What Is Freethought?

I’ve often used the terms “freethought” and “freethinker” on this blog, but I’ve never explicitly defined them. In this post, continuing my efforts at defining words that are important to the atheist movement, I want to speak briefly about how I use these terms and what I understand them to mean.

As the Freedom from Religion Foundation defines it, a freethinker is a person who forms their opinions about religion based on reason, independently of established belief, tradition, or authority. I think established belief and tradition are more or less the same thing, and I want to add another condition: a freethinker also forms their opinions without relying on revelation.

To expand on what each of these mean:

Independent of revelation: Freethinkers do not consider irreproducible, subjective personal experiences to be a valid basis for making up one’s mind about what does or does not exist in the external world. We recognize that individual human beings are fallible; that the brain is prone to hallucinate, to personify natural phenomena, to find spurious significance in randomness, and to deceive and mislead itself in countless other ways that bias its decisions towards what we most want to be true. Given all these manifest examples of our fallibility, we conclude that a mere emotional experience, unless it contains an objective component that can be replicated or examined by others, is insufficient as a basis for belief.

And since we reject personal revelation as a basis for decision-making, it goes without saying that we reject other people’s reports of revelations they may have experienced. Such reports can never be anything more than unverifiable hearsay, and their uselessness is proven by the fact that countless people of wildly different and incompatible religions all report having them and all claim to fervently believe them.

Independent of tradition and established belief: Freethinkers do not consider a claim more likely to be true just because it is widely believed, or historically has been widely believed, in the society we live in. We recognize that most people simply absorb their most important beliefs from the surrounding culture – for example, people born in America are far more likely to be Christians, whereas people born in Indonesia or Saudi Arabia are far more likely to be Muslims, and people born in India are far more likely to be Hindus. As in the last point, these conflicting belief systems cannot all be true; but even if any one of them is true, given the sheer number of human societies past and present and the even greater number of different ideas they hold, it is extremely unlikely that you or I, by pure chance, just happened to be born into the one culture in human history that believes all the right things.

Since the chances of coming to hold all the right beliefs by an accident of birth are extremely low, this cannot be a workable way to make up our minds. Instead, we should apply reason and critical thought to the popular wisdom of our culture, judging for ourselves which widely held beliefs are good and should be kept up, and which are bad and should be replaced with something better.

Independent of authority: Most importantly, freethinkers believe and act on a proposition because we ourselves judge it to be true using our best reasoning, not because we’re told to believe it by people in power.

The wealthy and powerful in any society urge the rest of us to believe a large number of propositions, most for fairly obvious reasons of self-interest. Advertisers for large corporations try to convince us that buying their products will bring happiness and contentment. Politicians pledge to be the guardians of traditional morality, or make us feel afraid and then promise protection, if we’ll vote for them and support their campaigns. Religious leaders claim that their sect has the keys to salvation, and we can enjoy eternal bliss if we tithe to them and attend their church. The super-rich argue that society will be more prosperous if their income taxes are lowered. In each case, it’s obvious what the people who make these claims stand to gain if we believe them.

Now, some of these claims may in fact be true, despite their self-serving nature. But most of them probably aren’t. Believing the authorities without skepticism is an excellent way to spend your life being exploited and taken advantage of. A freethinker, by contrast, casts a critical eye on assertions that originate with other people, and believes something because the evidence supports it and not because the authorities wish us to.

Based on reason: If a freethinker doesn’t rely on revelation, tradition or authority, then how do freethinkers make up their minds? The answer is that we use our own best judgment, guided by logic and reason, starting from a solid foundation of evidence viewed through the lens of critical thinking. Where possible, we don’t make up our minds in isolation, but investigate the reasoning and the conclusions of a community of other people who use the same method – with the hope being that any individual errors or biases will be canceled out by the consensus judgment.

The method of reason isn’t perfect, because we aren’t perfect. It may sometimes lead us astray. But it still has a higher probability of leading us to the truth than any other method. And for further proof of this, consider the historical track record: Millennia of obeying tradition, revelation and authority produced virtually no human progress and left us mired in prejudice and superstition, while societies that adopted reason and the scientific method have seen dramatic improvements in both their standard of living and their moral attitude. To be a freethinker is to be an ally of that progressive trend, and to declare your opposition to all the irrationality that has kept humankind ignorant and prevented us from achieving our true potential.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • fyreflye

    But don’t we in fact have to accept very many things based on authority? It’s impossible to verify most propositions on our own and we have to rely on others whom we choose to trust. For instance: the age of the universe, the distance of the stars, the existence of a country called Dubai (unless we’ve been there), the reality of global warming, the validity of the modern evolutionary synthesis. The very call to base our judgements on “science and reason” involves an appeal to authority, since most of us don’t work in the sciences and the belief in reason as a valid process for coming to truth has been systematically tested not by us but by others whom we’ve never met. The question is not one of accepting authority, but which authority we’re willing to trust.

  • Katie M

    I couldn’t define freethought better myself.

  • http://uticense.blogspot.com IlCensore

    Would you mind if I were to translate your post into Italian and publish it on my blog? The translation would be as literal as possible and would clearly state the authorship.

    Bye

  • http://oneyearskeptic.blogspot.com Erika

    This post hits all the right points, but I want to point out that it describes the ideal of freethought. Even the most freethinking freethinkers do not apply these standards all the time; it just is not practical. What distinguishes the freethinker is the willingness to apply these standards when their ideas are challenged, either explicitly by others or implicitly by their observations about the world. Furthermore, a freethinker will not consider any of the above as good reasons for holding a belief, but they ought to freely acknowledge that they do, in practice, sometimes hold beliefs for these reasons.

  • CybrgnX

    Fyreflye and Erika:
    His article does to some extent show an ideal or the starting point of freethinking.
    “But don’t we in fact have to accept very many things based on authority?”
    Not in the dogmatic sense, authority, like the theory, has a different meaning here.
    As the pope and interpreter of the buybull I tell you Galileo the sun goes around the earth. Is an example of dogmatic authority and is to be rejected out of hand.
    “the distance of the star is XXXlight years” says Phil Platt. I will accept because from past questioning I know that he is using the methods of science that have been established and can be looked up. Jenny says Autism is from vaccines is rejected out of hand because her best credentials are two enhanced blobs of fat on her chest. So Authority is only an authority that has proven itself. And the phil platt example is Independently verifiable. The jenny example is Independently verifiable as false. And the pope is shown only as an opinion based on the writings of stone age goat pluckers.

    To reiterate Katie M: I couldn’t define freethought better myself.
    Good post!

  • http://www.secularplanet.org Secular Planet

    @fyreflye

    Dubai is not a country; it’s a city in the United Arab Emirates.

  • http://oneyearskeptic.blogspot.com Erika

    CybrgnX, your point is well taken, but I think that for many people who are not freethinkers there is no difference between the authority of movie stars and religious leaders and the authority of scientists. For these people, this apparent “lie” in the definition of what makes a freethinker is enough to damn the whole idea from the offset.

  • 2-D Man

    Next post: “What Is Authority?”

  • fyreflye

    “What is an Authority?” Someone who agrees with me :)

  • 2-D Man

    Actually, I was being sarcastic.
    At some point – especially with scientific issues – you really do have to step back and ask yourself something along the lines of, “Is it reasonable that all these people are lying to me in the same way, especially if each one of them stands to personally benefit from exposing the lie?”
    (And the only way they don’t stand to benefit is if your conspiracy theory is approaching the upper limit in its size – that is, everyone but you.)

  • Caiphen

    You’d think with the advancement of humanity using critical thinking people would realise that same critical thinking should be used to determine whether or not there’s a god. It’s such a shame that so few of us do this and such a shame so few are freethinkers. Will humanity ever learn?

  • Johan

    Hypothetically, do you think a Christian or any other religious believer could be a freethinker? That is, if they arrived to their beliefs by reason?

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    No, I don’t consider that possible. Even if you were convinced purely by evidence and reason that Jesus had risen from the dead, without any reliance on faith (an extremely dubious proposition, but grant it for the sake of argument) – even if you were convinced of that, how could you be persuaded by reason that his death was an efficacious cure for sin through the principle of substitutive sacrifice, or that those and only those who believed in it would be granted eternal life after death, or that the ritual of transubstantiation magically transforms wine and wafers into his flesh and blood?

    Obviously, there’s no way to deduce these propositions from any facts available to us. They are believed only because church councils have declared them to be items of dogma. Claiming that you came upon them purely by your own reason would be like a person claiming he sat down to write a book with no outside influences and somehow managed to produce a letter-perfect copy of Moby Dick.

  • http://brazilbrat.blogspot.com/ James Smith João Pessoa, Brazil

    Fyreflye, the difference between “authority” and science is that science can be checked by anyone willing to do a small amount of research. When the “authority” cannot produce verifiable proofs, they are no longer an authority, but a ranting liar.

  • 2-D Man

    Hypothetically, do you think a Christian or any other religious believer could be a freethinker? That is, if they arrived to their beliefs by reason?

    Ditto on what Ebon said, but another thing comes to mind. If one is convinced of one’s religion by logic, evidence and reason, as opposed to prejudice and superstition, that evidence-based support for that religion would be naturally selected as the most effective in apologetics. Instead, we get nonsense from the likes of Francis “What-Happened-Before-the-Big-Bang” Collins, and Lee “If-Evolution-Is-True-God-Doesn’t-Exist” Strobel.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    The faithful cannot be free-thinkers because they are issued commandments and fiats, either by a text or its interpretation. The fact of the matter is that faith is belief absent evidence, and free-thinking is (generally, but not always) belief derived from evidence.

  • http://bridgingschisms.org Eshu

    Hypothetically, do you think a Christian or any other religious believer could be a freethinker? That is, if they arrived to their beliefs by reason?

    With regard to their Christian beliefs, I agree with Ebonmuse’s answer. However they could arguably apply the principles of freethought to other areas of their lives.

    I doubt many of us “freethinkers” are totally reasonable in all aspects of our thinking…

    “That trashy TV show I like is actually culturally enriching as well as healthy entertainment.”

    “This blueberry muffin counts as one of my five-a-day.” :-)

    That said, religious irrationality tend to “invade” many areas of thought. I guess my point is that it’s not a discrete case of freethinker vs not-freethinker.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com/ Steve Bowen

    I guess my point is that it’s not a discrete case of freethinker vs not-freethinker.

    Maybe a transitional form is a “buy one get one free-thinker”.

  • http://ozymandiaz.wordpress.com/ ozymandiaz

    You use the tag “epistemology” yet i see no epistemological argument here.
    What I would like to see is for reasonable thinking folk is to get rid of the word “free” as anyone with reason comes to the conclusion that freedom is an illusion. Free doesn’t exist.
    One should refer to him (her) self as a reasonable thinker not as a free-thinker.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    @ ozymandiaz: It’s not “free” as opposed to “determined”, it’s “free” as opposed to “locked up by someone else”. Y’know, “as an undammed river is free,” and all of that. Also, though there is no explicit epistemological argument per se in the OP, Ebonmuse does lay out some guidelines for how to go about framing one’s epistemological arguments. As Cathcart & Klein put it, “How do you know what you know? Take away the option of saying, ‘I just do,’ and what’s left is epistemology.” Ebon says in one of the opening paragraphs, “…a freethinker is a person who forms their opinions about religion based on reason, independently of established belief, tradition, or authority.” That’s a rough-and-ready outline of epistemological procedure, right there.

    @ All: I would like to posit a religious freethinker and see what y’all think of my hypothetical person. Suppose that a person truly believes that Yahweh exists, but is a supreme jerk. This person might think something along the lines of, “God is not good, he’s just on our side – sometimes.” (I swear that’s a quote, without the “sometimes”, but I can’t for the life of me find it anywhere.) This person, we’ll call him P, believes that Yahweh is the ultimate bully and if you can’t beat him, then you should join him. The myths and fables of this or that culture are ultimately fungible, and even the Abrahamic faiths are fraught with Yahweh’s own blatant self-aggrandizing lies, but at the end of the day an insecure powermonger is running things.

    P could even be an agnostic theist, not really being sure but playing along because he supposes that there’s probably a god. P would also have to be fairly scientifically illiterate and not well-versed in the origins of (and similarities between) other religions, either through accident of time, place, or mental capacity, but the point is that through no fault of his own, he simply cannot grasp the ideas and explanations that render the supernatural explanatorily superfluous.

    Now, I’m pretty much stipulating that this person is merely mistaken, but I also think he meets the qualifications of being a freethinker. Perhaps an exclusively moral freethinker, whose metahysics are yet bound in religious tradition, but a freethinker of a sort for all of that. The lines are blurry, for reasons Eshu capably pointed out; or as my father says, “There are many different kinds of intelligence” (and as I add, “…and vastly more forms of stupidity”).

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    …but the point is that through no fault of his own, he simply cannot grasp the ideas and explanations that render the supernatural explanatorily superfluous.

    What makes P jump to the conclusion that the default position is that supernatural explanations should be accepted, and that the specific supernatural explanation of Yahweh is the only one that should be accepted…or that it’s even an explanation at all?

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    It could be due to some intuitive form of animism. Lacking knowledge of meteorology, plate tectonics, or a germ theory of disease, it could easily appear that wind, rain, disease, and the very Earth each have a “will” of their own. While this is sloppy and uninformed reasoning by our standards, P has arrived back at these ideas after questioning them on his own, and concluded that while he can’t know for sure, there’s probably an “over-spirit” in charge of things which his peers call “god”. He’s going through the process of critical thought and introspection, he’s just doin it rong. Or at least it comes out wrong.

    We could also posit careful orchestration of events by the local priesthood, involving hidden knowledge or what-have-you. For instance, the local priest might have the only almanac, or be the only one able to read, or the only one with a decent mathematical education. The priest, with knowledge of when the cold season begins, or when the floods come, could arrange to have “witches” suspected when things start going bad, and kill the witches off right about when things are starting to turn around. And if the priest keeps the books, he could literally re-write the local history so that even examination of the records wouldn’t suggest that some other pattern was at work.

    Far-fetched as it is, what I’m getting at is, “What if P is honest but seriously mistaken, whether due to some flaw of P himself or to the bad luck of his situation?” Eshu’s point about how we all engage, from time to time, in rationalizations or magical thinking shows that, if not for the relatively easy mark of religion (in our culture, at this time), we might all be considered not to be freethinkers for our own cognitive failures. I see that Ebon was clearly pointing out that “you can’t get to dogma with reason”, but he wasn’t asked if there could be such a thing as a dogmatic freethinker, but merely a religious freethinker. I don’t think the two categories are mutually exclusive (though I would grant that their genuine intersection in the real world is exceedingly rare).

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com/ Steve Bowen

    I think this runs into last tuesdayism, especially if

    Yahweh exists, but is a supreme jerk.

    If you allow god()s to be not omnimax by limiting their (from a human perspective) goodness, you end up with an all powerful all seeing creator who can pretty much play whatever sick games he wants. A freethinker presuming a deity is easily feasible under those conditions

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    D, I like your thought experiment! I agree that by the criteria I’ve laid down, a freethinker could be a deist, a pantheist, or even an animist. I’d be a little more skeptical of someone who identified that god as Yahweh in particular, because I don’t see how you could come by that specific belief without depending on revelation or authority somewhere along the line. If you just believe in God as the spirit behind nature and nothing more, I could get behind that; far be it from me to deny freethinkerdom to Thomas Jefferson.

    This person might think something along the lines of, “God is not good, he’s just on our side – sometimes.” (I swear that’s a quote, without the “sometimes”, but I can’t for the life of me find it anywhere.)

    I think that line comes from a PBS drama set in Auschwitz called God on Trial, which was based on a play by Elie Wiesel. (Scroll down to the monologue by Rabbi Akiba.)

    EDIT: Found a video of it too.

  • http://www.atheists.org AmericanAtheistStreetFighter

    I disagree that xians can’t be freethinkers. Unless you consider freethought an all or nothing Atheism vs theism proposition. History tells us that freethought has been with us for at least 4 centuries, at least in the English language. Diderot and French encyclopedic pursuit of knowledge rather than traditions of “revealed” bullshit from church teachings has been around for 5 centuries. Channing/s and Priestly were freethinkers and xian. Scientists and transcendentalists evolved from faiths to one or more facts. Such as Jesus being merely human and humanity as “divine.” Give the liberal religious a break and give them room to work their way out of less than free thoughts to full blown Atheism one step at a time. I think traditions of “thought” conforming one alleged deity concept or religious loyalty is most deep seated in fears, political realities and simple expectations of those closest to them in life. Darwin delayed for many years his publication of “Origens” due in no small part to the xian woman he was married to. And he waited for the xian Captain of the Beagle to die too. Freethought began with the first Greek sailor to “just say no” or “Atheos” to temple prostitutes calling him, luring him to worship. We have had Atheism for 29 centuries now. Freethought is one of the many words to emerge from “enlightenment” or “the age of reason” as protestants moved past papal authority to out right fighting back against the inquisition and the punishment of Gallieo. 843-926-1750 Dial An Atheist Larry Carter Center

  • http://www.atheists.org AmericanAtheistStreetFighter

    Socrates was a religious believer in a sense. He religiously was so loyal to Greek legal traditions that he willingly drank hemlock after losing his bluster before a trial and jury “of his peers.” Socrates reasoning was not always perfect. He reasoned that his nose was more “beautiful” because it was bigger and able to smell more beautiful flowers than his smaller nasal logical opponents. Christians will change or die as Bishop Spong calls for. Virgins having babies is stupid enough. Popes covering up rapes of boys and girls by his priests is corrupt enough. The dead weight of religious businesses not paying their fair share of taxes is unfair enough. Secularism will eventually win because it is scientific and more fair.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com/ Steve Bowen

    AmericanAtheistStreetFighter
    Fair enough in the historical context you describe. But we live in a different age now. To be a freethinker and a theist in the teeth of 150 years of Darwinism, modern cosmology, geology, molecular biology and partical physics is untenable.