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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