Political theory tries to figure out how society should be best set up and it is based on the study of human nature. Each political theorist relies on a given set of assumptions about human nature in order to argue how best to organize humans in a society. Anarchism is a political theory about the way society should be set up; chiefly anarchists believe that societies function best when people are free from authority, hierarchy, or dominance. Anarchism does not mean that society should have no rules. Rather, it means that if society should have rules, those rules should not be coerced upon anyone. People in society should only have to follow the rules with which they consent. Any rule imposed on an individual without their consent is an unacceptable violation of their rights.
The modern freethought movement began in the seventeenth century as part of the Enlightenment Era. Philosophers sought to examine religious dogma more critically and to base their opinions off of science, logic, reason, rationality, or empiricism instead of deferring to tradition or authority. The so-called Golden Age of Freethought occurred in the mid-eighteenth century; the suffrage movement, Darwin’s theory of evolution and the Communist Manifesto along with other social and political trends caused many people to challenge their assumptions about the orthodoxy of Christianity.
Anarchism has lent itself to other religious ideologies like Paganism, Buddhism, and Taoism. Buddhism itself is a very anti-authoritarian religion and offers a worldview that jives well with anarchism. Indeed, Siddhartha writes in the Kalama Sutta:
It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’
Neopaganist thinkers like Starhawk have written extensively about eco-feminism. Eco-feminism is a political philosophy that focuses on the intersections of environmentalism and feminism; Starhawk argues that patriarchy is closely tied to the domination of nature and that women are more tuned to nature. She argues that a matriarchal society wouldn’t dominate the natural world. Rather, a matriarchal society would form a more mutualistic relationship with the natural world. Starhawk’s eco-feminism philosophy relies heavily on neo-paganist beliefs that equality and nature are sacred, beliefs that she has been championing politically for the last three decades.
The Abrahamic religions have also been incorporated into theories of anarchism. Islamic anarchism is based on an interpretation of Islam as “submission to God” which is highly critical of any authority outside of Allah. Aside from the Sunnis and Shiites, a third sect within Islam called the Kharijites held more anti-authoritarian views than their mainstream counterparts; while Shiites believed that the fourth Rashidun caliph Ali Ibn Abu Talib and his descendents were the rightful successors of the prophet Muhammad, the Sunnis believed that anyone from Ali’s tribe could become leader, even if they weren’t directly related to Ali. The Khawarij claimed that leadership wasn’t confined to the Quraysh tribe and that any qualified Muslim could be an Imam. Another tradition of Islam called Sufism focuses on a non-violent and non-authoritarian Sufism also tends to incorporate elements of mysticism, accentuating the fact that a spiritual connection with Allah is a personal experience, one that can’t be moderated through an organized religion.
Christian Anarchists believe that Jesus’ teachings are anti-authoritarian and by coming to Earth to fulfill the Mosaic law, people are no longer beholden to the Old Testament. Ultimately, they believe, that Christians answer to God rather than the rules of the state, as long as they adhere to the Golden Rule and strive to turn the other cheek. Quakerism, long known for their tolerance towards the freethought movement, was also based on the ideals of anarchism; decisions were made on a community level rather than handed down from a central authority. Quakers were involved in social activism in the anti-nuclear and anti-globalization movements in the later half of the twentieth century, and although Quakers hold a wide range of political opinions, by and large, their faith seems to be sensitive to the use of power and how it is distributed in society.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, the ties between anarchism and the freethought movement began to foment as an anti-clerical movement swept through Europe and the United States. The nineteenth century was a bloody century for both Europe and the United States. Many saw the modern state as coercive and dominating like Catalan Catalan anarchist and freethinker Francesc Ferrer i Guàrdia who wanted to limit the Catholic Church’s influence by setting up secular schools in Spain. Especially in Europe where the separation of church and state did not exist, many saw their state-sponsored church as just another bureaucracy to rebel against. The pioneers of anarchist thought like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon argued alike that “property is theft” and “God is evil”. Other anarchists like Russian thinker Peter Kropotkin argued that just as the State would be replaced by communism, so too would religion with a belief in a supernatural deity be replaced by science and an understanding of the natural world.
The freethought movement can trace its roots back to the times of the Ancient Greeks, but the key theorists that we tend to attribute to the modern freethought movement were inspired in part during the Romantic transcendentalist era in the 1840s. Poets, artists, writers, and painters began to create works of art that aspired to depict the beauty of the natural world and the landscapes around them. And as Americans began to move west, they were awarded with unspoiled natural scenery, rich in color, depth, and complexity to serve as their muse.
The awe-inspiring complexity of nature led many to doubt the worship of God that they experienced about in church. The wild frontier of the American West became their church. Preservationists like John Muir believed that wilderness was a divine and any attempt to domesticate the outdoors was tantamount to sacrilege. Other prominent anarchists in the U.S. were violently opposed to religion and many anarchists also identified as freethinkers. Anarchists frequently contributed to the freethought publication Liberty; authors like Emma Goldman claimed that while government dominated human conduct and property dominated human need, religion dominated the human mind.