Freethinkers are people who reject social norms based on custom, tradition, and religious ideals while favoring a society based on reason, free inquiry, and science. Strains of freethinking exist as early as Greece and Rome; it was not until the Enlightenment, however, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that freethinking became more tolerated, if it did not result in social disorder. By the twenty-first century, freethinkers are now visible throughout society even while they are not universally accepted.

In American history, freethinking is often associated with the conflict between religious and secular worldviews. This conflict is present in the debates surrounding the Constitution. The absence of a direct reference to God within the document produced a great deal of consternation for many Americans. The First Amendment clause prohibiting Congress from establishing a national church did not resolve the conflict between secular and religious ideals in the operation of the U.S. government. This conflict was inflamed by the publication of Thomas Paine's deistical tract The Age of Reason in 1794. According to Paine, all traditions and authority structures based on Biblical authority should be rejected as the Bible did not pass the test of reason because of its reliance on miracles and unproven testimony. Many of Paine's critics linked free thought with the excesses of the French Revolution. Although Paine pleaded for the right of every person to have the freedom to express his or her opinions openly, his open rejection of biblical authority and organized religion was not well received. In his later years Paine was ostracized by most Americans for his alleged atheism.

After the Civil War, a new wave of secularists organized to demand a constitutional amendment to ensure the complete secularization of the U.S. political system as a matter of civil rights. For many, the political system of the late nineteenth century showed signs of backsliding into a government that enforced Christian morality and dogma rather than existing as a neutral entity. Much like the experience of Thomas Paine a century earlier, fear of free thought was combined with fear of other social events such as woman suffrage, unionization in the workforce, and socialism, which created a backlash against secularist thought. Support for traditional religious structures combined with a fear of social change led many to cast any variety of freethinking as a danger to the public. Thus, after the upheavals of the late nineteenth century, many Americans embraced conservative reform during the Progressive Era.

Patrick Callaway

See also: Bush, George W., Populist Rhetoric of ; Ingersoll, Robert (1833–1899) ; Progressivism ; Sanger, Margaret (1879–1966) ; Tea Party


Jacoby, Susan. Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2004.

Paine, Thomas. The Age of Reason. New York: Carol Publishing, 1995.

Schaller, Michael. Right Turn: American Life in the Reagan-Bush Era, 1980–1992. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Warren, Sidney. American Freethought, 1860–1914. New York: Gordian Press, 1966.

(MLA 8th Edition)