Freethought: Not So Free After All
One of the most popular terms used by atheists and agnostics to describe themselves is the term “freethinker.” Accordingly, their self-styled brand of reasoning, known as “freethought,” is hitting the upper echelons of academia as the in vogue way to think. From the ideas contained in this compound word, its advocates are attempting to lead people to believe that freethinkers are free to think as they like. Supposedly, freethinkers can go where the evidence leads them, since they are not bound by traditional ideas on morality, deity, the inspiration of the Bible, and other “wayward” notions that have “hindered” freedom in the past.
One of the most outspoken defenders of freethought is a man named Dan Barker. Prior to his “deconversion” into freethought, he was a zealous denominational preacher and missionary. In his most famous written work describing his new-found atheism, Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist, he includes an entire chapter titled, What is a Freethinker? At the end of this chapter, Barker says, “Freethought allows you to do your own thinking…. Freethought is truly free” (1992, p. 136). Obviously, Mr. Barker wants everyone who comes in contact with freethought to believe that it is an avenue of thinking that allows each individual to go where his or her thoughts lead.
Upon further investigation, however, freethought is not so free after all. On the very first page of his chapter on freethought, he contends, “No one can be a freethinker who demands conformity to a bible, creed, or messiah.” So, according to Mr. Barker, since he and his group of freethinkers do not think they see enough evidence for the Bible’s inspiration, then all “freethinkers” must reject conformity to the Bible. What happened to the idea that freethought allows “you to do your own thinking.” Again, on the same page he wrote, “Freethinkers are naturalistic” (p. 133), meaning that freethinkers cannot believe in anything outside the realm of what can be measured scientifically using the senses. What if certain evidences compel a person to believe in a supernatural deity? According to freethought, a person is not free to follow that type of evidence. Once again, freethought proves to be much less “free” than we have been told.
Another telling statement from Barker’s pen comes on page 134, where he says, “Individuals are free to choose, within the limits of humanistic morality.” Freethought, then, allows a person to choose freely any set of ethical and moral standards, as long as those standards conform to the “humanistic morality” adopted by Barker and his fellow “freethinkers.” But what if those moral standards fall outside the realm of “humanistic morality?” Then a freethinker must choose some other standard—or cease to be a freethinker.
In one of his concluding paragraphs, Barker states: “A multiplicity of individuals thinking, free from the restraints of orthodoxy, allows ideas to be tested, discarded or adopted” (p. 135). Barker subtly omits the other restraints such as naturalism and humanism, from which freethinkers are not free. In essence, freethinkers, according to Dan Barker, are those people who think like him and his fellow freethinkers. If a person does not think like the humanistic, naturalistic Dan Barker, then that person must be an enslaved thinker, not a freethinker. In reality, “freethought” is a misnomer and is not free after all. In fact, it is one of the “least free” ways to think that is available in the marketplace of ideas. In actuality, the only thing that can ever make a person free is the truth (John 8:32). From the statements quoted above, it is evident that Dan Barker and his fellow freethinkers are not really interested in freedom but, rather, are interested in forming a group of “freethinkers” that toes the party line on such false concepts as naturalism and humanism.
Barker, Dan (1992), Losing Faith In Faith—From Preacher to Atheist (Madison, WI: Freedom from Religion Foundation).