My Thinking on Freethinking

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?


  1. closetpuritan · January 12, 2013

    I had thought that the “Universalist” part of the UU name came from their belief in universal salvation, the idea that everyone would eventually go to heaven/be united with God. (Which is not a belief that all Christian religions officially hold, as you know; while individual Catholics sometimes believe in universal salvation, my understanding is that that is not the Catholic Church’s official position.) OK, actually, looking at the history section of their site, it says,

    Universalists are Christians who believe in universal salvation, meaning that all people will eventually be reconciled with God. While people have held Universalist beliefs for thousands of years, the faith did not become a widespread religious movement until English Universalists came to America in the late 1700s to escape religious persecution.

    Because of its loving and inclusive doctrine, Universalism quickly became popular in America and the Universalist Church of America was formed in 1793.

    Anyway, I guess my answer to the larger question of, “Should people’s labels for themselves be taken in historical context?” is yes. Getting mad that UUs call themselves “Universalists” to talk about universal salvation because you think they’re calling themselves “The Universal Church” is silly, at least once you know the true origin of the word. (Although getting mad at a church for calling itself “The One True Church” is a bit silly too if your own church does the same thing.)

    As far as the particular question of what I think of the Freethinker label, well, I’m an atheist, and I don’t use the Freethinker label, mostly because I think it sounds a little pretentious. I think it also kind of implies that you’re still questioning your beliefs and aren’t sure what you believe, although I don’t think all who call themselves Freethinkers use it this way. Anyway, I pretty much know what I believe at this point, so barring something truly unexpected I’m unlikely to need to question my basic beliefs again. I mean, I’ve pretty much heard all the arguments for why God does or does not exist.

    I don’t really think it’s an offensive term, though. Like I said before, I think it makes more sense to look at things in their historical context. But I think even looking at it ahistorically, as in your second paragraph, you can’t really get “gullible morons” from it–“unfree thinker” implies that one is unwilling to question one’s beliefs (in the area of religion) and consider new ideas, and therefore would not be easily convinced of new things without evidence (therefore not “gullible”, more along the lines of “rigid” or “dogmatic”), nor does it imply anything about one’s general intelligence (not “morons”). Which is probably still somewhat offensive, but not nearly as bad as “gullible morons”.

  2. Patsy Nevins · January 12, 2013

    Well, I am also pretty much an atheist, & I am not offended by the idea of someone calling himself a freethinker. I am not a joiner, I don’t consider myself part of anything aside from my family & fat acceptance, & even there, I don’t have close ties with my family of origin, only my own children & grandchildren, & in FA, I am pretty much outside the mainstream FA beliefs & stances, so, while I would not take an official label, I do think freely in the sense that I think for myself.

    I also do not understand why some people believe the things they do, but I do not consider those with whom I disagree to be ‘morons’; I believe in leaving them alone to believe what they wish & live as they wish, as long as they do the same to me. I believe that ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ is a good rule to live by, whether or not you are religious. I guess in all honesty that I never before heard of an organized group called ‘freethinkers’, but just always thought that the word meant independent people who do not like to be told what to think or how to live.

    As for UUs, what I have always heard is that they are probably the most open-minded & accepting & non-judgmental of any organized religion. It seems like a nice way to be.

  3. Mel Bowers · January 15, 2013

    We live in a society with a predominantly Christian population; roughly 80% of the Americans identify themselves as Christians. The Christian faith has undeniably influenced American culture and the way many Americans view the world. Despite this cultural proclivity towards Christianity, our country has a strong tradition of secular national government. The separation of church and state and respect for religious freedom that this codified made the United States very different from Europe which had official state religions.

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