“Cutting”, “abrasive”, “sarcastic”, “offensive” … These are just some of the words used to describe the Freethinker magazine, which was launched in Britain in 1881 and has continued publishing without a break ever since. But it was the word “blasphemous”, dropped from the lips of a hostile judge, that that got its founder and first editor G W Foote into serious trouble. As a result mainly of irreligious cartoons published in the Christmas, 1882, edition, the judge declared the issue “blasphemous” and Foote was sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment with hard labour.
But the magazine, under caretaker editor Edward E Aveling, kept rolling off the presses, to the chagrin of the Home Office and the police, and to the delight of a growing number of readers who could hardly believe that any magazine in respectable, Victorian England, would dare attack religion in such an aggressive manner.
In issue 1 of the Freethinker (May, 1881) Foote wrote:
The Freethinker is an anti-Christian organ, and must therefore be chiefly aggressive. It will wage relentless war against Superstition in general, and against Christian Superstition in particular. It will do its best to employ the resources of Science, Scholarship, Philosophy and Ethics against the claims of the Bible as a Divine Revelation; and it will not scruple to employ for the same purpose any weapons of ridicule or sarcasm that may be borrowed from the armoury of Common Sense.
Ever since, the Freethinker has remained faithful to Foote’s founding principles, and has never wavered in its opposition to religion.
Although the world today is a very different place to that inhabited by G W Foote, one thing has not changed: religion is still casting its baleful shadow over the lives of people all over the world, as the events of September 11, 2001, and subsequent religiously-motivated atrocities around the world, so graphically demonstrate.
Although Christianity had always been the main target for the magazine’s scathing barbs, Islam and other fast-spreading religions in the UK have also come into the firing line, and their lunacies exposed.
Over the years the magazine has vigorously campaigned against all forms of censorship, and pushed hard for the abolition of the law of blasphemy. The law, finally scrapped in 2008, was last used in the UK against Gay News in 1977 when Mary Whitehouse brought a private prosecution against the paper for publishing James Kirkup’s poem The Love That Dares To Speak its Name. The poem, which described homosexual acts between “a well-hung” Jesus and a Roman centurion, was judged “blasphemous”. In July 2002 the present editor of the Freethinker, Barry Duke, joined an impressive array of politicians and writers who, in a demonstration against the blasphemy law, gathered on the steps of a central church in London and read the poem out loud.
The Freethinker also seeks:
- The disestablishment of the Church of England.
- The removal of all religious representation from the House of Lords.
- The ending of religious indoctrination and religious assemblies in State schools.
- The closure of all publicly-funded “faith-based” schools.
- The ending of the provision of prison, hospital and armed forces chaplains at public expense.
The magazine provides in-depth articles, reviews and lively commentary from a rationalist viewpoint. It played a key role in pioneering the birth control movement, and has vigorously campaigned – and still campaigns – alongside the closely-associated National Secular Society, on a wide range of important issues.
A full account of Foote’s prosecution – Martyrdom of a Freethinker: Blasphemy, Secularism and the Trials of G W Foote – and the outrage expressed by the public to the legal action taken against him has been published by the University of Leeds.