the atheist's carrot: freethought
11/05/2006 08:23:00 PM
I have stated many times and have noted many times that one of the main objections to religion is the lack of intellectualism and the perceived entrapments of doctrine. Many atheists will bolster their claim to atheism with this objection saying they have been freed from the perceived entrapments. They call their freedom free thought, which as they see it is the polar opposite of dogma, and is often the carrot before the mule for atheism. On the surface, this seem to be a grounded objection, and I can honestly see how some atheists would want to reject faith because of the dogma that does exist in certain theistic circles. But I think this throwing the baby out with the bath water: a few theistic sects that promote dogmatic views do not make the whole theistic thought bad. I personally believe in a faith that is grounded in historical fact, and I will address this more later.

Before one we can talk about free thought though, we need to define freethought. Wikipedia says: "Freethought is a philosophical doctrine that holds that beliefs should be formed on the basis of science and logical principles and not be comprised by authority, tradition or any other dogmatic or other belief system that restricts logical reasoning. The cognitive application of freethought is known as freethinking, and practitioners of freethought are known as freethinkers."

The Freethought Alliance says, "Freethought is the name of an American intellectual and cultural movement that can be traced back to the writings of the founders of our nation, the philosophers of the French and German Enlightenment, and the secular populists of the 19th century. A freethinker is a religious unbeliever who forms his or her judgments about religion using reason rather than relying on tradition, authority, faith, or established belief. Members of the freethought movement strive to free the mind of ignorant presuppositions and superstitions and are generally secular and humanist in outlook."

Both of these definitions reject dogma for logic and reasoning. What could be said then, if one can show that the Christian faith is not based on dogmatic thought, and that free-thought has essentially the same thought processes, then one has shown atheist's objection saying that the Christian faith is dogmatic is unfounded.

First, we should note that freethought is not novel. A lot of what Freethought claims as freethought territory is borrowed from the traditions of others, particularly theistic thinkers. One such idea is the separation of church and state. We do not have to go far before we find a free-thought society page that is promoting this idea, but the idea of separation of church and state was championed by the Separatists in England during the 16th and 17th centuries. The idea was brought to America not by the Puritans and the Pilgrims, but by the Baptists. One such man was Roger Williams, who founded the colony of Rhode Island and the city of Providence. Rhode Island was one of the first colonies to promote religious tolerance. Rogers wrote extensively on the topic of religious tolerance in the work, "The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience." In this piece, he promotes the idea of freedom of conscience, which says a person should be allowed to worship (or not to worship) as his or her conscience dictates without coercion and persecution. Another such person who promoted soul conscience and separation of church and state was George Calvert, also known as Lord Baltimore of Maryland, who was a Roman Catholic. He established the colony of Maryland on the basis of religious tolerance, and he encouraged Protestant and Catholic alike to immigrate.

Another area in which free thinkers borrow ideas are from theistic principles. C.S. Lewis in his book Mere Christianity wrote:
My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. Just how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it? . . . Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too, for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist, in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless. I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality, namely my idea of justice, was full of sense. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning.
Lewis is making an argument for the existence of God based on the notion that he was borrowing the idea of justice from somewhere. He is was judging the world based on an objective standard that he didn't created, and as he notes, cannot do this without having got that objective standard from somewhere. He also notes that such an objective standard is not the product of chance. He attributes his knowledge of justice to something outside himself, which he perceives to be God. Freethinkers are often involved in social justice, but one has to ask, where did they get the idea of social justice from? It comes from the theistic proposition that God created the objective standards by which we live, or at least how we should live.

Second, we should note that free-thinkers think like other free-thinkers. Often times, free-thinkers will elevate a particular free-thinker a place of authority and fall in line with a particular view of things. I don't know how many times atheists have prescribed a particular book to me, telling me that I should read it and it will convince me that theistic thought is bad. If one does this, then for all practical purposes a free-thinkers just giving up one set of beliefs or teachings for another, which would then raise the question about doctrine.

Doctrine is a "belief (or system of beliefs) accepted as authoritative by some group or school", so it not bound specifically to religion. A military operates under particular doctrines. The military doctrines define the situations in which a military power will begin an operation. Such a doctrine is one known as the "Bush Doctrine" which outlines the operating paradigm Bush uses to justify war. Another such is the Primakov doctrine that was used by Russia in the late 1990's when Yevgeny Primakov, a nationalist, was appointed as Prime Minister in the late 1990's. He had an operating paradigm on which he acted during the Kosovo crisis in relation to the United States and other NATO states. Likewise doctrine can be taught as a school of thought too. If this is true, then atheism is a doctrine. Atheism is a lack of belief in God, but teaching lack of belief is an affirmative activity. I can teach that the moon is not made of cheese in same manner atheists teach God does not exist. In fact, most atheists are on a mission to "educate" the public with non-theistic teachings. So for an atheist to say they he or she does not have doctrine is really a double standard if he or she were to teach atheism.

The real debate then is whether or not Christianity has dogmatic doctrine or not. There are essentially two ways to look at dogma. Dogma can either be a religious doctrine that is proclaimed as true without proof, or a doctrine or code of beliefs accepted as authoritative. The former is the stereotypical view of Christian doctrine, but the latter is really more how most Christians think-- even the early church fathers. Paul based what he taught and preached on historical events, namely the resurrection of Jesus and the Jewish tradition which is the Old Testament. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul says that the Christian faith without the historicity of the resurrection is vain. This is probably the reason so many atheists attack the historicity of the resurrection.

One might object, and say that one cannot use the Bible as historical evidence because it is a religious book. This however is anachronistic. All of the New Testament at one point was extra-canonical, meaning it was not part of the Bible. The original Scriptures of the 1st Century church were contained in the Hatanak, or the Jewish Scriptures. The New Testament writings were accepted as canon some time later under several litmus tests that were used to test their authority and authenticity. Only the writings that passed these tests were added as Christian canon. There were more books that did not make it than there were those that did. So one cannot say the Bible is dogma without proof, because it, unlike other holy books, is composed of a number of writings that were not written for the purpose of sacred scripture. These writings testified to historical events before they had the stamp of "canon" on them.

Additionally, if Christianity was based on belief without proof, then there would be no need to refute evidence for Christianity. When someone like Keith Parson writes "Why I am Not a Christian", he is essentially granting that there is evidence for Christianity, although he might not accept it. Parsons treats the Bible as if it were evidence and attempts to refute it using the same methods one would use to refute evidence for other historical events. In doing so he granting that the Christian faith is grounded in proof, even it is false proof to him.

If Christianity is the second form of dogma, then Christian doctrine is authoritative with proof. This is no different from a free thinker appealing to an authority. If ever a free-thinker appeals to an authority such as Dennet, Parson, or Dawkins among others, then he or she is in essence committing to a dogma in the sense of second type of dogma: claiming an authority backed with reason. It should also be noted that free-thinkers appeal to writers of the enlightenment: the "writings of the founders of our nation, the philosophers of the French and German Enlightenment, and the secular populists of the 19th century." If these writings are the foundation of freethought, then it should be noted that they are attributing authority to these writers, which is essentially the same thing Christians do in attributing authority to their faith's founders.

I think it pretty clear that there is nothing freeing about freethought because its formation and form of reasoning is essentially works the same way the Christian faith works. The difference is doctrine free-thinkers teach and what Christians teach. If one wants to reject Christianity on the basis of dogma and replace it with another dogma, then really they have gained nothing.

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