Atheism Is No Excuse For Intellectual Complacency

Freedom From Religion Foundation
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I’m an atheist. A nonbeliever. A heretic. Call me by any of those names, or any others you’d like, but, for the love of Spider-man, never, ever, call me a “bright.” Or, worse, a “freethinker.”

Because the truth is, calling yourself a “freethinker” is self-contradictory. To say someone thinks freely is to suggest that she has no uncritical attachment to any ideology or belief system. It calls to mind someone who is always roaming, always seeking truth, and never satisfied with the easy facsimile of truth someone puts before her. That is what a freethinker is — at least unless you’ve ever met anyone who calls herself that. Because in the real world, “freethinker” is a smug term for someone who’s an atheist, and thinks that anyone who isn’t an atheist is, well, an un-free thinker. They’re all sheep, man.

No one who seriously thinks there is a binary distinction to be made between the atheists and the brainwashed hordes can be said to be thinking freely. In order to hold that view, you would have to find it inconceivable that any sane, intelligent individual could think critically about a particular faith, consider all the alternatives, read the literature, and still sign up.

I have a few friends like that. One of them is Jamelle Bouie. Jamelle is a very smart, literate, and introspective man who also happens to be a committed Christian. He’s not a “freethinker,” but he is a free thinker. Lately, he and I have been having a lot of conversations about faith, and I’ve been learning quite a bit: about Christianity, of course, but also atheism. My own and others’.

I hope all of you godless Americans out there have at least one friend like Jamelle. If not, you should go out and make one. Because if anyone can be said to have actually earned the title freethinker, it’s the guy who welcomes challenges to his own beliefs (or lack thereof) from people smart enough to make the case. When he hears those arguments, this guy — the freethinker — actually listens. He goes through every step to make sure he’s doing the argument justice, and where there’s ambiguity he gives it the most generous possible reading. If that undermines his position, so be it. The goal isn’t to score points.

All of this probably sounds pretty obvious and intuitive, but it’s worth reiterating in the age of brights, freethinkers, New Atheists and so on. I see more and more atheists behaving like there’s no difference between blind faith and self-critical faith. I see more and more atheists presuming that they basically have religion figured out, and believers have nothing to teach them.

That presumption is obviously, patently untrue. Religion doesn’t have to convert us in order to teach us something. For one thing, it can help atheists refine our understanding of what our atheism means, and lead us away from some of the logical fallacies popular atheism too often falls into. Plus, religion can teach us a great deal about what it means to be a human being.

I’ll get into a little more detail regarding those last two assertions somewhere in the next few days. Oh, and by the way: It’s totally a coincidence that I’m doing this the week before Christmas, I swear. Did not plan that.

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4 Responses

  1. No doubt we Christians have a great deal to learn from atheists, too. I’ve certainly learned from Dostoevsky, who probably counts as both.

    • Interesting — what do you mean by both? I’ve always thought of Dostoevsky as one of the most deeply Christian writers this side of Flannery O’Connor.

  2. “freethinker” isn’t a smug term; it’s a traditional term. People don’t use it these days to distinguish themselves as free of thought as compared to the deluded hordes. They just use (to the extent anyone does) because it’s been around for a good long time. Indeed, if I had to lay a bet, I’d say (I think I remember reading this somewhere) that it is a term that was first applied to atheists by either sarcastically by religious people or by uncommitted observers trying to give atheists a euphemistic name at a time when to hold that the idea that there is a real-existing God was truly a culturally heretical position.

    • not a real-existing God, I mean.

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