Over the course of the past two years, I have had discussions with people who would say, “Oh so you’re the freethinker. Ok, let’s do some ‘free’ thinking. Let’s explore these ideas,” and they would proceed to make these outlandish claims. When I stop them, or point out to them why their ideas are unreasonable or illogical, they would say, “Oh but I thought you were a freethinker. What happened to ‘free’ thinking? Free your mind, man.” At this point, I usually proceed to give a short discourse on the history and proper use of “freethinker” and “freethinking.”
A quick search of the word “freethinker” across some of the most popular references on the web gives us these definitions:
dictionary.com (this is the default reference site when you type “freethinker” on Google) – “a person who forms opinions on the basis of reason, independent of authority or tradition, especially a person whose religious opinions differ from established belief.”
merriam-webster.com (everyone’s favorite dictionary since we came down from the trees, before the internet was invented) – “a person who forms his or her own opinions about important subjects (such as religion and politics) instead of accepting what other people say.” This is followed by a “full definition” which states: “one who forms opinions on the basis of reason independently of authority;especially : one who doubts or denies religious dogma.”
wikipedia.org (searching “freethinker” on this site redirects you to a page on “freethought” which defines it this way) – “a philosophical viewpoint which holds that positions regarding truth should be formed on the basis of logic, reason, and empiricism, rather than authority, tradition, or other dogmas. The cognitive application of freethought is known as ‘freethinking’, and practitioners of freethought are known as ‘freethinkers.’”
By now, it should be obvious that freethinking is not the freedom to think anything. That thought must be based on reason. As my friend, Jong, likes to say, a freethinker is free to think outside the bounds of authority, tradition and religious dogma, but he is not free to think outside the bounds of reason, logic and empirical evidence.
Why is there an emphasis on being against “established belief,” “authority,” or “religious dogma?”
The term was coined at a time when religious authority was synonymous with political authority. The church wielded tremendous authority and influence over the state and people who disagreed with matters of doctrine could be captured and tried as criminals. Heresy was a crime that could lead to your death just as much as murder or rape could. It was against this sociological backdrop that the word “freethinking” was first used in the late 1600’s by William Molyneux, an Irish philosopher and political writer. Hence, one can see historically why there is a constant tension between freethinkers and religion.
This is not to say that freethinkers are automatically atheists (or vice versa — as many atheists can be irrational as well). For example, Thomas Paine, a British and American political activist in the 18th century widely regarded as a champion of freethought, professed a strong belief in God though not of organized religion. In a pamphlet entitled The Age of Reason, Paine writes: “I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life. I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church. All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.”
Being a freethinker, then, is not so much a profession of belief or disbelief in a deity or deities but rather a commitment to the process of reason, logic and scientific examination of evidence in one’s search for truth. In other words, a freethinker holds something to be true not because of what a “holy book” says, or because of what a religious authority says, but because it passes the test of reason, logic and evidence.
This ends today’s lesson. Now for the quiz. Close your notes and get one-half sheet of paper.
Originally published in Sunstar Davao.