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Just what is a "Freethinker" anyway?

Freethinkers Living Sober - Our Start
In early 2014, I had been thinking of starting a secular meditation/12 step meeting with only a small amount of success at garnering support.  In the Fall of that same year, a couple of friends asked if we might start a secular, religiously neutral, discussion meeting to counteract what seemed to be a prevailing "religiosity" in our local meetings. The primary motivator among us was the sense that many newcomers seemed to be put-off by all the religious language, and perhaps an alternative might help them find recovery without having to surmount the "god hurdle."  In addition, my wife and I both had encountered some resistance (and sometimes hostility) to our "Red Road" ways and my willingness to openly state my non-theist understanding of the program. We felt that others with non-traditional beliefs might have the same experience or worse. Finally, of the other two founding members of the group, one self-identified as an agnostic and the other as an atheist. Both felt increasingly uncomfortable with the seemingly dogmatic adherence to mainstream beliefs within the usual AA meetings in our area and the resistance from many to hearing "minority opinions."
We started the meeting on the 21st of November 2014 in a conference room at the local hospital, not sure how many folks might actually show up. We had 13 at the very first meeting!We still didn't have a name for the meeting; we'd just announced it as a meeting for agnostics, atheists, and freethinkers. The consensus of the group was that we didn't want it to exclude anyone, including theists of any stripe, and so we determined to call the group "Freethinkers Living Sober." Not only out of deference to freethinking, which Merriam-Webster defines as "one who forms opinions on the basis of reason independently of authority; especially: one who doubts or denies religious dogma," but also to the one secular sobriety book produced by AA, Living Sober. We now have some 34 people who come to one or all of our three meetings during the week, though the attendance varies from about six to eight all the way to 30. We also have been visited by lots of out-of-towners.
It surprised me that few members of AA seemed to understand the reference to "freethinkers." A rather common (and erroneous) sense was it meant, "Anything goes." Ironically enough, that's historically been a pejorative accusation used by conservative religionists since the 17th century to decry secular humanists, liberal religious, and freethinkers: If there is not "god," then there would be no morality at all and anything goes. Another way our meetings have been referred to (by those who've never been to them): "those are the 'no god' meetings," which is also a misconception.
Freethinkers - A Brief History
"Free Thought" has its roots in the ideals of the Enlightenment era (or, per Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason) and the so-called "Scientific revolution." See, for instance: Francis Bacon (1562-1626), René Descartes (1596-1650), John Locke (1632-1704), and Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727). The free thought movement was more or less a reaction against the prevailing political, social, and religious milieu of the middle-ages: the "Divine Right of Kings," the aristocracy, the Church, priests, and "sacred writings" as the ultimate authorities in all matters of religion, politics, science, and conscience. In England, the freethinker was in opposition to the literal belief in the Bible, and centered on understanding the world through reason, the observable evidence in nature, and one's personal conscience. In 1713, Anthony Collins wrote his Discourse of Free-thinking, which attacked the clergy of all churches and pled for deism. By the middle of the 18th century, the scientific revolution was in full swing, and resistance to the authority of the church and the aristocratic government (and the collusion between them) had become widespread. Enlightenment principles became particularly influential in the development of the constitution of the United States and the thinking of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Monroe, et al. One of the principal effects was the foundational concept of secular government and keeping church and state separate from each other. By the 19th century the Quaker lay-minister, abolitionist, and early feminist Lucretia Mott (1793-1880) would remark, "Truth for authority, not authority for Truth." The late 19th century saw a profound movement toward agnosticism, when the influence of the "Great Agnostic," Robert Ingersoll, and Darwin's evolutionary theory held sway. This was a time when "God is dead" seemed to be inevitable. However, quite a bit of "push back" came from many religionists such that, by the early 20th century, the cultural, political and religious milieu in the U.S. began to change considerably. This was especially evident during WWI and the great depression.
The free-thought movement has changed and morphed into many different, more issue related, and separate movements in the U.S. post WWII. Over the last several decades, the environment of the US culture and society (not to mention politics) has shifted dramatically with the rise of the so-called "Culture Wars," primarily championed by fundamentalist churches and the religious right. The very religionists for whom the separation of Church and State was such a vital principle began chipping away at the foundations of their own freedoms.¹
The Reaction to "Mere Rationality"
The Age of Reason was followed in the late 18th and 19th century by Romanticism, one recalls.To William Wordsworth, this was epitomized in poetry as "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings," which the poet then "recollect[s] in tranquility," evoking a new but corresponding emotion the poet can then mould into art.² Perhaps some element of this reaction was the desire for more than "mere rationality" and the "rationalization of nature," and accentuating the value of subjective experience. Poets, artists and others sought a greater emphasis on emotions and a connection with imagination, beauty, myth, awe, and soul. Not "soul" in the common usage as a transcendent, immortal, or "animating principle" of a person, but rather as that element of humanness that may be irreducible to evidence, observation, and study. The element within us that seeks and ponders on the infinite, that sits in awe of the inexplicable. The element of humanness that existentialist philosopher Paul Tillich equated with the essence of "religion." This is not necessarily related to religions per se. Richard Feynman said, "Scientific views end in awe and mystery, lost at the edge in uncertainty, but they appear to be so deep and so impressive that the theory that it is all arranged as a stage for God to watch man's struggle for good and evil seems inadequate."³ However, rationality alone seems inadequate in accounting for this, though it seeks continually to explain it. "Myth," storytelling, and poetry have been used for their explanatory power, for "a finger pointing to the moon." However, when these myths and stories have been reified into literalism and "Truth" with a capital "T," they seem to lose that power in favor of safety, fear, and the illusion of control. "Beauty" is another of those "inexplicable" terms that poets, artists, and musicians point to, but which philosophers and intellectuals have continuously fallen short of defining empirically. "Imagination" is not simply a function of rationality (in fact, rationality may be a hindrance to it in some regard). Einstein's thought experiments, a visualization of his imagination, were a step beyond the rational and empirical evidence of his day. These leaps were not simply examining evidence, but required an imaginative vision beyond the esoteric (and certainly the exoteric) paradigm of the times. Ludwik Fleck observed in 1935 that the overthrowing of old insights is difficult because an esoteric group over time attains a specific way of investigating, bringing with it blindness to alternative ways of observing and conceptualizing "facts" and scientific theory.4 This makes Einstein's thought experiments all the more interesting, not to mention revolutionary, along with other scientific "visionaries" whose subjective leaps of imagination have led to incredible objective, albeit unpredictable, results. Copernicus shook the foundations of his cultural metaphysic by positing the Sun as the center of the solar system. Newton's laws of physics shook the religious world again; and, in the early 1900s, when Einstein was working out his mathematical theories, based on his imaginative thought experiments, the common perception was that our solar system was within a galaxy that was surrounded by empty space. Now we see that we are a small speck of congealed dust on the far reaches of a galaxy within a rapidly expanding universe that may only be one of myriad other multi-verses or parallel universes. While we can't really see ourselves in this galaxy, though we can infer it by viewing another similar galaxy. In the last 50 years or so, reductionist and deterministic "science" itself has increasingly been problematized by many well-respected scientists (not to mention quantum mechanics). As complexity theorist Stuart Kaufman points out, "we live in an emergent universe in which ceaseless unforeseeable creativity arises and surrounds us… reason alone is an insufficient guide to living our lives forward".5 The Problem Today - Is There Such a Thing? There's no such thing as a "freethinker" if what we mean is a person free from environmental, biological, or socio-cultural influences. "Free Thinking" may seem to imply freedom from the intellectually limiting effects of confirmation bias, cognitive bias, conventional wisdom, esoteric scientism, popular culture, prejudice, or sectarianism and subjective experience. However, we all have our own preconceptions, "cultural cognition," biases, personal proclivities, previous histories and personal experiences that color our perceptions, judgments and thinking under the best of circumstances. Naomi Klein has defined cultural cognition as "…the process by which all of us—regardless of political leanings—filter new information in ways that will protect our 'preferred vision of the good society'. If new information seems to confirm that vision, we welcome it and integrate it easily. If it poses a threat to our belief system, then our brain immediately gets to work producing intellectual antibodies designed to repel the unwelcome invasion."6 Or, as Upton Sinclair wrote many years ago, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."7 These observations are indicative of what Daniel J Siegel, MD, has called "top-down processes:" "The term top-down refers to the way that our memories, beliefs, and emotions shape our 'bottom-up' direct sensation of experience."8 That is, top-down refers to our preconceived ideas and reactions, the so-called invariant representations and automaticity the evolved brain uses to predict and explain experience and then react. The emerging discipline of Interpersonal Neurobiology, of which Siegel is a leading expert, builds on the last few decades of research dealing with neurology, biology (including epigenetics and neurodynamics), and interpersonal developmental psychology. Some of the observations coming out of these explorations include the recognition that the "bottom-up" somatic, non-linguistic and non-conceptual (and subjective) forms of information are a vital part of what it means to be human and the primary experience of both the inner and outer life. In fact, breaking free of the top-down enslavement of life is vital to a more direct experience and openness to non-rational or pre-rational states. As Siegel states, "The neural net processors around our internal organs directly influence our reasoning."9 For our purposes, this means that "free-thinking" must include the recognition that the empirical, logical, and rational are only aspects of the "mind" and elements of what may sometimes be loosely referred to as the "left-brain" and narrative mode of processing information. I have come to believe that "Freethinking," like open-mindedness, is best thought of as an ideal. That one is willing to examine critically new (and old) ideas even (or especially) when they clash with previously held prejudices, beliefs, customs, privileges, or avenues of income. One way to think about it may be as a creative process, rather than any particular view or specific conclusion (like atheist, deist, theist, agnostic, democrat, republican, conservative or progressive, etc). As Austin Cline points out, "An atheist might regard the theist's position as erroneous and a failure to apply reason and logic perfectly, but how many atheists achieve such perfection? Freethought is not based upon perfection."10
For me, "Freethinking" further implies that I am (or seek to be) willing to investigate other types of experience, not only the objective and rational, but including subjective direct sensation, intrapersonal observation, and non-conceptual awareness. Unfortunately, these modes of experience are quite often presented in quasi-religious (or specifically religious) terms, such that I try also to be cognizant and careful of the tendency toward fuzzy-thinking and contextualizing an experience by a pre-conceived metaphysic, while keeping aware of my own proclivities to pre-judge ideas and experiences simply based on the context or language in which the ideas and experiences may be presented. The brain is a quantifiable object that can be measured and analyzed, but if we stick with that, the "mind" can disappear since it is largely observed (at least by each person) subjectively and qualitatively. So, surely we do not want to throw out the subjective experience of mind (qualia) through some reification of "thought" and "reason" as the end-all and be-all of our reality. At least, that is the way I currently hold things in my effort to practice freethinking. Check with me next week, I may hold a slightly different view.
Further Reading:
Free Thought
Leo Tolstoy on Free Thouight and Critical Thinking
Be a Free Thinker
[1] For an excellent treatment of these issues, see Susan Jacoby's Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism and The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought.
[2] Preface to the 2nd edition of Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth and Coleridge; for more, see
[3] "The Relation of Science and Religion." Talk given by Dr. Feynman at the Caltech YMCA Lunch Forum on May 2, 1956.
[4] The Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, edited by T.J. Trenn and R.K. Merton, foreword by Thomas Kuhn. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979. Trans. from the 1935 original.
[5] Reinventing the Sacred: A new View of Science, Reason, and Religion. Stuart Kaufmann, 2008. P. 130
[6] This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Naomi Klein, 2014.
[7] I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked, Upton Sinclair, University of California Press, 1994. p. 1.
[8] The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being, Siegel, Daniel J., 2009. p16.
[9] Ibid. p.122.
[10] Last updated 8/31, 2014; accessed 12/1/2015.

This article was written by John R. ( You may feel free to quote, copy, or link to this article as you like. However, the author would appreciate your attributing it to him and retains all copyrights under the law. For a digital copy, email the author.
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