If it seems that I’ve been living in the past lately, maybe there’s good reason. I recently spent two years collaborating with filmmaker/historian Roderick Bradford on American Freethought, the Council for Secular Humanism’s new four-part video series. American Freethought explores the history of unbelief in religion American-style from Thomas Paine until the 1930s, when the Golden Age of Freethought flickered out. While serving as executive producer of the series (and as one of its on-screen experts), I reacquainted myself with one of the Golden Age’s most durable manifestos. Let’s look back at The Nine Demands of Liberalism and reflect on the differences between what freethinkers wanted circa 1870 and what many in our movement want today. You might be surprised to see, in some cases, how small our wants have become.
What Was The Nine Demands of Liberalism?
In 1870, the Golden Age of Freethought had begun. Nonreligious Americans went by many names—“atheist,” “infidel,” and “freethinker,” to name a few. Another widely favored label was “liberal,” not so much in the sense of being left-of-center politically as of being radically open-minded in evaluating religious truth-claims. In 1870, Octavius Frothingham and Francis Abbot founded a weekly freethought paper, The Index. Today, we might call Frothingham and Abbot “religious Humanists.” Although they dedicated The Index to the cause of “free religion,” it quickly grew into a general freethought newspaper, subordinate in importance only to The Truth Seeker and The Boston Investigator. In particular, it played a leading role in catalyzing opposition to a then-powerful effort by Christian conservatives to amend the U.S. Constitution to proclaim Jesus Christ “the Lord of America.” (Compared to that, “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance is mild stuff.)