What is “free thinking”?

The term “free thinker” can often be found alongside the word “atheist,” but do these two things always go together?

Philosopher Bertrand Russell makes an important distinction about free thinking: it’s a way of thinking and not a particular conclusion.

What makes a free thinker is not his beliefs, but the way in which he holds them. If he holds them because his elders told him they were true when he was young, or if he holds them because if he did not he would be unhappy, his thought is not free; but if he holds them because, after careful thought he finds a balance of evidence in their favour, then his thought is free, however odd his conclusions may seem. – Bertrand Russell

The term itself begs another question: free from what? Russell gives two examples:

The person who is free in any respect is free from something; what is the free thinker free from? To be worthy of the name, he must be free of two things: the force of tradition, and the tyranny of his own passions. – Bertrand Russell

Russell here assumes one of the most basic tenets of modernism: that tradition is not a valid means of discerning the truth. He also seems to share the typical modern assumption that humans can overcome their passions by sheer force of reason. Russell does make the qualification that we cannot be completely free of the forces of passion and tradition.

Many who bear the label “free thinker” are far from free of their passions and prejudices. Ironically there are striking parallels between fundamentalist Christians and some of the more militant and intolerant atheists.

If you equate “free thinking” or “rationality” with your particular conclusions, you have fabricated justification for removing those who disagree with you before the conversation even begins. Christians often are tempted to do the same thing to atheists. They cite a well-known psalm:

“Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is no one who does good.” – Psalm 14:1, NRSV

This particular poetic line does not hold up well in the modern world. In the ancient world, it was indeed foolish to deny the divine, but that does not hold true in the modern world. Western culture’s fundamental assumptions have changed. Christians would do well to remember the Apostle Paul’s frequent claim that the message of the cross is “foolishness to those who are perishing.” It is only “the power of God” to those who are being saved. (1 Cor 1:18)

Free thinking is a road, not a destination. Those of us who desire to arrive somewhere close to the truth would do well to remember that.

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