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Freethinkers, Reason, and Religion

Freedom of thought and evidence

Fellow PT blogger Marty Nemko's recent post, "Are you a freethinker?" reminded me of the following tweet that showed up in my timeline a while back:

  • "As soon as someone tells me--straight-faced--they are a 'free thinker,' I can immediately guess what they think about almost everything." @james_ka_smith

Nemko's article includes an 11-question self-assessment inventory, but apart from completing that and reflecting on the results, it might also be useful to consider what a freethinker is supposed to be. Freethinking should not be a form of groupthink, though it often is.

Freethinkers are often defined by their rejection of religion, or at least of any organized form of religion. For example, the Freedom from Religion Foundation describes a freethinker as someone "who forms opinions about religion on the basis of reason, independently of tradition, authority, or established belief. Freethinkers include atheists, agnostics, and rationalists. No one can be a freethinker who demands conformity to a bible, creed, or messiah. To the freethinker, revelation and faith are invalid...Reason is a tool of critical thought that limits the truth of a statement according to the scientific method."

I have no issue with this as a historical definition of freethinking, but as a philosophical definition of the term I think it is problematic. First, while there are certainly many people who form their opinions about religion by irrational means, and who hold irrational religious beliefs, there are also many who "form opinions about religion on the basis of reason" and conclude that there is a God, perhaps even as this being is understood within one of the major religious traditions. The forced dichotomy between faith and reason is a false dichotomy. Many define faith as belief without or apart from evidence, but historically and philosophically this is a flawed definition. A better definition of faith is a power to believe what you have reason to think is true.

Next, consider the statement about reason as something that is limited to the scientific method. One problem with this statement is that it is not testable by the scientific method. This is because the statement is a philosophical claim about reason and science. One cannot make claims about the nature of reason and knowledge using science alone; we need philosophy for this. In fact, there is an entire branch of philosophy devoted to the theory of knowledge: epistemology.

In order to understand knowledge and critical thought, we need to do some philosophy. There are many forms of evidence that are relevant and important: scientific, philosophical, historical, and experiential, depending on the particular question or set of questions we are exploring. We should be open to considering all forms of evidence that are relevant to our quest for knowledge in any particular realm of human inquiry.

What I am proposing is that we all be freethinkers, in the sense that we all go where we take the evidence to lead us on any particular issue. I've discussed religious belief here, but the same applies to morality, politics, and any other area of human inquiry. Let's be freethinkers, but let's allow ourselves to be free to believe the truth based on evidence, even if what ends up being true is not what we initially thought or hoped it would be.

@michaelwaustin

See related post at my website, michaelwaustin.com

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