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Atheism vs. Freethought

Are Atheists all Freethinkers? What is Freethought?

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Question:
What is a freethinker? Are all freethinkers atheists? Are all atheists freethinkers?

 

Answer:
A standard dictionary defines a freethinker as “one that forms opinions on the basis of reason independently of authority; especially one who doubts or denies religious dogma.” What this means is that to be a freethinker, a person has to be willing to consider any idea and any possibility. The standard for deciding the truth-value of claims is not tradition, dogma, or authorities — instead, it must be reason and logic.

The term 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.”

Collins used the term as essentially a synonym for anyone who opposes organized religion and wrote his most famous book, The Discourse of Free Thinking (1713) to explain why he felt that way. He went beyond describing freethinking as desirable and declared it to be a moral obligation:

    Because he who thinks freely does his best toward being right, and consequently does all that God, who can require nothing more of any Man than that he should do his best, can require of him.

As should be obvious, Collins did not equate freethinking with atheism — he retained his membership in the Anglican church. It wasn’t belief in a god which attracted his ire, but instead people who simply “take the Opinions they have imbib’d form their Grandmothers, Mothers or Priests.”

At the time, freethinking and the freethought movement was usually characteristic of those who were deists just as today freethinking is more often characteristic of atheists — but in both cases this relationship is not exclusive. 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. As the Freedom From Religion Foundation explains it:

    For a statement to be considered true it must be testable (what evidence or repeatable experiments confirm it?), falsifiable (what, in theory, would disconfirm it, and have all attempts to disprove it failed?), parsimonious (is it the simplest explanation, requiring the fewest assumptions?), and logical (is it free of contradictions, non sequiturs, or irrelevant ad hominem character attacks?).

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 should be regarded as a freethinker.

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.

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