I love the term Freethinker.  It’s the name that most closely approximates my own approach to matters of meaning but I’m leery of the associations it has gathered in around itself.

A freethinker, according to Dictionary.com (rapidly replacing the OED in my affections) is: “a person who   forms opinions on the basis of reason, independent of authority or tradition”

No problem there.  Then it goes on: “esp. a person whose religious opinions differ from established belief.”

Freethinking originally arose in the nineteenth century as a reaction against organised religion and today, it still defines itself in that reactive way, the term often being used as a synonym for atheism or agnosticism.

The Freethinker Magazine ( “The Voice of Atheism since 1881″ ) is illustrative.  Its founder wrote: “The Freethinker is an anti‑Christian organ, and must therefore be chiefly aggressive. It will wage relentless war against superstition in general, and against Christian superstition in particular. It will do its best to employ the resources of Science, Scholarship, Philosophy and Ethics against the claims of the Bible as a Divine Revelation; and it will not scruple to employ for the same purpose any weapons of ridicule or sarcasm that may be borrowed from the armoury of Common Sense.”

This agressive, warring tradition has been upheld for more than a century, with the magazine’s website today priding itself on its “cutting”, “abrasive”, “sarcastic” and “offensive” approach.

There’s lots about this magazine – and the rational, anti-religious movement – that’s admirable.  Many of the lively  articles, reviews and commentary are intelligent, inquiring and thought provoking.  Historically this magazine played a key role in pioneering the birth control movement and it still campaigns for progressive change on a wide range of important issues.

But, but, but…  It seems to me that The Freethinker isn’t free at all.  Defined by that which it abhors, it has locked itself into a very confined space with its perceived enemies.

Ever since I started to question my inherited Roman Catholicism in my late teens, I have read – and learned from – rational, secular, humanist and atheist writers.  As AC Grayling has ably illustrated in his book, Towards The Light, what he calls “the light of reason” is inextricably linked with the advancement of human liberty.

But reason doesn’t always lead to atheism. It didn’t for me. As well as being uneasy with its certainty in the face of uncertainties, having to define myself in the negative (a non-believer, anti-religious) goes all my positive, creative, evolutionary instincts.  The didactism and the negativity takes all the freedom out of freethinking. What you’re left with is the hollow sound of what Yeats called “the tyranny of opinion”.

Freethinking and atheism should not be synonyms. And attacking other people’s opinions, realities or beliefs, as Freethinking Magazine, and so many alleged freethinkers spend so much time doing, is a wasteful and self-defeating dissipation of time, energy and attention. It simply strengthens the presence of that which you oppose — in your own life and in theirs.

A more productive approach is to support models that embody what you consider desirable. Or, in their absence, to create new models that offer complexities missing from outworn sytems.

So I’m wondering: could we reclaim the Freethinking concept, make it over as a positive, creative force, rather than a negative, destructive and anti-religious protest?

Could we have a Freethinking movement that is:

  • Intelligent
  • Inquiring and
  • Informed
but also:
  • Tolerant
  • Open and
  • Contemplative
Could we have Creative Freethinking?  Inspirational Freethinking? Spiritual Freethinking?  Is this possible? What do you (free)think?

About Orna Ross

Orna Ross writes and publishes novels, poems and the Go Creative! books and blog. She is Founder and Director of The Alliance of Independent Authors, an association of the world's best self-publishing authors and advisors and has been described as "one of the 100 most influential people in publishing" (The Bookseller). Born and raised in Wexford in the south-east of Ireland, she now lives, mostly, in London. Talk to her on Twitter: @ornaross


  1. veryheaven

    dear orna,
    great thoughts :-) for me, free thinking is creative, imaginative, it allows me and others to freely express my thoughts and ideas without being rejected by other free thinkers. that´s the reason i love think tanks and mindmapping, the last especially, using it to draw an image of ones thinking cycle helps the person very much to understand how limited to the very own believes and how conditioned ones thinking by rules and regulations can be. i do wonder still, if the ego is the trap most people fail to overcome. second, if there is a method or model besides meditation. a great book to read is “thoughts without a thinker” :-) sincerely, veryheaven

  2. Robin Easton

    Beautiful Orna, This is so well expressed.

    I loved these lines:

    “I believe that attacking other people’s opinions, realities or beliefs is wasteful and self-defeating. A dissipation of time, energy, attention and focus that strengthens the presence of that which you oppose — in your own life and the life of others. A more productive approach, it seems to me, is to support models that embody what you consider desirable. Or, in their absence, to create new models that offer complexities missing from outworn systems.”

    I agree with this. I think if we stay in a mode of attack, we then live our lives from a reactionary place as opposed to calm choice, positive change and love. I am very much a free thinker, but I easily embrace others beliefs. I also feel like my energy is much better spent focusing on the things in the world that foster freedom, insight, love, non-judgment, etc. It is not only more uplifting for me but for those around me. It makes me feel joyous and joy is contagious. Wars are based on people trying to change another person’s beliefs. For me that is not freethinking but bondage for both parties. For me it is a waste of time. I would rather model my beliefs. When my belief is based in love and acceptance, compassion and non-judgement then I have found that it reaches much deeper than any words, protest or anything else. Love goes where no words can reach.

    Thank you for such a thought provoking sharing. I love it. It felt clean and true in my heart. Love, Robin

  3. Book Calendar

    I think Free Thinking is an interesting idea. However, it is based on some very old fashioned ideals. Free Thinking often fails to grasp systems thinking and chaos theory– looking at how whole systems work. It tends to be extremely reductionistic in nature and because of this it often fails in holding peoples attention.

    There are so many more things which we have learned about how the universe might work. Physics and metaphysics are becoming much more linked. Ideas like superdeterminism and the many worlds theory of reality can open vistas which are not limited by old fashioned reductionist thinking.

    People are also not rational animals. Emotion is the basis for higher order thinking, both scienctific and religious thinking. There is a wonderful book called Descartes Error which discusses this problem.

    I like to think of myself as able to think freely but not be bound by a reductionist philosophy. Logic is a one sided tool. Systems theory needs to be added to logic to make it much more whole.

    There are other rationalist views of the world which do not discount the existence of “implicate order” or other forms of thought. I trend towards deism or the idea of a rationally ordered universe with a god who does not interfere all the time.

  4. Travis Morgan

    As “Book Calendar” hinted, we are subject to the laws of physics, causality, also known as the chaos theory or the butterfly effect.

    We are programed by the stimuli from our environments, from our experiences, these things condition and ultimately determine how and what we think. Had you of been born in another country like northern Korea for example, “You” and your thinking would be quite different becuase of how the environment conditioned you.

    Any attempt to free oneself from this is in effect caused by the very environmental conditioning your are trying to be free from. So to attempt to be free from it was ultimately determined by it and therefore still not free.

  5. Sebastyne

    When I left the church years ago in my early 20’s, I decided on one thing: I would not let anyone or anything dictate what I believe. This of course, isn’t really what Free Thinking is all about traditionally, but to me it is the very essence of it. I started by getting together all the things that I believed to be true, such as reincarnation and basically the fact that I didn’t believe in sin&punishment, but simple evolution of the soul. Few years later I found books that said more or less the same thing, adding some, but rarely contradicting what I had been thinking. That to me was a powerful proof of the value of true free thinking – it allows people to actually get to the truth without being obstructed by thesis created by other people who’s motivations are not always pure or clear.

  6. Sally E

    I dont think free thinking is something we can make rules about! My own take on it is although I find other people very interesting I have stopped worrying about what they say they believe. I think its what other people do that matters, not what they say about their opinions. I think what you yourself think matters, but only to you. It’s what you do that matters to others.
    I would qualify this by saying that writing stories and poetry are things that you do, not things that you think.

  7. Karen Lotter

    When people agree with me I generally have to rush to a mirror to check that it is really me. So, I don’t know whose thoughts are free, mine or theirs.

    But I’ve found, when people agree about any kind of bullet-point list a ring-fence follows hot on the heels of consensus.

  8. Guttu

    If you go by dictionary.com’s definition then I am in between free thinking and paid thinking.(Opposite of free is paid…) My religion has beliefs which support life. They help the way you live. And I cannot think of being a non-believer. I had a period where I was one. But that’s over. It happens to everyone. I would like to stay the way I am. Some may call it free thinking at times and not other times.

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  13. Paul

    I tend to agree. I think — think! — that the tone of the movement, such as it is, could use a lot of work. Of course, I’m not 100% sure, which is why I’m keeping up with atheists’ actions and the cultures reactions, trying to get a sense of what does and does not advance the various agendas of nonbelief movements.

  14. william busuttil

    well, if you thinck about it God, allowed you free will to chose for free thouth ,as long as it is,n t agains the the heavenly father,and the holly ghost,or your fellow mankined,and sould you wish to understand to transgrease it,s allways the end desition of god or socactik probitaty dyenmaticks,in your case.

  15. Tanveer

    Orna, bravo.

    I think lately there has been this drive by some secularists/atheists/however you want to categorize them to correlate the concept of free-thinking and rationality with anti-religion. In your entry here, you demonstrated beautifully the logical fallacy to that position.

    For me, religion is just another form of philosophy and as humans tend to do with any philosophical concept, we tend to take its basic concepts and try to bend it to suit our purposes. Atheists who attempt to equate free-thinking with a hatred of religion are no different in my book from religious zealots who attempt to use religious dogma to further their own political/social agendas. After all, in both cases, the person is not leaving themselves open to pondering different ideas – instead, they’re only interested in proving their position as being right and those who oppose them wrong. Hardly what I would call ‘free thinking’.

    Look, I’m not a Christian and yet, I don’t have this obsessive need or desire to trash or prove that people who believe in the Bible are disillusioned or brainwashed or whatever. Instead, I respect their choice and desire to believe that – especially since many of them respect my choice not to. I always find it curious why these anti-religion types get all worked up over something they don’t believe in and why they have this need to trash talk those who do believe in the Bible, or any other religious theology.

    I’m glad to see someone is taking up this issue and pointing out that free thinking should not be exclusively defined as being anti-religious, but rather the idea that we open ourselves to examining/learning about the different ideas/notions of human existence to find that one which best suits our own understanding of the world around us.

  16. Stay True

    Free Thinking is the antithesis of believing what you hear spoken by a figure of authority (such as a pastor or parent).

    Having experience or having learned stories, passed down through books, does not make a person wise nor the story true. These are things to draw information and guidance from however many people don’t learn from their experiences and it is well known that history gets revised in books to favor a paradigm.

    This blog simply seems like a justification for putting a negative bent upon those who are NOT led by a higher authority. People who make choices based on ethical and moral considerations are thinking individuals with the compassion to respect other’s beliefs and yet walk their own path. “Freethinking” should not be a threat to anyone who uses spiritual guidance to walk their path. Peace be with you.

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  18. Rhiel

    If you say that you are a “Freethinker” and then you adopt a certain line of reasoning as to attack religion and other established beliefs, then you are limiting yourself and in fact are no longer free. To be a real Freethinker you must not lose your right to choose what is true and right because as the saying goes, “the truth will set you free”. In my experience, the truth can be found in the Bible. It’s the document that has proven itself to be true time and time again.

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