The Enemies of Freethought

The Enemies of Freethought December 18, 2018

Critical thinking is an ongoing process.

“The essence of fundamentalism, whether religious, political, or ideological,” writes Kenyan novelist and activist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, “is the idea that there is only one way to organize reality.” This powerful statement demands that we acknowledge the complexity of phenomena and the great responsibility we have for the way we conceptualize them.

Scott Stahlecker’s recent post on the Rational Doubt blog called “On Becoming a Freethinker” really got me thinking, as Scott no doubt intended:

Freethought, of course, is a quest to understand what truth is by using rational thinking skills rather than religious tradition and dogma. But many freethinkers these days are more apt to come across as militant atheists due to the manner in which they attempt to silence any person who dares to have a normal discussion about religion and spirituality. I prefer to expand this combative role, and that we consider freethought to be an evolution in thinking beyond atheism.

If we consider this evolution important, then it’s crucial to look at some obstacles to freethought. Here’s your enemies list, folks.

Enemy 1: Binary Thinking

Too often we approach the matter of freethought as a simple binary between religious belief and nonbelief. However, thinking that we just need to get rid of wrong beliefs and replace them with the right ones makes it as simplistic as rooting for Team A rather than Team B; instead of using god-words, for instance, we use science-words. It’s a vestige of the religious attachment to dogma, where we simply replace one set of unquestionable truisms with another.

Our mission as freethinkers, however, should be to gain a deeper understanding of what truth is, and to acknowledge that no one set of beliefs fully explains reality.

This is going to seem unforgivably vague and postmodern to the average science fan, who indeed thinks that science explains reality in a definitive and exhaustive way. But this is what Stahlecker means by freeing one’s mind of religious influences: we need to get past the idea that there’s only one way of thinking that’s right, otherwise we’re not freethinkers. Science can become not a valid alternative to religious thinking, but a surrogate dogma that supposedly answers all questions. It’s not like we’re looking for a new and improved dogma, the point is to forgo dogma altogether.

Enemy 2: The Need for Certainty

Fundamentalism panders to a lot of negative human qualities, but the worst of them is the fear of ambiguity. Certainty is a powerful and dangerous illusion, and I’ve noticed that a lot of people who leave religion never shake the need for the comfort of black-and-white thinking. They’ve given up rationalizing the things they believe using Scripture, and now they rationalize their beliefs using scientific-sounding jargon.

They’ve just switched from Team B to Team A. But they’re still playing the same game.

This is another idea that’s bound to rub readers the wrong way. However, it needs to be said that the debunker mentality fulfills emotional needs just like the fundie’s faith. Uncertainty and anxiety can be terrifying things, but they’re inescapable aspects of the human condition.

Enemy 3: Complacency

This meme contains a quote from Carl Sagan that exhorts us to take reality on its own terms, and it’s a familiar warhorse in the atheist blogosphere. But are we really applying this demand to ourselves, or are we just using it to deride religious people?

It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring…The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what’s true.

This sounds a lot more like self-congratulation than a challenge to truth-seekers. We don’t persist in delusion, do we? If we had deeply held prejudices, we’d know it, wouldn’t we?

It’s worth acknowledging that we’re not completely objective. For whatever reason, we’re predisposed to nonbelief. It’s not like we’re just data processing, “following the evidence” in a completely algorithmic fashion. We’re applying what we know and feel to our experience, and what other people report of their experiences, to form a set of beliefs. Everyone emphasizes the importance of things that validate what they believe and de-emphasize what doesn’t. If we’re aware of this, at least, we can decide how much of this is fair on a case-by-case basis.

True freethinkers should hear our skeptic alarms go off when someone talks about “truth” and “reality,” because these terms are hallmarks of rigid thinking. Most times we’re just making “reality” fit our models and validate our prejudices. Let’s admit that “reality” is a complex, evolving mystery that we can only define through the means we use to study it; if we’re just weaponizing it for use in online debates, maybe we’re engaging in intellectual dishonesty.

Resistance to correction goes hand in hand with complacency. We develop elaborate defense mechanisms to avoid having to admit to error, or to acknowledge that others have valid perspectives too. And we deflect criticism by saying that at least we’re more right than religious people, so we’re ahead of the game. Anything to avoid having to examine what we believe, which is what real freethinkers would do.

What do you think? Are we done with self-criticism as soon as we’re not religious anymore? Is our way of organizing reality the only right way?


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  • This is a great post! I was raised Fundamentalist (in a more cultish church) and now am quite skeptical, though I still consider myself a Christian. (Ironically, an atheist once warned me against überskepticism.)

    It is noteworthy that fundies are just as convinced they are right as are the atheists you reference. Even in the medieval era, St. Francis recognized this when he preached to the sultan of Egypt, who was a Muslim. He realized that Muslims were just as convinced of the truth of Islam as he was of Christianity. Muslim thinker al-Ghazali also noted this, observing that kids tend to grow up to practice the religion they were raised in, be it Judaism, Christianity, or Islam.

  • Glad you liked the post.

    It is noteworthy that fundies are just as convinced they are right as are the atheists you reference.

    I’ve never denied that, because I consider it a self-evident fact. But if the self-satisfied certainty of the fundie is fair game, I think I’m well within my rights to point out when professed freethinkers lapse into groupthink and complacency too.

    Ironically, an atheist once warned me against überskepticism.

    In what context? I’m all about skepticism, and I don’t think we should only critique other people’s beliefs. One of the assumptions of skepticism is that the easiest person to deceive is yourself. So let’s be vigilant.

  • “The essence of fundamentalism, whether religious, political, or ideological,” writes Kenyan novelist and activist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, “is the idea that there is only one way to organize reality.”

    Love this!

    Or for a more existential take:

    There is not one world, but about 8 billion worlds, starting within each of us, and fanning out as far as we can perceive, plus what we negotiate. The overlap of our worlds is based on what we negotiate.

  • I love scripture. Especially the old testament. It’s all blood magic. Woot.

  • chemical

    Are we done with self-criticism as soon as we’re not religious anymore? Is our way of organizing reality the only right way?

    Re: first question. We should never be done with self-criticism. Re: second question. At risk of invoking Enemy #2 here, being too vague means you end up sounding a lot like Deepak Chopra, where you say a lot of words but don’t actually say anything useful. And that’s the issue with the Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o quote. Matter of fact, I think if the word “quantum” appeared somewhere in it, most skeptics would mistake it for a Deepity. It’s fortune cookie wisdom.

    Seriously. Exactly what does “organizing reality” mean? I’ve been puzzling over that for the past hour and can’t make heads or tails of what that could possibly mean. Is it a worldview? What does it mean to you folks? (Though, admittedly, this is merely a quote from a Kenyan author, which means it could have been taken out of context, in addition to maybe the original quote was not made in English and something was lost in translation). The way I see the quote is “The essence of fundamentalism, whether religious, political, or ideological, is the idea that there is only one way to _________.” OK, I’m interested, but this needs to be expanded on.

    People like Chopra hide behind vagueness to avoid criticism. While I agree that it’s probably a bad idea to be absolutely certain of stuff all the time, you need to be clear and concise to avoid having people just take your words and fill in whatever they want to believe.

  • I don’t think it’s fair to invoke Chopra’s name here. I’ve been talking about this approach to realism for a long time. I think Ngũgĩ articulates an important point for freethinkers: conformity of opinion for its own sake is a bad thing.

    We make a mistake when we think the difference between a religious and scientific worldview is that one’s wrong and the other is right. That appeared to be what Stahlecker was getting at in his post at Rational Doubt , and Rick Snedeker at Godzooks took the exact same approach to the matter: we get rid of religious beliefs, and then we can spend our time criticizing religion.

    I’m more of the opinion that the religious and scientific worldviews are two sides of the same coin: overarching systems of belief that we can impose on others. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never tolerated science denial here and I’m not starting now. What I mean is that freethinking is all about doubt and skepticism, not certainty and superiority.

  • chemical

    OK. Like I said, I was willing to give this author the benefit of the doubt (heh) here. And the comparison to Deepak was unfair, but that was the point: I wanted to demonstrate what happens when you’re too vague. I put a ________ in the quote because I didn’t understand “organizing reality”, but it’s mostly coherent. For comparison, a Deepak quote would look like “The ________ _________ is ________ quantum _______ _______ _________.”

    My main complaint then is that we no have good words for talking about the method that people use to construct their worldview. Just “facts”, which are merely nodes in that method. I’ve simply been calling it The Method, which I made a lengthy post on this blog a while back. Generally speaking, I also advocate for method-based thinking, as opposed to fact-based thinking, when talking to someone whose worldview is much different than yours. You still might not learn anything new, but you may learn “where they are coming from”, at the very least.

  • I also advocate for method-based thinking, as opposed to fact-based thinking, when talking to someone whose worldview is much different than yours. You still might not learn anything new, but you may learn “where they are coming from”, at the very least.

    I recall the post you’re talking about , and I said at the time that I agree with the approach. Too often we’re just having factoid-wars and talking past one another. The more engagement we commit ourselves to, the better the odds of achieving some measure of mutual understanding.

  • chemical

    Seems we’re in agreement then. Am I just making up my own terms for stuff because I don’t know the proper name, or is there an actual name for The Method?

  • I don’t know, but if I make it to the patent office before you, I’m calling it the Triagnostic Method of Deepaccuration and you can go back to the old drawing board.

  • Jim Jones

    > Ironically, an atheist once warned me against überskepticism.

    Which is what?

  • TheBookOfDavid

    No it isn’t!

  • TheBookOfDavid

    I agree with your points 110%, and believe that all “so-called” dogmatic “skeptics” should simply be opposed, or even excommunicated by the True Freethinker™ community.

  • Oh, come on. I’m just trying to point out that getting rid of religious belief isn’t a prophylactic against error. We’re still prone to the same cognitive biases and we need to apply critical thinking to our own beliefs too.

  • Priya Lynn

    “This is going to seem unforgivably vague and postmodern to the average
    science fan, who indeed thinks that science explains reality in a
    definitive and exhaustive way.”

    I don’t know anyone who thinks science explains reality in a definitive and exhaustive way. I used to work in a science factory too.

  • If that is what ‘freethought’ is then it is terribly named, much like ‘free will’. It sounds more like “thought restrained by available evidence and logically sound relationships between those pieces of evidence”. It’s costly to make and maintain, and has fewer conclusions that a person just wildly making it all up, so free neither as liber nor as gratis.

  • Exactly what does “organizing reality” mean?

    The word for this used to be metaphysics in the broad social sense, and weltanschauung (“worldview”) when talking about an individual, and it stood in for a bundle of axioms and assumptions that all cluster and tend to reinforce one another. So, it must usually include a way to describe which facts are true and how to judge claims about them (an epistemology), what sort of arrangements of thoughts and concepts are productive and yield conclusions (a logic), what sort of things the world is constructed of and the fundamental nature of those constituents (an ontology), and the correct way to move through that world and identify its value-bearing nodes and assign them meaning (an axiology).

    That’s a lot of work for one word to do, but it reliably does it. “Organizing reality” is just a way to connote the operation of a metaphysics or a worldview.

  • Good points. You’re right, freethought has rules where most people just rationalize beliefs they didn’t arrive at rationally. I’m trying to emphasize that it’s a demand upon the thinker, not a consolation.

    And not for nothing, but “Free Jazz” wasn’t the first take.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PpZkXrcRcAk

  • chemical

    That’s a lot to unpack. No wonder I thought the word was vague.

  • Philip Rand

    Surprised Jim Jones you don’t know what is überskepticism….

    Obviously it is Ego Projection ….. cachinnate!

  • Jim Jones

    Uberskepticism is like dehydrated water.

  • Philip Rand

    Dehydrated water you say?

    Interesting, if one considers that water is H2O and experimentally it has been proven that it requires six H2O molecules to combine before water manifests wetness.

    Then, it would appear to be the case (according to you) that:

    Uberskepticism < six H2O molecules

    Why six though?

  • True freethinkers should hear our skeptic alarms go off when someone talks about “truth” and “reality,” because these terms are hallmarks of rigid thinking.

    Stop me if you’ve heard this before, Shem. 😉 Very thought-provoking post, and I do have some thoughts about it. I want to give a shout-out to the concepts of truth and reality. By too generously allowing these terms to be qualified, they lose their stability in arguments. For some of us, those terms are the antithesis of “imaginary dogma” and “the supernatural,” so what they mean is important. I know post-modernists, as far as I understand them, believe that everything should be qualifiable and fluid when faced with contrary arguments. Of course, I’m sure most of us “realists” believe in keeping an open enough mind to fairly assess new information of any kind, even if it seems to debunk what we already believe. But to not insist that “truth” and “reality” are as permanent and unqualifiable as the laws of gravity, and that new information needs to adhere to their substantiable actualities is to concede the argument before it begins. For instance, post-modernists like to claim that: there is no objective reality and no scientific or historical truth (objective truth). To me, this just allows people to create their own invented realities without having to answer to manifest facts and objectivity. It’s a slippery slope. It’s like that old joke when a woman is asked, for the sake of argument, what amount of money she might conceivably take for sex, and she gives an arbitrary number to be accommodating. Her opponent then says, “Right. You’re OK with the morality of prostitution; we’re just haggling over price.” In the real world, she would (if anti-prostitution) say, “That’s a nonsense question, because I would never agree to sex for any amount of money, because that’s demeaning, only for love or if I just felt like it.” In the view of “realists,” there actually are some inarguable things, such as, there’s no good objective evidence for the supernatural, it is true that human beings are designed with physical equipment and impulses to procreate, and that bias, while inherent, does not change that the sun doesn’t rise and set (it only appears to) or other demonstrable realities. Of course, as with the sunset scenario, humans have been very wrong over history about a great many things, but when enough objective factuality is available, we can change our views. But new facts must adhere to the fact that reality is (as far as is humanly possible to know) material or affected by materially sourced forces, and truth is obtained within the framework of those facts. So, embracing truth and reality must convince us that Jesus never rose anyone from the dead. If “Jon Erickson” or someone else one day appears to do that very thing for 60,000 people in the Rose Bowl, then we can investigate it. That’s my stance, and I’m stickin’ to it. This is kinda long. Sorry. But, as you well know, this is complicated, tricky stuff. You started it.

  • Another aside is that a U. of Minnesota study of identical twins raised apart strongly suggested that they did not end up subscribing to the same religion but of the religion of their parents — but they did grow up with a nearly identifical intensity of religious devotion to whatever faith they inherited. Indoctrination, in this sense, is as influential on behavior as DNA.

  • Vigilant but no so hyper-vigilant that we always tend to imagine lions hidden behind the waving grass and rather than just wind benignly moving the grass to and fro. Before coming to a more speculative conclusion, we should always first look behind the grass.

  • Rick, thanks for the contribution.

    As I’ve always said, the difference between you and me is that you claim that it’s absurd to dispute that there’s an objective reality out there that’s independent of our minds, whereas I think it’s absurd to dispute that the only way we understand how reality is is through the methods we use to study it. Nothing in our knowledge of phenomena is just self-evident; researchers and theorists have had to work very hard to establish that the Earth orbits the Sun and whatever else we currently understand about reality.

    I keep saying that I don’t think you have a good grasp on what the postmodernists believed: they weren’t disputing that reality exists, they were trying to get us to acknowledge the power dynamics that influence our understanding of reality. Data points don’t arrange and interpret themselves, they require human input to make a comprehensible structure for us to characterize the complexity of reality. Cultural and social factors influence that process. We prefer explanations of phenomena that validate our beliefs about the prevailing social order.

    So describing what we know about the reality of evolution, for instance, is feasible. But making pronouncements about reality in general is just a way for us to weaponize a way of thinking, and make it seem like we have the key to truth. And that’s just not freethinking.

  • Perhaps (or probably) I’m not a true freethinker, because I believe the truth is the force we call gravity is real, substantiated and definable, no matter what cultural or social influences we might be under. Of course, our understanding is somewhat limited, but what we do know seems very clear. I’ll read more about postmodernism, but what little I know now strikes me as perverse and even potentially dangerous because it seems to allow few rational guideposts and guardrails. Now I’m sounding like a Republican, for goodness sakes. Cheers, and Happy New Year!

  • Relative certainty based on virtually unequivocal facts (some if which I actually believe exist) can be a reasonable stance. Superiority, never. Chronic, intractable doubt can seem too much like paranoia. I prefer some tractability in my life. 😉

  • I believe the truth is the force we call gravity is real, substantiated and definable, no matter what cultural or social influences we might be under.

    Give me a little credit here. Where have I ever disputed that things tend to fall in a downward direction, regardless of if we’re there to observe it? That’s different from the way we as human beings and as a culture conceptualize such phenomena. It’s the map-and-territory distinction: we’ve created the maps, and we shouldn’t mistake our way of organizing reality with reality itself. Not just things like right and wrong and meaning and value, but things like force and gravity, are names on our maps. They’re real things, and they’re all meant to stand for phenomena we experience, but we remove a lot of complexity from them to be able to conceptualize them.

    I’ll read more about postmodernism, but what little I know now strikes me as perverse and even potentially dangerous because it seems to allow few rational guideposts and guardrails.

    Well, it does in fact call into question how objective and rational we can be, when all our information about phenomena is derived through conceptual schemes that reflect our culture’s power dynamics. When we look at our society’s production of knowledge, we need to ask questions about who’s creating the information, who’s funding its creation, who’s interpreting the results, and who’s receiving the information for what purpose. Saying that truth is perspectival isn’t denying that some approaches to knowledge are better than others, it’s just meant to make us aware of how chauvinistic we can be about lording our knowledge over people in different cultures, societies, or eras of human history.

    Always nice to hear from you. I hope you and your family had a peaceful holiday and enjoy a happy new year.

  • I see what you’re saying. It’s not like I’m so radically skeptical about every one of my beliefs about phenomena that I can’t make it across the street. I just get suspicious when it seems like all we do is critique other people’s belief systems, because I wonder if we’re just defining things like facts and rationality in exactly the way that leads to the conclusions we prefer.

  • Actually, I think we agree, in a kind of round-about way. I agree that we all need to be wary of why and how and under what rubrics we conceptualize and organize our own reality in our minds. We need to be aware of our own capacity for error and bias and emotional obscurantism. But, in the end, I think, we have no choice but to choose the most probable, most objective option to underscore as most nearly real. Otherwise, it’s all vanity and chaos. I know that need for certainty or at least near-certainty is a bias in itself. But what can we do, right? We’re only human. Cheers, Shem. I look forward to reading more of your heady stuff throughout 2019.

  • Understood. That’s why I asked about überskepticism, because I’m aware that there’s a limit beyond which it’s just not prudent to withhold judgment about things like global warming, evolution or vaccination.

    That said, I still think there’s a lot of bad faith in the village atheist’s tendency to pat himself on the back for “just following the evidence” and fortuitously arriving at exactly the conclusion he prefers about The Big G. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that we favor nonbelief for various reasons.

    It’s not like we’re blank slates and we’re willing to change our minds if the data presents itself. If the rhetorical game has already been rigged so that we can present ourselves as totally objective, whereas we’ve long since made up our minds about the matter, then that sounds more like denial than skepticism to me.

  • Yes, that can be too circular for me, as well.

  • Chuck Johnson

    For casual conversations, we have a perfectly serviceable word, “reality”.

    For serious scientific and philosophical conversations, that word won’t do unless we provide a useful and agreed-upon definition of “reality”. Here are three possible definitions to consider:

    Reality(1) Reality is the actual, real physical existence and workings of our universe.
    Our universe is a perfect representation of itself, therefore, it perfectly represents Reality.

    Reality(2) Reality is the existence and workings of our universe as understood by some perfect intellect (a God).

    Reality(3) Reality is the existence and workings of our universe as understood by a human or a group of humans.
    Human intellects are always less than perfect.

    Reality(1) is true, but trivial. Of course, the universe is a perfect representation of itself.
    Reality(2) is a superstition, and to believe in it causes a world of problems. It is an obstacle to discovering truth.
    Reality(3) is a good, scientific way of referring to human knowledge and understanding.
    Use the Reality(3) definition to promote human discovery of truth.