In this article, I continue my series on atheism. In the previous installment, we looked at the relationship between atheism and scientism. In this installment, we consider the relationship between atheism and free-thought. Note, this article is in part based on my article “The Myth of the Free-thought Parent.”
Next, we turn to free-thought, a notion that is intimately connected to atheism in the popular mind. For an excellent demonstration of the perceived link we can consider how Dan Barker describes his own conversion from Christianity to atheism:
“I was not converted by the “atheist movement.” I saw no atheist evangelist on TV who persuaded me to change my views. I came to it all on my own, and that’s how it should be. Almost every other atheist and agnostic I have met since then, who was raised religious, tells the same story: it is a private, independent process of free thinking. That is what gives it strength. It makes my conclusions my very own, valued because of the precious process of being forged and proved in my own mind.”
Barker goes on to describe with eloquence and concision how he perceived his conversion to atheism to consist equally of a conversion to free thinking: “I prefer the winds of freethought to the chains of orthodoxy.”
Barker is not alone in this linking of atheism with the notion of free-thought and the wider free-thought movement. And it is easy to see why the connection is drawn. Most theists are religious, and as such they tend to accept their theism as part of a larger package of belief which involves submission to some ecclesial authority that is perceived to be the reliable propagator of authoritative doctrine concerning spiritual matters. The advocate of free-thought, in turn, disavows such authorities and instead endorses free-thinking shorn of tradition and uncritical acquiescence to authoritative testimony. As David Hume famously said, “If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” Hume’s sentiment would become a mantra of the Enlightenment: think for yourself! Don’t laden yourself down with the opinions of the past. Discover the truth for yourself. Therein lies the essence of true free-thought. (Of course, it is no small irony that Hume’s great commendation of free-thought advocates for book burning and thus censorship.)
Another notable example is found in T.H. Huxley’s famous essay “Agnosticism” in which he describes how he arrived at the conviction that his party affiliation was, above all, that of the free-thinker:
“When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist ; a materialist or an idealist ; a Christian or a freethinker ; I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer ; until, at last, I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last.” 
While Huxley famously identified as an agnostic, one sees here a close link between the free-thinker and the skeptical attitude toward religion defended by atheist and agnostic alike.
Not surprisingly, on several occasions I’ve encountered the objection that Christian faith inhibits free-thinking. Some years ago while I was delivering a lecture on faith and reason at a secular university, I informed my audience that I had taught the Apostles’ Creed to my daughter, who was four or five at the time. To drive the point home, I added that as a family we recited the creed every day during our family devotions. As I expected, the audience was disturbed by my revelation. One of the students spoke for many when she insisted that children should be raised without “religious dogma,” free to “make up their own minds” about what to believe. Parents could licitly inform their progeny of the various options, she opined, but they should be impartial in presenting the various views so their children may be free to decide for themselves, unencumbered by undue external influence.
One commonly encounters this ideal of the dispassionate, objective parent in the free-thought movement. And it is regularly linked to atheism. Consider, for example, this passage from Catie Wilkins’s essay “110 Love Street”:
“My dad, a supremely rational man, even when addressing four-year-olds, answered my question, “what happens when you die?” logically and truthfully. He replied, “No one really knows, but we have lots of theories. Some people believe in heaven and hell, some people believe in reincarnation, and some people believe that nothing happens.” The other four-year-olds were not privy to the open, balanced information that I had, leaving me the only four-year-old to suggest that heaven might not exist.”
Wilkins believed her father’s pedagogical advice provided an empowering and non-dogmatic way to instruct a small child by dispassionately and objectively providing the range of views on a given issue and allowing the child to make her own decision. In short, Wilkins’s father provided a precise contrast with my dogmatizing bequeathal of the Apostles’ Creed to my unwitting progeny.
If Wilkins’s anecdote exemplifies the ideal of the free-thought parent, it also exemplifies the inherent tensions and even contradictions with this ideal. We can begin to illumine those problems by changing up the scenario. Imagine that instead of posing a theological question about life after death, the child posed an ethical query about the nature of the good and the right. So here’s the scenario: after overhearing a disturbing murder story on the evening news where an innocent man is killed for his money, the child turns to her father and poses the question: “Daddy, is it always wrong to kill somebody just because you want their money?”
Questions about the good and the right, like questions about the afterlife, are beset with controversy. With that in mind, our free-thought dad obligingly gives his non-dogmatic and dispassionate reply in which he offers a survey of ethical views, all in the hope that the child may form her own opinions unencumbered by undue external influence. This is how he puts it:
No one really knows, but we have lots of theories. Some people believe it is absolutely wrong because it violates moral virtue or a moral law. But other people believe it could be right if doing so increased the overall happiness in society. Still others believe that each individual must decide what is right for them, and if money makes them happy then they can rightly kill for it.
I suspect most people will find the father’s response in the second scenario to be problematic (to say the least!). And I share that assessment. But what, exactly, is wrong with it? Let’s consider two problems.
To begin with, the father’s answer is wholly inappropriate for the cognitive level of a four year old. Granted, ethicists disagree over questions like whether it is always wrong to kill somebody for money, but it doesn’t follow that a four year old is ready to process that entire controversy. At this age they need a simple answer. Complexity and nuance can (and indeed should) be acquired at a later date, but a child needs a simplified place to begin from which they can gradually come to grasp that complexity and nuance over time.
And what kind of simple answer should one give? Presumably, the answer that best approximates what the parent believes to be true, albeit adjusted for the cognitive capacity of the child. For example, if the father believes it is wrong to kill people just because you want their money, then that’s the answer he should give: “Yes, it’s wrong to kill people just because you want their money.” (And if he doesn’t believe this, one hopes his daughter’s pointed question might provide an occasion to reconsider his own view.)
The second problem with the response is that it is not nearly as free and uncommitted as one might think. Despite his alleged neutrality as regards the ethical question, the father is surprisingly committed and dogmatic when he prefaces his comment with the proviso, “No one really knows…” This is most certainly not a neutral statement. Instead, it is a robust epistemological claim about the alleged lack of knowledge that others have on ethical matters. In short, while the father may not espouse any particular ethical view, he does commend to his child a strong agnosticism as regards all ethical views on the topic, and as I said that is not neutral.
The same points that apply to ethics apply to theology and the afterlife as well. If the father is a strong agnostic about the nature of posthumous existence, that is, if he is persuaded that nobody really knows what happens after death, then he is free to tell his child that nobody really knows. But he should not delude himself into thinking that this perspective is somehow neutral, for it surely isn’t. He is commending a strong agnosticism to his child and if he is successful, she will grow up to hold the same view, just like Catie Wilkins did.
And what of the father whose beliefs about the afterlife are not agnostic but rather Christian, and thus which include convictions about the general resurrection, heaven, and hell? If the strong agnostic is permitted to raise up his child in the belief that nobody knows what happens when you die, then why isn’t the Christian parent permitted to raise up his child in the belief that some people do know?
Intelligent people can disagree about how children ought to be raised. And that’s precisely the point: the fact is that there is no neutral way for a parent to raise a child or field their questions. Every answer you give is sourced in particular beliefs, value judgments, and a broader view of the world. As a result, it is best that we all recognize that parenting involves, among other things, the desire to inculcate in one’s children that set of beliefs and values that one holds to be true. To be sure, those of us who value fairness and objectivity and a healthy recognition of one’s own cognitive biases will hope that all parents will include those same values in their education. But we hope for that not because that hope is neutral or value free. Rather, we hope for it because it is in this bequeathal of self-awareness of one’s own limitations and generosity toward others that true free-thought is found. It is most certainly not found in the delusion that a dogmatic agnosticism or skepticism toward a particular subject matter is somehow neutral or objective or value free.
But that’s enough with critiquing the popular ideals of free-thought. Let’s return to the alleged link between free-thought and atheism. Again, it isn’t hard to see why the popular link exists. As I noted, atheism is in itself a minimal claim which lacks dogmatic constraints. Granted that could change if atheism were melded with a more robust belief system like materialism. But left unto itself, atheism just is a minimal denial of belief in God. This certainly does leave a lot of room for free-thought.
What is more, atheism is widely viewed as something of a “rebel” position, insofar as folks typically arrive at atheism only after rejecting a system of belief. And that very act of rejecting a system of belief appears to many to be indicative of free-thinking.
At the same time, we should appreciate the fact that a person can certainly be raised with a secular, atheistic, and/or free-thought mindset in such a way that this education itself inhibits critical thinking and true free-thought. And this brings me back to the discussion above regarding the inescapability of intellectual formation. Barbara Ehrenreich wryly makes just this point as she reflects on her own upbringing in a house that allegedly valued free-thought:
“I was raised in a real strong Secular Humanist family—the kind of folks who’d ground you for a week just for thinking of dating a Unitarian, or worse. Not that they were hard-liners, though. We had over 70 Bibles lying around the house where anyone could browse through them—Gideons my dad had removed from the motel rooms he’d stayed in. And I remember how he gloried in every Gideon he lifted, thinking of all the traveling salesmen whose minds he’d probably saved from dry rot.
“Looking back, I guess you could say I never really had a choice, what with my parents always preaching, “Think for yourself! Think for yourself!”“
We should not miss the irony of this picture. The image of Ehrenreich’s parents fervently instructing her to think for herself creates a nice paradox. After all, if she follows their advice, then she isn’t thinking for herself!
Ehrenreich’s amusing recollection provides the resources for us to get a handle on the true nature of free-thought. It seems to me that the assumption that one secures free-thought by starting out with a minimum of metaphysical, ethical, and social commitments such as one might find in atheism is quite mistaken. After all, for all his absence of dogma, Ehrenreich’s father seems surprisingly dogmatic. Moreover, as we have seen atheism has often been presented with a particular system of belief like classic materialism, and that system can itself provide limited constraints on free-thought.
The lesson, I would suggest, is that true free-thought is secured not by minimizing belief commitments, still less by adopting atheism. Rather, it is cultivated by developing rational epistemic virtues and becoming aware of one’s own biases as one continually recommits to the dogged pursuit of truth. And one can do that whether one is an atheist, or a theist, or anything in between.
 Dan Barker, Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists (Berkeley, CA: Ulysses Press, 2008), 41.
 Barker, Godless, 103.
 Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, edited by Eric Steinberg, 2nd ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993), 114.
 Huxley, “Agnosticism,” in Agnosticism and Christianity and Other Essays (New York: Prometheus, 1992),162.
 “110 Love Street,” in ed. Ariane Sherine, There’s Probably No God: The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas (London: Friday, 2009), 21-22.
So why does our free-thought dad believe nobody knows the nature of right and wrong? What is his evidence for believing this? What provides his justification? One suspects that his strong agnosticism is based on an assumption like this: if experts disagree on a particular topic, then one cannot know what the right answer is on that topic. Based on this principle, one might conclude that if ethicists disagree about the wrongness of an action like killing for money, then we cannot know if that action is indeed wrong. While this assumption might seem reasonable at first blush, the fact is that it is self-defeating. While free-thought dad’s belief that unanimity is required for belief is an epistemological claim, epistemologists do not all agree with it. Thus, if we accept that assumption then we ought to reject it. In other words, unanimity among experts is not required before one can hold a reasonable belief, or make a knowledge claim, on a particular topic. And so the father is free to tell his daughter that it is always wrong to kill other people for money, even if he is aware of ethicists who disagree with him..
 Cited in Randal Rauser, You’re not as Crazy as I Think: Dialogue in a World of Loud Voices and Hardened Opinions (Colorado Springs, CO: Biblica, 2011), 65.