February 7, 2021

Sometimes Freethought is Just Too Damn Hard

Free Spirit
Photo by Michael Coghlan [CC A-SA 2.0]

Freethought does not come naturally. At least, it never has for me. I find that it requires a great deal of effort and a commitment to resist some of my less rational impulses. As much as I value it and appreciate its power, I cannot deny that there are times when freethought starts to feel exhausting. I find myself thinking that it would be so much easier just to give into tribalism, name-calling, pushing mindless memes on social media, and so on. And the unfortunate thing is that doing so would be almost certain to bring more rewards (e.g., blog traffic, popularity) than freethought ever will.

None of this is a new insight. I have long recognized that freethought is a lonely path, sometimes leading one to be attacked from all sides by the various tribes. By rejecting tribalism, freethinkers often find themselves without support or allies. And without the support provided by groups, there are bound to be limits on what any freethinker can hope to accomplish with regard to any sort of effective secular activism. Thus, there are costs associated with being independent and discarding allegiances to ideologies. I think it is important to be honest about that. Doing so is one of the things that helps me remember that freethought probably isn't for everyone as much as I might like it to be.

Since I have been thinking recently about the subject of secular activism and how any of us can reasonably expect to bring a group as diverse as atheists together to pursue any of the few goals most of us have in common, I thought I should at least acknowledge one particular tension that seems to be inherent in freethought. On one hand, none of us can expect to accomplish much on our own without the involvement of others. On the other hand, it is often difficult to maintain one's independence and commitment to freethought within the context of a group. Sure, there are things one individual secular activist can do that may have an impact. But in general, I think most of us recognize that there is strength in numbers and that certain forms of activism are probably going to require more than one individual.

The bind for the freethinker, then, is that some degree of independence may need to be sacrificed for the optimal functioning of the group. And while each individual must decide what can be sacrificed and where one's limits are, our differing decisions can limit what the group can accomplish. I might decide, for example, that I am unwilling to participate in a secular activist group that includes Republicans. If I make that decision, I am voluntarily giving up allies who could be effective because I'm choosing to put ideology ahead of our shared goals. Alternatively, I could decide that I'm happy to work alongside Republicans and then discover that I'm having to bite my tongue far more often than I'd like to maintain positive working relationships. Of course, these are far from the only two outcomes. I could agree to work alongside Republicans, discover that we have far more in common than I realized, and meet some wonderful people.

I do think it is important that we acknowledge that freethought is difficult and that the pull toward irrationality and tribalism is always there. I've previously said that I consider freethought to be aspirational and that we'll all make mistakes. But like any other aspect of our lives, I think that the key is that we learn from our mistakes and make fewer of them as we progress. So yeah, as difficult as it can be, it is something I aim to continue.