November 3, 2015

Freethought as the Rejection of Tribalism

Cables in Virtual Light.jpg
"Cables in Virtual Light" by Jeffrey Horvath - Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Freethought is a broad term that is bound to mean somewhat different things to different people. The definition that has always resonated with me is the one that emphasizes the role of reason and evidence as bases of belief over faith, tradition, authority, and/or dogma (Wikipedia). The scope of freethought extends well beyond matters of religion. It describes an approach to the pursuit of knowledge in all matters. I see a freethinker as someone willing to follow evidence and reason where it leads while simultaneously working to guard against all the various biases known to pollute decision making. Nobody is a freethinker by accident; it requires a sustained commitment.

I find that one of the most important implications of freethought is that it rejects the sort of tribalism that would lead one to accept some ideas and reject others on the basis of their source. Political ideologies might provide the most striking example of this. Someone who swallows the entire ideology of one political party without question and rejects the entire ideology of another party is not functioning as a freethinker. The freethinker critically examines individual ideas and accepts those that are reasonable and supported by evidence, regardless of which party might advocate them. This sometimes results in the freethinker appearing to be a moderate; however, what is really happening is that the freethinker is taking the good ideas and discarding the bad, without blind political allegiances or tribalism.

Political Freethought

If there is one area where I have been most influenced by freethought outside of faith, it would have to be my political views. While I tend to lean toward the left on many issues, I recognize that there are plenty of bad ideas on the left and some good ones on the right. Over the past 20 years or so, my political views have gradually shifted from what might have once been characterized as fairly dogmatic progressivism to a far more nuanced approach where I find much of value and much to discard on both the left and the right.

Some people would say that what I've described above makes me sound like a political moderate. I disagree. I hold some far left positions and a few right-leaning ones. There aren't very many political issues where you'd find me at the center. Thus, I don't see the moderate label as applying particularly well.

This sort of political freethought has come at a price. I have been accused of being a traitor by dogmatic sorts on both sides of the political spectrum. My political positions have gradually become so idiosyncratic that I'll never find a candidate or party that represents them. And yet, this is a price I'm willing to pay. I certainly feel like I'm being truer to myself by evaluating ideas based on evidence and reason instead of ideology, dogma, and source. I feel much freer by being able to follow reason and evidence where they take me.

Freethought and Tribalism

There are countless examples of tribalism around us, and many of them only appear to be getting worse. Everybody seems to need to be part of one group that despises people who are part of some other group. Fortunately, freethought is an effective antidote to tribalism and some of the worst pettiness associated with tribalism. When someone on one side of any particular rift does something laudable, the freethinker can praise it without worrying about betraying his or her values, tribe, or any particular dogma. And when someone on one side of any particular rift does something hypocritical, the freethinker can criticize it and even repudiate it if necessary. The freethinker can go where reason and evidence lead without regard to various ideologies, dogmas, or tribal allegiances.

In many domains, we encounter the notion that certain ideas are beyond criticism or that one must parrot some positions in order to fit in with a tribe. Such notions have become increasingly unpalatable to me. I see them as antithetical to freethought, and I am rejecting them. Admittedly, this has resulted in a path that can be lonely at times. As practically every atheist knows all too well, standing up for reason and evidence over popular dogma can be isolating. It seems virtually impossible to pursue freethought and any sort of social acceptance or belonging at the same time. Being a freethinker seems to entail a willingness to go it alone. At least, it has for me.

Freethought Probably Isn't for Everyone

Freethought is the path I have chosen, but that does not mean that it has always been an easy one. There have been plenty of times when I have been tempted to abandon it for something easier and with far more social benefits. I recognize now that freethought probably isn't for everyone. I think that a certain level of independence, comfort in one's own skin, humility, tolerance of social disapproval, and even a willingness to be alone are probably required. Without such attributes, I could easily imagine freethought leading to a fairly miserable sort of existence. Not only does it require effort, but the social costs for failing to go along with tradition, social convention, authority, dogma, and tribalism can be high.

I think the hardest part is discovering just how quickly some people, previously regarded as friends or allies, may turn on you when they decide that you are no longer "one of us." Your disagreement with their views can quickly turn into something far bigger than it should, and the reactions you may receive can be far more vicious than you might expect. The key to understanding how quickly one can go from friend to being completely disowned is to recognize that they see your difference of opinion with the norms of their tribe as an unexpected betrayal. They are responding to you based on their interpretation of your disagreement as betrayal.

The good news is that freethought does not have to be an all-or-none proposition. Much like skepticism, one can chose to utilize freethought in some domains or contexts and not in others. One can, for example, base some of one's views on reason and evidence and reflexively follow dogma or tradition in other areas. By doing this, I would think that one might be able to reap many of the benefits of freethought without becoming a social outcast. Just because I haven't been able to pull off this particular trick doesn't mean that you won't succeed at it.
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