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The Christian Freethinker

I mentioned in one of my comments that a “Christian freethinker” is an oxymoron, or loosely a “contradiction in terms”. I realize I should not have made such sweeping statement that might antagonize some liberal or progressive Christians. I am sorry.

Wikipedia defines freethought as “a philosophical viewpoint that holds that opinions should be formed on the basis of science, logic, and reason, and should not be influenced by authority, tradition, or any dogma.” A freethinker is therefore someone who practices freethought.

On the other hand, a Christian, in the broadest sense, is one who professes belief in the teachings of Jesus Christ. By this definition, Christianity seems to be incompatible with freethought because the former relies on the “divinely-inspired” authority of religious doctrines to learn about the supposed teachings of Jesus while the latter repudiates such doctrines due to hearsay and circular reasoning, hence my use of the term ‘oxymoron’ to describe “Christian freethinker”.

But upon deeper reflection, I am beginning to believe that there are actually many Christian freethinkers (note the lack of quotes this time) out there. In fact, I used to be one. But it has a lot to do with the timing. Freethought holds that beliefs should be based on reason instead of authority, but most Christians had already acquired their sacred beliefs long before they were capable of rational thought, and so while they would now think critically when presented with new issues or claims, I guess they simply didn’t get the chance to evaluate the quality of the cognitive process by which they originally formed their religious beliefs way back in childhood.

In my personal experience, it was relatively late in life when I encountered cogent arguments against the tenets of my faith. For a long time I merely skirted the Problem of Evil, taking comfort in the belief that God has a purpose for everything, a grand plan that is just beyond our human understanding. My faith was even strengthened after reading Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time because it somehow seemed to imply the necessity of a Creator, offering “scientific support” for my belief. (I felt uneasy at the part where Hawking suggested how the four-dimensional space-time could be finite but with no boundaries – like the two-dimensional surface of the earth – so the universe could have no beginning nor end but simply be, negating the need for a creator. I was later relieved when he said that such wave-function scenario could only happen in imaginary time, and in real time in which we exist, there will always be boundaries.)

At this point, was I what you would call a freethinker? A lot of people would probably say no because I wasn’t a critical thinker. According to The Critical Thinking Community, critical thinking is “the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.” And based on that definition, I surely was not a critical thinker.

But critical thinking is not the same as freethinking. While freethought values science, reason and logic, critical thinking is more concerned with how scientific is the evidence, how rational is the argument, and how logical is the conclusion:

It is believed by some philosophers (notably A.C. Grayling) that a good rationale must be independent of emotions, personal feelings or any kind of instincts. Any process of evaluation or analysis, that may be called rational, is expected to be highly objective, logical and “mechanical”. If these minimum requirements are not satisfied i.e. if a person has been, even slightly, influenced by personal emotions, feelings, instincts or culturally specific, moral codes and norms, then the analysis may be termed irrational, due to the injection of subjective bias.

It is quite evident from modern cognitive science and neuroscience, studying the role of emotion in mental function (including topics ranging from flashes of scientific insight to making future plans), that no human has ever satisfied this criterion, except perhaps a person with no effective feelings, for example an individual with a massively damaged Amygdala.

Freethought is the general process; critical thinking is the quality control. As such, I personally believe that it is actually possible for a Christian to be a freethinker as long as he honestly tries to be rational, regardless of the quality of his rationality.

But once he is presented with a compelling argument against the basis of his faith, he will have to choose between Christianity and freethought. He will either have to remain blind and stubborn – or start reexamining his beliefs. And in my case, it was this image that changed everything:

Once I realized that this “Word of God” is actually just hearsay and might as well be stories concocted by fallible humans with their own personal interests in mind, it was almost immediately that I stopped considering myself a Christian.

To the Christian freethinkers (again, note the lack of quotes), I know it isn’t easy to question one’s faith especially if one believes that questioning will jeopardize one’s immortal soul. But ask yourselves, who are you questioning -God, or just the self-proclaimed human messengers? Once you realize it’s the latter, I bet you wouldn’t think twice about applying critical thinking to every belief you hold sacred. And then you could honestly say that you are, as you always have been, a freethinker, regardless of your beliefs.

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