What Is Freethought?

What Is Freethought? February 26, 2010

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.

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