June 9, 2015

What is Freethought?

Freedom of Thought Ben Franklin

How do we acquire knowledge? How do we decide what is true? When we are confronted with a novel claim about the world, how to we determine whether it has merit? Do we believe it because powerful others say that we should, because our ancestors believed it, or because we have a hunch that it must be correct? Or do we examine the evidence and put the claim to the test?

Posing such questions is not only a good way to introduce the concept of critical thinking, it sets the stage for understanding freethought too. Since I have been making a deliberate effort to write more about freethought here at Atheist Revolution, I figured that it was time to address its meaning and what makes it difficult to put into practice.

Understanding Freethought

In the simplest terms, freethought is the view that we should ascertain the truth of a claim through evidence and reason rather than tradition, appeals to authority, intuition/revelation, or dogma. A freethinker is someone who agrees with this view and attempts to put in into practice when evaluating claims. Thus, a freethinker is not someone who has to believe (or disbelieve) certain things (i.e., freethought requires no dogma) but someone who approaches knowledge claims in a particular way. The freethinker bases his or her beliefs on evidence and reason.

When it comes to religion and the supernatural, most freethinkers understand that there is insufficient evidence to support such beliefs. They recognize, for example, that the "holy" bible can no more prove the existence of a personal god than a comic book can prove the existence of Spiderman. Faith, revelation, tradition, and the like are not adequate methods for evaluating knowledge claims. Is it any wonder that freethought has long been perceived as dangerous by religious authorities? It has been quite dangerous to their authority.

Much of what we hear about freethought focuses on its approach in dealing with questions of religion and the supernatural. But freethought is by no means limited to these domains; its method is much broader in applicability. And so, the freethinker applies reason and evidence to evaluating everything from socio-political claims to consumer choices. When buying a car, for example, the freethinker is more interested in objective reviews, crash test ratings, and information on vehicle reliability and performance than with what makes and models are popular or with the personal testimony of a friend who owns a particular make and model. And on controversial questions, such as whether U.S. universities are in the midst of a sexual assault epidemic, the freethinker attempts to sift through the talking points used by special interest groups and examine the underlying data.

Freethought: A Lonely Path

What I have just described are the relatively easy parts of freethought. The far more difficult part entails allowing one's beliefs to be swayed by evidence and reason. This means that the freethinker must remain rational, open-minded, and extremely suspicious of ideology. By doing so, he or she aims to avoid the tribalism, polarization, and conflict that often seem to go hand-in-hand with all sorts of ideologies. But what this means is that the freethinker must be willing to go where the evidence leads, even when it leads to places one might not wish to go. For example, the freethinker does not discard skepticism merely because of the gender of the claimant or the empathy he or she experiences for others.

It is often said that humans are social creatures and that we are tribalistic by nature. This is where the real difficulty begins for the freethinker. In many ways, freethought is a lonely path. For the freethinker, the pursuit of truth is more important than group allegiance. He or she will not believe what is popular just to fit in, and he or she will not stop asking questions to appease others. To the contrary, popular dogma will be set aside when the evidence leads elsewhere. Sadly, the freethinker who rejects tribalism will often be labeled a traitor by all tribes. Even striving to remain open to unpopular viewpoints will lead others to regard one as eccentric, a bit of a kook, or worse.

The freethinker will eventually have to come to terms with the sobering realization that many people, including some people who claim to be freethinkers, are not willing to question their beliefs and can become hostile when they are questioned by others. This can be a tough pill to swallow; however, it can also drive the freethinker to be more diligent about critically examining his or her own beliefs and revising them in light of evidence and reason.
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