On Becoming a “Freethinker”                              

On Becoming a “Freethinker”                               December 13, 2018

Editor’s Note: Here is the second post from this new writer for the blog in less than a month.  This time he makes a careful case for “freethought” from the perspective of a former fundamentalist. Reading it makes me grateful once again that I was never a fundamentalist.  I can imagine a liberal of any faith tradition reading this and not relating to it.  But please read it, to understand how fundamentalists can suffer with their faith and to learn how to end the suffering. /Linda LaScola, Editor

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By Scott Stahlecker

I dove into the driveway of the Popeye’s Chicken restaurant in Tucson and quickly found a slot next to the stinky dumpster in the back. I checked the rearview mirror, and then scanned the parking lot. The coast was clear. There were no familiar cars in the lot, and certainly none that I recognized as belonging to fellow church members.

At this period in my life, I was serving as an elder for the Seventh-Day Adventist church. Given that vegetarianism was a pillar of my faith, getting caught red-handed by a local church member eating a spicy chicken thigh could trigger my expulsion from church leadership.

These were scary times for my wife and me. My faith had been slipping for several years, but irrationality still had a stranglehold on my psyche.

I was certain the devil was tempting me to eat the #2 Special replete with caffeinated cola, and my guardian angel was standing near me like a cherub urging me to resist the temptation.

Eight years have now transpired since my getaway in 1990. My only regret? Not having broken the chains of mental bondage sooner. Within this gap in time, it’s difficult to describe the transformation my mind has taken from first being shackled by religious servitude to full-fledged intellectual freedom. Some people can breeze through this process in a few short years. For others like myself, it takes decades.

In my 57 years of life, roughly 20 were depleted as a Christian, another 15 as an agnostic, and another 15 or so I’ve enjoyed as an atheist. At each progressive stage I can recall in vivid detail the various mindsets I passed through. My years as a Christian mark the years of my indoctrination into religion, but also, my assimilation into American society and culture.

My first attempt at intellectual freedom, agnosticism, marked my next mental era. But what I discovered during this period is that there were tenets of the faith I was still subconsciously following. This is because religion is so intertwined in the social customs of American life.

It was clear that a more serious break from religion would be required, which is why I progressed into atheism. Even so, it would be another 10 years after living as an atheist before I finally purged religion from my mind and had sharpened my mental skills enough to understand how religion was impacting all the other areas of my life.

Which prompts this question: When is a person really freed from religion? I defer to the late Christopher Hitchens, who stated in the subtitle of his book God is not Great, that “Religion Poisons Everything.” The implication of this statement is that while we can pride ourselves from being freed from attending church, religious ideologies can still be influencing our values and thought processes.

To probe this likelihood, consider your position on LGBT rights, euthanasia, or women’s equality. What role does religion play in the political candidates you support? Are you prochoice? Are you for or against the legalization of prostitution or drugs? These questions may appear secular in nature, but these are ethical questions that are heavily influenced by the infiltration of Abrahamic religious ideologies into our world. Identifying and extracting these influences—both in our minds and in our respective cultures—requires utilizing the techniques of freethought.

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.

With this expanded definition, freethought is about:

  1. Learning to recognize the influences of religion in all aspects of our respective cultures
  2. Developing the introspective skills to free our minds of these influences
  3. Establishing a methodology whereby we can describe how individuals can and should become freethinkers

Yet, there’s a bigger reason to entertain this expanded concept of freethought.

Clergy Project members and many readers here once served as clergy or worked in a lay capacity to promote religion. Having left our respective faiths and a life of service to others, we created a vacuum in our hearts that still yearns for intellectual and—dare I say—spiritual growth. If you are seeking personal and intellectual growth beyond atheism, becoming an avid freethinker can provide this mental stimulation.

More importantly, if we now consider ourselves to be the ambassadors of reason how can we best articulate to our family, friends, and the world the benefits of being entirely freed from religion?

Atheism has been the go-to option. However, most Christians, as well as believers of other religions, see little intellectual and emotional satisfaction in becoming an atheist.

The best tactic, in my opinion, is to encourage people to become freethinkers. It’s like the old adage, which states that by teaching people how to fish they can feed themselves for a lifetime. The same holds true for encouraging people to become freethinkers. If we can lead people into becoming free and autonomous thinkers, they will break free from religion on their own terms.

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Bio: Scott Stahlecker was raised a Lutheran but converted to Seventh-Day Adventism in 1980. After serving the church in both lay and professional capacities, he left the church in 1990. He identified as an agnostic until 2004 and has been an outspoken atheist ever since. Throughout his life he and his wife have owned many businesses to include hospice agencies in Texas and music stores in Alaska. He is the author of the novel Blind Guides and Picking Wings Off Butterflies, a memoir about raising a child with a traumatic brain injury. He continues to write extensively about the benefits of living life as a freethinking individual. Learn more about him at www.scottstahlecker.com

>>>Photo Credits: By Pietro da Cortona – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6489160 ; “<a href=”https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Devils-from-Rila-monastery.jpg#/media/ ; By Unknown – http://identity.adventist.org, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=71192006

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  • I like the way you present this, Scott. You touch on some main reasons why I choose to call myself a freethinker rather than atheist. Stirs up interesting conversations between believers and nonbelievers who want to be identified as freethinking people, though they may still face obstacles of belief. “Ambassadors of Reason” is a good way of describing the challenge! Thanks.

    • Scott Stahlecker

      Much appreciated, Chris. I thought I was a freethinker too when I was a Christian. The lies we tell ourselves…

  • It’s probably less divisive to refer to oneself as a freethinker…..

    • Scott Stahlecker

      I think so.

  • Illithid

    Holy cow!

    • Scott Stahlecker

      Adventists are really good at maintaining the hype that we are living in the end times, so you really have to eat fast because their ain’t no hot wings in heaven.

  • Mark Rutledge

    I appreciate this way of seeing “free thinkers.” As a liberal who never had to negotiate these difficult religious waters it make sense. I have gained some linguistic freedom and assistance by seeing myself as a “post-supernaturalist.” Of course it’s hard to distinguish between propositional “belief” and the ties of cultural identity and the ways one has been acculturated which forms so much of the personal identity thereof. I think we are always influenxced by how we have been raised. I have tried to teach my students how to positively critique the powerful ways they have been raised and acculturated’ and to see how to move beyond that taking the positive aspects and leaving behind the negatives.

    • mason lane
      • Scott Stahlecker

        Mason, I don’t know where you find all these memes, but they sure are funny.

    • Scott Stahlecker

      Mark, it is really difficult trying figure out how much of our personalities are influenced not only by religion, but by all the other cultural factors. I think freethinking skills are required in order make these logical mental connections. The wonderful thing about freethinking is it’s really a discovery of finding out our core natures. This seems like this is a value you are sharing with your students too.

  • If you are seeking personal and intellectual growth beyond atheism, becoming an avid freethinker can provide this mental stimulation.

    I hope this post stirs up interest in the idea! I was never particularly religious, so becoming an atheist wasn’t a big transition for me. But freethought should be about a lot more than just complacency and self-congratulation; it’s a demand to scrutinize what we believe and the way we think. Critical thinking involves constant self-examination, and that’s something a lot of religious people—and plenty of atheists—aren’t interested in.

    • Scott Stahlecker

      Nicely put, Shem. your comment brings a memory to mind: It was back in my junior year of studying for the ministry. I’d come to the conclusion that I really wasn’t studying the truth about life. I was merely learning details about a particular Christian sect, of of thousands within a particular religion, within a world filled with tens of thousands of religions and philosophies. The realization of knowing how wrong we can be in our ideas is really the spark that ignites a freethinker’s mind.

      • The realization of knowing how wrong we can be in our ideas is really the spark that ignites a freethinker’s mind.

        Very well said! I’d add that the next step for me was realizing that it’s not a choice between being wrong or right. Since then I’m better able to see that the quest for rightness is just a vestige of the religious urge to display one’s superiority and impose conformity of opinion.

        As you said in your article, freethought is being taught how to fish, and there’s no guarantee that freethinkers will necessarily land the same catch. Anyone who can’t abide uncertainty or ambiguity should think twice before recommending that others cast a line.

        • Scott Stahlecker

          Agreed. Living with uncertainty and ambiguity could easy be one of the creeds of free-thought.

  • Jim Baerg

    I’m inclined to call myself anti-faith or maybe faithfree. Then I explain that faith is just a roadblock to correcting any mistaken beliefs. Not the only obstacle, but certainly the biggest that needs to be eliminated.

    • Scott Stahlecker

      Jim, that’s a softer way to witness which I think would be effective. On the one hand, it’s saying I’m religious free, but also, I don’t put my blind faith in any religious system.

  • I think for the most part I’ve cleared those mental hurdles and have learned to think about the whys of what may be right or wrong. But this:

    “…while we can pride ourselves from being freed from attending church, religious ideologies can still be influencing our values and thought processes.”

    While I believe myself to be free from the ideologies, the “attending church” part really still has a hold on me! I remain mostly closeted because of one son, and I still end up in church even when my wife (a believer) isn’t well enough to be there. I will go by myself, and spend the time reading on my phone (hey, nobody knows I’m not using a Bible app!). Last Sunday I just couldn’t bear the thought of going, but I felt a twinge of guilt. It may have been fear that I would “get caught.” It’s hard to say. What upsets me is that that even though I am 100% atheist, societal pressure still takes a huge toll on my emotions.

    • ElizabetB.

      I agree! Everything is interwoven, and it’s just hard to disentangle. Of course, now they’ve demonstrated “entanglement,” so maybe it’s not even possible!! Anyway, deep sympathy, and cheers as you work through all the challenges!!!