Saturday, December 02, 2006

Can a Theist be a Freethinker?

The following link goes to a featured editorial I wrote several years ago for the Secular Web. I argue that (1) a theist can be a freethinker, and (2) not all nontheists are freethinker.



beepbeepitsme said...

FREETHOUGHT: The philosophical stance of freethought derives from “freethinker”, a person who has rejected authority and dogma (especially in religious thinking) in favor of rational inquiry and intellectual speculation.

How can a theist be a freethinker under that definition?

Jeffery Jay Lowder said...

A theist can be a freethinker if they arrive at the conclusion that God exists independently of authority and dogma. The quotation of Bertrand Russell in my article makes this point nicely:

"To be worthy of the name [freethinker], he must be free of two things; the force of tradition, and the tyranny of his own passions. No one is completely free from either, but in the measure of a man's emancipation he deserves to be called a free thinker. ... What makes a free thinker is not his beliefs, but the way in which he holds them. If he holds them because his elders told him they were true when he was young, or if he holds them because if he did not he would be unhappy, his thought is not free; but if he holds them because, after careful thought, he find a balance of evidence in their favor, then his thought is free, however odd his conclusions may seem."

beepbeepitsme said...

How can someone reject authority and still believe in god?

bpabbott said...

beep, there are many possibilities for reconciling theism and freethought. I'll offer two.

(1) God's realm is beyond the natural universe. He play no part in our present existence, or has moved on to other interests. You either think for yourself or let someone else think for you.

(2) There is no objective means to know explicitly what the truth of what God wants of us. Thus, it is impossible to know what God's truth is. Thus, an individuals' divinity is not measured by how closely he follows dogma, but rather who aply he seeks out God's truth. For the latter, a free and thinking mind is quite useful.

Bradley Bowen said...

You appear to offer an alternative definition of “freethinker”:
Person P is a freethinker if and only if P applies critical thinking and logic to all areas of their life, including religion.
The problem with this definition is that virtually no one satisfies the criterion. Most of us ordinary mortals have areas of our lives about which we don’t think critically. This is true of atheists, agnostics, liberal Christians, Jews, Catholics, etc. So if the term “freethinker” is going to be a useful category that applies to more than just a handful of highly disciplined critical thinkers, the criterion will need to be loosened up a bit.
I can imagine a theist satisfying your very strict criterion, so I agree that a theist can be a freethinker. If we lower the standard a bit, then there should be no doubt that actual theists fall into the category “freethinker”.
There should be an intention and willingness to apply critical thinking and logic to all areas of one’s life, including religion, but actually fully carrying out this ideal is a nearly superhuman task, especially in a world that does not particularly value truth, rationality, and justice, especially given the depth and strength of irrational tendencies that all human beings share (e.g. egocentrism and sociocentrism).
I disagree with the claim that Evangelical Christians cannot be freethinkers.
I was an Evangelical Christian who embraced Critical Thinking as an ideal, and I did not immediately renounce my Evangelical Christian beliefs and values. After a few years of thinking critically about my religious beliefs, I decided that Evangelical Christianity was unworthy of my acceptance, and I left the Christian faith and became a secular humanist.
In the transitional years between those two opposing points of view, I was an Evangelical Christian who was willing to put my beliefs to the test of reason, and when I had critically examined those beliefs and found them wanting, I rejected them and changed my point of view. My case may be a bit unusual, but I’m not the only person who has walked down that road.
You point to a couple of Bible passages that appear to direct believers to be uncritical thinkers. But passages from the Bible, as you know, are almost always open to multiple interpretations:
Thus, Evangelical Christians are supposed to "Lean not on [their] own understanding" (Proverbs 3:5) and "take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ" (2 Cor. 10:5).
The command to “Lean not on your own understanding” is more than a little bit vague. I suppose a common interpretation of this advice is that a full grasp of reality and truth is possible only when a person allows truths that are revealed by God to play an important role in their thinking. But this is perfectly reasonable advice given the assumption that there are truths that have been revealed by God, and that can be identified as such. As an Evangelical Christian, I thought there were good reasons for believing that the Bible contained such revelations. So, in using Biblical “truths” as part of my thinking, I was simply doing what was reasonable and rational and supported by the evidence (or so I thought at one time).
Paul’s command to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” is similarly vague and open to various interpretations (it is an analogy afterall). But, if there are good reasons to believe that Jesus is the divine Son of God and the Savior of mankind, then it is only reasonable and rational to view the life and teachings of Jesus as being of central importance, and thus as of great significance for one’s thinking, philosophy, religious beliefs, political beliefs, etc.
Furthermore, there are also a few Biblical passages that provide support for critical thinking:
See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
- Jesus (Matthew 10:16)

but test everything; hold fast to what is good;
– Paul (IThessalonians 5:16)

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
– Paul (Philippians 4:8)
If the Bible contains some passages that are opposed to critical thinking and other passages that are supportive of critical thinking, then an honest and sincere Evangelical Christian might well follow the passages that are supportive of critical thinking and ignore or re-interpret those passages that are opposed to critical thinking.

Chris said...

I definitely don't agree that freethought and theism can coexist. I just had a rather heated debate about this topic on my site, and your piece on Infidels was used to argue that theists can indeed be considered freethinkers at times.

I guess it depends on whether or not you group deists in with theists. But a Christian cannot be a freethinker since the only way they could have learned and accepted the notion that Jesus was the son of God would be through the authority of the Bible. There is nothing "apparent" or independently verifiable about this extraordinary claim. It exists in the Christian Bible and nowhere else, therefore the Christian who believes that Jesus was the son of God is accepting the dogma of the Bible. This is not freethought.

BookTalk - the freethinkers book discussion group

the Nebes said...


I'm one of those few people that you would classify as a "freethinking theist".

I see we're dealing with semantics and given the accepted definition of "freethinker", theism and this term are somewhat at odds.

However, the word itself, "freethinker," suggests open-mindedness (and therefore 'freedom' from bias or parameters) when it comes to thinking about the world.

Now, it's important to remember that people all have different ways of viewing the world, and thus of thinking about it. And each pushes their own preferred method of thinking. Some think about things from scientific point of view, for instance. That does not mean, however, that it should be the only valid way of seeing the world. The same goes with an extreme opposite: taking literal/fundamentalist views of life/world through the lens of religion.

Scientific thinking has revealed many aspects of the physical universe -- at least all observable aspects of it, while religious and philosophical thinking reveals much about our condition as human beings (beyond that of an animal species) from a moral/psychological perspective.

But there is something that many people, from atheist to deists, keep forgetting or just dismiss: each person's life is experience is different and unique, yet more importantly, it is very real. For example, some people say they've seen ghosts (or something they've interpreted as ghosts). Others never have. Ghosts are real for those people that have experienced them, despite science not being able to prove (or disprove) their existence, whereas they're imaginary to those who have never seen any. Why should those who have never seen ghosts determine the validity of their existence?

From examples such as the one above, my free-thinking rational mind would conclude that there is more to life than just the shared observable universe.

Does God exist? My answer would be "yes". Do I know exactly what God is? No. I believe there is truly no way of expressing God in this world due to the limits of the physical universe. I mean, the universe seems to be a self-contained place with its own laws, rules, and limitations.

Additionally, I'm sure different individuals have different interpretations of what God is and is all about. Again, it comes down to personal experiences where science reaches as far as explaining the physical workings of life but not the source or meaning behind these personal events.

Anyway, I've babbled enough already and, looking back, I probably wrote much about nothing. Because, once again, only those who have had similar experiences to myself might grasp the gist of what I've written above.


Fester said...

I don't believe that a Theist can be simultaneously a Freethinker - but it is certainly possible that a Theist may become a Freethinker by way of reason and conviction.

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