Are Freethinkers Really Free?

The freethought movement has seen something of a resurgence lately, particularly on college campuses. With very few exceptions (and speaking strictly from personal experience as a 23-year-old American), freethinkers are marked by their progressive social and political views, their disdain for organized religion (sometimes veiled for the sake of “tolerance”…but sometimes not), and their visceral distrust of traditional beliefs and values.

So what, exactly, do freethinkers mean when they describe their thinking as “free”?

  • If they’re referring to freedom from religious or institutional bias, then they’re fooling themselves. When it comes to our thoughts, all of us are subject to social and moral biases – regardless of where they might come from. Some are influenced by religion, certainly…but even our freethinking friends are influenced by secular philosophy, education, public opinion, peers, and the media. Taken literally, nobody is a “free” thinker, since nobody is completely insulated from outside influences.
  • If they’re referring to the ability to define one’s own unique worldview, then they’re doing a poor job of it. We would expect to see some intellectual diversity within the freethinking community. Instead, they all seem to have reached almost the exact same conclusions.

This brings me to the biggest question I have for freethinkers. If our thinking is to be truly free, should we not also be free to accept the Christian narrative as being compellingly true? Because it seems that “free thought” is revealed as a sham when it eliminates the option – and even the possibility – of freely embracing traditional Christian doctrines.

Related Articles

Letter to a Free Thinker (J.W. Wartick)

Common Sense Orthodoxy (Reviewed Thought)

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21 thoughts on “Are Freethinkers Really Free?

  1. Pingback: Are Freethinkers Really Free? « A disciple's study

  2. It’s ironic that some freethinkers reject traditional values but by doing so, they are creating the most recent edition of traditional values.

  3. Somewhere lately I just read, the “tolerant” are the most intolerant people around when comes to traditional Christian thought. These is most certainly true!

  4. Hey Matt, this time I will comment in the comments section of your blog rather than on Facebook. Then only people who want to read my responses will have to read them, haha.

    It’s a misnomer to imply that freethinkers seek total isolation from religious and institutional biases. That is totally an exaggeration. What freethought compels individuals to do is to examine their biases and acknowledge how biases could shape or limit thinking, and not to let biases prevent honest consideration of alternatives individuals may have already held a bias against. Now, just because you hold a bias against something does not make it right, as you would probably agree. But it is critically important to develop an awareness of what a bias is in your life and how it affects your thinking. Influence is not the problem, lack of awareness is the problem, and please appreciate the difference here. That is all.

    People should define their own worldview, and you’ve definitely missed the boat in your examination of intellectual diversity within the freethought community. There are conservatives, libertarians, liberals, socialists, all within the ranks of the freethought community. There are feminists and non-feminists. Even at skeptical conferences, there are divides between people who are only skeptics about things besides religion but still claim a belief in religion, and people who are also atheists. And then there are atheists who aren’t skeptics, either, who believe in pseudo-scientific junk like the anti-vaccine movement.

    I wish the atheist movement were as cohesive as you imagine it is, not because I wish to prevent anyone from arriving at their own conclusions, but because I want a more thoughtful and thorough skepticism. Of course, the current diversity does demonstrate that atheists are disagreeing on many subjects and working through disagreements on an individual level with minimal coordination – whether that is good or bad I leave for another time, but the evidence of greater diversity is enormous. If you still believe most freethinkers have reached “the exact same conclusions”, you still hold a serious bias against the ideas of the freethinking community. If you acknowledge that diversity is greater than you initially thought, then I will believe you if you say you’re overcoming your biases. See what I did there? A nice little experiment to uncover how you actually feel about bias, haha.

    Lastly, if our thinking is truly free, of course we are free to accept the Christian narrative as compellingly true. Is it impossible for you to accept that some people genuinely, pain-stakingly compared Christianity or other religions, and atheism/humanism, and choose the latter? Is it too much cognitive dissonance for you to accept the possibility that some people never considered atheism before, and then felt it was a superior alternative once they heard about atheism and religion in the same amount? There is no elimination of accepting Christianity as an option when it comes to freethought, period. The sham is in your imagined version of freethought that doesn’t actually exist.

    • Thank you for the comment, my friend…even though I’m about to dispute most of it!

      You said: “If you still believe most free thinkers have reached “the exact same conclusions”, you still hold a serious bias against the ideas of the freethinking community.”

      I’m afraid you’ve misquoted me here. What I actually said was, “ALMOST the exact same conclusions”. It’s an important distinction, because I readily agree with (most of) your description regarding issue-specific diversity within the freethinking community (feminism, economic policy, etc.). Nonetheless, I maintain that members of the freethinking community HAVE reached “almost the exact same conclusions”…in the same way that members of the Religious Right have reached “almost the exact same conclusions”, despite a degree of diversity within the Religious Right over issues like capital punishment, environmental policy, etc. The “conclusions” here are implicitly referring to “conclusions directly related to the platform of the group”. I argue that the freethinking community does, in fact, have such a platform.

      Which leads me to something else you said: “There is no elimination of accepting Christianity as an option when it comes to freethought, period. The sham is in your imagined version of freethought that doesn’t actually exist.”

      I strongly challenge you on this.

      1. Dictionary.com defines free thought as, “thought unrestrained by deference to authority, tradition, or established belief, especially in matters of religion.”

      2. From the ‘Freethought’ Wikipedia page, “Regarding religion, freethinkers hold that there is insufficient evidence to support the existence of supernatural phenomena.”

      Since Christianity, by its very nature, involves deference to God’s spiritual/Scriptural authority, and since it explicitly requires the belief in supernatural phenomena, it seems evident that freethought does indeed eliminate the acceptance of Christianity as an option.

      In my broader description of freethinkers (first paragraph of the post), I mentioned that I was speaking from my own personal experience. I ought to elaborate on that a little further. During my lifetime, primarily during undergrad, I’ve personally met and interacted with perhaps 40-50 self-described “freethinkers”. Note that this is excluding interactions on the internet. Of those 40-50 individuals, I can think of exactly one guy who broke with my generalization (“marked by their progressive social and political views, their disdain for organized religion…and their visceral distrust of traditional beliefs and values”) by holding political positions that were economically conservative. The rest of my definition still applied to him, however.

      If I WERE to encounter a self-described freethinker who ALSO accepts and practices biblical/historical Christianity, I would be extremely interested to hear how they reconcile their faith with the definition of freethought cited above. Perhaps you could refer me to such a person?

    • (To make things less ambiguous, we’ll say that “biblical/historical Christianity” involves acceptance of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds)

    • I think the problem here is that you’re narrowly defining the various platforms, which makes your argument a bit tautological.

      I mean, sure, you can narrow your Christian criteria by redefining Christianity as Apostolic, Nicene Christianity, or narrow your freethinker criteria by describing them as “marked by their progressive social and political views, their disdain for organized religion…and their visceral distrust of traditional beliefs and values”. But this fails to capture the inherent diversity of the movements. I once met a Mormon deacon who was anti-abortion, pro-Democrat, partially Nomianist, fervently held to his faith in Jesus, believed that Paul was a flawed human who taught useful lessons but didn’t have divine insight, and who believed in evolution. I met a freethinking atheist socialist who hates Obama and for some reason loves Ayn Rand. Both of those guys internally resolved their priorities in such a way that they arrived at their current philosophies.

      Now I could cherrypick characteristics and say “well, go figure, that freethinker is an atheist socialist” or “go figure, that Mormon guy has socially conservative priorities”. But this cuts out the bits that make them unique.

      I don’t consider myself part of the “freethinker” movement, but my perception is that freethinkers, while not being necessarily “free”, have far less in common with each other than the people you’d run into at a midwestern suburban church. The freethinker social priorities aren’t harkening back to some sort of 1950s ideal.

    • “But this cuts out the bits that make them unique.”

      I guess I don’t see that as a problem – at least, not as it pertains to the point I was making.

      I mean, it should be abundantly obvious that every freethinker is a unique person with unique opinions. Nobody is disputing that. My point, however, is that the word “freethinker” is a misnomer since its very definition mandates that freethinkers adopt a specific attitude toward religion and the supernatural.

    • No, you’re missing my point. It doesn’t “mandate” anything. It’s a general title defining a diffuse social movement that has a general tendency to endorse certain philosophical attitudes. You’re imposing a centrality of definition and purpose onto a movement that really has neither. It has no doctrine, whatever the James Hastings citation on Wikipedia might say.

      Also, even if freethinkers did have a written anti-religious doctrine, the word “freethinker” does not mandate they must be “free” to consider religion. That is not how the word “free” is being used.

      “The term free-thinker emerged toward the end of the 17th century in England to describe those who stood in opposition to the institution of the Church, and of literal belief in the Bible.”

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freethought#England

      It refers to Englishmen who described themselves as free of the influence of religious institutions, and continued to be used by their intellectual descendants. It’s not a misnomer, because it literally refers to being free of particular traditional influences.

    • “You’re imposing a centrality of definition and purpose onto a movement that really has neither.”

      I’m entirely willing to accept the definition you offered…and I think it only reinforces my point: “The term free-thinker emerged toward the end of the 17th century in England to describe those who stood in opposition to the institution of the Church, and of literal belief in the Bible.”

      “That is not how the word “free” is being used…It refers to Englishmen who described themselves as free of the influence of religious institutions…”

      In my post, I considered both possible meanings of the word “free” (since it could mean either “completely autonomous” or “free from religious/institutional influence”). So I would just reiterate what I said under the first bullet-point in the post.

    • “In my post, I considered both possible meanings of the word “free” (since it could mean either “completely autonomous” or “free from religious/institutional influence”). So I would just reiterate what I said under the first bullet-point in the post.”

      By the logic in your first bullet-point, I could say that Christians fail at living Christ-like, sin-free lives, so therefore “Christian” is a misnomer.

      Except that Christianity is a philosophy that, like many other philosophies, is defined by aspiration, not performance. So is freethought.

      Of course, aspirations are also selective. If you lived a perfectly Christ-like life, you’d never sin, play video games, lift a weapon of war, get married, participate in corrupt government systems, or do a ton of other things. But you’ve made a number of decisions, some reasonable and some not, that preclude you from achieving this perfect desert rabbi gold standard.

      Many freethinkers do the same. They allow themselves to be influenced by popular media like Youtube and Social Networks, because they enjoy them. They adopt institutional platforms like political parties since they require the patronage of these in order to gain influence. They adopt democratic institutions, since “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” They aren’t free.

      You continue to try to frame this issue as narrowly as possible, just so you can complain about how a title of a movement contradicts its adherents. But in viewing this so narrowly, you fail to realize that the nature of your attack encompasses many other movements in history while singling out the one you don’t like. Sawdust in eye.

    • Basically, your attack here looks analogous to like that of a non-bible reader accusing Christians of not being Christian because they sin. It’s an out-of-context attack that takes the definitions too literally. By your first bullet point, the only way a thinker could actually be “free” is by being either Tom Hanks in Castaway or dead. By your second point, the only way a thinker could actually be “free” is by not fraternizing with people who agree with them. Neither of those is a credible critique of a movement who just so happened, by the random chance of history, to adopt an anti-supernaturalist title from the 17th century. It just ends up looking like some sort of ad hominem. “You’re not free because you don’t like my religion”. You’re not even addressing any issues they bring up.

      Why do I do this to myself? Am I actually deluded enough to think I could convince you of anything?

    • “Basically, your attack here looks analogous to like that of a non-bible reader accusing Christians of not being Christian because they sin.”

      I’m afraid I don’t follow your analogy. My criticism isn’t with a failure on the part of freethinkers to live up to a specified aspiration. My criticism is with the nature of the aspiration.

      You’ve said yourself, repeatedly, that the freethought movement was based on an anti-supernaturalist stance. So that’s the definition I’m using.

      The problem is that this movement uses the word “free” – as you say – to describe freedom from institutional religious influence…yet it ignores *every other form of institutional bias or influence*. The title “freethinker” would make far more sense to me if it sought the disavowal of *all* sources of institutional bias/influence (a seemingly unachievable aspiration, as you pointed out…but not so different in this way from the Christian’s aspiration toward living a perfectly Christ-like life). Instead, by targeting religion exclusively, the title just seems grandiose and disingenuous…at best.

    • “You’ve said yourself, repeatedly, that the freethought movement was based on an anti-supernaturalist stance. So that’s the definition I’m using.”

      No, I didn’t. You didn’t read. I said they adopted the *term* describing anti-religious groups that lived back in the 17th century. There was no centralized adoption of this name by the modern movement. The phenomenon was not a conscious self-naming of the whole movement at once. There is no Freethinker National Convention. There was a slow and gradual modern adoption of a name that was originally used hundreds of years ago to protest a pretty large institution.

      “The problem is that this movement uses the word “free” – as you say – to describe freedom from institutional religious influence…yet it ignores *every other form of institutional bias or influence*.”.

      Where did you find that the modern movement ignores every other form of institutional bias or influence? Because as far as I know, the name started out anti-religious, but the modern movement is much more generally anti-institutional. It’s just a diffuse social movement that slowly came to be known as “freethinkers”. Your criticism in this context just doesn’t make any sense. Your analysis is as narrow as someone saying “those conservatives don’t hold environmental conservatism to be as high a priority as I do, so their name is a misnomer”. You’re trying to apply your own understanding of the name to a much more general context, then pronounce judgment on that basis.

      Freethinkers have certain biases against established institutions such as religious institutions, societies, legislatures, dictators, bureaucracies, and various myths and dogmas. They aren’t perfectly free, and they never will be. Nor are they 100% anti-religious, as their namesakes were. They have a general and very diverse like of certain established practices which can vary from person to person and region to region.

      “The title “freethinker” would make far more sense to me if it sought the disavowal of *all* sources of institutional bias/influence”

      Why should they disavow *all* sources? Why should they hold a monochromatic worldview? Why deliberately seek to be isolated to such a degree that they have to live on an island somewhere? To please your need for everything to fit in nice little categories? Aren’t some institutions useful, if not ideal, as Churchill pointed out?

      “Instead, by targeting religion exclusively, the title just seems grandiose and disingenuous…at best.”

      Did you read the wikipedia article you posted?

      “Thus, freethinkers strive to build their opinions on the basis of facts, scientific inquiry, and logical principles, independent of any logical fallacies or the intellectually limiting effects of authority, confirmation bias, cognitive bias, conventional wisdom, popular culture, prejudice, sectarianism, tradition, urban legend, and all other dogmas.”

      Read on. More than just anti-religious institution bias in there. Anarchism, libertarianism, humanism, academic freedom. Snopes, for example, would be considered a freethinker website.

    • You’re either missing my point entirely, or reading *way* too much into it. Regardless, I think it’s clear that we just don’t see eye-to-eye on this.

      I am a little curious, however, to know why you’re seeking out debate on this blog, considering you’ve already asked me to remove you from the list that receives ~95% of my religious & political posts on Facebook. It’s clear that you have a strong distaste for my beliefs and opinions…so if I may ask, why are you on here reading them?

    • Yup, just as I think you’re reading way too much into a *name* of a loose collection of people.

      The reason I comment? Probably obsessive compulsiveness, something a bit like this:http://xkcd.com/386/

      Also, part of the reason I disliked being on a “Facebook atheist list” is because I’m being *targeted* for reception of ideas which seemed to be purposely intended to provoke rather than convince. All at the worst times for me, of course. The alternative is to block you completely from my newsfeed. If I come to seeing your new blog posts at my own pace, however, it’s a bit different.

    • I guess that makes sense.

      Also, not that it matters, but only about a third of the people on that list are atheist or agnostic.

  5. The problem: You cannot make a “TRUE” decision if you have not researched (Diligently) both Creation and Evolution. I mean real indepth study, because most have simply just followed along, assuming they have chosen freely, when in reality, most have been dooped. PROVE IT TO YOURSELVES, don’t just follow along. But, for those who don’t want to, you still have chosen to do so, unfortunately most don’t want to find out for sure because they either like what they’ve chosen to believe or it’s too hard to investigate the whole truth, and society as a whole likes the easy way. Remember, many things told and entrinched into our society after being said and taught for so long, eventually saturates into our lives like dye into fabric. Many seem to believe that the Majority is right, when in fact, down thru history many times, the Majority was wrong. Example; Churchill was right about Hitler, when everyone else was wrong. If therefore, you truly want to say you are a free-thinker, how about being also a Deep-Thinker? Think about this, just WHY do we believe the things we do? Good-Luck!

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