Tuesday, May 19, 2009

What it means to be a "free-thinker"

Hello, readers. I realize I have neglected you of late. I've been procrastinating doing a post about Pope Nazipants (or, as my dad calls him, "Ratzi the Nazi") in the Holy Land. As such, I haven't posted much of anything at all. That said, I don't actually think Ratzi did such a terrible job in the middle east, so I think I'm just going to let it lie and write about something else. OK? OK...

So, there's something that has been bothering me for some time now. As you may have noticed, I take just as much issue with the militant atheist crowd as I do with the fundamentalist Christians. I don't quite get the argument that a group of people can be inherently superior based on their beliefs (or lack thereof), when their behavior is eerily similar. Granted, the atheists generally don't resort to violence. But self-righteousness breeds all kinds of evils, and if they continue to believe that atheism is the only possible expression of intelligence, who knows what they might one day be capable of?

The idea that being a "free-thinker" means being an atheist or agnostic seems counter-intuitive to me. Freedom of thought should mean just that. It should mean freedom to believe what makes sense to you as an individual. As such, I propose a re-definition. Let's let the term "free-thinker" apply to anyone who has arrived at their own system of belief (or lack thereof) using their own unhindered reasoning. That does, after all, seem to be more accurate to the definition of "free."

I also propose a truce.

What I believe (which is not at all what I was taught to believe as a child) has lead me to the conclusion that life is of the utmost importance. Human beings are important. We have a duty to ourselves and to our species to live good, full lives, and to enable others to do the same. Any belief system that leads to the same conclusion is, in my opinion, a good one. As such, I believe those who subscribe to humanist belief systems should be joining forces, not bickering about specifics. Belief in God (or lack of belief in God, or belief in the absence of God, etc.) has no inherit merit. The ideas are abstract and inherently personal. A person should not be defined by what they believe, but by how they behave. I wish that was a conclusion more people would draw.

I think it is unfair and unreasonable that some atheists, in their anger and frustration with the religious right (with whom the religious left is equally, if not more frustrated), have lumped all believers together in one category. We all believe in God, therefore we are all stupid or misguided. We are not free-thinkers, because we have not wholly rejected religion. This is a fallacy. Think of what we could accomplish if those who value human rights, regardless of creed, joined forces. After all, we have more in common than we think. And I'm pretty certain that we are all "free-thinkers." Just sayin'.


Hannah said...

Well said.

Alexah said...

Most excellent.

Phoebe said...

I'm in. They might still remain as obnoxious as the Christian right, or any other "my way or the highway" sect, but as allegedly rational people, sciency and all, they might be swayed by the fact that - scientific communitywise - there is still a lot that is unknown, and the stuff that is known is under continual revision.

So the only rational approach to life is to go with what seems right, with the best evidence you have at any given time, and to be looking out for new evidence. I don't mind being asked for my basis for belief, my evidence. They may not be persuaded by it, but that's ok with me, as I'm not trying to shove it down anybody else's throat. Or even convert anyone. We should all just be comparing notes and having polite discussions, without feeling threatened. I think they feel threatened, and fed up, and I can understand why. It's olive branch time.

Rose Connors said...

I assign myself the labels free thinker and agnostic; and I like to quote Stephen Hawking, who I consider to be a science god and who rightly points out that we can have no idea scientifically if God existed before the Big Bang (or does now for that matter). He stands in direct contrast to the militant Richard Dawkins crowd for me. I can understand the harm religion has done, but I know plenty of good people who benefit from their practice of religion. The fundamentalist churches I grew up in decry humanism and free-thinking as being directly in opposition to Christianity, but I totally agree that we should all gang up. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

Dave said...

Excellent post. It's really one of the things that turned me from atheism back towards Christianity- you tend to meet more atheists who are kind of angry a-holes about it, than ones who seem genuinely contented. My religious beliefs still hinge on "don't be a d**k," so...

Anyhow, love your blog. It's helped me make sense of no longer deriding Christianity and actually kinda sorta believing it again. Life's more interesting in the grey areas.

Andre said...

Hi Jocylene, I’m an atheist and a fan of the blog. It’s been in my RSS reader since I first came across it, thanks to a link from Dan Savage (another atheist if I recall correctly). However…

“As you may have noticed, I take just as much issue with the militant atheist crowd as I do with the fundamentalist Christians. I don't quite get the argument that a group of people can be inherently superior based on their beliefs (or lack thereof), when their behavior is eerily similar.”

…this seems unfair to me – as unfair as lumping sane moderate Christians in with the crazies. For the most part, so-called “militant” atheists do not come remotely close to the fundies. There’s simply no atheist equivalent to the fundy movements concerning gay rights, abortion, sex education, school prayer, the HPV vaccine, creationism in science classes, etc (not to mention instances of physical violence).While certain atheists may be zealous proselytizers, there are (to my knowledge) no real efforts to promote atheist beliefs using coercion, either violently or via legislation. The worst criticism seems to be that they are annoying/rude snobs. Not something I condone, but not at all equivalent to the fundies.

Btw., I’m not wild about the freethinker moniker either. Philosophical naturalist might be better though it’s more of a mouthful.

I wholeheartedly agree with your broader point that atheists need to find common cause with the sane religious on a range of critical issues. Doubtless some atheists/agnostics/rationalists/whatever are counterproductive by needlessly belittling people of faith who would otherwise be great allies. The internet also tends to magnify the voice of jerks, compounding ill will. We have to be able to work together. However, many atheists are going to continue to be vocal about their atheism in a way that will rankle some of the moderate religious. And while some are jerks there are good faith motivations at play too:

- Many atheists (myself included) feel at least some need to publicly self-identify. There are some parallels here to the gay rights movement in terms of coming out of the closet. It’s a lot harder to be a homophobe the more you come in contact with gay people, especially if they are family members. Atheists are one of the most unjustly reviled and stereotyped groups in North America. For example, in many if not most jurisdictions, religiosity is essentially a prerequisite to electoral success. Atheists need to be vocal and visible in order to promote cultural norms that atheists aren’t immoral hedonistic freaks, but pretty normal, often decent people. It’s also important for atheists to create an environment where other atheists know they are not alone and feel comfortable/safe enough to also come out of the closet.

- It is important for many atheists to (paraphrasing Dan Dennet) “break the spell” in which religious beliefs are seen to be beyond criticism in polite society. It’s only natural that a person’s religious beliefs manifest in their political views. However, too many religious will argue for something and then hide behind their religious beliefs to avoid scrutiny of their position (Carrie Prejean is a particularly egregious example of this). They are aided by cultural norms that shield religious opinion while most everything else is fair game. Publicly disagreeing with someone’s faith should be no more of an “attack” than criticizing their other deeply held opinions. [continued below]

Andre said...

[continued from above]
- Finally, some atheists would disagree with you that rather than being neutral, faith and belief in the supernatural have inherently negative qualities. They would argue that faith breeds pernicious behaviour since it encourages people to believe things without evidence. If widespread, it leads to societal acceptance of assertions that have little or no connection to logic and evidence. The problem is particularly acute in North America where faith is seen to have inherent value. Some atheists buy into this too, they “believe in belief”, that religious faith is generally a good thing and it’s not terribly important whether it’s true. A culture that values faith might be ok when the faith manifests in a positive way (doing good works, the golden rule, etc.) but it is extremely difficult to fight negative manifestations of faith as they stem from a place that is beyond logic and evidence. Essentially, no argument is good enough. They believe what they believe and that is that [as an aside, this is another way in which “militant” atheists differ from religious fundamentalists. Many if not most would change their mind given sufficient evidence of a god’s existence. But for most fundamentalists, no amount of evidence is sufficient].

As for me personally, I am not sure where I fall on the above. As long as it’s appropriately respectful, I generally support the self-identification and breaking the spell strategies. I’m unsure about whether faith has inherently negative qualities, but I am more inclined to agree with this position than not. But regardless, I certainly think we can disagree and argue respectfully while also joining together to fight for the things in which we do agree.

Wow, that ended up being WAY longer than I initially intended, whoops.

Phoebe said...

Ha! Andre, where I'm from, family and friendwise, it's the opposite. People who believe in God are presumptively thought of as stupid/pitiable. I have to sort of gird myself a little before outing myself, which I only do if it comes up. It goes ok if I'm talking to someone who already knows and likes me. "Outing" is a very good term for this. The whole topic is such a minefield, and it would be nice if it weren't.

Shmee Skywalker said...

They seemed to have missed the section of the bible that says humans have free-will.

Dennis A Carroll said...

I got a chuckle out of the sign, "A Free Thinker is Satan's Slave."
I think that the non-free thinkers are those that follow more Stalins, Hitlers, etc.
It would seem that sheep are not free thinkers. They follow the ideology-de jour.
Great post.

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