Atheism and Freethinking

Photo by Tim Butterfield

Photo by Tim Butterfield

Atheists like to call themselves freethinkers. Many of them have thrown off the shackles of religious and cultural bondage, and escaped the herd mentality, the taboos of religion and even culture, and pride themselves in their independent thinking and daring to strike out from the shores of conventional thought. New Atheism is even religious about it, but that is a topic for another day.

It seems that atheism and freethinking go together, at least by the declarations of the atheists I have known and read. But do they go together?

Can they go together?

It turns out maybe not. The reason is that the atheist must embrace naturalism. Naturalism necessarily means that we are merely a stew of elements and physics, molecules in motion, and nothing more. We are the product of random combinations of elements influenced by the natural laws of physics, and that is the problem.

If that is true, and there is nothing else to it, we are who we happen to be, and that is determined by the product of those forces. If there is nothing else to it, our brains and the very thoughts in our heads are determined by natural laws acting on the physical elements of which we are composed – and we are nothing else but that.

There is no free thinking in that worldview, no freedom at all.

We necessarily have no choice in this matter. It was determined for us by chance – including our thoughts – including the thoughts that lead us to embrace atheism

In fact, those thoughts that lead us to embrace atheism cannot even be said to be rational. They are just the product of random forces acting on matter that just happened to combine into the beings we are from our feet to the thoughts in our head.

There is no purpose or meaning in life. We are just are. This very article, itself, is a meaningless activity.

If atheism is true, there is no such thing as freethinking in any real sense.

Maybe atheism is not true, however.

If naturalism is not all there is, if freethinking “is a thing” after all, you have the ability to determine for yourself whether the logic of the following video makes sense:

Tim Stratton @ Kearney eFree from Kearney eFree Church on Vimeo.

21 thoughts on “Atheism and Freethinking

  1. Pingback: Atheism and Freethinking | Navigating by Faith

  2. You seem to be suggesting that atheists don’t believe in free will. While that might be true for some, it certainly isn’t for all. I can’t say for sure if free will exists or not, but my entire life experience seems to support the idea that I do have free will, so it’s much more useful to behave as though I do.

    • I think that is the point Ben. The atheist world view must embrace naturalism, because there is no room for the super natural, and naturalism actually undermines the idea that we can have fee will.

      • Yes there are certainly good reasons to consider the idea that free will might technically be an illusion. This is very closely related to whether true randomness exists in the universe as well.

        I think your use of this as a purported criticism of the concept of freethought is a misuse of terms, however.

      • I follow the illusion part. That flows from and is consistent with what I have asserted. I am familiar with the idea that time may be an illusion, which is very theoretical and speculative, but could actually be true. I am also familiar with the idea that material is “pre- programmed” to mutate from function to function, which I don’t think holds up well under neo-Darwinism, but does hold up well as a concept of evolutionary design. I don’t follow you on the disconnect between randomness and free thought, though. Can you elaborate?

      • I mean that if true randomness exists, it is necessarily non-deterministic and so it might still be possible to have free will within a naturalistic framework. This is a new area of inquiry for me though so I can’t give much further insight at this point.

      • Interesting thought. Randomness is certainly non-deterministic in the sense that anything might randomly happen, as a general proposition. Drilling down a bit though, some things have happened, even if the product of random, non-deterministic events and processes, including the fact that you and I exist today. As for us, we are “determined” by those random events and processes, and we had no choice in those events and processes and are a product of them. In that sense, if naturalism is true, we are “determined”. We cannot be other than we are. If all that exists is nature, then everything is “determined” by the laws of nature, including us. And if all that exists is nature and the product of natural laws, where does our own “will” enter the picture to make us anything other than what are?

      • I’ve read this over and I’m pretty sure I get what you mean, though you seem to be referring to looking at past events. Also to say that something was determined by another thing isn’t quite the same as calling it deterministic, but I suspect that with some rewording I would mostly agree with you.

        However, my point is only this: If true randomness exists, then it cannot be said that a naturalistic worldview presumes every process to be deterministic. In that case, any process (including thought and free will) we don’t fully understand cannot be said with certainty to be deterministic or not.

        Now all of this may have been nothing more than an interesting thought experiment, but in the course of writing this response I found the following article, which I found to be very much along the lines I am thinking. Still not a definite answer, but where would the fun be in that anyway? 🙂

      • Interesting, yes! Our lot is to lack definitive answers, it seems. The author says, “Perhaps the freedom of the will can be found in randomness?” I think that is exactly right! But, I have a different take on it. There is some irony in the dichotomy between the “fine tuning” we see in the universe and the randomness we see and experience. Why is that human beings have been so fixated on chance (and predictability, being the other side of the coin)? Why have we tried to divine mysteries and make sense out of the universe? Why do we do science? Why do we even care? Why are we not like other animals or rocks? Why does it matter? I agree with the line of thinking that suggests we have some degree of free will, but I do not see that the idea of free will is compatible with naturalism. When I mention determinism in that context, I am pulling from Richard Dawkins and similar theorists. They would concede a deterministic worldview, but I think they are wrong. I think they conclude they must concede a deterministic outlook because that is what flows from pure naturalism. I don’t buy into a naturalistic worldview myself. When we look at the world we see what looks like design (but isn’t according to Dawkins) – but unquestionably we see certainty in the laws of physics and mathematics, for instance – and, yet, we see what very much looks like random chance. How do those two things hold together? How can the world be so predictable and so unpredictable at the same time? If I had more time, I would explore this further, but I need to get some work done. (Unfortunately, I find this much more interesting than work!)

      • Naturalism, according to Mirriam-Webster is “a theory denying that an event or object has a supernatural significance; specifically: the doctrine that scientific laws are adequate to account for all phenomena.” It seems to me that any atheist who gets away from naturalism is on shaky ground. What else is there other than scientific (or natural) laws?

      • Honestly, I don’t see an argument here. Not believing in God doesn’t commit one to a specific position on supernaturalism one way or another. One needn’t even acknowledge that the distinction is meaningul. That most atheists do tend to adopt a naturalistic position, I don’t dispute, but it’s not a logical entailment that follows from atheism.

      • I think most peer-reviewed academicians who are atheists would probably disagree with that position, but that doesn’t mean you are wrong. I am curious to know where something other than natural laws and matter can exist in an atheistic worldview, if you have thought about it and can conceptualize it.

      • Peer-reviewed academicians? That’s interesting in itself. Articles and books are peer-reviewed, not people. It seems almost as if you are treating scholars of some sort as a kind of priesthood whose judgements we are bound to follow. We aren’t. I don’t particularly care if any particular atheist-scholar disagrees. Some may well take your view; others won’t. In any event, my point stands. There is nothing in the nature of atheism itself that requires materialism. Your speculation about what atheists with authority might say doesn’t do much to change that.

        There is a second problem with your analysis in that you are equivocating on the notion of freedom. When people describe themselves as free thinkers, they are celebrating a freedom from a selected range of human beings and the ideas those people produce. This doesn’t entail a freedom from any particular metaphysical forces. The notion that one’s judgements may in some ultimate sense be caused doesn’t address the question of whether people have freed themselves from a designated layer of social constraints.

        In effect, the model of freedom you are using against atheists is sufficiently broad to apply even when we act according to our own wishes. That may be meaningful on certain levels of analysis, but it doesn’t address questions about freedom from constraints or escape from things that keep you from following your wishes.

        Also, such sweeping denial of freedom applies to everyone, not merely atheists. So, if the theory is right, then it is a theory about how no-one escapes natural law, not a theory that prevents only those who hold to it from escaping natural law.

      • Certainly there is nothing sacred about peer reviewed scholars, but their logic has been put to the test by other scholars. That does count for something. The holes and flaws in logic have been poked and prodded. I think atheism and materialism are necessary corollaries, which is why I am curious to know where you find room for the supernatural in your worldview. I don’t want to be belligerent about it, though. If you simply do without having constructed a logical position in support of it, then so be it. I take it then that you accept the proposition that humans have a “soul” – some element that is not natural or material. I world agree with you on that. It animals may even have some degree of soul, but I don’t think animals question their existence or worry about things like meaning in life or appreciate beauty or argue with each other about “truth”. Humans are uniquely characterized by those metaphysical preoccupations. So the question is: where does that preoccupation come from? What is the substance of that reality?

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