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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Is “Freethinker” Just a Euphemism for “Atheist”?

The term "freethinker" refers to an approach to knowledge with applications beyond the question of religion. The use of the term as a euphemism for "atheist" suggests that theism constrains thought. A nuanced critique of religion, however, must take into account that it is not a monolithic entity against which all critiques universally apply. One universal characteristic of religion is the notion of transcendence. The vast majority of religions can be further characterized by their belief in unseen, supernatural agents. Rationalism, a metaphorical understanding of the "revealed truths" of the faith community, is the exception that proves the rule. It is at the juncture of literal and metaphorical understanding that "faith" and "religion" part ways. Monotheism is regarded by the faithful as the pinnacle of theology, but it is arguably more absolutist than other forms of theism in its insistence of fealty to one god at the exclusion of all others. This monopoly gives monotheism its authoritarian edge. While religion is generally associated with sectarianism, Universalism parts ways with heritage faiths. The vestiges of sectarianism survive in the form of particular religious affiliations, but these affiliations are unreliable predictors of underlying beliefs. Universalists and rationalists often retain their affiliations with their heritage faith communities, creating a special challenge to any critique of religion


The ideological differences within religious communities can be understood in terms of concreteness. A belief in an anthropomorphic God who works miracles and speaks in a distinguishable voice to the prophets of a favored sect represents a more concrete belief system than do loose representations of the transcendent or a metaphorical god of poetic justice or the loose associations that characterize superstition. The belief that religious ritual actually alters reality in specific ways is more concrete than the understanding that religious ritual merely represents or affirms reality.

I borrow the modifier “concreteness” from characterizations of metamagical thinking observed in maladaptive conditions such as schizophrenia and OCD. Hearing imaginary voices and adhering compulsively to ritual are highly concrete expressions of metamagical thinking and considered maladaptive in a non-religious context. Less severe forms of these conditions, schitzotypal personality and superstitious conditioning, respectively, are less debilitating and perhaps even adaptive. If, in fact, mild forms of schitzotypal personality and superstitious conditioning are adaptive, they may help explain the genetic survival of schizophrenia and OCD in among fewer members of the population.

The ubiquity of religion is sometimes taken as evidence of an evolutionary advantage for religion. The metamagical thinking that characterizes religious faith, however, might well limit any adaptive advantage to less orthodox forms. The observation that children are suggestible to metamagical conditioning when they are forming critical trust bonds with their caregivers in no way implies that religion is adaptive. An equally viable interpretation is that the acceptance and subsequent rejection of metamagical thinking represent developmental stages. A belief in unseen agents may have sharpened an uncritical, reflexive response to danger, but religion is also responsible for ancient, intractable sectarian enmity that arguably represents the greatest existential threat to humanity.

The following table summarizes common apologetics, apologists and challenges by concreteness of belief.

Apologetics and Challenges

Concreteness Scale
Intelligent Design
Faith in Faith
God of the Gaps
Wishful Thinking
Non-Overlapping Magisteria
Prophesy as Allegory
Cultural Relativism

Intelligent Design

Intelligent Design is among the most concrete forms of religious apologetics because is attributes a specific miracle, creation, to a divine will. There are two problems with Intelligent Design. The first is that it is not objective science. It exists exclusively to corroborate creationism, and is therefore inherently biased. Anything that science cannot explain is attributed to divine agency by default, a “god of the gaps.” The attribution of creation to the divine differs from a belief in magic only in the context of these beliefs. The attribution to magic of anything that we do not fully understand is no explanation at all. 

The second problem with Intelligent Design is the evidence. No case for irreducible complexity, the favorite argument of creationists, has been reconciled with the evidence. We know from biology that we are genetically related to all life on the planet. Phylogenetic modeling is supported by DNA, fossil dating, endogenous retroviruses, embryology and atavisms. Chemistry offers explanations of the emergence of self-replicating molecules. Biology informs us that consciousness is a function of complexity. We understand from physics that we are connected to the universe by the molecular composition of our bodies. Cosmology, the last stand of the God of the Gaps, is rapidly gaining ground with the theory of the multiverse. However incomplete scientific explanations may be, they are infinitely more satisfying to the critical mind than magic. 

Faith in Faith

Faith in faith is the notion that faith itself is virtuous. Faith in faith is obviously less concrete than faith itself and, therefore, less concrete than Intelligent Design. Faith in faith is embraced by religious fundamentalist and moderates. Moderates who reject Intelligent Design may still recur to faith in faith in defense of their beliefs or affiliations. The fallacy of faith in faith is that it conflates unwavering commitment to an abstract principle with unquestioning commitment to a concrete truth claim. In doing so, it has given rise to a broad consensus that credulity is somehow valiant. From the skeptic’s perspective, the “faith in faith” argument amounts to a “valor of credulity” argument. By extension, the “faith in faith” argument implies that skepticism is at best a crisis of faith and at worst the chronic manifestation of a cynical disposition. The faith in faith argument betrays religious faith as a willful abdication of reason.

Religious moderates reject the most concrete doctrines, but stop short of rejecting "revealed truth" on principle. Moderates also reject atheist critiques as straw-man arguments, but fundamentalists reject less concrete forms of faith as inauthentic. Reverence for "sacred" texts by moderates creates ambiguities that preclude honest debate. It is disingenuous to take umbrage at being confounded with fundamentalists while maintaining a nominal affiliation and reverence for the same founding charter.

Non-Overlapping Magisteria

Non-Overlapping Magisteria is a non-aggression pact between faith and reason, granting each its own scope of inquiry. Religious moderates are more inclined than fundamentalists to invoke Non-Overlapping Magisteria, as they do not deny the validity of scientific inquiry. Non-Overlapping Magisteria is a fundamentally agnostic belief, as it licenses metaphysical inquiry without implying any support for its conclusions. Agnosticism concedes uncertainty about the metaphysical without necessarily dismissing metaphysical claims as improbable. The difference between agnostics and atheists is often more about identity than strength of conviction. One can identify as agnostic, conceding that the metaphysical is unknowable, while considering specific truth claims made by religion to be absurd in the extreme.

The fundamental problem with Non-Overlapping Magisteria is overlap. Miracles, by definition, suspend the laws of nature. Theologians make claims about physics, biology and chemistry that they are rarely qualified to make. Neurology, for example, tells us that consciousness is a function of biological complexity while theology attributes consciousness to an eternal soul. If our consciousness can survive our bodies, then there should be thoughts, experiences and emotions that do not register on a brain scan. Faith only concedes when a doctrine becomes indefensible. Faith always concedes to science eventually, but religion’s historical resistance to reason has taken an immeasurable toll on the advancement of civilization. 

Arguably, the metaphysical is at a disadvantage for producing evidence, but contradictory truth claims made by the various religions are defended as absolute truth. If not for its staunch conviction for unfalsifiable truth claims, religious faith might well be regarded as harmless. Where there is overlap between science and concrete religious truth claims, science eventually prevails.  


Universalism, the religious expression of multiculturalism, claims to revere all faiths. Concrete, sectarian faiths, however, are mutually incompatible. If faith were reduced to areas on which there is universal consensus, there would be little or no doctrine remaining beyond a vague sense of the transcendent. Universalism can only truly affirm less concrete forms of faith without resorting to cultural relativism. Universalists may pass as moderates within particular faith communities. Their affiliations would seem to give tacit support to sectarianism without the understanding that heritage is a more reliable predictor of affiliation than faith.  

With so many versions of ultimate truth, how can believers be sure that the one they happened to inherit has a better grasp of the particulars? How can believers be dismissive of other faiths and yet so sure of their own? We’re all atheists about most gods that have ever been worshiped. Why should one faith be exempt because of the the circumstances of one's birth? Given that we all dismiss defunct faiths out of hand; it seems perfectly consistent to dismiss the ones that remain. The truth claims of defunct faiths are objectively no more or less outrageous than the ones made by contemporary faiths.

Prophesy as Allegory

Rationalists openly embrace the idea of prophesy as allegory. As such, their beliefs are the least concrete and least metamagical. The problem with prophesy as allegory is that the allegory betrays an authoritarian agenda. Only by tortured logic can Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac be seen as anything more than an object lesson on the virtue of the utter abdication of moral judgment. The Christian doctrines of original sin and vicarious redemption, eternal torment for temporal infractions and ideological prerequisites for redemption are completely contrary to the way reasonable people approach personal responsibility for transgressions. 

Rationalism rightly rejects these doctrines. Yet the rationalist will insist that engagement with the text is meaningful when the text is little more than a document on which contemporary sensibilities and knowledge are projected. These projected interpretations are often contrary to any reasonable interpretation of the text. The fact that the word "sociopath" exists to describe an aberration attests to a broad social consensus that a moral compass based on empathy is innate. Religion merely provides a forum that has monopolized ethical discussion at the expense of any possibility for consensus.  

The problem with rationalism is that the metaphorical figure of God is a capricious, misogynistic, homophobic sociopath, openly antagonistic to knowledge and reason, and supportive of genocide and slavery for the advancement of sectarianism. The only inspiration to be found in such a metaphor is the very rejection of its literal meaning. This figure that the rationalist accepts as metaphor is the very core of monotheism, not an incidental feature. Rationalism clings to only the least concrete core of religion, a vague sense of the transcendent. It makes religion out of a cultural affinity. A critique of religion can hardly avoid the straw-man argument when religion will assume a form utterly devoid of supernaturalism in order to maintain its franchise. 

Critiques of religion must distinguish between "religion" and "faith" to account for rationalism. Rationality that emerges in religion over the objections of believers, however, does not imply that faith and reason can be reconciled. Faith is still the abdication of reason. Rationalism merely attests to the tenacity of institutions confronting the prospect of their own demise, the power of cultural affinity and the stigma of non-belief. Religious cultural affinities are vestiges of sectarianismReason concedes when it paints itself into a logical corner. Faith knocks down a wall a builds on a room. Rationalism rearranges the furniture.

Reason, Faith and Authoritarianism

In the previous sections, I presented the case for a nuanced critique of religion that takes into account the diversity of religious thought. In this section I return to concerns over religious faith as a whole. While religious moderates reform faith communities from within, they share a belief in the sacred with their fundamentalist coreligionists. The very notion of the sacred is fundamentally authoritarian as it creates a duality with the profane. Rationalists, although their own understanding is metaphorical, retain deference to the "revealed truths" of their faith communities. The present section develops the approaches to thesis development within the conventions of reason, faith and authoritarianism. Parallel concepts among the three approaches are summarized in the following table.

Thesis Development by Reason, Faith and Authoritarianism

Thesis Status
Acceptance [-evidence]
Doubt [-evidence]
Divine Coercion
State Coercion
Paradigm Shift

When guided by reason, we are skeptical of claims that are not supported by evidence. Accepting non-falsifiable claims as absolute truths is a sign of credulity. In science as in life, we rely on evidence that can be corroborated either by our own experience or by impartial, reliable observers. A thesis that is not supported by evidence is not viable. It will eventually be incorporated into a rival thesis or be abandoned altogether. 

In juxtaposing reason with faith, we see the fundamental tension between the two. While reason shuns credulity, faith regards it as a virtue. Religious orthodoxy defends a thesis with coercion. That coercion may be the threat of divine retribution, brutal enforcement at the hands of believers or social disapproval. Belief in supernatural enforcement unites monotheistic, polytheistic and non-theistic religions. Enforcement takes the form of Heaven and Hell or karma and reincarnation, representing eternal vs. cyclic reward and punishment for temporal offences, respectively. Blasphemy continues to be seen as an affront to civility even when challenging doctrines that represent an affront to reason or decency. The great achievements of science continue to be greeted by religious orthodoxy as heresy without regard for the consensus within the scientific community. Faith is as resistant to reform as it is indifferent to evidence. Those who reject religious orthodoxy have been executed, persecuted or otherwise marginalized throughout human history. 

The juxtaposition of reason, faith and authoritarianism demonstrates that faith consistently aligns itself with authoritarianism and contrary to reason. While religious orthodoxy can invoke the specter of supernatural surveillance, detention, torture and death, the authoritarian state relies on human agents exclusively to impose its will. Opposition to religious orthodoxy is labeled blasphemy, heresy and apostasy while opposition to authoritarianism is labeled as sedition, subversion and treason. While religious moderates may distance themselves from orthodoxy, they provide cover for fundamentalism with their reverence for the religious customs and texts of their faith communities. 

Critiques of Atheism

Atheism is often charged with being impertinent, amoral or grim. These charges appear to challenge the intellectual, moral and emotional validity of atheism, but they also imply that the truth of a proposition is dependent on propriety, convenience or comfort. These charges  imply an approach to truth akin to wishful thinking. If a parent neglected the intellectual, moral or emotional development of a child, a reasonable person would judge that parent unfit. Development implies the acquisition of some measure of autonomy, but religion actively encourages the willful abdication of intellectual, moral and emotional judgment. This externalization of intellectual, moral and emotional judgment is the equivalent of a self-imposed state of perpetual infancy for the individual as well as for civilization. 

While atheism by definition is only a negation of theism, atheists are often challenged for disregarding the differences between theistic and non-theistic religions. Even the most innocuous doctrines of non-theistic religions, however, contain elements of wishful thinking and subjugation. The understanding of religion as a quest for transcendent meaning implies the rejection of an indifferent universe. The determined hope that transcendence of material reality will yield higher understanding than can be devised by the human imagination is an abdication of the autonomous construction of meaning. Transcendence of self in the form of an altered state of consciousness is known as hallucination. It can be replicated pharmacologically, without the aid of religion.  

Karma, a doctrine common to polytheistic and non-theistic religions, represents only a slight improvement over the monotheistic heaven and hell. Rather than eternal reward and punishment for temporal crimes, karma provides a cyclical version. A less concrete understanding of karma, that “everything happens for a reason” or “what goes around comes around” also suggests the rejection of an indifferent universe. A more rational application would be that that an excess of self-interest ultimately undermines the common interests of all humanity. Transcendence of self without religion in the service of the common good is known as Humanism.


Freethinking is the approach to knowledge that leads to atheism. While atheism rejects the subjugation of thought and action imposed by theism, freethinking rejects the default supposition that everything for which there is no natural explanation must be attributed to the supernatural. It's difficult to imagine an atheist who believes in ghosts, but it's consistent with freethinking to consider the possibility of extraterrestrial life. The problem with the term "atheism" is that it is an anomaly. No terms exist to express disbelief in astrology or alchemy. If there is no good reason to believe, non-belief is merely the default position. The distinction between "freethinker" and "atheist" is largely a matter of preference. 

If critics of religion must take into consideration the differences among and within faith communities, the religious faithful would do well to understand that their affiliations often misrepresent their true convictions. It is disingenuous for religious moderates to contend that the revered texts of their heritage are much more than a canvass on which believers project their own subjective notions of the transcendent. The texts are not so ambiguous as to permit any possible interpretation, but the passages that cannot be reconciled with reason are either discarded or interpreted with undue generosity. How much of a "sacred" text must be discredited before the very principle of "revealed truth" is disavowed outright? Only the willing abdication of reason can explain the survival of the principle in the face of countless disavowals of the particulars.

Believers may come to adopt fundamentalism in a moment of passion, but contemplation pulls the believer in the direction of less concrete, more rational forms of religion. As less concrete forms become the norm, fundamentalists may be marginalized but will not likely disappear. Some moderates may drop their religious affiliations altogether, either abruptly or after drifting further from orthodoxy.  Universalists and rationalists demonstrate that religion is shedding sectarianism and supernaturalism in order to survive. 

Atheists would not be worthy of being called "freethinkers" if they advocated for the forcible suppression of religion. Freethinkers can only wait as religion dies of attrition or evolves into a rational vestige of its former self. Remembering that today’s believer is tomorrow’s skeptic may help freethinkers to temper their derision, but restraint could serve to enable a malignant delusion. 

As believers continue to gravitate toward less supernatural, less sectarian beliefs, they will be challenged to explain how meaningful their affiliations really are. If they take umbrage at being associated with the doctrines of their orthodox coreligionists or they are embarrassed by their own ambivalence toward these doctrines and texts, let them say so openly rather than invoking a disingenuous straw-man defense. 

As freethinkers continue to challenge metaphysical doctrines, believers can either take offense or learn to deal with disagreements as they do when the disputed truth claims are not metaphysical in nature. Believers will have to confront the question of how a free society can regard credulity as virtuous and skepticism as morally suspect. After all, they demonstrate the obstinacy of their faith most clearly when they invoke the exemption from criticism that custom affords faith.