"Four hundred years of Freethought—from 1492 to 1892—present the most alluring and brilliant pages of human history. Only those who stand at the end of these crowded centuries can realize the advancing greatness of humanity...Through darkness and struggle; through bloody war; through torture and terror; through superstition, ignorance, and tyranny, Freethought has steadily pushed onward, with true Promethean fire, with the torch of reason, with undaunted face, with unreceding step, until now it leads the world with victorious colors."

This is the introductory passage from an 874-page book called 400 Years of Freethought, published in 1894 by the Truth Seeker Company. Its author, Samuel P. Putnam, was a former Congregationalist minister who had drifted through Unitarianism to full-on Freethought. The book tells the stories of over 140 freethinkers, and their contributions to western culture during these four centuries. It’s filled with valuable information—but right now it’s the book itself that fascinates me.

In 1894, an author like Putnam could claim that rational, empirical, scientific advances (many of them made by freethinkers) had lifted the western world out of the dark ages and into modernity. And people, even if they didn’t completely agree on the role of freethinkers, could pretty much agree with Putnam’s general premise. A hundred nineteen years later, that’s no longer the case.

So this is my question: What happened between 1894 and 2013 that gave religion (or religious historians) the upper hand, and how did the events of that century stick to freethinkers and undermine the basic idea that reason leads to progress?

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This is just an offhand guess by someone who isn't even that much of a historian, but my take is that religion reacted to what had been done to it - being written OUT of government.  It was in fits and starts, certainly, and has become more consistent and pernicious as religion has more forcefully attempted to work its way into government.

It's first real putsch (that I know of) was during the Civil War, when the move was on to put "in god we trust" on the coinage of the Union.  Certainly there was a christian influence associated with the efforts to pass the Volstead Act and Prohibition, and it was the Knights of Columbus who insisted that the Pledge of Allegiance include the words, "under god," to distinguish the righteous Americans from the godless communists during the Cold War.

But the most obvious efforts have been since the election of Ronald Reagan and the emergence of the Christian Coalition, the transparent attempts by the Meese Commission to censor and prohibit pornography, and the undisguised efforts of the likes of Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, John Hagee, Donald Wildmon, and too many others to list to put a christian stamp on what should be a secular government.  Do I really need to mention Dubya's "Faith-Based Initiatives" or "Pulpit Freedom Sunday?"  These efforts have had varying degrees of success.

The sad fact is that, if this country was truly dedicated to the secular principles upon which it was founded, they should have had NONE.

Thanks, Loren.  I think you're right.  I wonder if it would be helpful, to really trace the Civil War currency thing.  Lincoln famously observed in his 2nd inaugural address, that both North and South believed they had god on their side.  Salmon Chase (I haven't done the research to back this up yet, so it's just a gut feeling) was a madman.  Ironically, his push to get god onto a national currency coincides with his push to GET a national currency and put state banks out of business -- this is a story that has yet to be told.  Maybe it will make the conservatives' heads spin a little, to see the connection between "In God We Trust" and the national banking/national currency acts.  The old-fashioned conservatives, I mean, who are distrustful of centralized power.  

History is the interplay between more variables than just reason and science. There are also matters of the heart, and the rise and fall of different groups/civilisations. If you want lasting progress you need (a) reason and science, (b) caring hearts and (c) group fitness.

Currently Western civilisation is going the way of the Roman Empire: into oblivion, to be replaced by the Chinese - hungry for power. So if you want lasting progress you must also tends to hearts, and group fitness, not just reason and science.

I don't know why you think religion is gaining the "upper hand". Islam is reasserting itself in the Middle East now that colonial powers and Ataturks have gone (and moronic Obama aids the Muslim Brotherhood), but Islam is a backwards religion and I'd be surprised if it can co-exist with technological progress for long. The future belongs to the Chinese (on current trends), and they are atheists, but I wouldn't bet on them having caring hearts for folks like us.

Oh hang on, Islam is rising in Europe, thanks to demented immigration policies. That's down to group fitness i.e. Westerners who are so ideologically demented that they think they can import anyone into their country and not be radically transformed by it. It's civilisational suicide.

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