Amnon H Eden, Last update: 15-Feb-2016
eppur si muove ("but it does move!")
-- Galileo Galilei

Table of contents:

  1. What is freethought?
  2. Who is a freethinker?
  3. Are freethinkers moral?
  4. Historical roots
  5. Related definitions:
  6. References
  7. Bibliography
  8. Links

1. What is freethought?

I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions.
-- Lillian Hellman

Conventional definitions:

Literally, the questioning of received opinions and traditional customs, freethought has come to mean arrival at and acting upon heterodox views, especially on religious matters. (Tribe 2007)
Freethought may be defined as a conscious reaction against some phase or phases of conventional or traditional doctrine in religion—on the one hand, a claim to think freely, in the sense not of disregard for logic but of a special loyalty to it, on problems to which the past course of things has given a great intellectual and practical importance; on the other hand, the actual practice of such thinking. (Robertson 1936, in Stein 1985)
Freethought is the application of critical thinking and logic to all areas of human experience, and the rejection of supernatural and authoritarian beliefs. (The Secular Web)
See also: historical roots (below)

Free•thought seeks to replace dogmatic convictions with reason as means for achieving moral and intellectual integrity. Free•thinking is a process of critical examination of one's convictions, the purpose of which is not only to re-examine those convictions commonly adopted without critically examining their veracity ("dogmas") but also to draw the inevitable conclusions from this process. Freethinking is demonstrated by Bertrand Russell's dialectic and articulated by Albert Einstein's, who described himself as having "a skeptical attitude towards the convictions which were alive in any specific social environment." (Elkana 2005)

Everyone, whether cardinal or scientist, who believes that his own truth is complete and final must become a dogmatist...The more sincere his faith, the more he is bound to persecute, to save others from falling into error.
-- Joyce Cary

In mathematical logic-terms, freethinking aspires for a minimal and consistent set of axioms from which freethinkers may derive their moral and intellectual choices. (This I believe, along with a criterion of soundness, is technically difficult to achieve even for well-defined mathematical problems but not impossible.) In this definition, I chose "minimal" over "empty" since freethought itself is founded on the conviction that resilience to critical examination is an ideal criterion of integrity. Since this criterion is held as a value, it cannot be proven or refuted. Rather, historical evidence show that critical examination is a necessary condition for achieving moral and intellectual integrity.

Freethought is generally associated with scientific naturalism, where 'scientific' is taken to mean established methods of investigation such as observation, analysis, and empirical validation. In the United States (in particular, the Center For Inquiry) freethought is often associated with secular humanism (§3), atheism, and unbelief (Flynn 2007). But freethought must be distinguished from dogmatic scientism by recognising that science is but a means to better our lives and the environment in which we live and that religious faiths may too lend support to humanitarian causes.

2. Who is a freethinker?

A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.
-- William James

Einstein was a Befreier from all conventions, constraints, limitations from everything that might be in the way of a free rein of the imagination.
Yehuda Elkana

Conventional definition:

Freethinker is a person who forms opinions about life and religion on the basis of reason, independently of tradition, authority, or established belief. No one who demands conformity to any form of dogmatic thinking can be a freethinker. [Freedom From Religion Foundation]

Free•thinker (adj., German: Freigeist, Freidenker; French: liberté de penser, libéré penser.) 1. A person committed to freethought. 2. A person engaged in freethinking.

Most people are would-be freethinkers to some extent, at least by pledging open-mindedness. But despite the popularity of such self testimonies, there are not many genuine freethinkers around. I believe that the reasons for this are manifold (see for example Tetlock 2003):

  1. Because most of us are conditioned to conform
  2. Because independent thinking is discouraged by all authoritarian establishments, totalitarian regimes, and many religion institutions, the exercise of which is regularly condemned as "blasphemous", "immoral", or "unpatriotic"
  3. Because the process of critical examinations of one's own convictions is taxing, requiring intellectual and emotional energy beyond that which is at the disposal of most of us

I am not suggesting that freethinkers are individuals who have reached a nirvana-like state of freedom from all prejudices. "Common sense is the sum total of all prejudice deposited in the human mind prior to the age of 18" (Albert Einstein.) Contrarianism and social irresponsibility should not be confused with freethinking. Instead, freethinking is taken to be the primary principle guiding freethinkers in the process of making moral and intellectual decisions. I believe that one is a genuine freethinker if s/he demonstrates daily commitment to this principle.

Widespread intellectual and moral docility may be convenient for leaders in the short term, but it is suicidal for nations in the long term.
-- Carl Sagan

For example, the Dutch public has until recently upheld freedom of speech at the highest regard, sometimes in the price of offending members of some pressure groups. However many Dutch were forced to re-examine this value with the murder of Theo van Gogh by an Islamist extremist (Posthumus 2005), many Dutch were asking themselves whether van Gogh has crossed the lines in his open criticism of those endorsing the oppression of women in his movie Submission. Since most people are not used to question their convictions very often, Theo's murder has left many Dutch with a sense of loss of moral direction, confusion and bewilderment, and even propelled some to extremism. Such sense of loss of direction and the "dangers" in putting one's convictions to test (such as the "danger" of losing one's faith) can bring many to reject freethought as a guiding principle.

Formerly no one was allowed to think freely; now it is permitted, but no one is capable of it any more. Now people want to think only what they are supposed to want to think, and this they consider freedom.
--Oswald Spengler

3. Are freethinkers moral?

There can be no serious ethical position based on denial or a refusal to look the facts squarely in the face.
-- Christopher Hitchens

Following the path of least resistance is what makes men and rivers crooked.
-- Anon

Our task must be to free from ...the illusion that a human's thoughts and feelings [are] separated from the widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole nature in its beauty.
-- Albert Einstein

Freethought is not committed to any particular code of ethics. However many freethinkers endorse secular humanism because, they argue, it has been proven to be resilient to critical examination and because it satisfies the criteria of minimality and consistency (§1). According to Paul Kurtz (2001), humanism stands for pluralism and democracy as means for protecting human rights, justice, and fairness, and for transcending "divisive loyalties based on race, religion, gender, nationality, creed, class, sexual orientation, or ethnicity." According to Tom Flynn (2006), "secularism has always meant more than just separating church and state. That's one aspect of a broader impulse towards emancipatory social reform. ... it's an impulse towards reducing the coercive control exercised over individuals by social institutions at every scale."

We reject "cultural relativism", which consists in accepting that men and women ... should be deprived of the right to equality, freedom and secular values in the name of respect for cultures and traditions.
[Hirsi Ali et al., Jyllands-Posten]

4. Historical roots

All change in history, all advance, comes from the nonconformists. If there had been no troublemakers, no dissenters, we would still be living in caves.
-- A. J. P. Taylor

From (Stein 1985)

The origins of the term freethought and freethinking are uncertain. The philosophical basis for the movement existed long before the terms themselves were coined. [... John M.] Robertson says that the word freethinker came into the English usage in the last quested of the 17th century. He traces the first certain use to ... John Locke, dated April 6, 1697... The impetus for adopting the word freethinker as a specific usage for religious unbelievers came from the popular book A Discourse of Freethinking by Anthony Collins, published in 1713. ...
In the early 18th century, before the present meaning of freethinker was established, the word was often used for any person who had heterodox opinions on any field. For example, many political tracts labelled those who disagreed with the British monarchy or who criticized taxation and other issues "freethinkers." A periodical called the Freethinker, published in England in 1718, used the term this way. ...

5. Related definitions

If there is a God, atheism must strike Him as less of an insult than religion.
-- Edmond Jules de Goncourt

I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.
-- Albert Einstein

It's easy to see why ideas related to the "sacred" and the "blasphemous" are so attractive and so fiercely defended. With them one can tell people what to think and how to live with the greatest authority while simultaneously establishing immunity from criticism.
Peter Fosl
Atheism is a critique and a denial of the central metaphysical beliefs of systems of salvation involving a belief in God or spiritual beings, but a sophisticated atheist does not simply claim that all such cosmological claims are false but takes it that some are so problematic that, while purporting to be factual, they actually do not succeed in making a coherent factual claim. The claims, in an important sense, do not make sense, and, while believers are under the illusion that there is something intelligible to be believed in, in reality there is not. These seemingly grand cosmological claims are in reality best understood as myths or ideological claims reflecting a confused understanding of their utterers' situation. ...

Instead of saying that an atheist is someone who believes that it is false or probably false that there is a God, a more adequate characterization of atheism consists in the more complex claim that to be an atheist is to be someone who rejects belief in God for the following reasons (which reason is stressed depends on how God is being conceived): for an anthropomorphic God, the atheist rejects belief in God because it is false or probably false that there is a God; for a nonanthropomorphic God (the God of Luther and Calvin, Aquinas, and Maimonides), he rejects belief in God because the concept of such a God is either meaningless, unintelligible, contradictory, incomprehensible, or incoherent; for the God portrayed by some modern or contemporary theologians or philosophers, he rejects belief in God because the concept of God in question is such that it merely masks an atheistic substance—e.g., "God" is just another name for love, or "God" is simply a symbolic term for moral ideals.

This atheism is a much more complex notion, as are its various reflective rejections. It is clear from what has been said about the concept of God in developed forms of Judeo-Christianity that the more crucial form of atheist rejection is not the assertion that it is false that there is a God but instead the rejection of belief in God because the concept of God is said not to make sense—to be in some important way incoherent or unintelligible. ...

Finally, it will not do to take a Pascalian or Dostoyevskian turn and claim that, intellectual absurdity or not, religious belief is necessary, since without belief in God morality does not make sense and life is meaningless. That claim is false, for even if there is no purpose to life there are purposes in life—things people care about and want to do—that can remain perfectly intact even in a godless world. God or no God, immortality or no immortality, it is vile to torture people just for the fun of it, and friendship, solidarity, love, and the attainment of self-respect are human goods even in an utterly godless world. There are intellectual puzzles about how people know that these things are good, but that is doubly true for the distinctive claims of a religious ethic. The point is that these things remain desirable and that life can have a point even in the absence of God. ...

[Comprehensive definition of Atheism, Britannica, 2000]

אל מלא רחמים
אלמלא היה האל מלא רחמים
היו הרחמים בעולם ולא רק בו
[יהודה עמיחי]
God full of mercy
If God was not full of mercy
Mercy would have been in the world, Not just in Him.
[Yahuda Amichai]
Instrumentalism. In the philosophy of science, instrumentalism is the view that concepts and theories are merely useful instruments whose worth is measured not by whether the concepts and theories are true or false (or correctly depict reality), but how effective they are in explaining and predicting phenomena.
Instrumentalism holds that the various modes and forms of human activity are instruments developed by human beings to solve multiple individual and social problems. ... Truth, evolutionary in nature, partakes of no transcendental or eternal reality and is based on experience that can be tested and shared by all who investigate. ... [Columbia Encyclopedia, 2001]

6. References

7. Bibliography





8. Links


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Fettered thinking