The History of Freethought

Joe Barnhart

Freethought Across the Centuries: Toward a New Age of Enlightenment by Gerald A. Larue. (Amherst, N.Y.: Humanist Press, 1996) y + 516 pp., index included, cloth $27.95.

Those who would like to pronounce funeral rites over the Enlightenment that emerged in Europe and America in the days of Ben Franklin, David Hume, J. S. Bach, and English scientist John Dalton would do well to read Freethought Across the Centuries. Freethought came into being only because a number of our forebears paid dearly for it. Gerald A. Larue not only has dug out the details of this amazing story, but has set it down in a most readable and often gripping style. The work is a stunning achievement by an adventurous mind that possesses the training and discipline to probe the codes of the Mesopotamians and the secrets of the Egyptian priests. The Hebrews, too, struggled to bring forth new thoughts and a radically new literature. Larue takes us behind the scenes to help us learn how the sects of Judaism emerged, each contributing both to dogmatism and to skepticism. But how did the Jewish canon come into being? Larue follows the story, taking us with him. He also reveals how critical inquiry struggled to emerge and eventually flourish within Humanistic Judaism.

Across the sea, Greece spawned philosophers, priests, warriors, dramatists, and images of gods and fate—all thriving in a struggling, precarious context of freethought. Larue’s account is almost breathtaking in its scope. He introduces us to the mystery religions and Christianity’s attempts to come to terms with them. Crucial questions naturally arise, and Larue does not sweep them under the rug. He asks bluntly, “Does the Christian mystery differ significantly from the Greek mysteries?” Then he lists the striking similarities.

Islam has not remained a monolith, and Chapter 11 shows what the divisions in Islam mean and how they came about. Are there freethinkers among the Muslims? Larue addresses this question sensitively.

Buddhism in India and China are explored in chapters 13 and 14; and the land of the rising sun has myths and traditions that Larue does not neglect to explore. The vast continent of Africa has given birth not only to our earlier human ancestors but has, Larue shows, woven an intricate fabric of beliefs of staggering diversity. “There are more than three thousand tribes in Africa. Each has its own distinct religion. …” One of the most useful aspects of Larue’s book is his way of spelling out the humanistic values that communities succeed in developing around the world despite fierce, counter-vailing forces.

In many ways, Larue operates like a traveling anthropologist who initially for-goes the question “What do the practices and beliefs of these people mean to me?” Like a consistent humanist, Larue asks first, “What do they mean to them?” Considerable discipline is needed to take this approach, especially for a highly critical and skeptical thinker like Larue. But he succeeds. His criticisms are delayed for a reason. When they are delivered, however, they carry enormous impact because they are fired with accuracy.

I am pleased to report that, in discussing the course of freethought in the Americas, Lame does not fail to mention one of my seventeenth-century heroes, Roger Williams, who boldly challenged the New England theocrats. Larue is doubtless correct to see Williams as a forerunner of Thomas Jefferson.

To give a summary of this book is impossible. Its author is a humanist in the noblest sense of the world. He strives to find the common humanity in every culture and historical period. Most humanists are proud to identify in depth with the Enlightenment. Larue will help humanists today to sense their kinship with the struggling freethinkers of the past. We have received our freethought heritage, not because of our own merits, but as a generous gift handed down by heroes and heroines of centuries past. Ours is the chal-lenge to accept their gift, to improve it, and to pass it on for the generations to come.

Joe Barnhart

Joe Barnhart is at the University of North Texas, Department of Philosophy. He is a Contributing Editor of FREE INQUIRY.


Freethought Across the Centuries: Toward a New Age of Enlightenment by Gerald A. Larue. (Amherst, N.Y.: Humanist Press, 1996) y + 516 pp., index included, cloth $27.95. Those who would like to pronounce funeral rites over the Enlightenment that emerged in Europe and America in the days of Ben Franklin, David Hume, J. S. Bach, …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.