Cover of the Centenary issue of the Freethinker, May 1981, with contributions by notable humanists Harold Blackham and Margaret Knight, and Dora, the second wife of Bertrand Russell.

Chapman Cohen’s name is rarely heard today, yet for 34 years he was president of the National Secular Society (1915 -1949) and for 36 years served as editor of this magazine (1915 – 1951). Nobody has ever written more about freethought than ‘CC’.  He was arguably a real philosopher whose talents included the ability to explain abstract ideas in a language ordinary people could understand. It may be worth adding that he never received any recognition in academic circles. At the time, his working-class origins made that hard enough to attain; his association with an organisation like the NSS, which some regarded as disreputable, and with the editorship of the infidel Freethinker, made it impossible.

Despite holding the office of NSS president longer than anybody else ever has, Cohen rarely used the terms ‘secular’, ‘secularist’ or ‘secularism’, preferring ‘freethought’ and ‘freethinker’.  This may well have reflected his philosopher’s perspective, but also have indicated a preference for such a positive and relatively perspicuous term.  Contrast that with ‘secularism’, whose meaning is often seen as obscure or ambiguous.

The synthesis of much of Cohen’s writings is found in his wonderful 18 Pamphlets for the People.  Number 7, entitled ‘What is Freethought?’, was written shortly before the Second World War. Like the others, it occupied 16 tightly written pages of plain English. To summarise Cohen’s summary, freethought has no creed and is anathema to dogma. It stands not for the sanctity of opinion, but the right to express opinion: ‘Its essence lies in the denial of authority in the sphere of opinion.’  It follows that whatever opinion a person holds should be their own, otherwise they are a mere echo. 

As such, freethought may be regarded as virtuous, but it is also essential. Humanity’s progress depends on a variation in ideas, a sort of philosophical evolution, as new theories and ideas replace older redundant or obsolescent forms. Cohen tells us that true revolutionaries are not those who hurl bombs, but those who pioneer new ideas. He argues that real improvement in society depends on the creation of an environment hospitable to new ideas. From this perspective, Galileo, Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin were the true revolutionaries. ‘Free speech’ was a term employed less frequently in Cohen’s era, but it is clear from what he says that free speech is intrinsic to freethought. The two are inseparable, and equally important to human progress.

One of the NSS’s most eminent associates was the philosopher Bertrand Russell, whose connection to the organisation stretched over many years. It was on an NSS platform in 1927 that Russell gave a lecture which became the text of one of his most famous, or notorious, essays, ‘Why I am Not a Christian’.  He was also on the NSS’s Distinguished Members’ Panel, and prominent in supporting campaigns like those for secular education and abortion law reform.

In his 1944 work, The Value of Free Thought. How to Become a Truth Seeker and Break the Chains of Mental Slavery, Russell echoed Cohen’s arguments. ‘What makes a freethinker is not his beliefs but the way in which he holds them. If he holds them because his elders told him they were true when he was young, or if he holds them because if he did not, he would be unhappy, his thought is not free; but if he holds them because, after careful thought he finds a balance of evidence in their favour, then his thought is free.’

In the same essay Russell argues that the search for truth and the conquest of fear are at the heart of freethought. To him the creed of freethought is optimistic; its adherents strive for a better world.

Cohen’s belief in freethought also explains his contempt for organised or ‘revealed’ religion.  For him, the very purpose of a priesthood was to exercise authority over others’ beliefs, repress freethought and thus arrest human progress. It should be stressed that freethought is not synonymous with atheism, which is generally taken to mean the denial of a deity’s existence. Thomas Paine, for example, was a freethinker and strong critic of the established church or ‘priesthood’, despite being a deist who believed in God. Like Cohen, he valued intellectual independence, proclaiming in The Age of Reason, ‘My own mind, is my own church.’ An advantage of ‘freethought’ is that it is more positive than ‘atheism’, and does not have the negative connotations that have always dogged the latter.

As for the relationship between freethought and secularism, as I mentioned above, the word ‘secularism’ is ambiguous and has been defined in different ways in different eras. G.J. Holyoake is generally given credit for coining the term, but his conception was far broader than that generally accepted today. For example, in an 1853 debate Holyoake outlined three secularist principles. First, that secularism gives precedence to the duties of this life rather than those that might pertain to ‘another world’.  Second, that science is superior to ‘spiritual dependency’. Third, that morality has social origins rather than ‘spiritual authority’. One might go so far as to suggest that ‘humanism’ closely resembles Holyoake’s conception of secularism. 

The NSS has defined secularism more narrowly to mean something which ‘works for the separation of religion and state and equal respect for everyone’s human rights so that no one is either advantaged or disadvantaged on account of their beliefs.’ Cohen’s ‘right to express opinion’ seems to sit comfortably with the idea that ‘no one is either advantaged or disadvantaged on account of their beliefs.’ The NSS tells us that secularism requires the separation of Church and state in the interests of fairness and equality. Secularism might well seem attractive to freethinkers, although freethought itself has a philosophical dimension absent from secularism, which, at least as the NSS defines it, is a purely political concept. Another way of putting it is that secularism is a political idea rooted in the philosophical concept of freethought. It is time for secularists to acknowledge and celebrate this intellectual heritage.

On the career of Chapman Cohen and his conception of freethought, see further this YouTube video made using a 1932 78 rpm recording of Cohen talking about ‘The Meaning and Value of Freethought’.

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