“To deny the possibility, nay, the actual existence of witchcraft and sorcery, is at once flatly to contradict the revealed word of God in various passages both of the Old and New Testament, and the thing itself is a Truth to which every nation in the world hath, in its turn, borne testimony, by either example seemingly well attested or by prohibitory laws, which at least suppose the possibility of a commerce with evil spirits.” -William Blackstone, Commentaries, 1765
Freethought is the notion that our opinions should be built upon logical reasoning from natural experience and evidence, not from dogma, superstition, authority, or tradition.
October 12 is Freethought Day. It is a day to reflect upon the meaning and the ramifications of Freethought. What does Freethought entail? What does it demand? What does it discount?
Atheist organizations here and there hold different celebrations and events around Freethought Day. (Sacramento’s is one of the most established
.) Unsurprisingly, atheists and Freethinkers are loathe to adopt rituals and customs. I like the idea of Freethought Day, however, in no small part because of that very tension: a custom celebrating resistance to customs – what fun.
So why October 12?
For a period of months in 1692 the good people of Salem Massachusetts set themselves the task of ridding their community of “witches.” In spring of that year, people started accusing their neighbors of having harmed them through supernatural means. More than 150 people were accused and imprisoned, 14 women and five men were hanged and one man was pressed to death.
“Trial of George Jacobs, August 5, 1692.” By Thomkins H. Matteson, painter (Collection of the Peabody Essex Museum). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
The upstanding people of Salem slowly started to turn against the proceedings as more and more people, and more and more wealthy and influential people, were accused. On October 12 of that year Governor William Phipps sent a letter addressed to the clerk of the Privy Council of King William and Queen Mary of England, detailing how he had been away from the colony (fighting the French) for much of the year and upon his return stopped the proceedings. Further letters and statements by Phipps and by others involved (some of them clergy), expressed dissatisfaction with, and regret for, the allowance of “spectral evidence” in convicting their fellows of devilry.
Spectral evidence is an assertion by a claimant that they’ve had a supernatural vision and that vision is, somehow, reality. In the witch trials at Salem, people claimed that they had been physically harmed by defendants who were not physically present and the accused were convicted based upon these claims. People were tortured, imprisoned and killed as a direct result of baseless assertion and superstition.
One thing I find interesting about the happenings at Salem is that the believing populace finally turned away from the use of spectral evidence because they were forced to. As far as we know, there were no Freethinkers – much less atheists – in Salem. If there were, they knew better than to admit it. But the town had to give up a tenet of their religion because it was ruining innocent people and tearing their community apart; nobody was immune and there was no defense. They were forced to come to their senses before their religion destroyed them. Exodus 22:18, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” had to be scrapped whether god himself had decreed it or not.
Freethought Day is October 12 to remind us of the dangers of superstition and to encourage us to challenge baseless claims, tradition and authority.
Happy Freethought Day!