FREETHINKER: n. One who has rejected authority and dogma, especially in his religious thinking, in favor of rational inquiry and speculation.
So states a standard dictionary definition of a Freethinker. The three main points that I am about to present are designed to explore that standard definition, and to expand on it.
ONE: REJECTION OF DOGMA
“So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilisation, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine, with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age — the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of woman by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night — are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.” – (Preface to Les Misérables)
Dogma is, to sum its intent and consequence equally, the end of thought. It is a truly insidious idea; that one source can provide the answers to all questions, the justification for all action, and the motive for all desire. While not exclusively a religious element, dogma is embraced most forcefully and most consistently by the faithful. Once a person commits himself to dogma, his world-view becomes corrupted by the necessity of maintaining his belief. I do not mean to imply that we should avoid any commitment to an ideal; rather, it is important for a Freethinker to vet any and all ideas that come to them- so as to ascertain the truth, and to commit themselves to that which proves itself worthy of devotion. Love, peace, happiness, enterprise, personal achievement; friendship, family, sex, art, humor, skill, exercise; striving to have fun, striving to try new things, striving to experience new ideas and new ways of living; striving to better ourselves, our family, our friends, our community, our country, and our planet, and our earth, and our environment.
I challenge anyone to explain how these ideals are unrealistic- and, I challenge anyone to explain how wanting to experience the most out of life (as I believe any true Freethinker should) is dogma.
TWO: ACKNOWLEDGEMENT OF HUMAN PROGRESS
“There is the past and its continuing horrors: violence, war, prejudices against those who are different, outrageous monopolization of the good earth’s wealth by a few, political power in the hands of liars and murderers, the building of prisons instead of schools, the poisoning of the press and the entire culture by money. It is easy to become discouraged observing this, especially since this is what the press and television insist that we look at, and nothing more… But there is also the bubbling of change under the surface of obedience: the growing revulsion against endless wars, the insistence of women all over the world that they will no longer tolerate abuse and subordination… There is civil disobedience against the military machine, protest against police brutality directed especially at people of color.” – (Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States)
We are constantly hearing about how violent and obscene our society is; how nobody looks out for one another; and how “good” things used to be. I have heard it many times from members of an older generation; about how people in the community used to look out for one another, and how they (the communities, along with the Church) helped to keep children under control and violence at a minimum. These are nice thoughts… but these ideas have a dubious basis in reality. Never mentioned are the horrors visited upon man by man that so defined our past; our present may be described as a reasonable reaction to the superabundant excesses of barbarity rather than an endeavor to achieve an idealistic state. One could spell out the seamier details of our sanitized past, or one might offer an explanation as to why a person is likely to feel that things were better when they were young; instead, I will offer a single historical perspective which gets my point across well enough…
Despite two World Wars and unceasing bloodshed, it appears that violence per capita has decreased dramatically during the last century. I had not known of this until recently- it was the sort of revelation that raised my consciousness of just how much Humanity has progressed over the last few hundred years. According to evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker and others, the number of human deaths by the human hand (relative to population), along with warfare in general, have been in a steep decline over the last few centuries. Loren Cobb, a mathematician at the University of Colorado (Denver) who has a strong interest in mathematics as applied to the social sciences, adds: “Just in the last fifty years, the progress towards peace has been startling. If this trend continues — and I am cautiously optimistic that it will — then as pressure from civil society increases and international institutions of conflict resolution mature, warfare as a regular practice may cease sometime late this century.”
Think about it… during the century in which we saw a dramatic population rise, a drastic increase in our ability to sow destruction across the earth (via jets and missiles and nukes); more and more people competing for the same amount of land and resources; we have had less killing. It must also be pointed out that the religiosity of the human race is arguably at its lowest, having declined over the same time period. Whatever explanation one may offer at the micro level, one macro truth is self evident: education, communication, and greater awareness of the plights of other people and our fellow creatures have all improved the quality of life for everyone. There is no reason to suspect that this trend will change; any true Freethinker should recognize this and see no reason to expect the trend to abate any time soon.
THREE: QUEST FOR KNOWLEDGE, WISDOM, & TRUTH
“It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wreck and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty. To the contrary, I believe it would be possible to rob even a healthy beast of prey of its voraciousness, if it were possible, with the aid of a whip, to force the beast to devour continuously, even when not hungry, especially if the food, handed out under such coercion, were to be selected accordingly.” – (Albert Einstein, “Autobiographical Notes”)
“The truth shall set you free”; a mantra I both deplore and accept.
Far too many long-winded and empty sermons have preached the greatness of “Truth”. The corruption of the very nature of truth (which should be impervious to misuse) is by far the greatest offense that the influence of narrow minds has forced upon us. Ask someone to tell you their name, their age, their gender, their hair color, their occupation, and you will get a response with little or no hesitation, without the need to think too carefully.
Now ask them to make a “true statement”. I’ve tried this, and nearly everyone I posed this question to was, at first, confounded by the very concept. Why? Say something that is true… my name is Michael; I am a man; as I type this sentence, the Sun is facing the opposite side of the Earth; etc…It shouldn’t be difficult to ascertain truth in life. We are bombarded with things that are true every second we are awake, from birth until death. Yet, thanks to the actions of the narrow-minded among us, we have contrived to live in a world where anything and everything is subject to irrational and illogical interpretation. People define reality as it relates to their own existence; every action, every sense, every event, every intent, every single thing they become aware of is subject to interpretation as they see fit. For some, this is a convenient way to ignore or diminish the real difficulties in life- difficulties which can be hard and often dangerous to confront head-on.
It is easy to ignore or diminish the difficulties in life; it is hard, and often dangerous to confront them; it is impossible to eradicate them. But, we all need to find a purpose in this life. It is the universal question everyone asks; why? Each one of us has a different answer. I do not feel as though I am being unfair when I say that not all answers are created equal. To declare that your purpose in life is to sow destruction and malice upon the earth is deplorable, just as it is to believe that your only reason for existing is to prepare yourself for the “next” stage; there are many ways to squander the only thing we know for certain we will ever have. It is my absolute conviction that our greatest challenge in life is our effort to find meaning in it. I believe that identifying what it is we want to achieve, be it something great or something benign, is the crucial first step in finding happiness from life.
So what do truth and purpose have in common? The absence of one corrupts the other. Ignorance, perpetuated falsehoods, and outright lies have affected our existence greatly (and not for the better). We are still emerging from an intellectual coma that unreason and dogma have put us in. There is still much that needs to be done in terms of progress; whether it be our systems of education & health, our government, our infrastructure, our social and economic and foreign relations, our culture, our technological advancement, and our ecological impact. Some of these things are still in their infancy in terms of what we can achieve, but already much has been done to set our species off-course. We must assert control (both within our own minds and as a collective society) if we wish to thrive. We cannot let the trials and travails of past generations hold us back- rather, we must learn to utilize the lessons of the past to guide us.
Most of all, we must not let fables and ignorance dictate where science and reason have already spoken. We must accept that in life, there are some lines that should, and must be drawn. In short, I believe we should all commit ourselves to discovering what really is “truth”… and through that, discover what is “right”.
Written and modified by Michael Vilyus; retrieved, edited and posted by Mark Tiborsky
The Cleveland Freethinkers
(image is courtesy of SBK Freethinkers)