Confessions of a Christian Freethinker

What is a freethinker? What is free thought?

For whatever reason, the term freethinker has become associated exclusively with being skeptical of religious claims. No more. No less.
If you are skeptical of religion… then congratulations, my friend; you are thinking freely.
The presumption is that if you look at the world through a critical lens, you will undoubtedly agree with the atheists and conclude that “There’s Probably No God”.

There seems to be something inherently wrong with this idea, and the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that not all atheists are freethinkers, and not all freethinkers are atheists.

Being able to ‘think freely’ shouldn’t commit you to any position. If it did, in what way would it be considered free? Freethinking, it seems to me, is more of an approach to knowledge… an epistemological endeavor. Like skepticism, ‘free thought’ should be thought of as a methodology, not a goal.

Before going further… what do I mean by
free thinker or freethought? Let’s ask the internet!

  • Merriam Webster says that a free thinker is “one who forms opinions on the basis of reason independently of authority; especially: one who doubts or denies religious dogma (look at the comments on this one… sheesh)
  • Wikipedia (as of Jan 1st, 2014) says “Freethought is a philosophical viewpoint that holds opinions should be formed on the basis of logic, reason and empiricism, rather than authority, tradition, or other dogmas”
  • Atheism.about.com defines a freethinker as “… one who arrives at their beliefs through the use of reason, science, logic and empiricism rather than by relying on dogma, tradition, and authorities.” And then goes on to attach religious skepticism to the definition of a freethinker
  • Dictionary.com defines a freethinker as “a person who forms opinions on the basis of reason, independent of authority or tradition, especially a person whose religious opinions differ from established belief”
  • For the fun of it, I just typed ‘define: freethinker’ into Google and got “a person who rejects accepted opinions, esp. those concerning religious belief.”
  • Even the Urban Dictionary (which isn’t really known for its accuracy) has this definition of a freethinker with the most up-votes: “an individual whose opinions are formed on the basis of an understanding and rejection of tradition, authority or established belief.”

All of these definitions have one thing in common. They are all associating ‘freethinking’ with an epistemological approach to understanding reality that is independent of authority, dogma or tradition. A freethinker will be someone who forms their beliefs based on logic, science and reason.
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!’ #irony

A Christian Freethinker?
Screen shot 2014-01-01 at 11.47.59 AM
Now that we understand what a free-thinker is, I have to admit something. I’ve never really liked the self-congratulatory tone of referring to yourself as a freethinker. If you introduce yourself as a freethinker, it sounds like you’re patting yourself on the back before you’ve said anything.
I do, however, appreciate the sentiment behind free thought. When understood properly (not just saying freethought = atheism and atheism = freethought), free thinking seems to entail a properly skeptical attitude towards reality; an attitude that says, “I’m not afraid of the truth, and I’m going to actively seek it. I’m not going to uncritically accept the opinions of others. I’m going to ask the right questions and only accept something if it is reasonable to do so.”

When we understand freethinking to be a reasonable approach to discovering truth, unfettered by social pressure and opinions, everyone can be a freethinker! Everyone should be a freethinker!
But proper freethought actually requires thought; critical thought. It requires you to do the research, ask the right questions, and actually come to conclusions when that conclusion is reasonable. It is not enough to be critical of religion, you have to be critical of your own views as well.

I will sometimes refer to myself as a “Christian Freethinker”. I do this for two reasons. First, because its funny to see the reactions of the self-proclaimed ‘freethinking atheists’ when I say it. And 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.

According to Apologetics.com, apologetics is “challenging believers to think and thinkers to believe”. If you need more convincing, check out William Lane Craig’s “In Intellectual Neutral” talk. We need to be a Church that actually uses our minds.

I have come to the conclusion that Christianity is true because it corresponds to reality. I believe the evidence points towards the existence of God, the veracity of the Bible, the actual resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and the overall truth of the Christian worldview. I have come to these conclusions in a manner consistent with the definitions of Freethinking listed above.
I’ve used logic, science and reason to conclude that Christianity is true. 

Even if you call yourself a Christian… you and I probably don’t agree on other things. And that’s ok. Lets talk about it! The cool thing about the Christian worldview is that it allows you to look at all of the evidence. So we should do exactly that.

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This post is getting long.
My point is fairly simple.
If freethinking is synonymous with a critical approach to truth seeking, then I will gladly embrace it. If it requires you to be an atheist, then it is not free. However, being a freethinker requires critical thought. And critical thought requires you to be critical of others and critical of yourself. If you’re not open to being wrong, you’re not a free thinker. And yes, Christians can be freethinkers. Don’t hog the label, atheists. Some of you don’t even deserve it.

Be open to being wrong.
Because you probably are.

– ElijiahT

Ps. Read this.
I wish this guy would have blogged more than one thing.

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27 thoughts on “Confessions of a Christian Freethinker

  1. buildingzeelowly

    I like your post. Thank you for sharing your thought so freely!
    I have some questions as some of the things you wrote, struck me as odd.
    You wrote that you “used logic, science and reason to conclude that Christianity is true”.

    For one, how is that possible? Don’t you have to make a couple of assumptions which cannot be proved (or is it: “proven”?)? Like the existence of God? Would you say it is neccessary to reconcile your faith or your religion with reason? What are your thoughts on 1 Corinthians 1,18-31?
    (If you have addressed this in another post of yours, please excuse my then redundant questions. I’m new to wordpress.)

    Reply
    1. ElijiahT Post author

      Thanks for your thoughts! I haven’t addressed these questions directly on my blog, so I’ll just answer them here 🙂

      //”Don’t you have to make a couple of assumptions which cannot be proved (or is it: “proven”?)? Like the existence of God?”//
      I guess that depends on what you mean by “proof”. In order to adequately assess the truth claims of Christianity, you have to be [at least] open to the possibility of God’s existence.
      If you cannot [at least] say “God might exist”, then you are rejecting Christianity before attempting to test it out. And that’s not an appropriate way to test anything; its essentially question-begging.
      I don’t assume the existence of God; I allow for it to be either true or false. Examining the evidence lead me to the conclusion that God does exist. It wasn’t an assumption, it was a conclusion.

      //”Would you say it is neccessary to reconcile your faith or your religion with reason?”//
      Well, just like any of my other beliefs… I cannot accept them unless they are reasonable. I don’t know how to accept the truth of something without first examining the reasons for it. And if I find reasons against it, I’ll reject it. So its not an attempt to reconcile religion with reason, its using reason to answer the questions I’m asking. If religion is the answer… so be it.

      //”What are your thoughts on 1 Corinthians 1,18-31?”//
      I’m not really sure what you’d like me to respond to. I think its important to remember that Paul was talking to a specific church in this letter, and its largely referring to differing doctrines leading to divisions in the church. Is your concern with Paul’s statements concerning wisdom? As he says in v. 23, “we preach Christ crucified”, which is one of the reasons I have embraced Christianity; there are very good historical reasons to accept the truth of Christ’s life, death and resurrection.

      Reply
      1. buildingzeelowly

        Thank you for your reply! You have started me thinking about what “reasonable” actually means, what I mean when I say reason and how Paul’s text. That’ll take a while for me to figure out.

  2. MeesterGibson

    Freethought doesn’t require you to be an atheist, it merely leads you to atheism. Just ask William Lane Craig “…Reason and religion are at odds with each other. The picture of the world which emerges from the genuine sciences is a thoroughly naturalistic picture. The person who follows the pursuit of reason unflinchingly toward its end will be atheistic or, at best, agnostic…”

    How would you respond to that?

    http://www.reasonablefaith.org/advice-to-european-christian-apologists

    Reply
    1. ElijiahT Post author

      I’d probably start off by reading it in context to figure out what he’s actually saying.
      WLC is talking about the context in which Christians find themselves in Europe. He says, “… European culture is deeply post-Christian. It is the product of the Enlightenment, which introduced into European culture the leaven of secularism that has by now permeated the whole. The hallmark of the Enlightenment was ‘free thought,’ that is, the pursuit of knowledge by means of unfettered human reason alone. While it is by no means inevitable that such a pursuit must lead to non-Christian conclusions, and while most of the original Enlightenment thinkers were themselves theists, it has been the overwhelming impact of the Enlightenment mentality that European intellectuals do not consider theological knowledge to be possible. Theology is not a source of genuine knowledge and therefore is not a Wissenschaft, or a science. Reason and religion are at odds with each other. The picture of the world which emerges from the genuine sciences is a thoroughly naturalistic picture. The person who follows the pursuit of reason unflinchingly toward its end will be atheistic or, at best, agnostic.”

      It would seem that given the context of the quote you’ve used, WLC is merely stating the position of European culture. He also says that “Theology is not a source of genuine knowledge”.
      He is making these comments because “we need to have some grasp of the challenge confronting us”, not because he actually believes them.
      But if he did, I would disagree with Dr. Craig on this point.

      Based on what you know about Dr. Craig, wouldn’t it be much more reasonable to actually attempt to determine what he actually meant, rather than ripping the quote out of context and trying to pretend that Dr. Craig is some kind of agnostic theist?

      Reply
      1. MeesterGibson

        Not because he actually believes them? I’m not pretending anything, I’m reading his exact words and interpreting them for what they mean.

        “…should there ever arise a conflict between the evidence and arguments and what they lead to and what the inner witness of the Holy Spirit is telling you, it is the witness of the Holy Spirit which should be given precedence, not the arguments and evidence.

        Read more: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/defenders-2-podcast/transcript/s4-28#ixzz2pDoP2Rx5

      2. ElijiahT Post author

        No, you’re not interpreting them for what they mean. You’re interpreting them for what you want them to mean (or at very least, interpreting them for what you mistakenly think they mean). You should send him an email! Get some clarification. I’m sure he’d be happy to respond.

        So… different quote.
        Ok.

        This gets into what qualifies as a defeater for something, properly basic beliefs and the justification gained from personal experience. Notice he said, “… should there ever arise a *conflict* between the evidence and arguments and… the inner witness of the holy spirit…” He did not say, “should there arise a contradiction between the evidence and the inner witness of the holy spirit”.
        Philosophers tend to use their words carefully, and I assume this to be the case here as well.

        Imagine that you were confronted with evidence that the external world did not exist. The hologram world, for example. This is a conflict, but not a straight-out contradiction. Which do you trust? The possibility that the world might be an illusion, or your personal experience of the external world?
        My guess is that you’d trust your experience of the external world. And rightly so. Because…

        ‘… should there ever arise a conflict between the evidence and arguments and what they lead to and the [obvious existence of the external world], it is the [existence of the external world] which should be given precedence, not the arguments and evidence.”

        A possible conflict is not the same thing as an epistemic defeater. If there was an epistemic defeater, I imagine Dr. Craig would not accept his experience over the defeater.

        … But hey, that’s just me. I can’t necessarily speak for Dr. Craig.

  3. Allallt

    Freethought doesn’t necessarily commit you to a conclusion, but what do we think of “freethinkers” who arrive at flat earth theory or believe in homeopathy? We tend to believe they have incomplete evidence.
    What do we then tend to think if instead of rejecting your conclusions, they reject the actual evidence? Well, we tend to think they have wrapped up either their ego or a part of their identity in their conclusion and therefore are not thinking freely on this one issue.
    Does “freethought” extend so far as to those who will believe things to make them happy not because they believe they are true.

    Reply
    1. ElijiahT Post author

      The point that I was making here is that freethought, like skepticism, is a methodology. If you’re a free-thinker and come to the conclusion that the earth is flat… you’re still wrong, but the methodology is consistent.

      Freethought doesn’t guarantee truth.

      Reply
  4. MeesterGibson

    “He is making these comments because “we need to have some grasp of the challenge confronting us”, not because he actually believes them.
    But if he did, I would disagree with Dr. Craig on this point.”

    That’s all I really needed. Is your position that you can attain a knowledge of god via the natural sciences in and of themselves?

    Reply
  5. William

    Freethought can lead to erroneous conclusions, obviously. I don’t necessarily assume that someone is being dishonest if they say that thinking for themselves led them to a conclusion that I think is false, because people are fallible and sometimes the evidence is ambiguous.

    However, not every issue is like that. Elsewhere in this comment thread, you replied to the idea of a freethinker who arrived at the conclusion that the earth is flat as follows: “freethought, like skepticism, is a methodology. If you’re a free-thinker and come to the conclusion that the earth is flat… you’re still wrong, but the methodology is consistent.” This is wrong. Freethought is not an infallible source of knowledge, but there are limits to its fallibility. There are conclusions that an intelligent person who is honestly examining the evidence cannot reach. If you think that freethought can lead to the conclusion that the earth is flat, then you are implying that freethought is useless as a source of knowledge and that everyone should be skeptical of any beliefs they arrived at on the basis of freethought.

    Now, is the belief that God exists a belief that no honest inquirer can arrive at? No, because there are elementary arguments for the existence of God that are superficially convincing, like: “everything has a cause, so we can follow the chain of causes back and back and back, until we arrive at a first cause, which is God.” There are devastating objections to that line of argument, but it’s something that an honest, uninformed person could base a belief in God on.

    So, the question is how much you know about the debate over God’s existence. If you’re informed about the arguments for and against God’s existence, then I can say with confidence that your conclusion that God exists is not the result of freethought.

    Reply
    1. Jim Peppler

      To william: sure you can arrive at the conclusion that God exist based upon free thought, because first off in order to validate the true nature of free thought as a methodology in its truest form, we must first take into account the validity of an existing free-will, in which nature cannot prove, so then within that context free thought based solely upon science is a contradiction. Secondly, we can see the innerwokings of God’s presence expressed in nature, such as with the complexity of cells. But usually the the standard for God’s existence, at least for me personally, is the phenomena in nature, which does not persuade the belief of God’s absence, but quite the opposite.

      Reply
  6. cogitatingduck

    Hey, I’m glad you posted this. I have referred to myself as a freethinker before. The term, inasmuch as its constituent words suggest, clearly needs be wrested free of the sociohistorical context from which it arose. Why would we want the particular hang ups of dead Europeans who wore white powdered wigs 250 years ago to limit how we come to conclusions about what is real in the sociohistorical context of today? There is no nexessary logical connection between the illiberal dogmas they faced then and the ones we face now. In fact, an inversion seems to have occurred.

    Reply
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  8. Leisurely Duchess

    1) “Freethinker” does not mean such unrestricted thought your brain falls out. It’s doesn’t just mean “I challenged this authority over here, or disagree with this religion there, I’m a freethinker.” That’s a really shallow claim.

    2) Freethought is incompatible with the Abrahamic religions not because people can’t use reason in their belief, but because belief in a personal god necessitates REVELATION, and those religions are necessarily of revelation and authority – going directly against at least two of the 4 things Freethought specifically opposes and is specifically designed to oppose.

    3) Deists can be freethinkers. Deism is not of revelation or authority or dogma; there’s not even enough there to call it a religion. There’s no system of beliefs. There’s only so much you can say about an impersonal god, and then it’s time to move on; it’s not a religion. Freethought was pioneered by deists, who were the “atheists” of their time (as accused by theists). Deism fell into decline and that is why so many freethinkers are atheist now; there’s simply not a whole lot of deists out there anymore. Freethought is perfectly compatible with atheism so naturally the majority of freethinkers will end up being atheist instead of deist (or perhaps pandeist, pantheist).

    4) No monotheist is a freethinker. Any theist trying to claim it looks foolish because it is obvious they don’t know what freethought is, and because they come off as insecure about their religious beliefs, needing to have some extra label they think bolsters their religious positions.

    5) Freethought can be closed-minded in its own way. It’s not for everybody. It’s not for New Age woo hippies, conspiracy theorists, . Reason, logic, empiricism … these are principled restrictions. Like science is restricted. Reason and logic are not “common sense” either. Freethought does, however, incorporate a lot of skepticism into the system without actually calling it skepticism. The principles of Freethought happen to be great natural enemies of the revealed religions and personal god beliefs. You’re right in that it is very epistemology-like, except that epistemology is about knowledge, and freethought is about one’s position on a truth statement, specifically, how to have as many true beliefs as humanly possible, and few false beliefs as possible. This is a broad scope that goes beyond religious questions, and it’s not a perfect system.

    6) Think about this for a second: You see someone who is an evidentialist who is trying to claim to be a “rationalist.” They don’t actually know what rationalism is, they just think it’s a prestigious-sounding word that makes them seem intelligent. “Rationalism is rational, right? It’s logic, it’s reason. I’m rational, I look at things rationally. I’m a rationalist.” That person comes off as superficial, ignorant and pathetic. That’s an inappropriate use of the word “rationalist.”

    7) These things are not about cool-sounding labels. Freethinking is not “free thinking.” Freethought does not mean “intellectual.” It does not mean unconventional or novel or analytical. Freethought does not mean “think for yourself” when you toss out logic and science to because those are “authority” and just wing it, making shit up as you go along, following your feelings or following your “common sense.” That may be free thinking, but it is not freethinking. That may seem like a silly little bit of semantics but it’s really like the simple difference between your and you’re.

    8) There is nothing wrong with not being a freethinker. Intellectual Christians are intellectuals, philosophers, etc. Christians challenging mainstream doctrine for progressive religious reformation are still Christians. Christians supporting gender equality and LGBT rights are still Christians. Christians who are good scientists are still Christians. Not freethinkers. It’s a different thing.

    9) Lots of atheists are not freethinkers. In my personal experience in the last 12 years, most of the atheists claiming to be freethinkers I’ve seen are not freethinkers and reveal themselves to be in countless ways; they are jackasses claiming to be freethinkers because, just like what you’ve done in this article, they are stereotyping Freethought AND at the same time trying to claim a label that sounds lofty and sophisticated (because they stereotyped it that way). Yes I am an atheist and yes they annoy the shit out of me and yes I call them out on it whenever I have the energy to do so. Then I laugh at their butthurt illusory superiority.

    10) Lots of other irreligious people are also not freethinkers. It’s like a someone trying to call themselves Christians because they believe in some “higher power” … but they don’t know who Jesus is and don’t follow anything in Christian doctrine.

    11) Above all, remember that freethought was designed by deists in direct opposition to theism (Christianity, primarily, in their time). Freethought is a system originally designed to unravel and reject personal god beliefs (monotheism) and revealed religion. “Freethought” is just a word they decided to call this system. Freethought not a system any self-respecting knowledgeable Christian should want to be associated with, just because they like the label and they the stereotype about the label.

    Reply
    1. ElijiahT Post author

      So basically anyone can be a freethinker except monotheists, and if you’re a monotheist, you’re not a freethinker?

      Do I have your overall assertion correct?

      Reply
    2. ve

      Who are you that you can define freethinker? Are you the president of all freethinkers? What is your authority over me that you can define this for me:
      – “No monotheist is a freethinker.”
      – “These things are not about cool-sounding labels. Freethinking is not “free thinking.” Freethought does not mean “intellectual.”
      – “It does not mean unconventional or novel or analytical. Freethought does not mean “think for yourself” when you toss out logic and science to because those are “authority” and just wing it…”
      – “Christians who are good scientists are still Christians. Not freethinkers. It’s a different thing.”

      “Above all, remember that freethought was designed by deists in direct opposition to theism (Christianity, primarily, in their time).”
      -> And who said those people have a copyright over the label “Freethought” or “Freethinking”? Where did they patent this label?

      “Freethought is just a word they decided to call this system.”
      -> Oh, so that is a “system” too like any religions?

      Reply
      1. ElijiahT Post author

        Hey ve,
        I’m not sure how you found this blog but it hasn’t been active in quite some time. I just so happen to still have it sending me notifications when someone comments, so hey! might as well respond.

        I am not the president of freethinkers.
        I used dictionary definitions.
        Do you disagree with the way I’ve defined it? That’s fine, but as soon as you do that, you open yourself up to the charge of being the “president of freethinkers”, whatever that means.

        Words must have meaning. I’ve attempted to give reasons for why freethinker should mean more than just a synonym for atheist.

        As for the rest of your comment… I’m not sure if you’re having a conversation with yourself or what, but when you ask me to define “No monotheist is a freethinker”, I don’t know what that is supposed to mean.
        Hopefully you can clarify your thoughts a bit.

        For what it’s worth, I posted this over at my own personal blog (https://elijiaht.wordpress.com/2014/12/08/confessions-of-a-christian-freethinker/) and at a website I guest-blog for (http://theologymix.com/apologetics/confessions-of-a-christian-freethinker/)

  9. ve

    Hi Elijah,

    actually, I’m responding to Leisurely Duchess 🙂
    If you look at the post, it’s him / her (?) who said: “4. No monotheist is a freethinker”

    Reply
  10. Ronnie Alvarez

    they can be, but fundamentals wont agree with them, i know that all christian arent like radicals some are like the westboro for hate speech, or my old church talks radical things and preach hate, and the witnesses thinks all other relgion are pagan and false.

    Reply

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