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  • I don't like the word freethought

    Formal definition of agnostic versus colloquial meaning
    We're all familiar with the problems caused by the more formal definition of agnosticism versus the way ordinary people use the word in ordinary language. Most people use the word to mean some kind of position in between atheism and theism as though it is a separate category distinct from atheism and theism.

    This causes confusion because the more formal definition of agnostic has a very different meaning. Theism and atheism are answers to the question "is there a god(s)?" whereas agnosticism is an answer to a very different question ("What is knowable?"). Thus if we use the more formal definition of agnostic, it is perfectly possible for someone to be an agnostic theist or an agnostic atheist. In this context, all "agnostic" means is "I have at least a rudimentary understanding of epistemology," which obvious describes a fairly large number of people.

    Freethought: formal vs colloquial
    I argue that we have a similar problem with the word "freethought." First, the formal definition:

    Quote Originally Posted by Wikipedia
    Freethought or free thought is a philosophical viewpoint which holds that positions regarding truth should be formed on the basis of logic, reason, and empiricism, rather than authority, tradition, or other dogmas.
    Quote Originally Posted by Dictionary.com
    free thought
    thought unrestrained by deference to authority, tradition, or established belief, especially in matters of religion.
    Quote Originally Posted by World English Dictionary
    free thought
    — n
    thought unrestrained and uninfluenced by dogma or authority, esp in religious matters.
    The dictionaries seem to treat it as a phrase rather than a single concatenated word. Whatever. The informal meaning of the term seems to be an umbrella term for various kinds of non-theists: atheists, agnostics (colloquial definition... there's that problem again), pantheists, apatheists, etc.

    But why bother using this informal definition at all? The term nontheist is more descriptive if you ask me, but even the term nontheist is unnecessary. The a- prefix after all means "not" or "non" or "without," so the word atheist already means the same thing as nontheist. So the term nontheist is already redundant with atheist, and the term freethinker (in the colloquial sense) is redundant with atheist and nontheist. Besides, using the term in this colloquial sense implies that we are somehow more open-minded than theists. Even if that is true, it certainly comes across sounding arrogant and snotty.

    Of course, I think I know how some people are going to respond to this. By the formal definition of freethought, theism is simply incompatible. If one accepts theism to be true, then at some point one must take authority and/or tradition to be more important or more valid than evidence and reason, and I agree with that analysis of the situation. The problem I have here is that being wrong or being inconsistent is not part of the definition of "freethinker." Heck, in any philosophy, you're going to have people applying the ideas in a way that is wrong or inconsistent because that's the nature of humans. Lots of Christians apply Christian teachings in ways that are demonstrably wrong or demonstrably inconsistent, yet we have no problem calling them Christians. Why must we be so rigid about how we define "freethinker"? Can't freethinkers also be wrong or inconsistent without losing the identifier?

    Theist freethinkers
    I know that the whole history of freethought is closely associated with critics of religion, but why can't the term be applied to some theists under some conditions? Surely even the most devout theist occasionally finds themselves saying "I know that the [pastor/priest/rabbi/imam] is an authority, but I think he's wrong about X and here's why" or "I know that the traditional view is X, but I think the traditional view is wrong and here's why" or "I know that the dogma says X, but in this case I think it's wrong and here's why." If the "here's why" that follows is based on evidence, logic, or reason, then in that moment the theist in question is engaged in freethinking. Surely in any church, synagogue or mosque there are going to be individuals within the congregation who engage in freethought as often as not. They may even be freethinkers on everything except one or two very important questions. Freethought is an epistemology, so I don't think it should be regarded as exclusive to people who have particular answers to the question of whether or not there is a god(s). Just as there can be agnostic theists and agnostic atheists, I think there can be freethinking theists and freethinking atheists.

    Do we want or need to use the term freethinker? To whom should we apply the term and when?
    This article was originally published in forum thread: I don't like the word freethought started by Underseer View original post
    Comments 2 Comments
    1. Tom in Napa's Avatar
      Tom in Napa -
      To people who don't hang out at places like this: "I'm an atheist."
      To people who do hang out at places like this: "I'm a materialist."
    1. Underseer's Avatar
      Underseer -
      That's one way to put it.