Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : September 7, 2007

image I just had a friend come out of the closet as a “freethinker.” He’s formally renounced Christianity.  Freethought is defined as:

…a philosophy of acquiring belief by reason and evidence and is always open to new data and perspectives. It is the opposite of dogmatism: unshakeable belief, usually derived from authorities (e.g., parents, Mohammed, Paul of Tarsus, or Carl Sagan).

Theism is a belief in a god or gods. Atheism is a lack of belief in a god or gods, whether or not one has heard people talk of gods.

Atheists have no particular organization, creed, tradition or scripture. They comprise 1/6th of the world?s population.

Except when provoked by evangelists or religious terrorism, most atheists are not actively anti-religious. They simply don?t believe in god just as you don?t believe in Thor or fairies, and aren?t actively opposed to such belief.

Agnosticism claims that knowledge of gods is inaccessible. Therefore, one may be an agnostic (?we can?t know such things?) and an atheist (?there is no evidence that compels me to think there is a god?).

Freethought is about how one believes, atheism is about what one believes, and agnosticism is about one?s access to knowledge.

I am always open to people exploring things and people having doubts.  I am never a fan of people holding to borrowed convictions.  And I think that most people who claim to be religious do so loosely, and without conviction.  It is much better to be free from Christianity and honest than entrenched within it and deceived.

Nevertheless, when my friend “came out” I got upset.  In the early stages, I thought his journey was an honest one.  He was questioning everything.  And it made sense.  But in my last interaction, even though we didn’t talk about spiritual things, I could feel something unsettling in his “vibe.”  And so, I suspected quietly, that he was going to ditch the Christianity thing. 

This was my response to his “coming out:”

Well, I can’t say it makes me happy, but I can say that it makes sense (in a way) and that it isn’t a surprise.

My only critique is this: I feel like the whole freethought paradigm can only have footing in a modernist worldview, where the individual somehow thinks that objectivity were attainable and thought can truly be free.  It seems so fraught with individualism and a certain sort of intellectual elitism. 

I’m still your friend, don’t worry. I still love you too. But I don’t believe that one can truly find Christ beautiful in the way that he is, without somehow becoming intoxicated or enchanted by him.  In other words, there is a certain sort of beauty that can only be seen through submission.  To somehow claim freedom of thought is to be kept from the claims that anything (like a dogma) or anyone can make over you.  And in the end, it seems to me, that it is an enslavement to one’s self.  Not freedom. End diatribe.

I’m open to being challenged in how I responded.  “Freethought” seems like a big stinky myth that individuals can sell themselves.  In my mind, as hokey as it sounds, everyone must to submit to something outside themselves.  And when they think they aren’t, they are actually submitting to their own delusion. 

Sure, religious dogma (including Christianity) has lots of stuff wrong with it.  I’m not at all convinced that Christianity makes the most “sense” from some sort of rational point of view.  I don’t hold to my Christianity with “certainty” based out of “rational choices.”  I hold to it out of “conviction” based out of personal experiences (including mystical ones) and a certain level of trust in the collective Body of Christ–many of whom have similar experiences (including mystical ones).  At the center of it all is Christ.  He is the glue.

The reason that I’m not one of those people who opts out of “church” and “organized religion” in a quest to simply submit to Jesus and “Jesus alone” is that I think it ends up the same place “freethought” does–with the false (and often smug) assertions of an individual.  In the end, that individual must reject submitting anything or anyone or any group outside of themselves in order to maintain the illusion of freedom. 

But in the end, none of us are free.  Freedom is the myth of modernism.  It is its most caustic, and most appetizing fruit.  There is no freedom, only submission.  And in the Christian sense, freedom can only be gained through submission.

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12 Responses to “Freethinking?”

  1. Makeesha on September 7th, 2007 5:48 pm

    sounds like a fancy word for humanism and its many variants - which, as you said, is more about worship of self than anything else. Or maybe in this case, worship of freedom.

  2. shane on September 7th, 2007 6:46 pm

    The idea of free thought makes me wonder how many people in the world are actually in a position to choose to have ‘their own thoughts’ without persecution? More in the West than some places perhaps? Anyways, because of dogmatic oppression, whether in the church, politics, or what have you, it seems tending toward free thought for the benefit of the individual could only be good. However, we seem to like to do the pole swinging thing and when community thought is oppressive, we jump to the other pole which could be an individual ‘free’ thought system (often neglecting the strengths that communities can provide). However, pole jumping is rarely the most beneficial thing to do. Can we find a middle-ground that empowers the individual voice will also giving acknowledgment to the shaping power and wisdom of communities?

  3. Daniel on September 8th, 2007 2:07 am

    I have to agree with your general assessment of the individualistic fallacy of the “freethinking” enterprise. We are all formed by something and therefore a prisoner to it. To be a prisoner to one’s self strikes me as a tad narcissistic and even intellectually hedonistic. Perhaps we all have that instinct, at least those of us raised with the values of “Carpe Diem” and a “to thine own self be true” spirituality.

    We must all engage the problems we face, we all have, I suspect, our own intellectual “demons” (perhaps I overstate the case but sometimes mine feel like demons and only respond to the same rebuke as demons). The question for me is one you take up in the very title of the blog “allegiance to Jesus” or the term I use “fidelity.” At times, I doubt our commanding officer. On the darkest of nights I question my initial oath in baptism but do not see how I could

  4. Daniel on September 8th, 2007 2:27 am

    renounce it.

    I cannot pretend to know what your friend has experienced, or how hard it was to reach the conclusion he embraced. The path of loyalty leaves those of us sojourning within modernism with a counter-cultural hermeneutic and like all counter-cultural movements there will be attrition. Some will formally renounce it, others will profess to keep it but renounce it by their actions, both are personally painful. It is like divorce in marriage, I guess. There is a promise of freedom and a new start in renouncing the old pledge but those promise are rarely fulfilled.

    Let me apologize for the rambling dual posts. I accidentally submitted the first half before it could be edited and seem unable to fashion a second half that will dovetail neatly into the raw thoughts above.

  5. Joel Justiss on September 8th, 2007 10:01 am


    I appreciated your response to your friend’s confession. For someone who is skeptical of the existence of thinking that is actually free, you seem very thoughtful!

    A few years ago, after 40+ years as an evangelical Christian, I myself became an atheist. (My story is on my web site, if you’re interested.) I’d like to respond to a couple of your points.

    “I feel like the whole freethought paradigm can only have footing in a modernist worldview, where the individual somehow thinks that objectivity were attainable and thought can truly be free.”

    It seems to me that freedom of thought doesn’t depend on achieving any particular level of objectivity. In fact, it could conceivably be entirely subjective. It does seem, though, that a high degree of objectivity increases the probability of discovering truth.

    “To somehow claim freedom of thought is to be kept from the claims that anything (like a dogma) or anyone can make over you.”

    Exactly. In fact, my “deconversion” came following my realization that I am responsible for my own actions. It follows that no other person can be responsible for my actions, and that I am not responsible for any other person’s actions.

    “In my mind, as hokey as it sounds, everyone must to submit to something outside themselves.”

    Why do you think so? Because I can’t know everything myself? Of course I depend on other people for knowledge, but I am responsible for judging what I hear, and deciding whether or not it is credible enough to act on.

    To me, the only thing I see any reason to “submit to” is reality. Over the years, I rejected many of the contradictory and “unscriptural” teachings I encountered. I never found a teacher or book (including the Bible) that seemed entirely credible. My idea (adopted from several of my friends) was that I would submit only to God–not to the Bible, not to my image of God, but only to God himself. To me, God was the only and ultimate authority. My problem was that I couldn’t find a way to communicate with God reliably. Eventually, I realized that the whole idea of God was one I had accepted from my parents, teachers, and friends, and that I didn’t believe in God anymore.

    Thanks for listening. Keep thinking!


  6. Mike H on September 9th, 2007 12:09 am

    So, “a philosophy of acquiring belief by reason and evidence and is always open to new data and perspectives” is opposed to Christianity? Christianity is then based on personal and collective experience alone?

    What would it look like to be a “freethinking” Christian (both as someone who is checking out Christianity and someone who has been a Christian for a while) ? How can we question all things and “objectively” analyze evidence and perspectives yet continue in our convictions?

  7. markvans on September 9th, 2007 10:04 am

    Great thoughts everyone. I am happy to have the sort of friends (or at least blog friends) that are willing to engage things like this without simply getting reactionary and defensive.

    One of my seminary professors (LeRon Shults) shocked us one day in class by stating that he was an atheist. After letting us fret about it for a bit, he clarified by defining “theism” in the categories of 17th Century theological and philosophical categories. In other words, while he believed in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, he rejected “theism.”

    We all have to detox from false representations of God. In some ways, it is healthy and necessary to reject “God” or “Jesus” or “Christianity.” These concepts can sometimes be twisted into something false. But all too often, our rejection of “God” or “Jesus” or “Christianity” stems out of our own twistedness. Out of our own brokenness. The challenge is to deconstruct the idea of “God” or “Jesus” in order to find the living truth underneath our encrusted, confining ideas of who “God” and “Jesus” are.

    It seems to me that being a “freethinking” person–even a “freethinking” Christian–means to be willing to constantly rethink, renegotiate, reapproach, and reexamine ourselves and what we believe. We should never take it for granted. Our life is dynamic. Our faith is dynamic. Our Triune God is dynamic. When we treat them as static they are dead.

    But it also means that we recognize that we are fundamentally unable to examine these things from some sort of “objective” place. And that to explore these things as an individual is to set ourselves up over everything else as the sovereign judge of all things.

  8. Makeesha on September 9th, 2007 7:54 pm

    thinking that is “free” from context, culture, influence, etc. is not possible as far as I can tell - - at least I’ve never seen it or experienced it…and even if it were possible, I’m not sure I’d want it.

  9. John L on September 9th, 2007 9:04 pm

    Mark - good post. Number 777 in fact. :-)
    Your description of faith is profound and I plan to blog it this week:

    “I don’t believe that one can truly find Christ beautiful in the way that he is, without somehow becoming intoxicated or enchanted by him. In other words, there is a certain sort of beauty that can only be seen through submission. “

  10. markvans on September 9th, 2007 9:14 pm

    Aw, shucks…

  11. keith johnson on September 11th, 2007 6:45 pm

    Hi Mark:

    The definition you offered for Free Thinking contrasts freethinkers (who proportion their beliefs to the evidence, who are open to changing their beliefs) with “dogmatists” whose beliefs are “unshakable”. But by that definition religious beliefs are not *dogmatic* since they are not unshakable–your friend demonstrated that by shaking loose from his evangelical Christianity. And also by that definition the “free thinker” is most likely a near-dogmatist since he probably holds the *nearly* unshakable belief that one should base one’s beliefs on evidence and critical reasoning–he probably couldn’t shake off his belief in Reason in favor of Fideism for example.

    The Free Thinker is wrong about what the issue really is. Both atheistic Free Thinkers and religious fanatics come to their beliefs the same way–they have certain experiences and those experiences induce certain beliefs. The question always comes down to whether or not your experiences actually justify the things you believe. The Free Thinker takes it for granted that coming to believe religious claims without scientific style evidence is inherently unjustified. But there are lots of things we are justified in believing that we cannot test scientifically. We know that such historic cruelty as the Nazi genocide was wrong, but there is no way to objectively demonstrate its “wrongness”. And we know that Reason is *a* way to figure out what’s true, but we cannot prove that either without circular reasoning.

    You have to respect a Free Thinker’s commitment to following what’s true as best as she can, but I think they are mistaken when they imagine that the tools of scientific thinking are applicable to every question.

    your friend

  12. Maria Kirby on September 15th, 2007 9:27 pm

    Dear Mark,

    I liked your emphasis on submission, because I think this is at the heart of the issue. No one can tell us how to think; we are all free thinkers. We think what we want to think. We choose what we want to choose. It is the inexplicapble mystry of free will that everyone is born with. The real question is whether we will submit to the truths we understand. Or are we going to demand a sign like the pharasees did of Jesus, when he gave them the sign of Jonah. Are we going to love our neighbor as our self? Are we going to love with all our heart, mind, soul and strength? Are we going to seek the Source of love, beauty, creation, …on it’s own terms? Or are we trying to bargain with God: ‘I’ll give you my heart if you are logical…if you show yourself to me this way or that…make this or that happen…if other’s weren’t so hypocritical…” That kind of submission is not true submission, it’s contractual obligation. God gives us his new covanent no holds barred. He loves us no matter what. He gives us his life. He gives us his glory. In return, we submit to him no holds barred, there is no part of our living or dying we reserve ‘rights’ to. We might think God is being unfair, but we walk through the fire before we would bow to any idol. We might doubt God will heal us, but we ask any way. We might feel hopeless, but we listen for him in the fire, the wind, and the silence. It is faith that walks after God, even when doing so doesn’t make sense.

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