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.