Free thought activity in Australia: From margins to mainstream

By Rosslyn Ives 


Freethought - 'thought unrestrained by deference to authority, especially in matters of religion,' and 'the school of thought which maintains that, in questions of religion, atheism is the only rationally acceptable conclusion.'[1]


The emergence of freethought in Western Europe and its colonies seems to be an almost inevitable outcome of the many changes that had occurred during the preceding centuries – changes that expanded knowledge and understanding about the place of humans in the scheme of things.

It is usual to mark the more significant changes as beginning in the late 15th century, with the voyages of discovery and exploration across the globe; along with the Renaissance, i.e. the ‘rebirth’ of human-centred ideas stimulated by the rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman texts. These changes were followed in the 17th and 18th centuries by the Scientific Revolution which stimulated the development of knowledge based on observation, experi-ments and careful recording. Then during the 18th century Enlightenment thinkers elevated the role of reason over revelation, leading them to critically challenge the long-established dominance of the church and monarchy. Later the American and French revolutions heralded the widening of political and legal rights for men – though not initially women.

By the 1840s and ’50s debates about the relative merits and reliability of scientific versus religious knowledge was attracting widespread interest. This led to outspoken free-thinkers openly criticising the veracity of religion. These critics formed groups, held meetings, and wrote pamphlets. Their alternative, non-religious world view was given substantial reinforcement by the naturalist writings of men like Charles Darwin that pointed to the Earth being many millions of years old and species being capable of changing or evolving over time.

By adopting a naturalist interpretation, freethinkers were attacking the credibility of religions, Christianity in particular, which was believed to be crucial to maintaining morals and lawful behaviour in a civilised society. These concerns gave rise to the widely held view that, if free-thinking and the advocacy of non-religious ideas spread,

society would disintegrate into immorality and lawlessness. Consequently those who wanted to be well-regarded members of society were reluctant to associate with free-thinkers (see Darwin below).

An example of a militant freethinker who created a stir in the United Kingdom was Charles Bradlaugh (1833–91). Known as the ‘champion of liberty’, Bradlaugh was an inspiring example of what freethought activism can achieve. In 1866 Bradlaugh, with Charles Watts, founded the National Secular Society (NSS), a group that developed into a centre for freethought activism in the UK. In association with Annie Besant (theosophist and women’s right activist, 1847–1933), Bradlaugh was responsible for reprinting a small American do-it-yourself pamphlet on methods of birth control, Fruits of Philosophy, or The Private Companion to Young married People. When Besant and Bradlaugh were committed for trial at the Old Bailey in 1877, they subpoenaed Darwin as an expert witness on Malthus and population control. However, Darwin pleaded ill health and did not appear.

Bradlaugh’s battle to take his seat in the UK parliament attracted much publicity for himself and the NSS. He was first elected for the seat of Northampton in 1880. It was decided that an affirmation was not acceptable and as he was an infidel an oath would not be binding. He was therefore unable to take his seat although repeatedly elected. Eventually in 1886, after a general election and a change of Speaker, Bradlaugh was allowed to take an oath and at last take his seat. In 1888 Bradlaugh secured passage of an Oaths Amendment Act enshrining into law the right to affirm in all circumstances where an oath was otherwise required.

Freethought in Australia

In Australia freethought activism followed the developments in the ‘mother country’. However, its beginnings were slower due to remoteness from the northern hemisphere population centres. What spurred greater freethought activity was the 1850s Victorian gold rush which attracted many thousands of fortune searchers from across the world. These newcomers brought news of freethought activism as exemplified by Bradlaugh. Heightened social expectations stimulated intellectual activity in Australia, resulting in the formation of freethought groups in many of the larger population centres of the east coast of Australia, particularly Melbourne due to its proximity to the goldfields.

While this article uses the term ‘freethought’ as an umbrella term, what the reader may find of interest is the

range of names that the many freethought groups have adopted since the mid-19th century – secular, freethought, rationalist, humanist and atheist – to give the most common ones in order of historical use. Over the years dozens of different groups have been formed. A few groups remained active for many decades, but most folded after only a few years. Although explaining why so many different terms have been used by freethinkers is not the

focus of this article, the reader will be able to pick up a few clues for this proliferation. They might even like to ponder whether the interest of non-religious Australians have been advanced or hampered by this multiplicity of names.

Based on the commonest terms used, the period from mid-1860s until recent times can be divided into three main eras: the secular, the rationalist and the humanist. This division was used by freethought activist Ray Dahlitz in his history of freethought in Australia, Secular Who’s Who.[2]

The secular era: 1860–1900

During this period more than 30 groups have been identified. They typically called themselves ‘secular’ or ‘freethought’, and occasionally ‘progressive’ and/or ‘spiritualist’. This latter term reflected an interest in spiritualism as a half-way house between religion and no religion that thrived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

One of the earliest groups to form was the Newcastle Secular Society (NSW, 1862), while another strand were the groups that advertised themselves as centres for free and progressive discussion, e.g. Sunday Free Discussion Society (Melbourne 1870), Victorian Association of Progressive Spiritualists (Melbourne, 1872), Adelaide Secular and Free Discussion Society (1876)

In the early 1880s some Australians became subscribers of a UK publication, The Freethinker. This magazine, established in 1881 by G. W Foote, an active freethinker, has been continuously in print until 2014, when it was converted into an online magazine. The circulation of The Freethinker probably led to the wider adoption of ‘freethought’ in group names, e.g. Brisbane Freethought Association (1884), Australasian Freethought Union (Sydney, 1884), SA Freethought Society (Adelaide, 1885).

One of the larger groups to be formed in 1882 was the Australasian Secular Association (ASA) – being pre-federation, membership reflected the regular links between New Zealand and the eastern states of Australia. The form-ation of the ASA was inspired by, and modelled on, the NSS of the UK. Most of its activities were in Melbourne which already had an established freethought and radical tradition, with publications being available through Coles Book Arcade run by freethinker Edward William Cole. Among other contributors was the well-known freethought essayist and author For the Term of his Natural Life, Marcus Clarke.

When the ASA asked Bradlaugh to send a representative from the NSS, Joseph Symes was chosen. He arrived in Melbourne in 1884. As well being a militant firebrand and public speaker, he founded and edited a monthly magazine called The Liberator, which ceased publication in 1904 when Symes retired [1]. He returned to England in 1906 and died there in 1907.

Symes also initiated the construction of a Hall of Science, a place where radical ideas on atheism, abortion, birth control and republicanism were discussed. The building was completed in 1889, though its use by free-thinkers was short lived. Due to the economic downturn and Symes’ return to the UK, the building was sold. Some years later it was resold to the Catholic Church. The building still exists as part of St Vincent’s Hospital on Victoria Parade, Fitzroy.

The Victorian National Trust has recently added the Hall of Science to its heritage register. It is a rare surviving purpose-built freethinkers’ Hall of Science or Freethought Hall, since only four other halls are known to survive in the world. One is in Sydney (built 1890), two in Great Britain, and one in the US. The Melbourne building is the second oldest and it is a reminder, not only of these ardent early freethinkers, but also of the social and lasting consequences of freethought in our society today.[4]

The depression of late 1890s had a marked effect on economic activity in Victoria. It also depressed the liveliness of freethought groups, including the ASA, so that few stayed active for many more years.

The rationalist era: 1900–1960s

With most of the existing groups in disarray, the interest of freethinkers was drawn to publications put out by the London-based Rationalist Press Association (RPA), which was incorporated in1899, though it had been formed some years earlier. The printer for the RPA was a company founded by Charles Watts as a family business, Watts and Co. It maintained a close working relationship with the RPA for over 60 years.

The RPA operated by signing up subscribers who received advice on publications. These included a magazine digest of material of interest, along with numerous pocket-sized books including the well-known Thinker’s Library series, which included reprints as well as some original titles. Between 1929 and 1951, 140 titles were published in the Thinker’s Library series.[5] The RPA’s regular magazine, still in production, went through several name changes over the years, eventually becoming the New Humanist in 1972, a reflection of the preferred term ‘humanist’ adopted widely after the Second World War.

The presence of RPA subscribers during the early decades of the twentieth century, and the appointment of voluntary ‘secretaries’ to maintain subscriptions and attract new ones, led to the formation of groups or societies identifying as ‘rationalist’, with the occasional use of ‘secular’ and ‘freethought’. Around 24+ groups have left records of their activities, the main ones being:

  • 1909, the Rationalist Association of Victoria (some RPA subscribers had been meeting informally since 1906).
  • 1910, the Rationalist Association of NSW.
  • 1914, Queensland Rationalist and Ethical Society.
  • 1918, Rationalist Ass of WA and Rationalist Association of SA (1918).

Rationalist groups met to discuss ideas and held public meetings, sometimes published magazines. Their main focus was on disputing the veracity of religion and promoting the value of science and rational thinking. Over the decades the rationalist groups were given greater credibility by counting among their members socially prominent men such as philosopher John Anderson, historian Brian Fitzpatrick, scientists David Rivett and Michael White; lawyer, politician and later Chief Justice Sir John Latham; and the prominent lawyer and later County Court Judge, Alf Foster.

The rationalists in NSW and Victoria were fortunate to receive financial support from a number of wealthy men, both as direct donations and bequests. This helps explain the continued activity of the Melbourne-based Rationalist Society of Australia and the Sydney-based Rationalist Association of NSW, while the groups that had been active in the other states folded or changed names to either atheist or humanist.

A prominent activist during the rationalist era was UK-born John Langley. He became the full-time secretary of the Rationalist Association of Victoria in 1919. He was an outstanding debater and lecturer, having been trained in a Cambridge University theological college before he converted to rationalism. He became the founding editor of The Rationalist when it began production in 1924.

Personality clashes and ideological differences created serious tensions within the Rationalists. This resulted in the deposing of Langley in 1938 and the appointment of Bill Glanville Cook as his replacement as secretary and administrator of the now national Rationalist Association of Australia (RAA), and editor of The Rationalist.

Under Cook’s leadership the rationalists continued to hold regular meetings and occasional weekend conferences up until the 1980s. In 1977, when Cook retired, a young lawyer Lesley Vick became the president of the RSA. For many years the RAA managed the money and investment side of rationalist activity, while the Melbourne-based Rationalist Society of Australia was the public face, running meetings, conferences and putting out The Rationalist, which over the years changed name first to The Australian Rationalist (1969-74), then The Rationalist Quarterly (1986-1990), adopting its current title of Australian Rationalist in 1990. After some years of internal wrangling the functions of the RAA was absorbed into the RSA, under the current leadership of Dr Meredith Doig.

The humanist era from 1950s

In the years after 1945, as the destruction wrought by the war, along with the incarceration and murder of millions of Jews, and others such as gypsies and homosexuals, became more fully known, many considered Christianity to be in a state of ‘moral bankruptcy’. There was an urge to reconsider the role of religion in the public sphere. This attitude was an influential when the United Nations with entirely secular aims, was formed in 1945.

Some of the same people involved in the formation of the United Nations (UN) called for the need for a secular, ethical alternative to religion. Over 200 delegates, many from existing freethought organisations, met in Amsterdam in 1952 and agreed to form an organisation, the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), and after much discussion agreed on ‘humanism’ and ‘humanist’ as the best freethought names. Many existing freethought groups from around the world affiliated with IHEU, and new groups using ‘Humanist’ were formed, including in Australia.

IHEU has non-government status at the UN and now has affiliated groups in over 140 countries.

Humanist societies in Australia

As news of formation of the IHEU trickled into Australia it stimulated the formation of humanist societies in most states:

  • 1960, Sydney Humanist Group.
  • 1961, Humanist Society of Victoria, formed through the auspices of the Melbourne Unitarian Church and some Rationalists.
  • 1962, the Humanist Society of SA was formed by the coming together of individuals who belonged to interstate or overseas humanist or rationalist groups.
  • 1964, Sydney Humanist Group changed its name to Humanist Society of NSW and the Canberra Humanist Society was formed.
  • 1965, the Humanist Society of WA was formed and the separate state-based societies affiliated to form a national body, the Council of Australian Humanist Societies (CAHS).
  • In 1967 what had been the Rationalist Society of Queensland, by agreement with members, changed its name to the Humanist Society of Queensland.

Humanists were active lobbyists on a range of issues such as access to contraceptives, safe abortions, no-fault divorce, homosexual law reform, and the right to voluntary euthanasia, among many other human rights issues.

At the end of 1966 the first issue of The Australian Humanist was produced under the editorship of Bruce Muirden. It was a professional production, printed by E. J. McAlister & Co Pty Ltd in Adelaide. In 1975, after 36 issues it ceased publication. However, in 1983, under the editorship of SA philosopher, Peter Woolcock, the Australian Humanist (new series) was revived. At first it was published three times a year and inserted as a supple-ment in the Victorian Humanist. Copies were sent to the other state Humanist societies for distribution. By the end of 1984, James Gerrand from Victoria had taken over the editorship of the AH. In 1995 the AH become a quarterly

and was mailed out with the State humanist newsletters in New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria, with a single page of Humanist news for HSSA members. The SA Humanist news page was discontinued in early 2006 and replaced with an A4 insert. Since then Australian Humanist society members have received four copies of the AH per year.

Recognising the forward-thinking step made in 1973 by then Attorney-General, Lionel Murphy, who set up the civil celebrant program, Australian Humanists put in place their annual Australian Humanist of the Year (AHoY) award, making Lionel Murphy the first recipient in 1983, again a pivotal year under the CAHS presidency of John Hirshman. Over the years other AHoYs have included Phillip Adams, Fred Hollows, Peter Singer, Eva Cox, Robyn Williams, Lyn Allison, Tim Flannery, Peter Cundall, Jane Caro and Geoffrey Robertson.

From 1960 to the present, Humanist Societies have continued to be active, by holding regular meetings, putting out publications, and preparing submissions and press releases. Each year representatives from each state-based humanist society meet over three days for a CAHS Convention, where activities for the coming year are planned, speakers heard and AHOY awarded.

In the recent decade, in keeping with the tradition of the frequent formation of freethought groups, there has been a growth in atheist groups. These have been assisted with funding and speakers primarily from the United States. Compared to Humanism or even rationalism the attraction of atheism as a label is the simplicity of its message––no belief in god.


This brief overview has given a generalised picture of organised freethought in Australia since about 1860. Over that time Australia’s settler society has changed from being predominantly Christian and of European origin, to the multi-cultural society of today, with a range of different religions and a growing cohort of non-religious people. Social surveys show the non-religious are now around 40 per cent of population, with regular attendance at religious services having fallen below 10%. The more conservative data from the 2011 Census recorded 22 % as non-religious, 61 % as Christian and about 7 per cent as belonging to a non-Christian religion[6]. Take your pick. Either way being non-religious has moved from the margins to the main-stream of society. Today few are offended if people identify themselves as a humanist or atheist, while professing no religion creates few difficulties for most situations in Australian life.

The post WWII migration explains the multi-cultural mix of Australia today, while the growth in the non-religious cohort is most probably due social changes rather than the activism of a few hundred freethinkers in each generation. These social changes include the repealing of laws that restricted the hours of retail and entertainment activity, a fall in regular Church attendance and recruitment into clergy and religious orders, increased freedom of movement due to private means of transport, and the availability of civil celebrants for marriages[7] and funerals.

Rosslyn Ives is a former secondary science teacher with a Master’s degree in the History and Philosophy of Science. She is an HSV committee member and editor of Australian Humanist.


1. The Macquarie Dictionary.

2. Ray Dahlitz, Secular Who’s Who. Melbourne, 1992.

3. This publication name has recently been revived, as The New Liberator, by the Rationalist Association of NSW.

4. Dr Celestina Sagazio for Young Australian Skeptics website.

5. The HSV library has an incomplete collection of the Thinker’s Library, donated by former librarian and HSV member Colin Watson (now deceased). [The State Library of Victoria has an almost complete collection of the TL.]

6. Data on religious affiliation come from an optional question which some people do not answer.

7. 74% of all marriages are now conducted by civil celebrants.

This is an expanded version of a contribution given at the 'Secularism in the Modern World' conference, held in Melbourne on 31 October, 2015