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:
- Inquiring and
- Open and