Humanist Freethinkers

Humanist Freethinker: Robert Carlile



On December 9, 1790, freethinker and tireless free speech champion Richard Carlile was born in Ashburton, Devon, England.

After attending charity schools, Carlile began working at 13. In 1813, Carlile moved to London. He was jailed for selling political satires in 1817.

Carlile, a freethinking deist, then published an inexpensive version of The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine, and The Deist, a pioneering and popular freethinking weekly.

Carlile was prosecuted for blasphemy and seditious libel in 1819 by the Society for the Suppression of Vice. He became a cause celebre during two trials in the Guildhall where he defended himself. He was convicted and sentenced to pay £1,500 and spend three years in prison.

Carlile’s prison stay was doubled after he refused to pay the fine. He spent six years, until 1825, at Dorcester prison, where he published freethought tracts with wide circulation and influence, including reprints of freethinkers such as Voltaire, Shelley, Byron and Bentham.

He took over publication of the weekly Republican, a major freethought periodical with a circulation of 4,000 to 5,000, in 1822, also from prison.

Carlile’s wife, Jane, and sister and many supporters were imprisoned for disseminating Carlile’s tracts. A campaign, called the “war of the shopmen,” continued until Carlile, his workers and vendors were released.

Carlile opened up a shop to print and promote freethought literature, and teamed up with “Rev” Robert Taylor in the late 1820s, on freethought speaking tours. Together, they opened the Rotunda in London, a hub of dissent.

Both men were arrested and convicted of various blasphemies in 1831. Carlile continued organising and writing from prison, with the help of Eliza Sharples, known as “Isis,” who became his common law wife (or “moral mistress”) after he separated from his first wife.

Carlile spent more than a decade of his life in prison. Carlile’s gallant fight was “the greatest fight ever waged for a free press and free speech,” according to freethought biographer Joseph McCabe, lessening future prosecutions. His influence and cachet with other reformers gradually diminished and his final years were spent in great poverty.

He is remembered for his pioneering support for birth control, women’s suffrage and rights (which he called for in the 1820s), against child labour, for parliamentary reform and his one-man fight to free speech. He died in 1843.

He is quoted by Ira Cardiff in What Great Men Think about Religion (1945) as saying: “The fable of a god or gods visiting the earth did not originate with Christianity.”


Humanist Freethinker: Margaret Atwood



On this date in 1939, Canadian novelist and poet Margaret Atwood was born in Ottawa, Canada. As a youngster, she spent many months of each year in the wilderness with her parents, due to her father’s job as a forest entomologist, and began writing at age 6.

Atwood, fittingly, was descended from a Salem woman, Mary Webster–accused of witchcraft and sentenced to be hanged in 1685, but allowed to live after the rope broke. Atwood made her notorious ancestor the subject of her poem “Half-Hanged Mary.”

Atwood earned a B.A. from the University of Toronto in 1961, her M.A. from Radcliffe College and attended Harvard for two years of postgraduate study. She has held a variety of positions at various colleges and universities in North America, including lecturer, instructor and writer in residence. Atwood has been published in 14 volumes of poetry, including Margaret Atwood Poems (1965-1975), published in 1991. Her novels include: Edible Woman (1969), Surfacing (1972), Lady Oracle (1976), Life Before Man (1979), Bodily Harm (1981), The Robber Bride (1993), The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Cat’s Eye (1988), Alias Grace (1996), The Blind Assassin (2000) and her latest, Oryx and Crake.

She was named Canadian Humanist of the Year in 1987, as well as the American Humanist Association’s 1987 Humanist of the Year. Handmaid’s Tale, about a theocratic take-over of the United States, inspired the 1990 movie adapted by Harold Pinter.

Atwood has called herself an agnostic: “A doctrinaire agnostic is different from someone who doesn’t know what they believe. A doctrinaire agnostic believes quite passionately that there are certain things that you cannot know, and therefore ought not to make pronouncements about. In other words, the only things you can call knowledge are things that can be scientifically tested.” (Quoted in Humanism as the Next Step by Lloyd and Mary Morain, cited by Who’s Who in Hell edited by Warren Allen Smith.) Margaret Atwood lives with writer Graeme Gibson. They have three children, and, at last count, one cat.

“I was reading the Bible–some of us still do that, you know–and I saw the tale of Jacob and his wives and handmaids, a kind of early Baby M. This is not an attack on Christianity, but the fact is Christians have long persecuted other sects and each other, as they are in Northern Ireland today. People were saying things like, ‘A woman’s place is in the home.’ And I got to thinking, well, how would someone enforce thoughts like that?” —Margaret Atwood on writing The Handmaid’s Tale, interview, The New York Times April 14, 1990

Humanist Freethinker: Thomas Gore



Thomas Pryor Gore was born near Embry, Miss. As a young boy, he permanently lost sight in both eyes in separate accidents. Gore took a great interest in politics as a teenager and developed exceptional public speaking skills. He taught school before attending law school at Cumberland University in Tennessee. After being admitted to the Tennessee bar in 1892, Gore joined the national Populist movement and moved to Texas to practice law.

In 1895, he returned to Mississippi and ran unsuccessfully for Congress as a Populist candidate. After the Populist movement began to decline nationwide with the defeat of presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan in 1900, Gore became a Democrat and moved to Oklahoma to continue practicing law. He was elected to the Oklahoma Territorial Council in 1903, and, when Oklahoma became the 46th state in 1907, he was elected one of its first two U.S. senators. A powerful figure in the Democratic party serving on the Democratic National Committee, Gore helped President Woodrow Wilson make sweeping changes to the party and turned down a presidential cabinet position so that he could keep his Oklahoma Senate seat.

Gore advocated for women’s suffrage and the interests of farmers, and strongly opposed railroad monopolies. His opposition to American involvement in World War I and later opposition to the formation of the League of Nations cost him his personal friendship with President Wilson and the 1920 election. He successfully ran for the Senate again in 1930, at which time he openly criticized President Hoover’s Great Depression recovery policies, and later Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. (He was the only senator to vote against the Works Progress Administration.) These positions, once again lost him his Senate seat in the election of 1936.

Gore married Nina Belle Kay in 1900, and they had two children, one of whom was Nina S. Gore, the mother of historian and author Gore Vidal. Gore Vidal recalled that his grandfather was talked into being photographed in a Methodist Church on Sunday. Young Gore asked him, “ ‘Grandpa, what are we doing in this thing?’ He said, ‘Well, my boy, you may ask what we’re doing here. I’m getting votes, I don’t know about you.’ ” Vidal said his grandfather, once publicly asked about the religious differences between himself and his wife, replied: “Well, one Sunday we don’t go to her church and the next Sunday we don’t go to mine” (The Humanist, Jan/Feb 2010).

The Senator was most remembered for his love of his adopted state of Oklahoma. He once famously noted: “I love Oklahoma. I love every blade of her grass. I love every grain of her sands. I am proud of her past and I am confident of her future” (Oklahoma Historical Society). Gore died at the age of 78, and is buried in Oklahoma. In September 2010, the Freedom From Religion Foundation posted a billboard in Tulsa, Okla., which read: “Atheism is OK in Oklahoma: Saluting Gore — First Atheist Senator.” D. 1949.

“[Thomas Gore] was a dedicated atheist. Imagine, he was senator for over thirty years in Oklahoma, a hotbed of the Lord Jesus, and they never found out.” —-Gore Vidal on his grandfather, in an interview by Jennifer Bardi and David Niose in The Humanist, Jan/Feb 2010.


Humanist Freethinker: Joe Hill



On this date in 1879, union organizer, itinerant laborer, poet and songwriter Joe Hill (né Joel Hagglund) was born in Gavle, Sweden, the fourth of six children. His parents, Olaf and Margareta Katarina Hagglund, were devout Lutherans who enjoyed music immensely, filling their home with song. Hill started composing songs when he was still relatively young, and played the piano in local cafes as he got older.

Only nine years old when his father died, Joe, along with his siblings, was forced to leave school and go to work in order to support his large family. Joe worked many hard labor jobs, from rope factory to crane operator. At age 20, Hill was diagnosed with skin and joint tuberculosis. He moved to Stockholm for treatment, undergoing a series of disfiguring operations on his face and neck, incurring scars which remained for the rest of his life.

His mother died of complications from a back operation when Hill was 22. Joe and his brother, Paul, went to America, and the other children stayed in Sweden. Working various laborer jobs over the years, from the east coast to the west, Hill started his life as a union organizer, writing songs about the experiences of the working class, bringing their plight to homes across America. Songs about immigrant factory workers, homeless migratory workers and railway shopcraft workers were common themes and became a part of the International Workers of the World’s (IWW, “Wobblies”) Little Red Song Book. Hill’s songs include: “The Tramp,” “There is Power in the Union,” “Rebel Girl,” and “Casey Jones – Union Scab.” Hill’s irreverent classic, “The Preacher and the Slave” parodies the hymn, “In the Sweet Bye and Bye” and lampoons the Salvation Army (“The Starvation Army”). (See song below.)

Humanist Freethinker: Ani DiFranco




On this date in 1970, punk folksinger Ani DiFranco was born in Buffalo, N.Y. Ani (pronounced AHH-nee) started singing Beatles’ songs in local bars as a youngster. By 15, she had begun writing her own material, and was living on her own. She graduated at age 16 from the Visual and Performing Arts High School in Buffalo and moved to New York City at 18.

She has produced 13 albums. Sing Out calls her lyrics “jaw-dropping.” Spurning offers from indie and major labels alike, Ani started her own record company, Righteous Babe Records. Ani not only writes and publishes her own songs and produces her own recordings, but even creates the artwork.

An in-demand artist, she tours acoustic, college and rock club circuits, winning over a diverse audience. Her freethought views are revealed in such songs as “Animal” (from Educated Guess), in which she sings about growing up “surrounded by willful ignorance” and “the religions of men.”

She said in an interview with the Progressive:

“I’m not a religious person myself. I’m an atheist. I think religion serves a lot of different purposes in people’s lives . . . but then, of course, institutional religions are so problematic” (May 2000).

“I’m an atheist… how unfortunate it is to assign responsibility to the higher up for justice amongst people.”

—Ani DiFranco, interview by Matthew Rothschild, The Progressive, May 2000

Humanist Freethinker: Leo Tolstoy



On this date in 1828, the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy was born as a landed count and aristocrat. After serving in the Crimean War, his sense of social justice began to surface and he worked with peasant schools. Tolstoy had a religious crisis in his forties, which, although it moved him from outright skepticism, caused him to denounce the powerful and corrupt Orthodox Church of Russia. Tolstoy called the church an “impenetrable forest of stupidity” and a “conscious deception that serves as a means for one part of the people to govern the other,” according to biographer Tikhon Polner.

Tolstoy, in such books as Critique of Dogmatic Theology, wrote that Jesus Christ was human, not divine, rejected miracles and immortality. In My Confession (1882), Tolstoy wrote: “If there is no higher reason–and there is none–then my own reason must be the supreme judge of my life.” The books were banned by church censors, and Tolstoy was called an “impious infidel.”

Tolstoy determined that his artistry must also have a moral purpose. From 1885 to 1895, he worked to make literature accessible to the masses and organized relief during famine. In 1895, he gave up his property, living as a nature-worshipping peasant, like his main protagonist in War and Peace. In that novel, Tolstoy wrote: “Freethinkers are those who are willing to use their minds without prejudice and without fearing to understand things that clash with their own customs, privileges or beliefs.” As James A. Haught wrote in 2000 Years of Disbelief: “Many people who reject supernatural Christianity nonetheless embrace Christ’s message of compassion. Tolstoy carried this pattern to an extreme. He renounced organized religion and was excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church–yet he became almost a monk, living in service to others.”

Tolstoy was excommunicated by the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in 1901. He belonged to no sect, while espousing an ethical Christianity. In What Is Religion? (1902), Tolstoy wrote: “One may say with one’s lips: ‘I believe that God is one, and also three’–but no one can believe it, because the words have no sense.” He also wrote On Life and Essays on Religion (1887) that: “Freethinkers are those who are willing to use their minds without prejudice and without fearing to understand things that clash with their own customs, privileges, or beliefs. This state of mind is not common, but it is essential for right thinking…” D. 1910.

“. . . To regard Christ as God, and to pray to him, are to my mind the greatest possible sacrilege.”

—Leo Tolstoy, response to excommunication in letter to Holy Synod, April 4, 1901 (All citations from 2,000 Years of Disbelief by James A. Haught)


Freethinker: Gene Roddenberry



On this date in 1921, writer/producer Eugene Wesley Roddenberry, creator of “Star Trek,” was born in El Paso, Texas. He left for “Space, the final frontier,” at age 70 from a cardiopulmonary blood clot. In college he studied pre-law and engineering and got his pilot’s license. He flew B-17s in World War II and was a commercial pilot for Pan Am. He joined the Los Angeles Police Department in 1949 and became speechwriter for Chief William H. Parker. He began writing scripts for TV shows like “The U.S. Steel Hour,” “Goodyear Theater,” “The Kaiser Aluminum Hour,” “Four Star Theater,” “Dragnet,” “The Jane Wyman Theater” and “Naked City.” He won his first Emmy for “Have Gun, Will Travel.” “Star Trek” debuted on NBC in 1966 and ran until 1969 (79 episodes). A sequel series, “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” premiered in 1987 and ended in 1994 (176 episodes). Paramount Pictures produced 11 “Star Trek” feature films through 2013. D. 1991

“I have always been reasonably leery of religion because there are so many edicts in religion, ‘thou shalt not,’ or ‘thou shalt.’ I wanted my world of the future to be clear of that.”

——Gene Roddenberry, cited by Susan Sackett (

Freethinker: Proud to be an American…


From  Andrew Seidel
Staff Attorney and Constitutional Consultant
Freedom From Religion Foundation

I’m proud to be an American. This is not some blind, jingoistic, nationalist pride—it’s not my country right or wrong (I only adopt that attitude during the World Cup and the Olympics). I’m proud because this nation, despite its faults and missteps, was the first to separate state and church. That “wall of separation” as Jefferson put it, is an American original.

This is not to say the idea is necessarily an American invention, but it was first implemented in the “American Experiment,” as Madison put it. Until then, no other nation had sought to so full protect the ability of its citizens to think freely. No people had sought to divorce the terrible power religion holds over the supposed afterlife, from the power government has in everyday life. Until then, the freedom of thought and even the freedom of religion, could never have truly existed.


Freethinker: Hugh Laurie



On this date in 1959, James Hugh Calum Laurie was born in Oxford, England. Laurie attended Eton College, where he competed in rowing, and later attended Cambridge University, where he studied anthropology. At Cambridge, Laurie joined the Footlights, Cambridge’s student comedy society, where he met future collaborators Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry. He graduated in 1981 from Selwyn College, with a degree in anthropology and archaeology.

After graduation, he worked on a variety of comic television projects in Britain. He had a recurring role in the third and fourth seasons of the popular UK sitcom “Blackadder” (1983-1989), and with Stephen Fry wrote and starred in the sketch comedy series “A Bit of Fry and Laurie” (1987-1995). During that time, Laurie also starred opposite Fry in the series “Jeeves and Wooster” (1990-1993), adapted from P.G. Wodehouse‘s novels. (Laurie played the bumbling Bertie Wooster and Fry played the butler, Jeeves.)

Notable screen roles have included “Sense and Sensibility,” screenplay by Emma Thompson (who also starred in it), paired opposite Imogen Stubbs, a frequent co-star (1995). Laurie, whose father was a medical doctor, is perhaps best known for his starring role on the U.S. drama series “House, M.D.” (2004-2012). On “House,” Laurie plays an infectious disease specialist and brilliant diagnostician. In a significant departure from the upper-class British characters Laurie has played throughout most of his career, Dr. House has an American accent.

Laurie and his wife, theater administrator Jo Green, have been married since 1989. They have three children. Laurie lived in Los Angeles for much of the year filming “House,” but his family has remained in London. In 2011, Laurie released an album of Blues music recorded in New Orleans, entitled “Let Them Talk.” Laurie does vocals and piano for the album, collaborating with many famous Blues musicians. Laurie was raised Scottish Presbyterian, and continues to express an affinity for this background, despite now identifying as an atheist. He once told The Times [U.K.], “I admire the music, buildings and ethics of religion, but I come unstuck on the God thing” (March 29, 2008).

James Lipton: Do you share House’s skepticism?

Hugh Laurie: [laughing] I do. Big chunks of it, yes. I’m not a religious man. Again, I think this is connected to my father. My father was religious oddly enough, but I nonetheless I suppose was impressed by [and] enamored of his devotion to medical science. I find I am a fan of science. I believe in science. A humility before the facts. I find that a moving and beautiful thing. And belief in the unknown I find less interesting. I find the known and the knowable interesting enough.

—Hugh Laurie in an interview on “Inside the Actors Studio,” July 31, 2006