I Am Not A Freethinker (and neither are you)

I Am Not A Freethinker (and neither are you) July 24, 2013

thinker“Know Thyself” — ancient Greek proverb.

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.”

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  • I identify myself a freethinker as it seems clearer and more positive than the other terms, even humanism, and it goes clear back to our founding fathers as a movement…

  • Kerry

    Yes I agree with Dave. I too have used freethinker because of its historical perspective, but I admit it also describes how I think now vs. my conservative fundamentalist christian days. I appreciate the analysis done here and many good points are posited, especially as relating to the “brights” which is a term of awkwardness to me. I have used freethinking humanist on occasion as well.

  • Donald Butts

    I understand the need for precise definitions, but I think “freethinker” is typically used to denote those who rely on reason instead of faith. I heartily agree that our thoughts are not truly “free” from many sources of bias, but the term “freethinker” is usually much more strictly defined.

    Here’s a portion (pp. 4-5) of Susan Jacoby’s book, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism:

    “Given the intensity of both secularist and religious passions and the founding

    generation, it was probably inevitable that the response of Americans to

    secularism and freethought – the lovely term that first appeared in the late

    1600s and flourished into a genuine social and philosophical movement during the

    next two centuries – would be fraught with ambivalence. Beginning with the

    revolutionary era, freethinkers periodically achieved substantial influence in

    American society, only to be vilified in periods of reaction and consigned to

    the margins of America’s official version of its history.

    American freethought derived much of its power from an inclusiveness that

    encompassed many forms of rationalist belief. Often defined as a total absence

    of faith in God, freethought can better be understood as a phenomenon running

    the gamut from the truly antireligious – those who regarded all religion as a

    form of superstition and wished to reduce its influence in every aspect of

    society – to those who adhered to a private, unconventional faith revering some

    form of God or Providence but at odds with orthodox religious authority.

    American freethinkers have included deists, who, like many of the founding

    fathers, believed in a “watchmaker God” who set the universe in motion but

    subsequently took no active role in the affairs of men; agnostics; and unabashed

    atheists. What the many types of freethinkers shared, regardless of their views

    on the existence or nonexistence of a divinity, was a rationalist approach to

    fundamental questions of earthly existence – a conviction that the affairs of

    human beings should be governed not by faith in the supernatural but by a

    reliance on reason and evidence adduced from the natural world. It was this

    conviction, rooted in Enlightenment philosophy, that carried the day when the

    former revolutionaries gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 to write the


    I really appreciate your blog, Neil. Much food for thought.

  • Although I accept there will inevitably be reservations about the limits of our mental capacities, and to free ourselves from bias, we will struggle to know them without people at least believing that they are freethinkers.

  • David Austin

    Hi Neil,

    A very interesting article and much food for thought.

    Personally, I just stick to the term “atheist”, as I feel this accurately describes my position on the existence of gods. I know it does seem to carry a lot of negative “vibes” with words like “immoral” and “untrustworthy” thrown around when the word is mentioned.

    In my view, once people realise by your actions that you don’t fit their pre-conceived notions, I think peoples’ attitudes will change. As new generations come along who realise that science is the way forward in improving peoples standards of living I think the trend towards atheism will accelerate. I doubt in my lifetime I will see atheists in the majority (especially not in the US), but I think it is inevitable it will happen. Here in Australia, I think we are more “relaxed” about religion and as you are probably aware, we did have an atheist Prime Minister who was even in a “de facto” relationship. Also we had a Minister who was openly a lesbian, and nobody turned a hair.

    I just think we have to be honest in our views and confront religious nonsense when it interferes with our social order. Laws should be passed based on their merit and not on religious dogma.

    I hope the US will start to accept that their religious based model is just not working and realise that to stay competitive in the modern age they must educate their kids about science and not religious clap-trap.

    Just my Aussie 2c worth.



  • Micki

    We are freethinkers. I live in the homeschool world where Sharpie markers blacken out passages in textbooks because students aren’t allowed to be exposed to certain scientific ideas, facts, and even some words. Books with witches, ghosts, gods, magic, evolution, other religions, or alternative lifestyles are banned from some conventions. My daughter can read about anything, question anything, and think about anything. She is free to come to her own conclusions with everything on the table to be explored. She is free to think. Anything less is mind control.

  • mikespeir

    I am definitely a freethinker. The bumper sticker on my car says so. (Want proof? That bumper sticker’s not even on the bumper, it’s on the back window! How’s that for freethinking?)

    Seriously, though, of course you’re right. We’re all cruising along on a pair of rails, and on rails probably laid by somebody else. Like the previous discussion, for instance. I lean toward monogamy. I am perfectly aware that I lean toward monogamy because I was raised to see that as best. We all have to start from some position, and we all start from the position we currently hold, however we have come to hold that position. That monogamy is best is my starting point. (And, BTW, I don’t mean to dump that can of worms onto this thread. There’s the previous thread for that if we want to keep talking about it.)

    To me, a freethinker is someone for whom no consideration is off-limits just because of authority or, I don’t know, call it historical inertia. It doesn’t mean all ideas are good ideas. I doesn’t mean never being able to make up your mind. And anyone who has lived to 58 or therabouts has enough experience in life to disqualify most everyday bad ideas. Sidewalks are much easier to walk on than tightropes. I’d like to enjoy life, you know? But I can still flatter myself that I’m a freethinker about intimate relationships, despite the limitation of only being able to stand in one place at a time, because I am honestly capable of entertaining the notion that non-monogamous relationships might in fact have some advantages. Or, at least, that the disadvantages I see are either illusory or are compensated for by the advantages.

    Sure, we have to take “freethinker” with a grain of salt. Not only is nobody perfectly free, we’re not even very free. Still, as far as I’m able, I try to keep an open mind.

  • I’ve thought for a long time that the notion of a group of freethinkers is pretty oxymoronish.

  • Zagnar the Destroyer

    “There’s no such thing as a “freethinker” if what you mean is a person free from environmental, biological, or social influences.”

    That’s NOT what I mean when I use the term; normally, I mean a skeptic, someone who takes what they’re told with a grain of salt, who engages their check-and-make-sure gear rather more often than the general population.

    THAT is a “freethinker”. They may have some influence from the sources you listed…but they attempt to resist those influences as best they can.

  • JakeR

    I’m an atheist who’s enough of a freethinker not to buy ad hoc crap like Meyers-Briggs, the enneagram, or similar postulates on “personality types.”

  • Brilliant :) That is so true.

  • I like you analysis, I suppose the biggest problem from the comments is a definition game. Thats why i just stick to atheist.

  • 1. This is excellent.

    2. Thanks for introducing me to the term “sapiosexual.” I’m a sapiosexual, a grammar nazi, AND a fan of Carl Sagan. Eek. I’m a stereotype!

    3. I agree with you about the term “bright.” Have never been fond of it.

    4. My husband finds the term “freethinker” unbearably pretentious. I feel, though, as Donald referred to above in quoting Susan Jacoby, that “freethought” recalls a rich history of atheism and social consciousness in America in which I feel a certain pride.

    5. Even the term “atheist” is inadequate. Negative connotation aside, “atheist” (and “theist”) reduce god to something we can define and “believe in.” What god are we talking about? If it’s the traditional paternalistic Christian God who has a plan for my life and intercedes on my behalf, then I’m an atheist. But many atheists acknowledge a sacred presence or transcendent energy that isn’t just a powerful man in the sky.

  • Not true, an atheist is someone who denies the existence of gods/deities. There cannot be a sacred power, by definition you are unable to be an atheists if that is something you believe.

  • It seems odd to prefer the term freethinker because of its long and venerated history (according to Jacoby). As “deidei” put it, it’s a bit oxymoronish. It’s like saying you belong to a club of non-conformists. If there ever were such a thing, it would seem to negate its own existence.

    To the extent that your use of the term “freethinker” means you are free from religion, I can understand that preference. My biggest issue, I think, is with the fact that the words we use mean things to other people, too. And when I choose a word to describe myself, I consider what it would likely mean to them as well, if indeed my goal is to communicate with them in a way that they will understand. I guess what I’m saying is that for some people it sounds like a “freethinker” is one who believes he or she has broken free from his or her own influences. I certainly can’t tell you what to call yourself, though. Especially if you’re a freethinker ;-)

  • Hi Neil,

    You may already know about it, but I just wanted to plug the Less Wrong blog (http://lesswrong.com/). It’s all about learning to recognize and deal with your different biases so that you can become “less wrong” as you go on (hence the name). I thought it was interesting how the connotations of the name “Less Wrong” are so different from “Freethinker.”

    Some of the mathy parts are a bit over my head, but I’ve been enjoying the sequence called How to Actually Change Your Mind (http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/How_To_Actually_Change_Your_Mind). Though admittedly some of the enjoyment has been daydreaming of certain family members reading it…

    Anyway, love what you’re doing here! I’m grateful for the internet camaraderie.

  • Mmm, I disagree. For example, Buddhism is considered an atheistic or “godless” religion (some don’t even qualify it as a religion), yet I would argue that it presumes some sense of the sacred. It just doesn’t acknowledge a supreme “being.” The fact that we are arguing about this shows just how inadequate our language is: “atheist,” “god,” and “religion” are all extremely slippery terms to define.

  • Would like to know if you’ve read any Karen Armstrong, and if so, what you thought of her. My sense is that hard-line atheists see her as wishy-wishy and (as a commenter on another blog put it) “an atheist in a cheap tuxedo.” :) Check out my post at http://abbythewriter.wordpress.com/2013/07/26/religion-were-doing-it-wrong/.

  • Whoops. Obviously I meant “wishy-WASHY.”

  • I dont think this is correct as the idea that their is something sacred means something beyond our comprhension (or inside our comprehension) but which is untestable. This is the same problem that gods/deities face that they are untestable. Also buddhism like multiple other religions has sects which believe different things, so I would say they are a religion (an not a peaceful one always).

    I dont think the terms atheist and god etc are slippery to define. But if you have a different definition to what atheism is compared to what I posted before then you need to provide evidence for this sacred.

  • Of the currently available terms, I prefer “free thinker” because it describes my political views as well as my religious. humanist (small “h”) is second on my list, but I shy away from Humanist (big “H”) because most of the folks who run Humanist organizations are too lefty for me.

    Showing how un-skeptical many self-proclaimed skeptics are has become a parlor game.

    I’d like to push the term “atheist” to the side, however, not because of the negative connotations it has to some folks in our society, but because it has taken on much more meaning than it can support. The tempest in a teacup between abbybryd and christian above being an example.

    In the real world, atheists can believe in “spiritual” things. Buddhists are atheists, as are Jains and some subsets of Hindus. Raelians are atheists. In the real world, there is no logical consequence of atheism beyond disbelief in gods. To be more accurate, there is no logical consequence of atheism – atheism is the logical consequence of rational examination of the existence of gods. < full stop

    Is our preference for rationalism just a bias?

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