Blind Unbelief?! What Does it Mean, Really, to Be a “Free Thinker”?

Written by Wes Walker on December 8, 2013

Some say it’s “the absolute rejection of religious belief.”  But that neither acknowledges nor answers the question.  It isn’t asking about what some group has named itself.

Isn’t free thinking  more than just aligning yourself with a system of thought?  Strictly speaking, any lock-step agreement with someone else’s ideas is vulnerable to allegations of “group-think”.

Free-thinking can be more practical than holding some ideological membership card, and probably something better than just blasting another guy’s worldview.

Yes, today’s use of “free thinking” is mainly focused on the religious/irreligious divide.  Still, Merriam-Webster’s first definition for free thinker is “one who forms opinions on the basis of reason independently of authority”.  

Nothing need limit its scope to just religious topics.  What if free thinking is not just about being for — against — or unsure of — any rational belief in God?

What if, instead of those things, it was seen as a pursuit of something, like an ongoing re-evaluation of ideas, especially ones we take for granted? Just such an attitude produced some of the most enduring and influential thinkers in all of Western Civilization.

Socrates, “the gadfly of the Athenian people” once said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”  He found people who professed to be wise, or great, or virtuous and left them empty and deflated.  His tactic was so simple, any child could do it: he asked questions.

What was the result of that ruthless challenging of assumptions and popular opinion?  Greek Antiquity left its stamp on cultures half a world away, more than two millennia later.

So, let us ask ourselves: are we willing to be free thinkers?  

Are we willing to challenge not only the assumptions of others, but especially, our own?  Are we willing to lay bare generalizations and fuzzy logic we accepted as conventional wisdom?  Are we willing to extend this approach beyond religion and politics, into relationships, values and our worldview? Are we willing to challenge ideas we’ve accepted mainly because others of “our stripe” accept them?

This was, incidentally, the mental rigour that Luther called people to with his notion of “always reforming”… which is to say, an ongoing process of re-examining and refining those things you claim to believe.  Since free thinking is usually so intertwined with the religious viewpoint, let’s begin there: what might our “applied free thinking” look like?

First, for people of faith – recognize the atheists do have a point.  Don’t blindly accept religious doctrine.  Test it. The apostle Paul encouraged you to do so.  (Acts 17:11)  As do I.  They constantly pointed to evidence that backed their claims of the Resurrection.  Make use of evidence.

When I come across a “Christian-ish” statement, however central or well-established historically that either I am about, or that doesn’t seem quite right to me, I don’t dismiss it.  I go looking for answers. Maybe it’s something that I did not properly understand.  Maybe it’s something I will fundamentally disagree with and see as incompatible with sound teaching.  Either way, I come out with a stronger and clearer faith.

Next, for those of you who claim unbelief – the same rules apply.  Blind unbelief is in no better than blind faith. Since they are both emotion-based, they are equally irrational.  If you are going to make claims, you need to rest them on something more solid than a “just-so story”.  Some of atheism’s defences, if used in defense of religious belief, would be laughed out of court.  If you’ve been reading internet-threads, you’ve seen this yourself.  Many times the defense of unbelief is more bluster, posture and appeal to authority (i.e. Dawkins) than reasonable solid arguments should ever require.

Agnostics – what are you waiting for?  Are you really content to be ignorant on an issue of this magnitude? Agnostic isn’t a magnanimous neutral position.  It’s voting Present, an abdication of responsibility.  It’s a self-destructive strain of laziness.  Pick a side, already, and be ready to back up your reasons.

Taking free thinking seriously will require an evaluation of our own thinking, ideas, and (especially) assumptions as though we were a disinterested third party.  Where two competing ideas exist, we will have to hold our ideas with a loose grip, ready to let go of those that fail under scrutiny.

This is, incidentally, the principle that drives my recent book “Blueprint for a Government That Doesn’t Suck”.  I’ve tried to sidestep the tired right-left rhetoric, avoiding citations of authority figures.

Instead it presents competing solutions for a variety of problems, leaving it to the reader to decide which one best fits his values.  The language and tone is conversational, even students will be able to follow the flow of ideas, but does so without “dumbing it down”, or sacrificing content.

As the book progresses, the reader’s combined answers to a series of cultural and political problems and situations will give shape to a government and culture he personally sees as ideal, helping him more clearly articulate the sort of representation he would (or would not) demand from elected officials; one that reflects his own values, priorities and judgments.

The reader will be able to articulate with confidence why his ideas differ from the others, what the rationale is,and what some real-world consequences will be.

I do not tell the reader which positions he should adopt.  I would sooner persuade than compel someone to agree with me, because my first premise — free thinking — is incompatible with bullying someone to agree with you.

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