Freedom of Thought

To be able to ponder any and every idea is a cardinal secular value.

Posted Jan 15, 2015

My first girlfriend in high school, Michelle, was the daughter of fundamentalist Christians.

One day, her mom was driving us somewhere. Michelle and I were sitting in the back seat, and her mom started asking us about our French class. How was it going?

"We're reading this book," Michelle began. "Its called The Stranger."


"Its by Albert Camus," I said, trying hard—and failing—to pronounce "Albert" in a French accent.

Another pause.

"Its about existentialism," I added.

Michelle's mom, eyes looking steadily out onto the road ahead, hands properly positioned at 10 and 2 on the steering wheel, then declared: "That is not good. That is spiritually dangerous. We don't believe in that. You should not be reading that, Michelle. That is not something I want you reading anymore."

I was stunned. A mother telling her daughter not to read something? How could a short novel be "spiritually dangerous"? Huh?

It was a very poignant moment for me: I saw, for the first time, that there were some people out there who were afraid of ideas, afraid of words, afraid of thoughts, afraid of books.

In my subsequent life as an academic studying religion, I've witnessed or heard about similar such fears and prohibitions many times: children whose religious parents forbade them from listening to radio, or watching TV, or reading certain books, or taking certain classes.

For example, when I was doing research for my book Faith No More, I interviewed a young woman named Elizabeth (pseudonym). She had been extremely religious growing up; Pentecostal Christianity pervaded nearly every aspect of her life for many years. But when she was 19, she took a sociology class at a local community college. The result of this foray into secular education was dramatic:

I learned about cultures, and I learned about people, and I learned how and why we do things and why we don’t do things and… It made me kinda scared, because I realized that maybe there was more to the world than I had thought, or had been allowed to know. I would go home and tell my roommates, who were my best friends, and all of us went to church together. They looked at me and said, “You need to stop going to that class. Don’t go to class anymore, Elizabeth. It’s ruining your faith.” And when they said that to me, I realized that was wrong—what I needed to be doing was going to class and learning.

Elizabeth eventually did lose her faith. And her best friends.

Freedom of thought—and by that I mean the freedom to ponder, consider, and read about any and every possible topic or perspective—is one realm in which the differences between secular culture and religious culture come into starkest contrast. As a non-religious parent, I can’t imagine ever wanting my teenage children not to read something. The Bible? Go for it! The Qu’ran? Why not? The Book of Mormon? Have fun! The ranting of Pat Robertson? See what he has to say!

And I am not alone. In fact, in their research comparing and contrasting religious and secular individuals (Amazing Conversions: Why Some Turn to Faith and Others Abandon Religion) social psychologists Bob Altemeyer and Bruce Hunsberger found that religious individuals were much more intent on shaping the beliefs and ideas of their own children—that is, getting them to think and believe the way they do when it comes to religion. However, secular individuals were much more likely to want their children to “investigate both sides of the questions, then decide.”

There are many positive aspects of religious culture, from charity to mercy, and from tradition to community. But there are also many positive aspects of secular culture, from pragmatism and empiricism, to self-reliance and, yes, freedom of thought. As Susan Jacoby has written, “The combination of free and thought embodies every ideal that secularists still hold out to a nation founded not on dreams of justice in heaven but on the best human hopes for a more just earth.”

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To Raif Badawi, imprisoned in Saudi Arabia, who received 50 lashes (the first of 1,000) this past week because of his liberal blog, and the hundreds killed last week in Nigeria by Boko Haram, and the slaughtered cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, my humble respects. May the liberal and secular values of freedom of thought prevail over the dark, desperate censorship of religious extremism and fanaticism.