Monday, April 21, 2008

What’s in a name? What’s in a movement?

(The following was originally posted on my blog on the Freethought Forum on 8 February 2008. Note comments there. I will reproduce my own follow-up comment on this blog.)

Many of the the various names for what we do are packed into the title of my web guide:

Atheism / Freethought / Humanism / Ethical Culture / Rationalism / Agnosticism / Skepticism / Unbelief / Secularism / Church-State Separation Web Links

Still, I omitted other terms in use or historically related, such as ‘irreligion’, ‘naturalism’, ‘deism’, and ‘godless’. Some of these terms have meanings outside of our central area of concern, some have distinct agendas (e.g. skepticism), and some overlap or appear to be synonymous. I was never particularly preoccupied with terminology, but the history and distinction of these terms are relevant to my current research.

I note, for example, that in my current environment, people in our groups customarily refer to themselves as atheists or humanists. I do not meet people who have adopted the label “freethinker” or refer to “freethought”. While this term persists in other English-speaking countries, none of the extant national organizations in the USA have “freethought” in their name. (I think some of the local and regional organizations do.) The organ of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) is Freethought Today, which is the most prominent usage of the term I can think of in the USA today. I assume that the title “Freethought Forum” was chosen because of the obvious affinity to FFRF. I note that its mission statement includes a dedication to ‘social activism’, though what that means beyond activism for irreligion and secularism is not specified. As FFRF embodies a concern with feminism, it appears that this forum is similarly inspired as well.

I hardly gave the distinctions among these terms a second thought, except for some impressions about their acceptability in mainstream society. Since the word ‘atheism’ is anathema in American society, I assumed that this was the boldest term, and since American Atheists had the history of greatest stridency, I assumed that ‘atheism’ is socially more confrontational than the more restrained if also hated (secular) ‘humanism’. Only recently, when I made a survey of my personal library in pursuit of some research, did I realize I had simply not paid attention to something very obvious. All of my books on the history of atheism as a movement and atheists as social reformers carry the word ‘freethought’ in their titles. All of my books on the history of atheism with ‘atheism’ in their titles are not about movements or organizations but ideas. (Wikipedia follows this pattern as well.) For all practical purposes, ‘freethought’ is historically the fighting name of a fighting movement, while ‘atheism’ seems to have come into organizational use with American Atheists. Also, freethought has a history of linkage with other social reform movements not strictly connected to irreligion or secularism. I read a number of books on the subject without thinking of ‘freethought’ as anything other than an antiquated term. Now, though the word ‘freethinker’ still sounds quaint to me, I think I’d much rather be known as a ‘freethinker’ than as an ‘atheist’ or ‘humanist’. It’s a history to be proud of, especially since it embodies a social consciousness that seems much scarcer among America’s atheists today.

These musings are actually by-products of a different focus. My original intent was to research the histories of secular humanism and the skeptical movement as distinct topics, because I have found that these categories embody certain ambiguities and ideological undertones in both their world-views and institutional histories that invite scrutiny in a way not required by the other main terms in use, whatever their organizational histories might be. I have only begun this project, but I want to call your attention to two new web pages:

Secular Humanism—Ideology, Philosophy, Politics, History: Bibliography in Progress


Humanism—100 Years of Freethought by David Tribe

The latter is a section of David Tribe’s 1967 100 Years of Freethought. This chapter, on ‘Philosophical Outlook’, covers the histories of freethought, secularism, ethicism, rationalism, humanism, atheism, agnosticism, materialism, and determinism. The survey is global, and the emphasis is decidedly British rather than American, which means that the political purview is much more progressive than one often finds here in the USA.

‘Humanism’ apparently grows out of the liberalization of religion, and the secular or atheistic variety only becomes sharply defined with time. There is also a political and organizational as well as intellectual history, but the strongest social histories can still be found under the rubric ‘freethought’.

My esteemed colleague Fred Whitehead, cultural activist, co-editor of Freethought on the American Frontier and editor of a marvelous bulletin Freethought History, took steps to revive the old-time activist tradition of freethought, but could find no takers.

As for the social perspective of contemporary atheism, a comparison of the so-called ‘new atheists’ and the freethinking agitators of yesteryear might well be in order, perhaps yielding a different perspective on ‘change we can believe in’.

1 comment:

Ralph Dumain said...

See also responses to my original Freethought Forum entry on that site. My response that follows was written on 10 February 2008:

I'm sure that when I first contemplated the term "freethought" many many years ago, I thought that free thinking--freedom of thought--is a great thing, but not a sufficiently specific indicator of religious nonbelief. I've never used the term to describe myself, though now I'd be tempted to do so even though it sounds so old-fashioned to me. I also remain unconvinced that there really is or should be such a thing as blanket "open-mindedness".

I don’t feel that it is necessary to commit oneself to either a word or a past movement just to carry on a specific tradition, as times and strategies do change. However, thinking historically is important in several ways. One is to pose the question, from whatever perspective we individuals may have: how do today’s movements match up to those of the past—are they essentially the same, different; is the present an improvement over the past, a regression, both at once?

Affiliation of ‘Freethought Forum’ to FFRF?—the references on the web site, for example the recommended books, suggests that Melody [creator of the forum] was influenced by FFRF in the construction of this site. It’s a good thing, as I like FFRF from what I remember as a member. In the future I may have something to say about various organizations, all of which attract a variety of people but have their own peculiar histories. The terminology doesn’t tell all by any means, but it’s worthwhile to unpack what is really going on under the rubrics of atheism, freethought, humanism, skepticism, etc. I‘m beginning with ‘humanism’ and ‘skepticism’ because they are both rather slippery animals, but the ideological and political questions pertain to all of these concepts.