Free Thought and Official Propaganda

Moncure Conway, in whose honour we are
assembled to-day, devoted his life to two great objects: freedom of thought and freedom of the individual. In regard to both these objects, something has been gained since his
time, but something also has been lost. New dangers, somewhat different in form from those of past ages, threaten both kinds of freedom, and unless a vigorous and vigilant
public opinion can be aroused in defence of them, there will be much less of both a hundred years hence than there is now. My purpose in this address is to emphasize the
new dangers and to consider how they can be met.

Let us begin by trying to be clear as to what we mean by “free thought.” This expression has two senses. In its narrower
sense it means thought which does not accept the dogmas of traditional religion. In this sense a man is a “free thinker” if he is not a Christian or a Mussulman or a Buddhist or
a Shintoist or a member of any of the other bodies of men who accept some inherited orthodoxy. In Christian countries a man is called a ” free thinker ” if he does not decidedly
believe in God, though this would not suffice to make a man a “free thinker” in a Buddhist country.

I do not wish to minimize the importance of free thought in this sense. (…) But there is also a wider sense of “free
thought,” which I regard as of still greater importance. Indeed, the harm done by traditional religions seems chiefly traceable to the fact that they have prevented free thought in
this wider sense. The wider sense is not so easy to define as the narrower, and it will be well to spend some little time in trying to arrive at its essence.

When we speak of anything as “free,” our meaning is not definite unless we can say what it is free from. Whatever or whoever is “free” is not subject to some external compulsion, and to be precise we ought to say what this kind of compulsion is. Thus thought is “free” when it is free from certain kinds of outward control which are often
present. Some of these kinds of control which must be absent if thought is to be “free” are
obvious, but others are more subtle and elusive.

To begin with the most obvious. Thought is not “free” when legal penalties are incurred
by the holding or not holding of certain opinions, or by giving expression to one’s
belief or lack of belief on certain matters. Very few countries in the world have as yet
even this elementary kind of freedom. In England, under the Blasphemy Laws, it is
illegal to express disbelief in the Christian religion, though in practice the law is not set
in motion against the well-to-do. It is also illegal to teach what Christ taught on the
subject of non-resistance. Therefore, whoever wishes to avoid becoming a criminal
must profess to agree with Christ’s teaching, but must avoid saying what that teaching
was. In America no one can enter the country without first solemnly declaring that
he disbelieves in anarchism and polygamy ; and, once inside, he must also disbelieve in
communism. In Japan it is illegal to express disbelief in the divinity of the Mikado. It
will thus be seen that a voyage round the world is a perilous adventure. A Mohammedan, a Tolstoyan, a Bolshevik, or a Christian cannot undertake it without at some point
becoming a criminal, or holding his tongue about what he considers important truths.
This, of course, applies only to steerage passengers ; saloon passengers are allowed
to believe whatever they please, provided they avoid offensive obtrusiveness.

It is clear that the most elementary condition, if thought is to be free, is the absence
of legal penalties for the expression of opinions. No great country has yet reached
to this level, although most of them think they have. The opinions which are still
persecuted strike the majority as so monstrous and immoral that the general principle of
toleration cannot be held to apply to them.

Legal penalties are, however, in the modern world, the least of the obstacles to freedom of
thought. The two great obstacles are economic penalties and distortion of evidence. It
is clear that thought is not free if the profession of certain opinions makes it impossible to earn
a living. It is clear also that thought is not free if all the arguments on one side of a con-
troversy are perpetually presented as attractively as possible, while the arguments on the
other side can only be discovered by diligent search. Both these obstacles exist in every
large country known to me, except China, which is the last refuge of freedom. It is
these obstacles with which I shall be concerned – their present magnitude, the likelihood of their increase, and the possibility of
their diminution.

  • [url=]Bertrand Russell: Free Thought and Official Propaganda[/url] (1922)