust we came, and to dust we shall return. Pete Seeger included words from Ecclesiastes in his song, “Turn! Turn! Turn!”

Another shout-out goes to Socrates, who posed the Euthyphro Dilemma in 399 BCE, “Is something good because the gods command it, or do the gods command it because it is good?” This question still puzzles many theists today. Socrates was sentenced to death and forced to drink poison hemlock for corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens and for not believing in the gods of the state. Socrates’s willingness to stand up against religious tradition turned him into an early freethought martyr.

Hypatia became a freethought martyr in the fifth century, one of the first women to study and teach mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy. Hypatia said, “All formal dogmatic religions are fallacious and must never be accepted by self-respecting persons as final,” and “To teach superstitions as truth is a most terrible thing.” A mob of Christian zealots in Alexandria, Egypt dragged Hypatia into a church where they stripped her and beat her to death. They then tore her body apart and burned it. There wasn’t much religious tolerance shown to Hypatia.

Moving to more modern times, who can omit Charles Darwin as a freethought pioneer? When he began his scientific research, he was a church member. Shortly before he died, Darwin acknowledged having become an atheist. He was not inclined to engage in controversy. He wrote down what he had learned, and left it to others to accept or reject. Darwin’s theory of Evolution was shown by others that it was not “just” a theory, but an established fact, which led thinking people to understand that the whole biblical story of creation is a myth. 

Robert Ingersoll was a great orator who advocated for freethought and humanism. He was active in politics and served as Illinois Attorney General in 1867. Illinois Republicans tried to persuade him to become a candidate for governor on the condition that he conceal his agnosticism during the campaign. Ingersoll refused, saying he would not let anyone limit his freedom of speech. He was also considered a radical for supporting woman’s suffrage.

Freethinker Thomas Paine is my favorite American founder. In his pamphlet, Common Sense, Paine provided convincing moral and political arguments for independence from Great Britain. Nonetheless, Paine hasn’t received the credit he deserves, primarily because of his irreverent book The Age of Reason. In it he says, “I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my church.” And furthermore, “Of all the systems of religion that ever were invented, there is no more derogatory, more repugnant to reason, and more contradictory to itself than this thing called Christianity.” Many contemporary politicians sympathized with the views of Paine, but didn’t openly support him for fear of the Religious Right of their day. 

Finally, I’ll bring in a pioneer freethinker who was alive in my lifetime–Bertrand Russell. When I was 16, I found at my local library his book, Why I am Not a Christian, the first book I ever saw about being an atheist. Russell transformed the lives of many in my generation. It was gratifying to see articulate arguments that confirmed and gave voice to our doubts about the existence of any deities. I think Bertrand Russell also influenced me to become a mathematician.

Jacobsen: What newer generations owe to more recent freethought pioneers?

Silverman: There are lots of recent freethought role models, many with outstanding books. They include Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Susan Jacoby, Annie Laurie Gaynor, Dan Barker, Steven Pinker, Rebecca Goldstein, Rob Boston, Andrew Seidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Greta Christina, A. C. Grayling, Wendy Kaminer, Greg Epstein, Salman Rushdie, Julia Sweeney, George Carlin, Bill Maher, and many more. And I’m sure that you, the reader, can come up with additional freethought pioneers. There was a time when it wasn’t safe or comfortable to reveal that you are a freethinker. Our pioneers have made it easier to do so today.

Jacobsen: Is this effort at immortalization in memories of the living all that important at the end of the day? Or is simply doing good and maintaining what good has been built more important at the end of the day?

Silverman: It’s worth knowing about freethought pioneers, who can serve as role models, but I don’t think it is necessary to immortalize them. After all, they are not immortal. We should learn from them and try to make their good works remain influential in our lives. 


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing 2012-Present. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All interviewees and authors co-copyright their material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

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