By HonestDiscussioner

Religion, Philosophy, Politics, and anything else I'd like to talk about

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Thursday, January 2, 2014

Why You Can't Be a Religious Freethinker

Look, let's be honest here. A term commonly used is a term commonly abused.  There will be people on both sides of a debate that for whatever reason misuse a term, try to advocate for a different meaning, or some other confusing endeavor which likely misses the point of either the discussion or the purpose of language in general.  This isn't always a problem, if you can define your terms clearly and avoid equivocation (e.g. someone defining atheists as those who assert god doesn't exist and then calling "weak atheists" not true atheists and really just agnostics still searching for god) then you can use terms however you'd like.  If you are misunderstanding the definition of a word or using it in such a way that it differs from the popular understanding without informing anyone of the switch, then you are causing problems or arguing in bad faith if doing it on purpose.

The term "freethinker" is no exception to this. There are people who wrongfully assume the word is a synonym for atheism, as blogger ElijiahT from Hashtag Apologetics argues in his post Confessions of a Christian Freethinker.  Elijiah cites six different sources that maintain the term "freethinker" as concerning one who holds to an epistemology based on logic, reason, or evidence (or something quite similar). This is indeed the common understanding of the term, and on some unfortunate occasions this definition is replaced and rendered incorrectly as mentioned above.

Where Elijiah first goes wrong is not including the fact that this occurrence is actually rather rare. Most people who identify as freethinkers do so for the right reasons; they hold to a specific epistemology. Even the definition from Atheism.about.com cites the specific epistemology as being the defining characteristic of a freethinker.  Those who don't understand that definition are generally in the minority, but it can often seem like a more widespread issue because very few believers in God are considered freethinkers, and this makes it easy for Elijiah to maintain that there must be some sort of bias inherent in the system:

Some attach skepticism of religious claims into the mix, but not all. It is unreasonable to say that religious skepticism is required for freethinking. If you’re absolutely required to reject the existence of God in order to call yourself a free thinker, are you really thinking freely? You’re not a freethinker unless you conform to our belief structure!’

 I don't think he's doing it purpose, but Elijiah is over-extrapolating the data. This seems to be his logic:

P1. The definition of a freethinker is X.
P2. One can use X to reach a conclusion advocated by a religion.
P3. It appears as though anyone who agrees with a conclusion advocated by a religion is disqualified by atheists as freethinkers.

Conclusion: Atheists are, en masse, misusing the term. They ironically display a lack of freethinking when declaring religious people in and of themselves not freethinkers. Religious people can and indeed should be freethinkers and there is no inherent contradiction.

This can seem sound when looking at it from very far away. If freethinking is about epistemology, then people who are Christians because of said epistemology are freethinkers and atheists just won't admit it. There must be some who follow such an epistemology, in fact what Christian really doesn't use logic in some way? Why, probably most Christians are freethinkers! Christianity seems logical and reasonable to them, after all.

But let's delve deeper.  Let's talk about two fictional people named Chris and Karen, both of which call themselves Freethinkers. They both find themselves on an island with their families, but no recollection of their past lives. After a few years living on the island, they discuss their beliefs. Karen believes in many strange things. She believes in an intangible force which binds all particles in the universe together. She believes in inperceivable energy that can penetrate the skin and damage the very fabric of a human being. She believes that there are vibrations all around us that can tell us secrets of our surroundings if we only took the time to perceive them properly. Chris believes in none of those things. He can't see these things or perceive them. The very nature of them means his immediate senses can't detect them. His father taught him to not trust such things, and so he doesn't.


Theists have long defended the virtues of faith, yet now in the face of the scientific revolution and new atheism they want to adopt the moniker of one who acts through pure reason.

So who is a freethinker here? Chris? Karen? Both? Neither? On the surface it sounds like Chris is the freethinker and Karen the woo-woo person. What you didn't know was that our hypothetical people are deaf, and the beliefs that Karen holds to are (in order) gravity, radiation, and sound waves.  Karen reached these conclusions through empirical study of her surroundings. Chris, while often following the path of the Freethinker, does so on the authority of his father.  Even though Karen's beliefs seemed to the uninitiated as far-fetched, she is the much greater freethinker. And what do we find with our friend Elijiah?

". . .secondly, because when freethinking is properly understood, I think all Christians should be freethinkers.

In Luke 10:27&Mark 12:30, we are instructed to love God with our entire mind.
In 1 Thessalonians 5:21, we are instructed to test everything and to hold on to that which is good. And if God is the truth (John 14:6), then truth is to be treasured as a reflection of God Himself."

So we have the following position: You should be open-minded and utilize logic, reason, and evidence for your beliefs . . . because the bible says so. Elijah doesn't merely maintain that freethinking and Christianity are compatible, no no no. Christians should be freethinkers "because they are instructed to be". To quote Elijiah's article "#irony".

Such irony doesn't end there, he also quotes Apologetics.com, which defines apologetics as:

" . . . challenging believers to think and thinkers to believe”.

But what does this actually say? Believers should use more thinking, but thinkers should just be convinced to believe. Were it truly a freethinking endeavor, it would merely be "Challenging people to think". After all, if you are a freethinker and believe that you have logic on your side, all you need to do to teach people how to properly think, to properly use logic. It's further worsened by following up with an appeal to William Lane Craig, who has repeatedly defined himself as being the direct opposite of a freethinker, and has encouraged other Christians to follow in his footsteps:

"For not only should I continue to have faith in God on the basis of the Spirit's witness even if all the arguments for His existence were refuted, but I should continue to have faith in God even in the face of objections which I cannot at that time answer."

For Craig, God is the conclusion. Christianity is the starting point. If evidence supports it, then use the evidence, but if the evidence is against it, the evidence is useless and should be discarded. All because of "personal experience". If you feel like God has contacted you in some way, then this must above all else be held to; pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.  That Elijiah would quote him as a defender of Christian freethought is rather telling.

The problem with being a "Christian Freethinker" is that even in trying to establish reasons why one should be as such, an appeal to religious dogma is made. It's that ingrained. Theists have long defended the virtues of faith, yet now in the face of the scientific revolution and new atheism they want to adopt the moniker of one who acts through pure reason. Christianity entails a level of faith and dogma, entities entirely inconsistent with freethought. Even if you started out neutral to the idea of god, and were convinced with nothing but logic and reason that Jesus died for your sins, there will be a plethora of beliefs within Christianity that one will generally be required to maintain but that cannot be empirically verified. Disagree? Fine, then you are describing yourself as a faithless Christian. You cannot have it both ways, you cannot be a member of the faithful and a freethinker at the same time. To attempt to do so is to try to hijack the moniker of an objective rationalist for the purposes of bolstering your position while continuing to use non-rationalist methods when it suits you.

Could someone believe in a god and be a freethinker? Easily. Plenty of deists are considered freethinkers. Could someone believe in much of what the Bible says and be a freethinker. Maybe, but such a person would likely not be considered a Christian by most of the rest of those that refer to themselves as such. Could followers of a religion be freethinkers? No, for with religion comes dogma and as dogma comes, so does freethinking take its leave.