Who Are the Free Thinkers?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Many skeptics of  Christianity proudly point out that they are “free thinkers.”  This expression used to confuse me, as I consider myself a free thinker, but clearly I could not be one in the same way the skeptic means it.  After talking to several skeptics, I discovered that “free thinker” is mostly a synonym for “atheist.”  The general idea seems to be that religious people are trapped in their thinking by the family and culture they were born into, whereas atheists are not – they are free to think as they please.

If you were born into a Christian family and culture, then it is natural for you to believe Christianity.  If you were born into Hindu-dominated India, it is natural for you to believe Hinduism.  Wherever we are born largely determines what kind of god we believe in, according to the free thinkers.

For skeptics, a person becomes a free thinker when they escape the chains of their family and culture.  I don’t know what atheists call themselves when they grow up with atheist parents who live in a non-religious community.  It seems like they’re trapped in their thinking just like the religious folks, but that’s a topic for another time.

There are two points I want to make about this idea of being born into your religion.  First, skeptics of Christianity do us a favor when they point out that many Christians have never questioned what they were taught growing up.  It is true that many Christians have merely taken on their parents’ beliefs without any reflection of their own.  Often this can lead to a shallow faith that collapses at the first signs of trouble.  Additionally, the Bible is quite clear that a person is never physically born into a saving relationship with God.  The decision to embrace Jesus Christ is a personal one that cannot be made by one’s parents.  Growing up in a Christian home absolutely does not guarantee a person’s salvation.  It is truly dangerous to take on your parents’ beliefs without thinking about them for yourself.

Second, we have to be clear that just because a person takes on the beliefs of her parents or surrounding culture does not mean that those beliefs are false.  Even free thinking skeptics admit that many things their parents taught them are true.  The source of a person’s beliefs have nothing to do with the truth of those beliefs.  I may be told that God exists by a genius or by a moron – it doesn’t matter when it comes to the truth of God’s existence.  In fact, philosophers long ago spotted the error in confusing the source of a belief with its truth – they call it the genetic fallacy.

So, to Christians, I say think about your beliefs for yourself.  Weigh the claims of your faith.  Apply your mind to its teachings.  If your parents were Christian, that’s wonderful, but it doesn’t guarantee you a relationship with God.  You have to do that on your own.

To skeptics, I remind them that the source of a person’s beliefs have nothing to do with the truth of those beliefs.  If a free thinker is someone who has critically examined the beliefs given him by his parents and community, then there are plenty of Christians who are free thinkers and plenty of atheists who are not.

  • Boz

    This idea, that a person’s religious beliefs are determined by the accidents of birth, is the basis for John Loftus’ Outsider Test for Faith (OTF).


  • Todd Pratt

    Atheist here:

    I would advocate that the term free thinker also means a person who believes their thoughts are not policed. We are free to lust after our neighbor’s ass without fear of reprisal. A Christian must believes their god knows their thoughts and judges them accordingly, and thus are not free to think what they will.

    I also find it interesting when a Christian tells another Christian to question their faith. I often feel it is an empty challenge. Rather, I think they are hoping that a person will not seriously question god and instead rationalize their belief by questioning the question. “Why would another Christian tell me to question my faith unless they have already done it and found it to be true?” I’m sure this type of masked reverse psychology works in many cases, but when applied against the scientific method, a better method of questioning validity, the premise of the existence of a Christian god fails miserably… but that is another discussion.

  • Bill Pratt

    You said, “We are free to lust after our neighbor’s ass without fear of reprisal.” I think you’ve pretty much summarized atheism in that one sentence. Atheists fundamentally don’t want anybody telling them what to do. I’m afraid God is going to grant your wish.

  • With ref. to Todd Pratt’s comment:

    A Christian must believes their god knows their thoughts and judges them accordingly, and thus are not free to think what they will.

    There often seems to be a confounding of the idea that one should be free to act (or think) as one wills, with the idea that one should be free to act as one wills without suffering any adverse consequences of that action. That, if there are results of that act that I must suffer or enjoy, then it wasn’t really free, but coerced.  I think there is a distinction between the two that should be maintained. 

    As an illustration, consider a 70mph speed limit.
    A true restriction of my freedom to drive 90 would be something like putting a governor of some type on my car, so that it will not under any condition go faster than 70. I have no power at all to violate the will of the state in this matter.
    The other type of restriction would be closer to what we have now. I own a car that will top 100 mph. finances permitting; I could buy and drive a car capable of 180. I could choose to drive that fast, but there is a penalty that I would suffer. To more perfectly match Todd’s idea, my speed would have to be infallibly reported to the authorities, so that my punishment was certain; but I believe this does not change the substance of my distinction. I am free to drive my Mazda 100 mph (but not 180!). I am not free from the consequences of having so chosen. 

    Todd may object that I am splitting hairs, and that my distinction makes no difference. Let’s look then at the implications of the kind of absolute freedom he seems to prefer God to grant us: what would that (freedom from any consequences from our choices) look like? 

    First, I assume there is no silliness about God making arbitrary and foolish decisions about such choices. If that were the objection, then the conversation would need to be about the nature of God. Otherwise, the objection seems much more like the ones I had to my parents when I was 15 and knew everything. 
    Second, I would expect that the “freedom to act without consequences” is to be upheld without regard for how I may view those consequences.  If I am to be free from fine, I expect that I am also to be free from profit. If that is not upheld, then we are back immediately to the idea of God choosing which consequences He will allow, and which ones He will inhibit. That is the very idea of judgment which I understand to be renounced.  

    So then, if we remove the idea of suffering (or benefiting) from the results of our choices, then we have true freedom. …We would have the same freedom I had “driving” one of the cars at an amusement park when I was 10. It had a steering wheel which I could turn however I wished, but the results were totally unrelated to my will, or my action.If freedom means “the ability to influence events, rather than being simply influenced by them,”  I think that “freedom from consequences” fails the test. It is only “amusement park” pretend freedom. Of course, some atheist thinkers (B.F. Skinner comes to mind) have posited exactly this. Freedom is an illusion. 

    As I understand Christianity, and subject to correction, part of what God intends is to create (evolve?) a creature which is capable of true free choice; who can drive without need of guard rails to take charge.

    This kind of non-illusionary freedom is to be one of the results.

  • Todd Pratt

    I’m afraid your analogy requires that one act on their thoughts. If I thought about breaking the speed limit, I do not believe there are consequences any more than I believe that coveting my neighbor’s wife has consequences (unless acted upon of course). The point being, that the Christian god does not allow free thought. It’s specifically forbidden by the 10th commandment.

    I’ve heard the threats before. I am no longer afraid of the myth.

  • Todd, if I understand your complaint, these are the points:

    1) I am declaring what you believe is a false equivalence between “thought” and “act,” with this difference centering around the idea that acts may have consequences, while thoughts do not.

    2) At least one example of thought is directly forbidden by the 10th commandment, against coveting, and is distinguished from the specific action of theft, enjoined in the 8th commandment. Therefore, free thought is not possible under the Christian schema.

    I think objection #2 is a clarification and re-statement of your original statement, and my answer is the same. God in this narrative nowhere says “it is no longer possible for you to kill (or steal, or bear false witness, or covet); we are perfectly capable of doing any of them. He does say that if we do (or think) these things, there will be unhappy consequences. That is not a statement limiting freedom. It is a statement proclaiming that our acts have potency, and they will affect events. These particular acts or thoughts will affect them negatively.

    There could be an objection that here
    “God is whimsically demanding this and prohibiting that, assigning reward and punishment so as to ensure satisfaction of His biggest desire, which is to be obeyed (c.f. “you shall have no other Gods before me”).” I would suggest that this is very little different from the child’s rejection of “don’t play in the street” without perceiving that there are very real and natural consequences other than a parent’s desire for authority.
    If God said “don’t do this” (or “don’t think these kind of thoughts”), I assume that there are natural consequences that undergird those prohibitions.

    Again, I am free, and totally, absolutely free to ignore any of these ‘commandments.’
    God did not put a fence around them to keep me from reaching them – I can do as I like. Later on, the Bible has Joshua say to the people “Choose ye this day…” and describes certain consequences of each choice.
    To restate, we are free to do, or think as we wish. We can play in the street if we choose.
    But I cannot expect to escape the natural consequences of doing so.

    And that returns us to the first objection: the supposed equivalence between act and thought, especially as concerning the consequences or lack thereof of each.

    Do you really think that thought has no natural consequences? It certainly has no (and should have no) civil or criminal consequences. If I want to steal something, harbor and nourish that want, think about how much I would like to have the thing; and then I don’t do the deed, well “no harm, no foul.” But is there no harm?
    The present owner is of course not bereft, but by encouraging this line of thought am I increasing the odds that I will act upon it in the future? Is my “thought crime” actually targeting a person or persons yet unknown? Well, that could be it, although I here the chorus of protests even now! I think it far more likely that the act of covetous thinking brings harm to me. I am the victim God is trying to protect in the 10th commandment.

    Secular psychotherapy recognizes something of the potential of thought to have consequences in the now au current field of Cognitive behavioral therapy. How I choose to think about things (and choice is involved) has powerful implications for the way I will get on in the world. Thought has results, consequences. Thought has potency.

    Most people assume that one can and should exercise a certain level of control over one’s thoughts. OK, does that then mean that God can or should? I think this is another re-statement of the basic question. Of course, in my opinion about God as creator, I would say obviously that He can control our thoughts if he wished, and as creator, he would be within his rights so to do. After all, some things do not have any choice about what laws they will obey – rocks pretty well do what “the law of gravity” tells them to do. They have no capacity for a private opinion.
    But again, I think this is question contains a false premise – that to declare that certain thoughts have negative consequences is the same as preventing them. God does not prevent me from thinking covetous thought.
    He tells me I shouldn’t, and even tells me something of why not.
    But then He leaves me free to think in absolutely any way I will.
    The results, good or bad, will accrue according to my choice. THAT is freedom.

  • Boz

    Todd Pratt and R. Eric Sawyer, you are both correct – you are talking about different things.

    R. Eric Sawyer is correct in saying: “Christians are freethinkers” (definition of freethinker: physically able to think a particular thought)

    Todd Pratt is correct in saying: “Christians are not freethinkers” (definition of not-freethinker: thoughtcrimes do exist for that person)((definition of thoughtcrime: an explicit punishment exists for thinking a particular thought))

  • Todd Pratt

    I don’t disagree completely with what you are saying. Of course there are natural consequences of thought that are well documented in cognitive research. And of course god does not physically prohibit you from taking actions on your thoughts. If so, the debate would be over and James Randi would be out $1M. But, even though you believe you are ‘free’ to covet your neighbor’s wife, there is eternal damnation at the end of it. It’s kind of like an offer made by Don Corleone. Whereas I am free to covet my neighbor’s wife without the same fear. Given the same coveting, your thoughts are policed by a god that is prepared to torture you eternally for having them. Which is not freedom to think what you will, only freedom to think what that god finds appropriate.

  • as Boz may be suggesting, I think we are talking past each other –at least the arguments have hit the point where they start to repeat. That suggests that there is something either you, I, or both find axiomatic, too obvious to state (or even to think), but not at all obvious to the other.

    Two ideas come to mind straight away:

    1) You seem to draw a distinction between “natural consequences” and sanctions imposed by a god (or in my framework, by God). I do not.
    If this difference seems worth going into, we can pursue it.

    2) I pick up a hint (and maybe this is my own projection) that even if God punishing or rewarding overt behavior is granted as appropriate, then “rightness” of action on my part should be sufficient. God should leave our inner life alone. If my thoughts of my neighbor’s wife make me more likely to commit some infraction latter on, then that is the time for sanctions. Leave the thoughts alone; leave me the dignity of policing them myself as I choose. You may hang me for murder, but not for kicking the idea around in my head.
    I think Christianity has a good bit to offer on this topic.

    Do either of these ideas seem to kick this can down the road any? Or do you have a suggestion?

  • Todd Pratt


    I indeed draw a distinction between natural consequences and sanctions imposed by a god (or, your God) when it comes to thought. It may be, perhaps as you say, that we view the topic from different axioms. I only argue the point from what I consider a hypothetical assertion that there is a Christian god, and that the bible demonstrates his will. And idea to which, I am obviously opposed, but am happy to debate, perhaps via email.

    On the topic at hand, I believe you are correct that we are stating similar assertions, both logically sound. And if so, we may just be nodding at each other repeatedly over our cup of joe.

  • Todd, while I am quite content to let this thread go –not everything has to be argued to agreement, every time- the principal sense in which our assertions are similar, is that they both treat of the same topic, with the same actors, and are thus similar enough to be contrasted. 

    Those things I named “axiomatic” may perhaps better be called “unspoken assumptions” and are often the bane of profitable argument until discovered and spoken.  As an example, I think the image you have of a Christian god is something like a boss, or parent, but ramped up several, or many orders of magnitude. I don’t know all that much about the ancient Greeks, but perhaps their view of the gods is more in that line. Given this picture, everything else in your post makes perfect sense, and is perfectly rational. I do not think this is the Christian God, and I have a hard time wrapping anything I mean by “God” in that package.

    The transcendent Godhead, may (at least to my mind) be thought of in terms more comfortable to a Taoist – “That Which Is” – with the difference in that He has attributes of purpose, will, intelligence, reason, goodness, love (in short- is something of what we mean by ‘person’), etc. But other than contemplating those attributes, He is in His essence unknowable –being infinite, He is perhaps without boundaries, and that is chiefly how we know what and where and who something is; by understanding what it is not.

    We get past this primarily in two ways, both initiated by God:
    1) The Jews understood God as being revealed in the Law (not just the 10 commandments, but the whole of the Law). It was not just a book of rules, it was a template which taken as a whole (kept) revealed God.
    2) The Christians understand Jesus as being something of an answer to “what happens if this transcendent God limits Himself with enough boundaries so that we can comprehend Him.” Thus, Jesus reveals the Father. 

    But the full nature of God is “Reality” and thus, any pronouncements or sanctions are deeply rooted in “the way things really are.”  
    The line between natural consequences and arbitrary pronouncements becomes considerably blurred. 

    Well, I’ve probably incensed enough of my friends and “enemies” for one morning.
    Thanks for a engaging exchange! 


  • Indeed, an axiom of freedom which suggests one’s act was only free if he believed he would not be punished seems puzzling. If I placed a gun to your head and told you to say you loved me, if you do so you are indeed freely acting; you could have refrained. What you have chosen freely is to tell me you love me and live over telling me you love me and death. Perhaps I am reprehensible, perhaps not, but I think this is clearly a counterexample to freedom so defined.

  • whoops, make that “not telling me you love me and death.”

  • Randy. I will grant your example -compulsion is not freedom.

    But neither is it freedom to disconect action from result. Is a choice that bears no fruit truly a choice? I would thing that it is only the illusion of choice, and not choice itself. Our choices must have potency if they are real.

    Speaking abstractly, not as a partisan in this debate – could it perhaps be said that compulsion puts consequenses to the choice that are not native to it. The results are not actually driven by our choice, but by someone exersising a second choice upon us?

    I think this would both allow for my “potent choice” idea while not allowing external compulsion.
    Perhaps this idea of God imposing consequences as compulsion v. choices having natural consequenses, sometimes expressed anthropologically, is a key to my difference with Todd, and perhaps you.

  • Sorry about the confusion! I only meant that the axiom of freedom being only if he believed he would not be punished seemed to be blatantly false. An easier example would be stealing from the cookie jar. I know my mother knows there were nine cookies, and she has forbidden me from eating any more. She also follows through with discipline. I take the cookie anyway. This, even though I believed I would not be punished. Under the current axiom, my action was not free. But then it follows we ought never to cause our children to believe we would punish them, for we would (in some cases) guarantee the outcome of rebellion by those means!

    Rather, I think freedom is the agent being the causal originator of his own choice. Just some thoughts. 🙂

  • Freethinker124

    Intelligent design – why would a intelligent creator have the mouth act as a passage for food & air to breath – if she work for me she would be fired — I mean him!