It is essential to any free society that its citizens have freedom of speech and freedom of thought. It is practically impossible to conceive of a society we can reasonably call “free” that polices the thoughts of its citizens and enforces the only kinds of thoughts that its citizens may have.
To illustrate such an unfree society, let us take Christianity. In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus extended the prohibition on adultery even to the realm of the mind. According to Christianity, not only should we ought not to have sex with someone other than our lawfully wedded spouse, we are forbidden from even having the thought of straying or “lusting.” In fact, the mere lustful thought itself, no matter how fleeting and regardless of any possibility of actual adultery, is not just wrong, but as wrong as actual adultery. This moral equivalence is often lost on people.
A society built upon such thought policing principles cannot be called “free” in any sense of the word. It is one thing to find the breaking of a consensual marital agreement despicable; it is completely another thing to prohibit even the thought (even if that is all that it ever will be) and damn it as equally immoral. The human mind is the ocean of a river of incongruous and undesired whims, such as intrusive thoughts and addictions. Thoughts do not always (in fact, often do not) result in action.
Freedom of thought is essential to a free society and orthodox Christianity is plainly incompatible with this principle. Let us discuss, however, whether a society can actually have “freedom of belief.”
A belief is more than just the thinking about a proposition. It is an active assent to and confident acceptance of a proposition. We can see how Jesus proscribes not just certain beliefs (such as, “I actively want to commit adultery”) but also certain involuntary thoughts (such as, “My biological predisposition to find mates gives me sexual stirrings towards persons other than my spouse”).
Let us move to belief outside the moral realm and include other facts about the world. Are we free to believe, let us say, in a certain religion? On paper, such as the Constitution of the Philippines, we have the right to freedom of belief. But, in practice, freedom of belief may simply be an artifact of bad intuitions about what the mind is capable of.
Let us take the case of a hypothetical person, Jane. Jane looks at the world and, according to the best of her ability and experiences, concludes that Catholicism is true. She believes that the world only makes sense if the specific claims of Catholicism are true (that a God exists and that Jesus established a Church that exists to this day to proclaim God’s Word). Was Jane free to believe in Catholicism? I don’t think so.
I need to clarify that one need not reject the notion of a soul or free will in order to agree with me here. Of course, hard determinists and compatibilists will already agree that free will, in the popular supernatural understanding, is incoherent. They will already agree that, if it even makes sense to call any desire “free,” our minds are not free from the effects of natural things beyond our control (such as genetics).
Even if we assume that she has supernatural free will, Jane does not control which facts about the world are true. She does not control the “fact” that a person called Jesus lived about two thousand years ago. She does not control the “fact” that Catholicism is the one true religion and that it holds certain views about the nature of the universe and how it applies to homosexuals. She cannot help that these things just make sense to her. She is no more free to believe in Catholicism than she is free to believe that she is human. Jane is a victim of facts about the world.
Now, of course, Jane may be mistaken about the world. She might not be intellectually honest enough to be consistent in her thinking. For example, she might strictly require evidence when buying a used car, but in matters of religion, she is not as critical. It is completely possible that she unquestioningly accepts the religion of her upbringing as true. It is possible that she is not skeptical of supernatural explanations for events in her life, such as the sheer fortune of passing an exam despite not studying all that much.
What these things do not suggest, however, is that Jane is consciously choosing what things about the world she’d like to believe are “facts.” At the very least, some self-deception is necessary for Jane to convince herself that an obvious lie is true. Jane is not free to believe in what facts she thinks are right, even if she could be mistaken about the truthfulness of those facts.
If Jane were to be more consistent in her thinking, though, she might reach different conclusions. It is possible that if she were to consciously apply scientific principles to her religious views, she might find that Catholicism no longer makes sense.
She might notice that the reality of gratuitous suffering is not consistent with the existence of a benevolent and intervening God. She might find that the supposed cosmic importance of humanity is incompatible with our existence as one species on one unexaggeratedly tiny dust particle in an unimaginably vast universe (perhaps one among many). She might find that the existence of evil only makes sense under the light of nature’s indifference. She might then conclude that the best explanation of the facts in our universe is one that includes no God. Was she free to believe these things? No.
It is strange that many believers still argue for belief via Pascal’s wager. The challenge insists that regardless of the truthfulness of the claim that a god exists, it is still best to bet on a god existing rather than betting against it. Of course, the wager presumes that non-belief actually has eternal consequences, such as hellfire. It also presumes that there is only one god to bet on, the Christian afterlife-giving God.
It is very rare and, I think, practically impossible to be that insincere about belief. Of course, because of peer pressure or fear for her life, Jane could pretend to other people that she believes in Catholicism. But, I don’t think she could actually bet on a god if the facts aren’t convincing her of a god’s existence. She could be involuntarily self-deceiving; she could willfully not expose herself to scientific research; she could willfully not reason out the logical implications of her beliefs. What she cannot do, however, is to accept a belief simply because she consciously decides to believe.
While “freedom of belief” sounds like a perfectly desirable principle, a closer inspection reveals that it is unintelligible. We are no more free to consciously believe the things that we believe than we are free to change what facts in the world are true.
What we are left with is the fact that if there is any liberty to be had at all, the last thing we ought to surrender is control over our thinking to an authority or tradition. If we are to be free at all from any misapprehension of facts, then we must consistently ask for evidence and reason out our positions. Whatever conclusion we reach, however uncomfortable or counter-intuitive, we must accept. Then, and only then, can we have the only kind of freedom of thought worth having. Then, and only then, can a person be a freethinker.