April 5, 2019

Freethought: Considering Ideas We Do Not Like

stained glass

It seems to me that one of the marks of a freethinker is that one should be able and willing to give fair consideration to ideas one does not particularly like or with which one does not agree. That is, one should be able and willing to entertain arguments one might oppose, recognizing their merits, without dismissing them out of hand.

I am not talking about open-mindedness here, as I am not suggesting that freethinkers do not have strong opinions or that we should somehow refrain from forming them. I am referring to the ability and willingness to consider controversial subjects from multiple perspectives. Part of this entails the recognition that the strength of one's opinion is a poor guide as to the accuracy of one's opinion.

I can identify potential advantages to having so-called "atheist churches" like the Sunday Assemblies even though I have absolutely no interest in ever attending one. My gut-level reaction to these things is fairly negative, but the reason for this is no mystery to me. I know why I feel the way I feel about church or things that remind me of church, and I know why I am not interested in non-theistic church substitutes. And yet, I recognize that my feelings on this subject are far from universal. Other atheists have had different experiences. Other atheists have different needs and interests. Many atheists may be delighted by atheist churches. It would not occur to me to pretend that my preferences or feelings were somehow better than theirs; they are only better for me.

Why should the ability and willingness to fairly consider ideas one does not like have anything to do with freethought? Consider the alternative for a moment. Imagine someone who claims to be a freethinker and who is unable or unwilling to consider ideas that run counter to his or her own. Such a person hastily dismisses competing ideas without fully considering them and behaves as if his or her opinion is the only valid one. Even if we are being generous, such a stance seems difficult to reconcile with freethought.

Of course, none of the means that it is easy to give fair consideration to ideas one does not like. It can be challenging, and it almost always requires one to expend some effort to recognize and then counter one's biases. I have never regarded freethought as an easy path, and this is a large part of the reason why.