What exactly is a free thinker? Is it someone who simply thinks without placing limitations on his thoughts? Ironically, no. A free thinker is someone who has refused to be held captive by what he would suppose to be the tyranny of religious thought and instead opted to side with what he would perceive to be freedom from that manner of thought. The free thinker would think of himself to be more rational for not believing in God having supposed that this sort of belief is nothing short of superstition. The free thinker would perceive to be free from the “bondage” to superstition and of religious belief, that the person has come to a rational knowledge of reality instead of believing in things on the basis of faith. But whether intentional or unintentional, by ascribing to himself labels which make him look superior based on this new-found “freedom,” the free thinker would implicitly passively denigrate those who would believe in God.
Now, while rational thinking is a good thing, we must still ask – is the “free thinker” really free from this “perceived” bondage? The modern “free thinker” has thought himself to be free from the “false” proclamations of the past. But what if he’s wrong? It is, of course, a great endeavor to come to a true understanding of reality and to reject things that are false, but the brazen claim of a person who ascribes to a title of “free thinker” makes the person a victim of his own perception. The truth, on the other hand, requires no such titles, no special designations, nothing at all but itself. Truth simply is.
And what of the extent of the freedom? If we claim we have more truth than the generations of the past, we must be able to disprove the generations of the past to a large extent. The extent of the freedom of the “free thinker” would depend on truth. The “free thinker” would not be as free as he thinks himself to be if he has put up a straw man argument in order to debunk the claims, has not carefully weighed the arguments he’s refuting or has subconsciously chosen to overlook the opposing views. Then perhaps the “free thinker” is ironically not so free, as he may have moved from the state of truth to a state of error. If the “free thinker” has not accurately and honestly appraised the arguments of the opposition he’s claiming liberation from, he has ironically imprisoned himself in his own errors as he asks for liberation from the truth, which he is unknowingly rejecting beforehand. Labels often replace substance and become nothing but a token of prejudice. As such, the self-professing “free thinker” needs only to create such a label in order to appease himself with false hope and in passing perhaps denigrate his opposition by suggesting that they are imprisoned.
The True Free Thinker
To be a true “free thinker” (though none should really call themselves so), one must refuse to be swayed by popular and catchy positions but to be more interested in the truth, a humble and earnest search for what is really true and what is truly real. The humility alone should show us how foolish it is to use the term, “free thinker.” In time many truths that eluded us will come to light. In the meantime, there is no good reason for the “free thinker” to call himself so, lest he presupposes the dogma himself against all rational opposing evidence.
If truth is a good thing to which we aspire, then an error is a bad thing. If we suppose that those who call themselves “free thinkers” are good people, and if they are wrong, they may not know their error. And “if large numbers of nice people are held captive by error, that is all the more reason for destroying the error and setting them free.” Alas, unless certainty is certain no one should boast to be a “free thinker,” because truth is the only thing that truly liberates.
16 thoughts on “What is a Free Thinker?”
Great post here, Arthur. I think the title is much more used as a polemic than as anything truthful, as your post points out. The inconsistency in the position is unsurprising. Only the free thinker is “free,” according to their thought. But what is that freedom from?
I contend, with you, that it’s freedom from truth. And that’s nothing meritorious at all.
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I found your post through J.W. Wartick’s link, where he goes down a somewhat different path in decrying “free-thought” and “free-thinkers” as just-as, or more, dogmatic than everyone else. I disagreed with him there, for the reasons you outlined in your first paragraph. I think you needlessly limit the discussion to religion, when it applies equally to scientific, cultural, and social questions, but you correctly point out the misunderstanding in J.W. Wartick’s post.
In regards your post, I want to agree substantially with everything but your conclusion. You have outlined, in a most helpful manner, the many pitfalls of adopting a position of “free thought”. There is the risk of dogma, the risk of unfair critiques of the opposition, and a vast sea of knowledge to which we are all ignorant, and out of which can emerge truth that counters our current opinions. All of that is pertinent, and yet, your conclusion that no one should adopt the moniker “free thinker”, seemingly because certainty is beyond our grasp, is to inflate the scope of your criticism.
Free thinkers have made egregious errors, in oversight, overconfidence, and overt ignorance. All of this is perfectly true. However, this same logic can be applied to rationality itself! Freeing your reasoning from traditionally accepted “truth” doesn’t mean you won’t independently verify the traditional view, it just means you don’t take it as axiomatic. Let me use J.W.’s post here as an example:
“I contend, with you, that it’s freedom from truth. And that’s nothing meritorious at all.”
What truth? What is it about not relying on traditionally held truth claims in the search for truth implies “freedom from truth”? This would seem to put a particular set of beliefs, like those of religion or science, in the domain of true before arriving at those beliefs through the process of reason and evidence. Reason and evidence can LEAD to verification of those beliefs, but that’s the whole point of free thought in the first place: take nothing for granted, but exclude no possibility a priori. As I said on his blog:
“More importantly, to ‘think freely’ does not entail atheism in any logical sense. In fact, the best part about free thought is that it could very well lead to acceptance of one or another theistic beliefs.”
Your book, for example, whose synopsis is briefly outlined in the banner on the bottom, is a perfect example of free thought! You go to the core of truth, belief, etc., examine the evidence, and find that it points to God! If you simply accepted the traditional view, it would be a very short book, basically just a reiteration of the christian dogma. That you recognize the process by which beliefs are vetted through reason and evidence demonstrates that you know what it means to be a free thinker. Therefore, while I agree with the bulk of your post, I must insist on rejecting your conclusion. You may not desire the moniker, but just as you can’t follow the teachings of Jesus without exemplifying the title ‘Christian’, you can’t adopt the fundamental principles of free thought without exemplifying the title “Free Thinker”.
Thanks for taking the time to make such a well thought-out comment. I tend to agree with quite a bit of what you said. I think J.W.’s post was meant for a different purpose, namely to demonstrate that “free-thought” is often used as a tool to disparage religious beliefs through mere misconceptions and presuppositions. I know you pointed out that these are to be avoided for the free thinker, but to be candid I’ve not had much success in finding a free thinker without already predefined rigid presuppositions, namely that religion is an enslavement. In this sense “free thought” is used as a tool merely for escape, perhaps not explicitly as one would find through its very definition, but at the very least through its very utility. I argue that those are the very same things that ironically enslave the “free thinker.”
We all have presuppositions through various channels they are unavoidable during the course of normal upbringing, and since self-transcendence is impossible, we are to a certain extent held captive by our presuppositions. Hence I would wholeheartedly agree with the role of free thinking, namely to be open to new ideas that would disprove previously held beliefs. The problem again, however, is that a radical skepticism often lies in the unchallenged underbelly of “free thought” requiring complete and utter certainty before a position is changed. Since certainty is so illusive, faith must play an important role in what we accept as true. And, if we are not at least cognizant of our psychological reasons for how we consciously and subconsciously deal with new information, we are in danger of uncritically buying the lies and discarding the truth.
I do think belief is a very complex thing and it extends beyond (erroneously of course) reason and evidence. And of course there the barriers erected for what counts as reasonable evidence. In essence in my book I argue for the proper understanding of truth and false means people use to try to find it, and (in agreement with your assessment of the actual position) I pull no punches on Christians or Atheists. There are fairly bad reasons for embracing either. Come to think of it, the entire thing is a plea to “free thought” without ever once referring to it as “free-thought.” I completely understand where you’re coming from in your critique of my conclusion… I think I need to think about this a bit more to see if the analogy holds water. Thanks again for the comment.
Indeed, my post was intended to point out that those who refer to themselves as “free thinkers” often use that designation to decry religion.
I find the term freethinker offensive; it suggests that people who believe in god can’t think freely.
I do too. The label is only needed for denigration of opposing views. It carries no arguments with it.
You can’t think freely unless you see with your eyes and hear with your ears the KJV Joel 3:5, When the Romans looting God’s temple of his goodly pleasant things. Joel 3:9 And the Lord tells you/us Gentiles to prepare for something, which is “war”, and that’s coming from the Almighty God. Free Thinker in Truth in this perceived bondage of this “present evil world” Galatians 1:4. Here’s my second witness Hebrews 8:13 “he make the first covenant old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready the vanish away.” It says it ready to vanish away. This is what the New Testament says “ready to vanish away”, so, were still under the old covenant.
If anyone can they can free think a universe such as we live in, Let me know I want to watch.
So because man has only been around for a miniscule spec in the timeline of existence you infer what with this comment? Likely you’re inferring that “free-thinkers” are simply foolish because they don’t say, “Oh my, look at the vastness of the universe! It MUST have been created by God [or a god]”. And the world used to be flat…
Interesting article. I have considered myself a “free-thinker” especially in the sense of using reason and not taking all ideas of authority or religion as truth. However, I very much believe in the idea of faith, I believe in God, and I don’t believe I’m the only one who’s free. It is the very use of science and reason that furthers that belief and my faith. It is the questioning Whether of an idea, a belief, or an authority that leads to truth or at the very least a greater understanding. That’s how I see a true “free-thinker.” All to often people have a tendency to accept any given belief simply because it is of popular opinion or because the appearance of the “in” crowd believes it without ever questioning and using very little, if any, reason or thought at all….. Stereotyping based on terminology and an attachment to labels is an err in and of itself and a passing of judgement on that which isn’t fully understood and leads to limited-thinking.
@Danyelle, thanks for the insightful comment. I agree with you quite a bit. In a sense, if someone tells me that something is a certain way, it would be great for him to show me evidence rather than expecting me to simply believe him on his word, regardless of his level of merely perceived or actual authority. If something is true, it will be internally consistent, logically coherent and hopefully justified by at least some evidence. In one sense popularity of a specific position is entirely irrelevant to the issue of its truthfulness, except perhaps to help shed more light on something as worthy of further examination.
I just labeled myself one, what you going to do about it? Well I figure after doing it, it is dumb to label myself anything. Well I am not without an authority, I believe in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Then I am not into sola scriptura, but believe in going by Reality and the Scriptures. So I am little different than Catholics, though I used to be one of those as a kid, then I became agnostic and didn’t believe in the supernatural. Then I was told about Jesus at wit’s end and became a born again Christian. Though I was unsure if I was truly saved at times. So I still try to use reason allot even as a believer, like reasoning from the scriptures. I believe reality is how things really are, seen or unseen. Then again to God be all the Glory he created are minds. I believe that also combining doctrinal concepts like deism. Now deism is false, but the truth when God created man he doesn’t recreate man by the first process that he created man. Now men are born of women. So God did create things to function on their own. Then with the Calvinism and Arminianism debate, I think of a third possible reality. That chance also exist, or that something’s may not be a product of God’s will or man’s. Like some babies that are born joined to each others head. so it is a defect, like things were to function properly, but there was a glitch and everything came out wrong. It could be true, I am not completely sure. That is my ideal of thinking freely. I also think that some belief systems are like myths, they try to explain God and reality, but may not be fully true.
It is that the reformers some of them were free thinkers, but they used the scripture as the authority, instead of the dogma of the catholic church that was permitted bad practices at the time. so they reasoned out of the Scriptures. however to go against the dogma of the catholic church you were consider a heretic.
The problem with this article is that it “implicitly, passively denigrates” those who do not believe in God. It states that the “Truth simply is” as though the author’s “truth” is the only truth. Every person has their own truth. Every religion believes it is the “true” religion. To freethinkers, all forms of religious belief are superstitions. Free thinkers especially enjoy freedom from the outdated, misogynistic teachings of the Abrahamic religions. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all arose in the same, tiny part of the world, where women were not believed to have equal value as human beings. They were treated worse than livestock. As those religions spread, this false belief replaced other more egalitarian beliefs, where men and women lived in harmony and as equal partners in society.
Thanks for the comment, Christina. My aim was not to denigrate anyone in this article, but to show the denigration *of* one who would call oneself a “free thinker,” and I see no reason to question anything I’ve said. I do find it peculiar that someone reading it would take umbrage with it on those grounds. In any case, I do want to address the substance of your comment, most of which has little to do with the actual article itself.
You said, //It states that the “Truth simply is” as though the author’s “truth” is the only truth. Every person has their own truth. Every religion believes it is the “true” religion.//
When I wrote that “Truth simply is” I was simply citing the Aristotelian/Platonic view of truth. Please see Aristotle’s, Metaphysics (1011b25) and Plato’s Cratylus (385b2) and Sophist (263b) for more details. Unless you provide me with a competing model that is a more reasonable alternative, I see no reason to abandon this view.
I also find it odd that you would claim that everyone has their own truth, and then argue that I’m wrong (see your references to “false belief[s]”). This Postmodern relativistic view of truth that you seem to be espousing is self-defeating. Truth is NOT owned and is not personal. Beliefs are owned and are personal. Truth is simply that which corresponds to reality. One’s beliefs about reality may be right, or they may be wrong, but those beliefs do not have the capability to alter reality. People often believe contradictory things. They cannot all be right. 1 + 1 = 2. There are an infinite number of potential WRONG answers, but only one is right. No one can logically coerce the numerical equivalence of the problem to be something that it is not. You claim a certain view of reality, namely that there is NO God. I claim a certain view of reality, namely that there IS a God. We cannot both be right (see Law of Noncontradiction) – this is why we must reason about what is ultimately real, and this is why people debate over what is true. Just because every belief system makes central truth claims about the nature of reality, in no way, shape or form, do those claims generate reality. They are meant to claim a certain description of reality, they do not prescribe reality.
You said, //To freethinkers, all forms of religious belief are superstitions.//
I’m well aware of that. I was once an agnostic until my mind was liberated to consider ALL possibilities. I can tell you now that’s when I truly became a free thinker, though I typically don’t call myself that. To lock oneself inside a specific narrative of reality without adequately, earnestly and with humility considering the claims of others is to be truly imprisoned, despite how free one considers oneself.
You said, //Free thinkers especially enjoy freedom from the outdated, misogynistic teachings of the Abrahamic religions. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all arose in the same, tiny part of the world, where women were not believed to have equal value as human beings. They were treated worse than livestock. As those religions spread, this false belief replaced other more egalitarian beliefs, where men and women lived in harmony and as equal partners in society.//
You’ve made many errors here. First, the ancient world as a whole (with minor exceptions) was quite brutal, and the poor treatment of women was far more pervasive than the banding you’ve employed to try to make a point. It was not exclusively an “Abrahamic” phenomenon. Society as a whole was such.
Second, you’re using an extremely broad brush to paint your narrative. The Abrahamic religions are grouped thus merely because of reference. The religions themselves make dramatically distinct truth claims about the nature of reality. I suppose it’s far more convenient to group belief systems and reject them all through proxy rather than to intellectually grapple with the claims of each, but it is not the most reasonable thing to do. I can tell you that my many years of investigation does not bear out your narrative. In my book, Cold and Lonely Truth, I’ve highlighted the many ways in which Christ offered women the greatest compliment (also see this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fpmu42g6mDs). Additionally, if you think that atheism is what leads to an “equal” society, you’re gravely mistaken. Without God there are no objective moral laws or duties. If there are no objective moral laws or duties, your claim that equality is a moral “ought” has no foundation. I share your model of an egalitarian society as one we ought to aspire to, but it is only justifiable if there are objective moral laws and duties. In the absence of objective moral laws and duties, it’s merely personal preference. By rejecting God, you are rejecting the very means by which the moral impulses of your heart find their justification external to your conscience.
A lot more can be said, but we’ve veered far from the actual topic of this article, and I suspect further back-and-forth would probably take us further. If you have additional comments, please contact me directly, and I’ll be happy to carry on the conversation privately. Thank you!
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