The Great Freethinker Debate
Which of the following would you expect to be a reoccurring theme in freethought forums and Facebook group discussions?
- Free will versus determinism
- The intersection between big bang and string theory
- Keynesian versus monetarist economics
- Reviews of local restaurants and bars
- The definition of “freethinker”
Give it some thought.
Quit reading ahead and pick one!
OK, so here’s the big reveal: If you answered e) The definition of “freethinker”, you’ve been there and done that!
Facebook in particular is full of people arguing over whether they are freethinkers or not, or whether things or concepts are freethinker-ish.
What People On Social Media Say
Social media arguments about the true definition of “freethinker” occur between familiar sub-categories of the non-religious. Each faction seems to claim this positive term as their own – excluding the others – by tweaking their own definitions of the term. Here are the main characters, and their competing definitions:
- Philosophical materialists: A freethinker is an atheist who is not into pseudoscience and has no supernatural beliefs.
- Agnostics: A freethinker keeps an open mind and embraces uncertainty about the existence of god.
- The Spiritual But Not Religious: A freethinker is a person who opens their mind to all possibilities, even the unexpected, or unscientific ones.
The synopsis of all these positions is that if a freethinker is someone who uses reason to derive their attitudes, then a freethinker must be someone who used reason to arrive at my attitudes. Each faction claims to be the one using reason. The argument is about what outcomes reason can possibly produce.
The spiritualists sometimes accuse the materialists or science-minded agnostics of being dogmatic and simplistic.
To be frank, this debate resembles a bunch of baby birds trying to kick each other out of the nest.
We live in a world where children are literally starving to death because their towns are being besieged by a different religious faction than their own. Perhaps, given the unacceptable urgency of things, we could consider discussing actions rather than definitions. Let’s see if we can close out this argument.
What The Dictionary Says
You might be amazed that people have this argument in an age when you can find a dictionary definition within seconds just by typing the word into your browser. Yet, as we’ll see, the dictionaries might just be the root of the problem.
So here’s how the dictionaries define “freethinker”:
- Merriam-Webster: “one who forms opinions on the basis of reason independently of authority; especially: one who doubts or denies religious dogma”
- Dictionary.com: “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.”
- Oxford Dictionaries: “A person who rejects accepted opinions, especially those concerning religious belief.”
As you can see, our dictionaries are doing a horrible job of defining “freethinker.” To understand why, consider what it means to deny “religious dogma” or reject “accepted opinions.” Some cults or minority religions could claim to do these things. The mind recoils at the thought of the early People’s Temple led by Jim Jones fitting these sloppy dictionary definitions of “freethinker.”
Also consider the difficulty of measuring the level of “reason” applied by people to come up with different conclusions about immeasurable things. What evidence could the materialists possibly find that would sway the agnostics or spiritualists? How could the spiritualists possibly persuade a materialist or science-minded agnostic, to count as valid evidence things like meditative insights or emotions felt in response to perceiving nature?
If reason itself was easy to define or measure, we’d all agree on when people were using reason and when they weren’t. The dictionary is useless here too. Dictionary.com, for example, provides 19 usages for “reason,” none of which are helpful to discern when someone is or is not applying “sound judgment, good sense.”
How often have you heard someone say “Oh, you’re right. I was not using reason.”?
Me either. They’d have to agree on the definition of reason first.
Thus, we find ourselves in the frustrating position of giving up on dictionaries as a way to resolve an argument about definitions!
What Do The ASF Bylaws Say?
Perhaps it’s best to simply ask some freethinkers what they are!
The bylaws of the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers are introduced by Article 1: Purpose and Mission. This passage describes a group of people who set out to accomplish the following:
- promote the secular, non-theistic, humanist viewpoint as a valid contribution to public discourse,
- protect the First Amendment guarantee of separation of church and state,
- enrich the community by hosting and developing informative activities and events, and
- encourage and facilitate public dialogue in matters of science, reason and tolerance.
Article 1 also states that ASF does not discriminate.
It’s that simple. If the above describes you, then you are a freethinker by our definition. And our definition is as valid as any, given the failure of the dictionaries!
Our definition is a lot more specific than the dictionary offers, but it’s still a big tent approach that accommodates the materialists, agnostics, and spiritual folks. ASF unites our motley community in support of the pragmatic goals we all agree on.
Now, with that thorny issue settled, why not join or support us today?!
About The Author
Chris is a former president of the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers, a toddler daddy, and a husband. He’s studied Psychology, Philosophy, and business. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.