Foundations of Freethought

Presented at the June 1st 2003 service of the North Texas Church Of Freethought

Unlike the established faith-based religions, the principles of facts and reason as applied to religious questions — Freethought — cannot be traced to a single person or event, historical or mythical. The oldest written records fail to address or even to recognize, in terms relating to facts and reason, such issues as the existence and nature of god(s), the meaning and purpose of life, the basis of morality, or the principles of happiness for oneself and others. Instead, there is an implicit, unquestioning assumption of the supernatural, the "law of the jungle" that "might makes right," and that physical power and pleasures for oneself and the subjugation and suffering of others are the universal goals of life.

There is no mention in the Bible of atheists or atheism and no rejoinders to the characteristic criticisms of belief associated with atheists or atheism. There is, of course, the passage in Psalms:

"The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God.' They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good." [NIV Psalm 14:1]

But there is no reason to think that this is anything beyond a complaint of impiety, of those who behave as if there were no God to punish their misdeeds. An atheist, after all, is not simply someone who "says in his heart" that "there is no God," but, rather, someone who is unpersuaded of theological claims.

By the way, for those of you who may come up against believers who fling this Bible verse at you, it is well to point out, firstly, that Freethinkers do not accept the Bible as an authority and, secondly, that those who do accept the Bible as an authority should remember that Jesus is quoted in Matthew as saying that "Anyone who says to his brother, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell. [NIV Matthew 5:22]

Similarly, Bible references to "godless" or "ungodly" people do not refer to atheists but to those who don't comply with the Bible God's rules. These seem to be people who worship other gods and the Bible's most scathing condemnations are of such people and the gods they follow. Characteristically, though, the "Good Book" contradicts itself by also claiming that there are no other gods but Yahweh. Likewise, in the New Testament, the term "unbelievers" refer to non-Christians and not to atheists.

The first time that it seems to have occurred to people to take a new look at tradition, authority and established belief, and to apply the tools of facts and reason to "religious" issues and questions connected with them, appears to have been in the 6th and 7th centuries BCE, both in China and in the world of classical Greece.

We devoted an entire service to the subject of Eastern religions three years ago at which we reviewed the lives and careers of Laozi and Confucius, the founders, respectively, of Taoism and Confucianism. Christians today often portray these religions as theistic — supposing that Confucius, for example, is worshipped as a god — but this is not the case. In fact, Taoism and Confucianism — and I would say especially Confucianism — are and remain the intellectual foundations of humanism and rationalism in China.

Confucius (Kong Fuzi — meaning "Master Kong") was born in 551 BCE and died at age 72 in 479 BCE. He held various government offices and ultimately traveled the country as a teacher. His chief work was his Analects in which he laid out his philosophy that education was the key to wisdom and virtue. He also taught that "following the rules" was a path to wisdom, so he was no radical reformer. Rather, he taught that:

"A superior person's attitude toward the society is neither one of a conformist nor one of a rebel but one in accordance with righteousness."

As a result of this teaching and others, Confucius and his followers made many enemies, especially among rulers who, as rulers are wont to do, liked to enforce their power in arbitrary ways.

Confucius' method of teaching was one of asking questions of his students, the method we call "Socratic." And he said of one of his students:

"[He] accepts everything I say ... That's neither good for him nor for me." []

Although Confucius did not reject the general idea of supernaturalism, his writings and sayings offered no support for the many god(s) of his day. Thus, he used a term translated as "Heaven" much as the ancient Greeks referred to "the gods" or "fate" in the abstract or as the founders of the US referred to "Providence."

Here are some sayings of Confucius:

Exploring the old and discovering the new makes a teacher.

To learn without thinking is vain, to think without learning is useless.

To acknowledge what is known as known, and what is not known as not known is knowledge.

Good Men live with honesty. The dishonest live, spared by fortune.

What you do not like when done to yourself, do not do unto others.

This last, of course, was one of the earliest versions of "The Golden Rule." Although phrased negatively, I think it can be shown that its meaning is the same as the more familiar "Do unto others as you be done unto." The Golden Rule, predicated on the idea that human beings begin their moral relationship with others on an equivalent footing, was the first and has remained the only and most enduring alternative to the "law of the jungle" of "might makes right."

Our tradition of atheism, rationalism, and Freethought, of course, has its roots in classical Greece. Thales of Miletus, who lived about the year 630 BCE, is generally considered to be the father of Greek philosophy. It was he and the other "preSocratic" thinkers — people such as Anaximander, Anaximenes, Heraclitus, Pythagoras of Samos, Xenophanes, Parmenides, Empedocles, Zeno, and others. They began by rejecting the mythological explanations offered by stories of the gods, setting the pattern for the eventual rise of science. Although the Greek playwrights such as Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes are not included among the ransk of philosophers, I think they really should be, for they explored and expounded on many of the same ideas, sometimes in more practical ways, in their works.

Democritus (460-370 BCE) is worthy of special mention, not only for his strict materialism based on the idea of atoms, but because he, along with Epicurus and Lucretius, probably have the best claim of being the world's first atheists. Said Epicurus (341-270 BCE), for example:

The soul cannot survive separation from the body, since it is necessary to understand that it too is a part. ... By itself the soul cannot ever either exist (even though Plato and the Stoics talk a great deal of nonsense on the subject) or experience movement.

Lucretius (99-55 BCE) described his materialist philosophy and related it to everyday experience in his epic of six books entitled De Rerum Natura or On The Nature of Things, observing (in verse):

Fear holds dominion over mortality only because, seeing in land and sky so much the cause whereof no wise they know, men think Divinities are working there. ... [when we reject such ideas] we shall divine more clearly what we seek: those elements from which alone all things created are, and how accomplished by no tool of Gods. ...

Whilst human kind throughout the lands lay miserably crushed before all eyes beneath superstition ... A Greek it was who first opposing dared Raise mortal eyes that terror to withstand, whom nor the fame of Gods nor lightning's stroke nor threatening thunder of the ominous sky abashed; but rather chafed to angry zest his dauntless heart to be the first to rend the crossbars at the gates of Nature old. ... Whence he to us, a conqueror, reports what things can rise to being, what cannot, and by what law to each its scope prescribed, ... wherefore superstition now is under foot, and us his victory now exalts to heaven.

The ideas of Epicurus (341-271 BCE), of course, went into the development of a system both of thought and practice which has been falsely said to be focused on physical pleasures. But Epicureanism is hedonistic only in that Epicurus held that virtue was not an end itself but a means of achieving peace of mind and freedom from fear and unbridled passions.

These ideas and those of Zeno of Citium, Cleanthes of Assos and Chrysippus of Soli, supplemented later by Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, also established and sustained the philosophy of Stoicism. Inasmuch as Stoicism was the first "retail philosophy," intended in a rather systematic way to satisfy the same real-world needs that superstitious religions addressed, it can be said that Stoicism was the first Freethought.

Stoics believed that all that exists is corporeal, either as matter or force, what we might today call energy, but which Stoics referred to as logos: order or fate. Nothing has an independent existence apart from this, taught Stoicism, and the way to live one's life is in accordance with the same laws that govern the rest of the natural world in order to realize virtue. The Stoics identified the divine with the rational and held that when one possesses virtue, one is in no way inferior to any god(s) that may exist.

Epictetus (55-135 CE) contributed a great deal to this early version of Freethought:

First learn the meaning of what you say, and then speak.

First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.

If you do not wish to be prone to anger, do not feed the habit; give it nothing which may tend to its increase.

Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.

Men are not disturbed by things, but by the view they take of them.

Admiral James Stockdale, Ross Perot's 1992 running mate, was deeply influenced by Epictetus. He credited his survival as a POW for eight years in North Vietnam to his reliance on the thought of Epictetus. Unfortunately, little was made of this at the time, a terrible lost opportunity for rationalism but perhaps understandable given the oppressive nature of "religious correctness" in our nation.

Most if not all of the ferment of classical Greek philosophy were included in the thought of one or both of the two best-known Greek philosophers: Plato (whose writings include the ideas of Socrates) and Aristotle. But Plato came to promote an Idealist philosophy predicated on the claim that everything that is sensible to us is only an imperfect reflection or emanation of perfect "Forms" that can be known directly only through the intellect. Aristotle, on the other hand, denied the reality of the "Forms" and so established the tradition of philosophical Realism.

Now something else that is extremely interesting happened during these few centuries before and after the beginning of the current era. In 250 BCE the Hebrew holy texts were translated into Greek for the benefit of Greek-speaking Jews. But this put also entered them into the ferment of speculative Greek philosophy.

But also by this time, largely under the influence of the Babylonian captivity in which the Jews were deprived of all the usual fixtures of the worship of household and tribal gods, Judaism had become thoroughly monotheistic. Not only that, but the Jewish God had become something that was no longer quite the same as all the other gods that figured in the everyday experience of human life. Yahweh had been nudged into the direction of an abstraction and a symbol of Jewish nationalism.

It was in this context that Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE-40 CE), a Greek Jew, set about trying to reconcile Judaism with the ideas of the Greek philosophers. It was Philo who identified the Greek philosophical idea of the logos with the word or will of God, as well as with the world of sense impressions that mediate between the realm of the Platonic Forms and human understanding.

These ideas were, in turn, picked up by Saul of Tarsus — Saint Paul — who used them to turn a small Jewish mystery religion into a complete theological system that was at least loosely consistent with the mysticism of Platonic philosophy. Indeed, it is more than interesting that in his writings Paul rarely talks about Jesus as if he had been a real human being. Paul doesn't even seem to know about the details of Jesus' life and career as recounted in the Gospels and doesn't refer to them even when it would be appropriate and probably add force to his arguments.

In the opening lines of the Gospel of John we see clearly this fusion of a Jewish mystery religion with Greek philosophical mysticism:

"In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was with God, and the logos was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it." [NIV John 1:1-2]

Now what does this have to do with Freethought? It is certainly no improvement on the honest materialism of Epicureanism and Stoicism.

But in the context of the times of 2000 years ago, an age in which a cacophony of cultures worshipping a bewildering number and variety of anthropomorphic deities, the deity of Christianity would have stood out as something much less ridiculous than most, if not all of the alternative superstitions. With its simple monotheism backed up by Greek philosophical mysticism that represented in the minds of many the most advanced science of its day with respect to the nature of reality and the universe, this new religion would have seemed very attractive to many.

This is not some crass attempt to count early Christianity or the character of Jesus as being allied with Freethought as we understand it today. But there is no denying that the new religion was a break with tradition, authority, and established belief, and that the tradition, authority, and established belief of the time was far more thoroughly drenched in supernaturalism of the worst sort than it is today.

Paul spoke for the cause of reason when he said that:

"Man-made gods are no gods at all." [NIV Acts 19:26]

"We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world." [NIV 1 Corinthians 8:4]

That he did not go further in applying these notions to his own theological beliefs is regrettable. But he and his followers ultimately succeeded in discrediting many gods, saving posterity the trouble of contending with them. The delicious irony is that Christians were considered atheists by the Romans because they refused to worship the official gods proclaimed by the Empire. Justin Martyr wrote the emperor about the year 150 CE, saying:

We are called atheists. We admit we are atheists, so far as gods of this sort are concerned ... evil demons, [who] taking on appearances themselves, both defiled women and corrupted boys. ... show[ing] such fearful sights to men that those who did not use their reason to judge their actions were struck with terror ... [and] called them gods. ... When Socrates tried, by true reason and examination, to bring these things to light and deliver men from the demons, the demons themselves, through wicked men, brought about his death. ... [But we are not atheists] with respect to the most true God.

Athenagoras and other Christians also defended themselves from the charge of atheism. But one has the impression, in reading their arguments, that they were battling with the very idea of what constituted belief in gods. They contended that their Christian God, a relatively abstract entity standing outside of the established social, cultural and political order, was more to be considered a legitimate god than others. Worse, they did not say that other gods were simply false or nonsensical, but demons. It is reminiscent of a situation in which those who reject supernaturalism of all kinds and see only too clearly the pernicious effects of sectarian superstitions are forced to do battle with definitions of church and religion that are so drawn as to deny religious liberties to any but the adherents of faith-based religions.

It was the emperor Constantine's legalization and official recognition of the Christian religion in 310 that was the turning point. Although he did not actually convert to Christianity until he was on his deathbed, one can only imagine how history might have unfolded differently had Constantine decided to give special consideration to, say, Mithraism or some other religion, or even to another of many small Christian sects that existed at the time.

Christianity was not, at the time, a single religion with settled doctrines and practices, a defect that Constantine undertook to remedy in calling the Council of Nicea of 325. It was there that the Nicene creed was established, that Sunday was declared to be the Christian sabbath, that the cross of the Sun god was chosen as the symbol of Christianity, that the date of Easter was established, that the divinity of Jesus was made an article of dogma and the authority of the Christian bishops established. In addition, thousands of texts were considered as candidates for inclusion in the official canon of Christian holy writ, many of which were ordered by Constantine to be salvaged from earlier works that had been destroyed during the years when Christians were persecuted and their books burnt. It was also Constantine who fixed the date of Jesus' birth as December 25th to coincide with the feast of the Sun god, Sol Invictus.

Seldom mentioned — or probably realized — by Christians is just what sort of man Constantine was. In maintaining his hold on power he murdered untold numbers of people, including his own son, Crispus, the son of his sister who was at most 12 at the time, and even his own wife, Fausta, whom he had boiled to death in her own bath. He had a statue of himself erected in Rome which was said to be approximately 50 feet tall and, of course, named the city of Constantinople after himself. Constantine would have seen in Saddam Hussein a man after his own heart.

But the result for Christianity was that by the end of 4th Century all those who worshipped other gods, and even Christians who did not submit to the authority of the bishops empowered at Nicea or the orthodoxy established there were severely persecuted. And thus began a thousand years still known as "The Dark Ages."

Most of us — myself included- know very little about this period of history and, especially, the thought of serious and intelligent people of inquiring minds during these times. The problem, of course, was that innovative thought tended to be severely punished. In addition, anyone who had an interest in the life of the mind had to go through the Christian Church and its indoctrinations. One can only speculate how many clergymen then, as now, gradually grew to realize that the superstitions they preached were a sham and a lie. But they didn't have the option of speaking their minds unless it was in conformity with the doctrines of the Church.

We do know that towards the end of the Dark Ages people like William of Occam (1280-1349) were able to think and say important things, though there were none who openly denied the Christian faith and its doctrines. We know what happened to Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) two hundred years later. He was burned alive by the Papal authorities, though not without a great deal of delay and opportunity for recantation. Something was already beginning to happen to the authority of the Church.

The case of Jean Meslier (1664-1729) was an interesting one. Although Martin Luther (1483-1546) had already begun the Reformation more than a century before Meslier's birth, this Frenchman, who was ordained a priest and spent his lifetime as an obscure country priest, gave no hint that he was anything but a devout servant of the Catholic Church. But after his death in 1729 it was discovered that he had written a lengthy work, Mon Testament, in which he apologized for his lifelong deception, justifying himself by his need to preserve his own life and safety. He went on to repudiate superstition generally and the doctrines of the Christian faith specifically. Despite the efforts of the authorities to contain it, all three copies of the work that he produced survived and the scandal soon became well-known. Meslier wrote:

The root of all the pains that overwhelm you, and all the deceptions that keep you in the dark and under the vanity of superstition, as well as under the tyrannical laws of the rulers of this world, is nothing else, my dear friends, but that detestable policy of men. ... This, my friends, is the true root and the real origin of all those ills that trouble the human society and that make men miserable in life. This is the root and the origin of all the mistakes, all the impostures, all the superstitions, all the fake deities and all the idolatries that have unfortunately spread all over the world. This is the root and the origin of all that is held up as holiest and most sacred, in what you are told to call reverently 'religion.' ... On the pretext of willing to drive you to heaven, they prevent you from enjoying your life on earth in any way; and finally, pretending to keep you away in some other life from the imaginary pains of a hell that does not exist — and neither does that other eternal life that they try to keep alive in your hopes and fears, vainly for you and uselessly for them — they compel you to suffer in this life, which is the only one that you can claim to, the pains of a real hell. ... open your eyes, my dear friends, open your eyes and get rid of everything that your pious and ignorant priests, or your mocker, self-seeking doctors, show zeal in telling you and in having you believe, under the fake pretext of the infallible certainty of their would-be sacred and divine religion. ... The ideas of pagans and yours only differ by their name and appearance.

At the time of Meslier's death Voltaire was 35 and about to return to France from a three-year exile in England. Of Meslier Voltaire wrote that he was "the most singular phenomenon ever seen among all the meteors fatal to the Christian religion."

For that day to this, the progress of the human mind, both in coming to a greater and deeper understanding of the world of reality and in ridding itself of superstition, has been inexorable. And so, just as the history of life on earth amounts to only the most recent events in many billions of years since the "Big Bang,," just as the appearance of our species amounts to only the last few million years of billions of years of life on our planet, and just as human history represents only a few thousands of years out of millions over which our species existed, so the last few hundred years of Freethought stand on a foundation built up over the last 2500 years or so.

Please, think about it!

© 2003 by Dr. Tim Gorski