THINKING FREELY IN RELIGION IN ENGLISH-SPEAKING COUNTRIES
In his Discourse of free-thinking, occasion’d by the rise and growth of a sect call’d Free-Thinkers (1713), Anthony Collins vindicated the “right to think freely,” which, he argued, was the only way to discover truth. Collins went on to challenge the view that the prophecies provided compelling evidence that Christ was the Messiah. In response to such claims, the Anglican theologian Benjamin Ibbot took to the pulpit to launch a counterattack: “This is what there are great pretences to at present, under the Name of Free-Thinking; which, if taken in a right sense, has nothing in it but what is commendable, and tends to promote the Interest of true Religion; but in the sense wherein it seems of late to have been taken, … it is of a very pernicious Consequence, destructive not only of Reveal’d, but of all true Religion, and undermining the Foundations of all Certainty, and opening a door to Libertinism and Scepticism, Atheism and Infidelity” (The True Notion of the Exercise of Private Judgment, or Free-Thinking, 1713). Ibbot’s strictures reveal the prevailing state of mind of his time. In early 18th century Britain, as “free thinking” was gaining ground, the attempt to think freely in religion was considered suspicious, possibly a devious strategy to smuggle in atheism (itself a form of intellectual libertinism), or even libertinism tout court, under the guise of a new form of intellectual freedom.
The correlation between freethought and sexuality can be found in most attacks on prominent “infidels.” Accusations of sexual impotence were levelled at Thomas Paine, the author of The Age of Reason, and Frances Wright, the Scottish feminist freethinker who became a United States citizen and co-edited The Free Enquirer with Robert Dale Owen, was called “the great red harlot” by her detractors.
It is of note that the term “freethought” should be seen as self-explanatory, referring to some form of thought about, against, outside of religion even without any explicit mention of religion. It is hardly less remarkable that the term should imply an absence or lack of freedom within religious institutions. Freedom of thought is not, however, necessarily exercised about or against religious dogmas and clerical institutions, nor does it always presuppose anticlericalism. With more or less liberalism, the religious institutions themselves create spaces of freedom for the expression of religious thought. That was the case of the Medieval Church, which actually did not generate submission to religious authorities only, as the black legend has it, but also produced the conditions for the rise of the individual and the subsequent emergence of new forms of spiritual experiences. Later, the Protestant Reformation introduced the concept of free enquiry. Thinking freely in religion includes thinking not only against or without, but also within religion.
Religious traditions and their foundational texts provide believers with significant, though often unacknowledged, intellectual resources. They enable the faithful to introduce some creative spaces into religious structures and some fluidity into fixed religious categories. This leads to different ways of relating to religion and the divine, as well as addressing political and social issues which would otherwise remain untouched by the religious imagination. The process can be exemplified by the development of queer theology, whose presence can be felt in various degrees in the three monotheistic religions, or by Christian, Jewish and Muslim feminisms with their non-patriarchal approaches to the sacred texts and religious traditions.
Moving away from a narrow understanding of the “freedom to think” as the mere inverted mirror of religion, we welcome papers on the constructive contributions of free religious thought to religion per se, as well as papers which discuss the theological and ecclesiastical foundations of the notions of liberty and freedom. We encourage participants to distinguish between thinking freely in religion and religious freedom, on the one hand, and free religious thinking and freethought, on the other.
How does the “free” thinker think in religion? What does one claim or proclaim at various times and in various contexts when one professes the desire to think “freely” from within a religious tradition? How can one… read more