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Austin Cline

Weekly Quote: Tolstoy on Freethought

By December 19, 2004

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Freethinkers are those who are willing to use their minds without prejudice and without fearing to understand things that clash with their own customs, privileges, or beliefs. This state of mind is not common, but it is essential for right thinking; where it is absent, discussion is apt to become worse than useless.
- Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace (1862)

The term "freethinker" was originally popularized by Anthony Collins (1676-1729), a confidant of John Locke who wrote many pamphlets and books attacking traditional religion. He even belonged to a group called "The Freethinkers" which published a journal entitled "The Free-Thinker." Neither Tolstoy here nor Collins before him equated freethought with atheism or even irreligion, even though they have tended to go together quite often.

It is not the conclusion which differentiates freethought from other philosophies, but the process. A person can be a theist because they are a freethinker and a person can be an atheist despite not being a freethinker. For freethinkers and those who associate themselves with freethought, claims are judged based on how closely they are found to correlate with reality. Claims have to be capable of being tested and it has to be possible to falsify it - to have a situation which, if discovered, would demonstrate that the claim is false.

Although many atheists may be surprised or even annoyed by this, the obvious conclusion is that freethought and theism are compatible while freethought and atheism are not the same and one does not automatically necessitate the other. An atheist might legitimately raise the objection that a theist cannot also be a freethinker because theism the belief in a god cannot be rationally grounded and cannot be based upon reason.

The problem here, however, is the fact that this objection is confusing the conclusion with the process. As long as a person accepts the principle that beliefs regarding religion and politics should be based upon reason and makes a genuine, sincere, and consistent attempt to evaluate claims and ideas with reason, refusing to accept those which are unreasonable, then that person can reasonably be regarded as a freethinker.

As Tolstoy explains above, what distinguishes a freethinker from others is the fact that a freethinker is willing to use their power of reason to critically examine new ideas even if they clash with previously held prejudices, beliefs, and customs. This is not an easy task because most people become very comfortable in those traditional beliefs, not unlike being comfortable in old, favorite clothing. Real progress, though, depends upon people being able to do exactly that only if they are willing to confront their prejudices do they have any chance of overcoming them and progressing.

Once again, the point about freethought is the process rather than the conclusion - which means that a person who fails to be perfect does not also fail to be a freethinker. An atheist might regard the theist's position as erroneous and a failure to apply reason and logic perfectly - but what atheist achieves such perfection? Freethought is not based upon perfection.

Still, why is it the case that freethought has such a high correlation with atheism rather than theism? As I note above, freethought requires us to confront and challenge traditional beliefs and customs, but the beliefs and customs that are based upon religion are much more difficult to overcome than any others. Religion makes very absolute demands upon a person, demands that are much stronger than the demands made by other ideologies.

As a consequence, freethought will necessarily be far more difficult to realistically achieve from within the context of religion. The very act of moving towards freethought would, as a matter of fact, often entail contradicting any number of religious doctrines. Thus, while freethought is not necessarily incompatible with religion or theism, it is unlikely to for them to coincide very often.

 

More Weekly Quotes: commentary and analysis each week on a different quotation dealing with philosophy, religion, and more.

Comments
Vincent(1)

Pretty interesting spin on definitions, but for a person to be considered a free thinker, one has to let go of baseless belief. Just because free thought is a process does not change the inevitable natural conclusion one should arrive at through rational thought. the fact that a person still believes in his religion means that he has not begun the process of evaluating his perceptions, he has not begun free thought or else he would have already let go of his faith, it can only be one or the other.

March 24, 2011 at 9:21 pm
Vincent(2)

And to argue that “no one’s beliefs are perfect” is just nonsense. if that were a valid reason to judge someone as a free thinker, what reasonable threshold is there? we might as well call all christians free thinkers as they excercise reason some of the time. Freethought is not based upon perfection” but it certainly is the application of rational thought within the bounds of our intellectual capacity. How can one claim to be a free thinker when he has not begun the process of free thinking to judge his own beliefs? If he has not begun the process of free thought, then he is not a free thinker yet.

March 24, 2011 at 9:36 pm

Pretty interesting spin on definitions, but for a person to be considered a free thinker, one has to let go of baseless belief.

Have you let go of every baseless belief?

the fact that a person still believes in his religion

You’ll note I said “theist,” not anything about “religion.”

And to argue that “no one’s beliefs are perfect” is just nonsense.

Actually, you already revealed why it’s important. You claim that for a person to be considered a free thinker, they have to let go of baseless belief. Well, do you assert that they have to be perfect by letting go of all baseless belief? That would be absurd; ergo what I wrote is correct: perfection when it comes to tracking down and letting go of baseless beliefs is not required.

To demand that a person be a secular atheist in order to be considered a freethinker is to insist that freethougtht be defined by its conclusions rather than by a process, and that’s simply wrong. Freethought is a methodology, not a dogma.

March 25, 2011 at 6:02 am
Vincent(4)

what part of “but it certainly is the application of rational thought within the bounds of our intellectual capacity.” was not clear?
Have you let go of every baseless belief?” is pretty pointless question given the argument at hand, of course a person will not be able to let go of every baseless belief he has, but will let go of any baseless beliefs that he has THOUGHT OF and had formed conclusions as to it’s validity with in his own intellecutal capacity, and that certainly will vary from person to person. do I need to spell this out for you?

“the fact that a person still believes in his religion
You’ll note I said “theist,” not anything about “religion.”"

Oh sorry, you’ve found irrefutable proof of god now?

Also,

“Freethought is the application of critical thinking and logic to all areas of human experience, and the rejection of supernatural and authoritarian beliefs.” Thus, on the CFA’s definition of “freethought,” theists by definition cannot be freethinkers”

March 26, 2011 at 12:57 pm

what part of “but it certainly is the application of rational thought within the bounds of our intellectual capacity.” was not clear?

It’s perfectly clear; and it doesn’t help your argument.

Have you let go of every baseless belief?” is pretty pointless question given the argument at hand

It’s precisely the issue at hand: does a person have to let go of every baseless belief in order to be a freethinker? The answer is easy: no.

but will let go of any baseless beliefs that he has THOUGHT OF and had formed conclusions as to it’s validity with in his own intellecutal capacity

Every belief is, by definition, something a person has thought of; every belief is, by definition, a conclusion you have formed. The question is thus not whether they have thought about a belief, but how well they have applied standards of skepticism, logic, science, etc. Some do better than others.

“the fact that a person still believes in his religion

You’ll note I said “theist,” not anything about “religion.”"

Oh sorry, you’ve found irrefutable proof of god now?

Non sequitur; the fact that I was talking about theism rather than religion doesn’t imply that I, an atheist, have proof of any gods. That you would think otherwise indicates a failure of rational thought

“Freethought is the application of critical thinking and logic to all areas of human experience, and the rejection of supernatural and authoritarian beliefs.” Thus, on the CFA’s definition of “freethought,” theists by definition cannot be freethinkers”

Only if you assume that in order to be a freethinker, a person who applies freethinking to supernatural beliefs must necessarily do so perfectly enough in order to arrive at the same conclusion as you. Basically, you’re insisting on a dogma for freethought — you’re insisting that no one can be a freethinker if they disagree with you because you and you alone have arrived at the only possible rational conclusion.

And that sort of dogmatic attitude is precisely what’s incompatible with freethought.

March 26, 2011 at 3:34 pm
Vincent(6)

I really expected better answers from someone with a masters degree. Also I realize that you get to approve all comments here, replying further makes no point.

“what part of “but it certainly is the application of rational thought within the bounds of our intellectual capacity.” was not clear?
It’s perfectly clear; and it doesn’t help your argument.”

Oh yes it does”

“Have you let go of every baseless belief?” is pretty pointless question given the argument at hand

It’s precisely the issue at hand: does a person have to let go of every baseless belief in order to be a freethinker? The answer is easy: no.”

This is pointless to the argument as it is directed at me, your reasoning should stand on it’s own without going after the person making the statement.

“Basically, you’re insisting on a dogma for freethought ”

You say that is a dogma of free thought, I say that is the definition of free thought

Under your arguments you might as well proclaim all Christians or Muslims Free thinkers as everyone does at one point or another “have applied standards of skepticism, logic, science, etc.”

Obviously we have very different understandings of what makes a person a free thinker, so what do you think makes a person a free thinker?

I maintain that as long as a person believes in fairy tales, he is not a free thinker, remove that everyone is a free thinker and the label is pointless.

March 26, 2011 at 9:23 pm

I really expected better answers from someone with a masters degree.

…says the person who hasn’t written a correct statement so far.

You say that is a dogma of free thought, I say that is the definition of free thought

What you call the “definition” of freethought is a particular conclusion. Freethought is, however, defined by methodology and approach, not conclusions. You not only don’t understand what the definition of freethought is, you don’t understand it’s purpose and reason for existence. That, more than anything, separates you completely from free thinking.

Under your arguments you might as well proclaim all Christians or Muslims Free thinkers as everyone does at one point or another “have applied standards of skepticism, logic, science, etc.”

Yes, but they don’t do it consciously to all of their beliefs and they don’t make it a point of basing those beliefs on those standards. Those who don’t cannot be freethinkers; those who do can be, even if they don’t do so as well as others.

Obviously we have very different understandings of what makes a person a free thinker

I define freethinking according to the methodology which has always defined it; you define it according to a personal dogma which limits it to your favored conclusions.

Did you miss the fact that neither Tolstoy nor Athony Collins — the man who coined Free-Thinker — associated freethought with atheism or even irreligion? Collins remained a member of the Anglican Church all his life.

The fact that freethought leads you to atheism doesn’t entail that unless a person is an atheist then they can’t be a freethinker. Freethought is a process, not a conclusion. As soon as you insist that a conclusion must be common to all freethinkers, you’ve exited the realm of freethought and started to form your own dogma.

And that makes you no better than the forces that freethought was developed to fight.

so what do you think makes a person a free thinker?

I explain that clearly above and elsewhere.

I maintain that as long as a person believes in fairy tales, he is not a free thinker, remove that everyone is a free thinker and the label is pointless.

And the fairy tale you believe in is that “freethought” is compatible with dogmatic conclusions. Just because your own freethinking has led you to conclude that theism is a fairy tale doesn’t mean that theism is incompatible with freethinking. Something in your political or economic beliefs might be regarded by someone else as a fairy tale, but that wouldn’t mean that you can’t therefore be a freethinker.

Once again, substituting some particular conclusion — whether on a religious, political, economic, or social subject — for the process of belief formation is antithetical to what differentiates freethought from all other philosophies. It is probably the only thing that is wholly incompatible with freethought because it is precisely to oppose such thinking that freethought was developed.

No matter how obvious you personally regard some conclusion, you can’t insist that everyone must agree with it in order to be a freethinker. Not even if your conclusion happens to be factually accurate. That’s simply not how freethought is defined – not now, not in the past, and not ever.

March 26, 2011 at 9:42 pm
Vincent(8)

How ridiculous, so you’re one of those people who thinks the truth is different from person to person? The truth stands on it’s own, and gravity will pull you down no matter what you believe.

For someone with so much education, you’re clearly not above taking insulting pot shots, but then again, even people from high iq societies resort to that when their arguments don’t hold water.

Also, there’s whole groups of people out there who disagree with you, one such group is the http://www.collegefreethought.org/

And from what I can see, you think you have the right to tell us what we believe, because that’s how you define your little word.

March 27, 2011 at 12:20 am
VIncent(9)

You call people out there that haven’t even begun the process of thinking freely, free thinkers

What a bunch of doublethink

March 27, 2011 at 12:30 am

How ridiculous, so you’re one of those people who thinks the truth is different from person to person?

No, I’m just someone who is using a definition consistently. The definition of freethought is about the process a person uses to evaluate beliefs; it has nothing to do with “truth.”

The truth stands on it’s own, and gravity will pull you down no matter what you believe.

That is correct. It is also irrelevant because the definition of “freethought” has nothing to do with “truth.” It has to do with belief formation and evaluation.

Also, there’s whole groups of people out there who disagree with you

I used to be an officer for the national CFA and was present when it was being organized In fact, I started one of the first campus chapters. Perhaps if you paid a bit more attention, you’d have noticed that they don’t require that a person be an atheist to be a member or to be a freethinker. On the contrary, they encourage religious theists to join. CFI, the sponsor organization for CFA, states quite clearly that they aren’t all atheists.

And from what I can see, you think you have the right to tell us what we believe, because that’s how you define your little word.

I’m defining “freethought” according to how it was coined and how it is used. You’re the one attempting to impose your own personal dogmas on it. I can’t tell you what you believe, but I can tell you when you’re using English incorrectly and when you are violating the spirit of a philosophy. In this case, all that requires is an ability to read a dictionary and a modicum of knowledge of freethought history.

I’m still waiting for your explanation for how freethought can require atheism when the man who coined the term wasn’t an atheist or even irreligious. I’m still waiting for your explanation for how and why you think it’s appropriate to impose certain conclusions as requirements for a definition that says nothing about conclusions but rather only references methodology. You can’t, can you? All you can say is “I can’t imagine anyone using those methods and not agreeing with me.” It’s an argument from ignorance which, as you should well know, is a fallacy. Thus you have nothing but a fallacy to defend your position and that means you have nothing.

Just because you’ve concluded that something is “truth” doesn’t mean that everyone else is also obligated to believe it too in order to qualify as a “freethinker.” That holds even if you happen to be correct and your conclusion really is true. Why? Simple: the definition of “freethought” doesn’t require that a person only have correct beliefs about everything. Or anything in particular.

Now, why do you have trouble comprehending that? Claim all you want that my arguments “don’t hold water,” but the fact remains that I’m using the actual definition of freethought and you’re… just making things up out of nowhere. The fact remains that I have presented detailed arguments and citations from multiple references whereas you… have nothing. The only time you’ve cited anything it’s contradicted you.

You call people out there that haven’t even begun the process of thinking freely, free thinkers

Really? Name one. Go ahead, name a single person that I’ve called a freethinker who you know for a fact “hasn’t even begun the process of thinking freely.” I’m certain you can’t do it; what’s more, I think you know you can’t do it. Tell me: do you regard it as compatible with freethought to make assertions that you know you can’t support?

March 27, 2011 at 8:27 am
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