Many freethinkers opposed to supernatural religion are also political and social rebels who renounce militarism, capitalist greed, government oppression and cultural taboos.
A classic example from history is Francisco Ferrer, an atheist reformer who was executed in what some call a “new Spanish Inquisition.” The anniversary of his execution occurred a few days ago (Oct. 13), and so here’s his story.
Ferrer was born in 1859 on a farm near Barcelona into a pious Catholic family. But his freethinker uncle and atheist first employer helped him reject magical religion. He became involved in left-wing causes, including Republican efforts to end Spain’s monarchy.
As a conductor on a train between Barcelona and France, Ferrer secretly sent messages for an exiled Republican leader and helped political refugees escape to safety. After a Spanish Republican uprising failed in 1895, Ferrer fled with his wife and three daughters to Paris, where they stayed 16 years. He joined various socialist and anarchist causes.
A wealthy woman he had tutored left him a million gold francs, so Ferrer returned to Barcelona and launched a secular “Modern School,” openly defying the monarchy and Catholic dogmatic education that saturated Spain. At that time, about half of Spaniards were illiterate. His pupils were taught freely, without tests or grades. One report says his classes “championed traits of reason, dignity, self-reliance and scientific observation over that of piety and obedience.” The school soared in popularity. Branches were opened in several cities and then internationally.
Ferrer’s school had a printing press that produced his dogma-free textbooks and also printed radical tracts. In 1906, a wealthy young zealot who operated the press attempted to assassinate King Alfonso XIII, but failed, then committed suicide. Ferrer was charged as a conspirator, and his schools were closed. In his jail cell, he wrote on the wall: “When their god and his exploiters cease to be adored and served, we shall live like comrades in mutual respect and affection.”
Eventually, Ferrer was freed, because no evidence tied him to the crime. He toured Europe, giving speeches, and founded the International League for the Rational Education of Children.
In 1909, when the Spanish government ordered military reservists to fight a renewed colonial war in Morocco, wives led public protests in Barcelona. A general strike triggered riots, which brought a government crackdown, and hundreds were killed. Ferrer, known for his radical activism, was accused of causing the uprising. He protested that he had little to do with the spontaneous public revolt. He was convicted in a kangaroo “show trial” and sentenced to death by firing squad. Historian Paul Avrich has called the case “judicial murder.”
In his cell, awaiting death, Ferrer wrote on the wall: “Let no more gods or exploiters be served. Let us learn rather to love each other.” Before the firing squad, his last words were: “Aim well, my friends. You are not responsible. I am innocent. Long live the Modern School.”
After Ferrer’s death, Pope Pius X sent a gold-handled sword engraved with felicitations to the Spanish military prosecutor who railroaded the atheist reformer.
Ferrer’s execution triggered protests as far away as Asia. One report says: “A 15,000-person throng descended on Paris’ Spanish Embassy, and the anarchist black flag draped from the Milan Cathedral. British luminaries spoke in outrage, including George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle.” The uproar forced Spain’s Premier Antonio Maura to resign.
Historian Avrich quotes Ferrer as saying: “Science has shown that the story of the creation is a myth and the gods legendary.” The Encyclopedia of Unbelief quotes him: “The need for religion will end when man becomes sensible enough to govern himself.”
Today, few remember Francisco Ferrer, but he’s a freethought martyr. You might say he was the last significant European executed for heresy.
This column is adapted from a piece published at Daylight Atheism on Oct. 7, 2019.