Across history, the responses of the cultural and religious establishment to persons
who deviate from tradition have been varied. Custom and authority
sometimes press hard for acceptance and compliance. A broadminded
society may indulge its freethinkers; other societies will not.
Freethinking in some political contexts may result in shunning, or
even in persecution and death. Recent history provides one dramatic
example. In 1989 the author Salman Rushdie published a volume titled The
Satanic Verses. He was almost immediately threatened with death by
fundamentalist elements of the Muslim religion, which found his writing
distasteful, blasphemous, and heretical. To protect his life and
safeguard his family, Rushdie was compelled to flee his native land and
to seek asylum, protection, and anonymity in the freer society of
England. He remained under a death threat for nine years.
Even if not pursued or persecuted, nonconformers to conventional
belief are in the position of confronting the prevailing views and the
predominant authority surrounding them. They may be rejected by segments
of society or somewhat shunted to the margins of public life. For
example, in the U.S., the prevalent view is that "a God is in
charge." But, freethinking persons who are skeptics, deists,
atheists, or secular humanists must have concluded otherwise, and their
reasoning presents a challenge to the strength of the common notion.
Consequently, any of these assorted "nonbelievers" may suffer some
degree of civil censure for a seeming insolence to societal authority
and tradition. For them, there will be strong cultural pressure to
conform—in avowal, at least, if not in true conscience—because the
majority society views a disbeliever as a misbeliever
The social inducement for an American to declare some form of
creed—or at best, agnosticism—over nonbelief is strong.
Citizens who think that they can, without consequence, go merrily
along their way in life without holding to or believing in any God or
gods are likely to be disappointed. Take the situation of someone openly
atheist. Despite the constitutional civil guarantees of
religious freedom, in some states laws still exist on the books to exclude such a citizen—no
matter how upright and law abiding—from public office. That person’s
nonconforming idea is simply too far from conventional thinking.
It is "out of bounds"—taboo.
Even when such laws have been removed or are simply ignored, it
remains unlikely, due to prejudice, that this "atheist person" will ever be
elected. A recent Public Agenda survey of the general public asked
the question, "Would you be more likely or less likely to vote for
a candidate for political office who is open about not believing in God,
or would this make no difference to you?" Over half (54%) of
respondents chose "less likely." [Public Agenda, 2001] 1
This type of sentiment makes it less likely for an acknowledged atheist—however
good a person or contributing a citizen—to
get the vote. The assertion, "I'm a Christian," may
carry a positive weight in many communities, but the "I'm an
atheist" claim is deemed a poison pill for the candidate.
Less likely, too, is that the person will be admitted to or elevated
within public service. Several surveys have shown the
"atheist" label to carry as much or greater risk of rejection
for the individual than "homosexual" or any other descriptive
Despite much progress, this is the situation in many other democratic
countries as well. In the present century, few political surroundings
offer freethinkers the real freedom to be different and to express
themselves fully without fear of reprisal from mainstream society. More
typically, a person’s actions and outcomes must heed authority, which
demands acquiescence and adherence.
What about the reverse situation, the influence of one person’s
freethinking on the surrounding society? History shows the impact can
vary widely, depending on the era and environment into which the person
is born and within which his or her life is spent. One individual’s
probing and questioning and reasoning and challenging may cause hardly a
ripple in the culture. In times such as the Enlightenment, however, it
may place a person on the cutting edge and in the forefront of heady
times that make an enduring mark on history and advance human progress
for all. See
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Generalizations about the persons who hold to freethinking
perspectives are difficult, if not impossible. For example, some
freethinkers may be antagonistic to the concept of religion or to
belief or practice, whereas others are not anti-religious at all. In fact, some
persons may actually be participating in socially sanctioned religious
observances for social reasons (e.g., family harmony). There is
not much one can say in the way of generalization about the people
behind the various category labels applied to freethinkers.
Most freethinkers are, in essence, "swimming
upstream" in a society in which most everybody else tends toward a
religious belief of some sort, belief that would express itself in worship,
meditation, or some other practice.
Although the freethinkers have freedom of conscience to
think as they do, the society around them tends to view religious faith
as an admirable, if not absolutely necessary, quality to be "a good
person." Hence, there is a tendency for the freethinker to be
somewhat cautious when it comes to expressing his or her philosophical
Because of widespread cultural stereotyping in the
United States, a great proportion of the nonreligious simply keep their
views to themselves. They are well aware that outward evidence of
nonbelief is frowned upon and would tend to make the individual suspect
in the site of others. They cannot as readily "be
themselves" and be accepted as can adherents of most forms of
religion. Hence, there is a tendency for persons who are vocal
about their freethought perspectives to be edged to the margins of
society. (Note: some religious minorities suffer a similar disdain from
It is important for a classroom teacher to have correct
information in order to ensure fairness and objectivity. A teacher
must avoid perpetuating stereotypes or permitting denigration of
nonreligious persons. One also needs to be able to confront such
opinions if students offer them. Disparagement of these persons is
unwarranted. On some societal variables, nonreligious citizens
appear to surpass many traditional "respected" religious
groups (a lower percentage imprisonment, proportionately fewer marriages
ending in divorce, and so on).
One academic who has written several well-received
articles regarding the cultural stereotyping and morality of
freethinkers is Wendy
Kaminer. Professor Kaminer is a public policy fellow at
Radcliffe College, a social commentator, and contributing editor of The
Atlantic Monthly. Her articles and commentary include "Atheism:
The Last Taboo" (in The New Republic) and "Pro and Con:
Atheists Can Be Moral, Too" (at speakout.com). By
focusing on atheists in particular, these two articles help to provide
information and a framework for better understanding in what is an
oft-ignored and little-understood cultural arena.
Without data, it is best for teachers to simply note for
students that a freethinker is no more or less moral, no more or less
mean, no more or less inclined to bad conduct, no more or less a worthy
person, no more or less generous, etc., than any other person. All
citizens' constitutional right to think differently regarding
religion should be respected and protected in classrooms and society.
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Categorizing freethinkers is not easy. The
individuals tend to self-identify, applying to themselves the specific
label or labels with which they are intellectually and (in different
contexts) socially comfortable. One will read of
several ways to categorize modern day freethinkers as a whole.
The buttons [at left above] survey a few common means of
categorization. Each category briefly characterizes the essential nature of the underlying reasoning by
which a person may stay free of conventional religious thinking.
Within a category, there may be additional labels. For instance,
many different routes lead to atheism. [Atheism may derive from a philosophy of
naturalism, perhaps, or from philosophical materialism, and so on.]
Subcategories of Freethinkers
Criteria for the means of categorization here combined simplicity
(not too many categories) with curricular relevance. Consequently, a rather
prominent modern-day category (e.g., rationalist) may be omitted while a
rather insignificant (in terms of population) category (deist) is
Although there are American deists, their numbers are
miniscule in today's panorama; nevertheless deistic thought has had much
relevance within U.S. history. For further material on the historical
deism that so influenced the Framers of the U.S. Constitution in the
late 18th century, go to
Deism at the Teaching About Religion with a View to Diversity
Web resource for teachers.
The categories shown here are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they are
overlapping, in that some combination of reasoning is more often than
not the case for any single individual. It may be the case for one person’s
thinking to be that of an atheist (naturalist variant) and also match elements
(outside link) with no contradiction or interference.
One Supra- Category
A nation that accords to religion a high degree of
cultural authority will tend to offer to those who "have a faith" more
acceptance and approval and to withhold same from those who don't. A
"cultural blessing" for those who are religious puts the freethinker at
considerable societal disadvantage. We may look to the identity labels
the society uses for the nonconformists to religion and see how this
disadvantage is expressed through language.
In the U.S., faith and belief have positive cultural
connotation, whereas the freethinkers have become known by comparison.
They are the faithless, unbelievers, godless, and
other terms that label them by use of established terminology (faith,
Preferring a positive descriptor to call their own, many
freethinking persons are choosing to self-identify by a noun "umbrella"
label, one that is useful and one they envision can place them all in a
(more satisfactory) nutshell together.
What supra-label could possibly depict the "freedom of
most freethinkers" and be inclusive ? Well, the notion of their sharing
worldview" offers one opportunity to encapsulate (sum up with one
word) a huge fraction of these sundry persons. It is likely
that most (though not all) the individuals in the various
categories of freethinkers do have in common a naturalistic
worldview that is
free of supernaturalism and
mystical elements. That depiction would "scoop up" a colossal portion of
the individuals, but what term to use?
The positive single term selected for use by those who
say they have this particular worldview (no supernaturalism or mystical
elements in it) is "Bright." Use of the noun for self-identity
(e.g., "I am a Bright") simply indicates agreement with a precise way
of describing a personal worldview.
Whatever the varied "traditional" labels individuals may
prefer, they can also be Brights. Atheists, humanists, agnostics,
etc...all might choose to be Brights. People other than those who
think of themselves as freethinkers per se (or any variant)
could also possess a worldview that fits (matches the proffered
definition). Simply put, anyone who concurs with the rigid
description can choose to use the label. Those who do are the
1 Data within the
56-page Public Agenda Report, 2001, For Goodness' Sake: Why So
Many Want Religion to Play a Greater Role in American Life, Table
6, page 52.