Francisco Ferrer: Freethought Martyr

By James Haught

James Haught is editor of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette, and a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He is 87-years-old and would like to help secular causes more. This series is a way of giving back.

[Ed., Thank you, Jim, truly.]

Something in human psychology causes a recurring pattern: Many freethinkers opposed to supernatural religion are also so-called “social justice warriors” — political and social rebels who renounce militarism, capitalist greed, government oppression and cultural taboos. They crusade for human rights and fairness for underdogs.

A classic example was Francisco Ferrer, an atheist reformer who was executed in what some call a “new Spanish Inquisition.” 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 for 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 rationalist school soared in popularity. Branches were opened in several cities, then spread 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. Mass arrests, torture and deportation followed.

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 later called the case “judicial murder” to silence a troublesome reformer.

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 international protests as far away as Asia. One report says: “A 15,000-person throng descended on Paris’s 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 quoted 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:

“When the masses become better informed about science, they will feel less need for help from supernatural Higher Powers. 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.

Link here at Daylight Atheism.

Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular AllianceCentre for Inquiry CanadaKelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.

Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du QuébecAtheist FreethinkersCentral Ontario Humanist AssociationComox Valley HumanistsGrey Bruce HumanistsHalton-Peel Humanist CommunityHamilton HumanistsHumanist Association of LondonHumanist Association of OttawaHumanist Association of TorontoHumanists, Atheists and Agnostics of ManitobaOntario Humanist SocietySecular Connextions SeculaireSecular Humanists in CalgarySociety of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph)Thunder Bay HumanistsToronto OasisVictoria Secular Humanist Association.

Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an AgnostikerAmerican Atheists,American Humanist AssociationAssociação Brasileira de Ateus e Agnósticos/Brazilian Association of Atheists and AgnosticsAtheist Alliance InternationalAtheist Alliance of AmericaAtheist CentreAtheist Foundation of AustraliaThe Brights MovementCenter for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist IrelandCamp Quest, Inc.Council for Secular HumanismDe Vrije GedachteEuropean Humanist FederationFederation of Indian Rationalist AssociationsFoundation Beyond BeliefFreedom From Religion FoundationHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist InternationalHumanist Association of GermanyHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist Society of ScotlandHumanists UKHumanisterna/Humanists SwedenInternet InfidelsInternational League of Non-Religious and AtheistsJames Randi Educational FoundationLeague of Militant AtheistsMilitary Association of Atheists and FreethinkersNational Secular SocietyRationalist InternationalRecovering From ReligionReligion News ServiceSecular Coalition for AmericaSecular Student AllianceThe Clergy ProjectThe Rational Response SquadThe Satanic TempleThe Sunday AssemblyUnited Coalition of ReasonUnion of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.

Photo by Robby McCullough on Unsplash

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