From an early age, I’ve questioned faith. My experience with religion has been that it can be incredibly prescriptive of what we ought or ought not do, and offers little reason to follow its rules other than fears of mortality. Good acts, and strict adherence to these rules will be rewarded in heaven. Unfortunately, the teachings I was raised on seemed to offer little reason to take seriously beyond that they were the traditions of my progenitors.
This is important in the philosophy of freethought. Freethinking is the idea that opinions ought not to be based on dogmatic belief, and that truth lies within that which can be discovered through logic and reason. By the time I was 12-years-old, I’d long lost count of the times I’d been told I was going to hell. I wasn’t worried. I was born a Christian Scientist, converted to Catholicism, and still in short-pants by the time I became an atheist.
Shortly after starting university, my hobbies included ridiculing religious kids in my first-year ethics class because they seriously believed that morality could not exist without religion. John Lennon’s “Imagine” was my jam, and I made it my mission to tell everyone I met that if we could only give up religion — and countries and wars, et cetera — the world could live as one. In short, I was an asshole — a naive asshole. I didn’t know it yet, but I was a strict adherent to the doctrine of freethought.
Today, freethinker is a moniker primarily adopted by atheists who see the same problems with religion that I did as a child and in my early years of university. But I can’t help feel like this version of freethought is throwing the baby Jesus out with the bathwater.
As a term to be applied in opposition to theological inquiry, freethought implies that those who do not share the same beliefs are not free in their thinking. This piece of rhetoric shuts down serious debate before it can begin. Even worse, many freethinkers seem to subscribe to a dogma of their own, which is the apparently incontrovertible truth of the non-existence of a deity, and attack some of the dubious claims made in the Bible as the principal example of why we ought to abandon religion altogether.
The religious right in the United States — the loudest, and most obnoxious voices of Christianity today — say some pretty ignorant things in an effort to persuade people that women should have no right to choose abortion and that same-sex marriages are an abomination. So it is little wonder that the concept of freethought has become so attractive. But what of the quieter progressives in Christianity? Is there no room for the advancement of new ideas in Christianity, or are these ideas ignored simply because they don’t support the loudest, most obnoxious arguments against religion?
It’s true that there are many outdated ideas in the Bible. There are also many outdated ideas espoused by Aristotle, but we can still find value in studying Politics without feeling obliged to support slavery or the subjugation of women. Ideas change and, through scholarly inquiry, we work to find truth. Why can’t the same be said about religion? If we can accept this premise, then all we’re left with is quibbling over the minor detail of whether or not a divine being exists. No amount of arguing seems to satisfy either side, and so we find ourselves at an impasse: there is insufficient evidence to prove the existence of a divine deity, and there is also insufficient evidence to prove the non-existence of a god. In his book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins sums up a commonly held position among freethinkers: “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.” But he fails to sway the faithful, merely propping up his acolytes and encouraging ad hominem mudslinging.
The reason that atheists can’t convince the religious, and vice versa, seems to be that they are arguing about two different things. Religion isn’t based on reason, and trying to argue about it using reason will always come up short. Here, the freethinkers claim victory because they assume that their way of thinking is the pinnacle of human achievement. They’ve already ruled out the value of half of the human experience, namely the non-rational. Call me crazy, but there’s a lot more to life than can be learned through rational inquiry alone. At bottom, that freethinkers lack imagination makes it difficult to believe their way of thinking is free at all.
Today, my beliefs are more complicated than the simple binary idea that either there is or isn’t a god. I don’t believe in a god in the sense that Abrahamic religions believe in one, but it seems to me that as long as you’re not using your beliefs to persecute others, you’re doing alright — whether you’re a theist or non-theist. Everything I believe is an open question, and I make adjustments to my assumptions through contemplative reflection and constant exposure to new ideas. This is what a freethinker ought to be, a term open to theists, atheists and agnostics alike.