I am not a member of the atheist/agnostic/Freethinking community, so it’s not my place to police how they identify themselves or how they use language. That said, anyone who participates in religious discussions will hear the term ‘Freethinker.’ I have heard this term many times and have a lot of mixed feelings about it. My original position on the term was negative, and I will spend the first half of the post discussing those feelings. My position now is more positive, and I’ll cover that shift in the second half.
I have to confess: My visceral reaction to the term is negative, and part of me wants to cringe. The implication is that all religious or spiritual people, as well as all believers in all things unconventional or unproven (such as the paranormal) are gullible morons. I reject the idea that the forgotten queens of Islam, Catholic scientists, and other ‘believers’ were all dolts that swallowed everything that came down the pipe. Meanwhile, I can think of any number of reasons why some ‘Freethinkers’ aren’t as freethinking as they think they are. If you join the Freethought movement because it is popular in your circle, then are you really thinking freely? If you base your opinions of religions or religious people on stereotypes, myths, or lack of information, are you really thinking freely? If you are a Freethinker when it comes to religion, but a conformist when it comes to science, cultural ideals, or behavior, are you really thinking freely?
I once knew a Freethinker who was deeply opposed to religious dogma, but who was also a strict scientific materialist. Only conventional, materialistic explanations for the world’s happenings were possible, and anything else was tossed in the New Age Bunk Bin, which seems out of character for someone that truly thinks freely. She also was very much steeped in traditional cultural ideals and behavioral norms. I remember that she refused to watch any movies or read any books that she felt made her look stupid or immature to her peers. Basically, she was very concerned with impressing other people, which, to me, seems like a blind spot for someone that identifies as a Freethinker. Oh, and she is very much a healthist and a fat bigot, which indicates cultural prejudice and cognitive bias.
But ‘Freethinker’ is a religious/philosophical term. It means you think freely in the fields of philosophy or religion and that you are a member of the Freethought movement. The definition does not require you to literally think freely in every area of life (although ideally, a Freethinking orientation should leak into other areas of life). Plus, Freethinkers are people like everyone else. They are not perfect. They have biases and blind spots too, as much as they try not to. They get things wrong too. I’m not out to point out every instance in which a self-identified Freethinker gets something wrong and use that to attack the Freethought tradition. I’m pointing out that the term has limitations, and those limitations are part of the reason I have a negative reaction to the word sometimes.
On the other hand, I understand the original, intended meaning of the term. It is said that the modern Freethought movement began in 1600 with the execution of Giordano Bruno, a Dominican monk and heterodox philosopher. This was a time when the Church ruled society and people blamed all their problems on witches, demons, and the devil with horrifying and deadly results. A literal belief in the Bible stifled academic and scientific inquiry, and this often cost people’s lives, as in the case of medicine. To propose an alternative, non-religious, rationalist worldview was a true act of free thought and really, a revolution in our culture that actually incurred a good deal of risk for those that were part of it. The people that spurred this movement (and those that continued it) deserved to call themselves Freethinkers, and to be proud of it, even if I don’t agree with all of the freely thought thoughts.
I guess I view ‘Freethinker’ in the same light as ‘Universalist.’ Unitarian Universalists who describe themselves as the latter are not saying that everyone else is anti-universalist. Many people, from various religious traditions or no tradition, hold universalist beliefs. The definition of ‘catholic,’ with a small ‘c,’ means ‘diverse’ or ‘universal.’ Catholics believe that they are the one, universal church. However, we are not Universalists with a capital ‘u.’ A Unitarian Universalist believes that all religious and philosophical traditions have some truth to them and that it is up to you to learn from these traditions and chart your own course (I’m simplifying, of course). Those who do not hold those beliefs are not Universalists, but that does not mean that everyone else is narrow-minded or an advocate for discord. The term is simply a term UUs use to describe themselves because they feel that is the most appropriate word for them.
‘Orthodox’ is another example of a pesky term that is context-dependent. Some religious traditions, such as the Eastern Orthodox Church or Orthodox Judaism, have co-opted the term to describe themselves. But the lowercase ‘o’ definition of the word means, basically, that one is traditional or conventional in their thinking. You can be an ultra-traditional Roman Catholic, a fundamentalist Mormon, or you can be a strict devotee of orthodox scientific theories or traditional behavioral norms. Just because are you not orthodox with a capital ‘O’ does not mean you are a New Age, pot-smoking hippie.
Likewise, people who describe themselves as Freethinkers aren’t necessarily saying that those who don’t identify as such are, as I said earlier, gullible morons. They might wonder why so many people, that are otherwise intelligent and rational, believe in things that seem ridiculous to Freethinkers, but that doesn’t mean they have a negative opinion of you personally. ‘Freethinker’ has a specific meaning that arises from a cultural/historical subtext. A ‘Freethinker’ is, quite simply, a member of the Freethought movement. If a Freethinker chooses to identify as such, it is to declare themselves as a member of that movement. It is because they feel the term is an accurate descriptor of themselves.
In conclusion, the term ‘Freethinker’ is not always used accurately and it does have the aforementioned limitations, as do all terms. Still, I don’t feel there is anything inherently wrong with the term and anyone who feels drawn to it should feel free to use it. I have no problem using the term in religious discourse and using the term to describe people that prefer it.
What do you guys think?