I have never cared for the word “freethinker” even though I myself have used it on occasion to denote a skeptic/atheist/agnostic. When I use the term, I do so in order to avoid monotony; I am trying to swap out the words I use to describe a demographic to which I now belong. But I do not like the term for one simple reason: There’s no such thing as a “freethinker” if what you mean is a person free from environmental, biological, or social influences. Perhaps when some use this term they simply mean they are free from religious dogma, but that doesn’t mean that they are free from other forms of dogma. There are many other sources of narrow-mindedness and misinformation out there. Excluding social influences and pressures which can impact even communities of skeptics, one’s own personality, previous history, and general personal experience can greatly color one’s perception of reality. We do not live or think in a vacuum. For that reason, to my mind it seems pretentious to call anyone a “freethinker” in any real sense. A better way forward in my opinion is to simply acknowledge that we all have our own peculiar biases and to work to understand those influences as best as we can in order to more objectively analyze the things we think and believe. This, to me, is the lesson of the old Greek proverb “Know Thyself.”
I could equally critique the term “bright,” which some seem to prefer. This term bothers me for two other reasons: 1) Even if it were true that all atheists/agnostics were smarter than all theists, this would still be a little too much tooting your own horn for my tastes. If you’re smart, other smart people will notice and no further self-identification will be necessary. As for those with too dim a bulb to recognize your brilliance (including those who will respond by opposing everything you do precisely because they’re not so smart), what does their opinion matter anyway? They won’t be able to accurately appreciate how smart you are even if you take it upon yourself to tell them. The other, more crucial reason I don’t like this term is because 2) It’s not true that all atheists/agnostics are always smart. I’ve met quite a few who are terribly slow and uncritical in their thinking. Atheists can be just as quick to swallow unsupported conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, and bad arguments for or against something. Sure, it’s my observation (and I believe several studies have corroborated) that skeptics as a group tend to score higher on measures of both intelligence and critical thinking. One dating site even did an analysis of the grammar of its members and found that self-described atheists had significantly fewer misspelled words and grammatical errors in their profiles when compared with theists. But that doesn’t mean that every representative of the former is smarter than every one of the latter. Individual differences still apply.
As I see it, the biggest problem with either term is that it so easily lends itself to overestimating your own objectivity. From what I have seen, objectivity is not a natural trait of consciousness at all. We humans naturally see the world in an egocentric way, and we tend to superimpose our experiences, our assumptions, and our perspectives onto other people (which makes it difficult to learn anything from them). It takes a good deal of effort and practice to analyze our own assumptions and to distance ourselves from our own prejudices. No doubt this is the very heart of skepticism and of the scientific method itself. But these don’t come naturally to us. We see the world through lenses colored by our own backgrounds, our own upbringings, our own unique stories, and even our own congenital peculiarities. When it comes to our thoughts, none of us are completely “free.”
Take the matter of personality for example. I noticed long ago that certain ideologies attract a certain kind of person. I spent my first ten years as a devoted Christian worshiping mostly among white, upper-middle class Southern Baptists in the Deep South. Their worship style, their dress, and even their worship facilities were grand, formal, expensive, and very professional. Everything about how they approached church matched the general feel of their (and my) culture. Their political perspectives, their spending habits, their leisure preferences, and even their theology tended toward formality and toward conservatism. But then I moved into a house church setting for the next ten years and discovered that they, too, had a common tendency toward certain characteristics. This bunch was informal, iconoclastic, a bit contrarian, and clearly middle-class. I even did a personality inventory of all the members and out of 16 Myers Briggs types, almost all of the members of my new fellowship belonged to one of only two or three subcategories. Not surprisingly, their views on almost everything tended to match their peculiar personality traits. Whenever I pointed this out to them, they would shrug and carry on in whatever direction they were already headed.
By the way, I could say the very same thing about the atheist communities I have encountered (most of which are still virtual at this point, although sometimes we find ways to get together IRL). There is a clear gravitation towards independence, individualism, nerdiness (come on now, you know it’s true), a passion for science and technology, often a disdain for ceremony, and sometimes even an awkwardness towards things romantic and relational. These are generalizations, yes, and all generalizations have exceptions…except that one, of course ;-) But the quickness with which you wanted to make that very observation just now perfectly illustrates the type of person I am describing. We have our own peculiarities (like being grammar nazis and sapiosexuals) and our own common rock stars (like the Four Horsemen, Carl Sagan, or Neil deGrasse Tyson). We are just as prone to building echo chambers for ourselves on the internet wherein our personal preferences are reinforced and fed until they are strong. Because we are social animals, even the most fiercely independent among us tend to non-conform in ways which ironically make us similar to one another. To see what I mean, just try and recommend to a group of atheists that they organize and form intentional communities with leadership structures and mission statements. See what kind of responses you get. There are some common personality traits among atheists about which it could only help us to become more consciously aware.
Our personal histories shape how we perceive the world as well. I have witnessed people who are usually objective, critical thinkers about most subjects becoming very emotional (and subsequently irrational) about certain topics which have impacted them personally at some point in their lives. I’ve seen people uncritically accept arguments or statistics which “feel right” to them in order to reinforce some bias they already had toward a topic. Then when it comes time to discuss the topic, they quote the statistic and anyone who disagrees with them is the irrational one for not accepting their hard numbers. What they didn’t realize is that they never critically researched those numbers in the first place because their usual defenses were down for that one. It’s just like how an immune system can do a fantastic job of fighting off hundreds of invisible threats until that one day when you didn’t get enough sleep the night before so that you succumb to something you might ordinarily have fought off just fine. Objectivity works the same way. I am quite certain there are several topics around which I cannot trust myself.
Here’s the good news: The more aware of this phenomenon you are, the better you can become at checking and balancing yourself through research and through dialogue with other people. All you need is a simple modicum of self-doubt, or as some like to call it, a little epistemic humility. Simply acknowledge that you are just as liable anyone else to fool yourself. Well, maybe not as much as some…let’s be real, here…but still. Each of us has his or her own pet assumptions which die hard, and like any deeply-held assumption, they may express themselves in eloquent speech or articulate and convincing rhetoric. Sometimes they even marshal an array of facts and studies to back up what you believe. But even statistics can mislead. As Twain famously quipped: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Of course, that doesn’t mean you should quit researching or looking for hard data. It simply means that we should be always learning, and never assume that we have the final answer on anything. The closer we get to that attitude, the more we truly become “freethinkers.”