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Tuesday I was walking on campus and came upon a co-ed standing at the top of some steps and reading out loud from some document, much like some campus preachers read Scripture to passers-by. There was a guy with a camera filming her, and another guy who shoved a leaflet in my hand entitled, “What is a Free Thinker?”

Under that was the following:
free-think-er n. A person who forms opinions about religion on the basis of reason, independently of tradition, authority, or established belief. Free thinkers include atheists, agnostics and rationalists.”

“No one can be a free thinker who demands conformity to a bible [sic], creed, or messiah. To the freethinker, revelation and faith are invalid, and orthodoxy is no guarantee of truth.”

These four sentences are remarkable…for the quantity and depth of logically fallacy, internal inconsistency and, well, frankly, arrogance.

First, they assume that it is impossible to independently come to a reasonable independent conclusion that the Bible or faith is true. They explicitly and a priori assume that the supernatural does not exist. Therefore, it is impossible to have a freely formed opinion in favor of religion. Think about this carefully:  “A person who forms opinions about religion on the basis of reason”…but only if you come to the same opinion as us! If you have any opinion on religion that disagrees with ours you did not come by it freely, and therefore it is inferior. This sounds just as dogmatic a truth claim as we make about the necessity of faith in Christ! (soft mutters are heard about pots and kettles)

This leads to the second problem. “No one can be a free thinker who demands conformity to a…creed…” This statement sounds like a creed of orthodoxy to me. In order to think freely, you have to think like us. That sounds very free indeed. It reminds me of the 80’s when you would hear folks say, “All of my friends and I are non-conformists. That’s why we dress the same—to show our individuality.”

Third, under what authority do they claim the right to dictate who is a free thinker, especially since they look down on determining authority as a source of truth?

Fourth, “to the freethinker, revelation and faith are invalid.” Fine. But what are they saying really? “It’s our opinion.” Since when was opinion a definer of reality?

To drive this point home from their own words, later on in the pamphlet, they explicitly state that “reality is limited to that which is directly perceivable through our senses or indirectly ascertained through the proper use of reason.” While our senses are fundamentally reliable, they are easily tricked and often miss things. In fact, until we had infrared and ultraviolet cameras, we had no idea that insects could see vastly different color patterns from our eyes and that a flower can look completely different in the UV than in visible light. There is much about our reality that we are learning exists only as we enhance our senses with new instruments.

This begs the question of their logic, what other ‘nonexistent’ things have we yet to discover? Similarly, you can have the best reason and logic in the world, but if you have incomplete information or incorrect assumptions, you will come to the wrong conclusion. Thus to by definition limit reality as they have, they set themselves up for failure. It is an “atheism of the gaps:”  We can’t see it or prove it so it doesn’t exist.

Their very next sentence goes on. “Reason is a tool of critical thought that limits the truth of a statement according to the strict tests of the scientific method.” Aside from being purely a statement of faith, an assertion with no evidence, it is flat incorrect for at least two reasons.

Reason has virtually no ability to dictate truth, therefore it cannot limit it. Reason is a tool of critical thought, whose purpose is to evaluate the truth of statements, not dictate or define their truth. A statement is true if and only if it is true, not if someone thinks that it is true. A person’s reason is again limited by the available information. If you have incomplete information, a true statement can appear unreasonable. The flatness or spherical nature of the earth is a classic example. Many people very reasonably thought the earth was flat based on their own sensory perceptions and logic. It wasn’t until this assumption was tested in such a way that was not obvious to the average person that this was disproved. They had incomplete information and their reason led them to a false conclusion. Yes, the flat earth has been thoroughly disproven, but the principle of incomplete information leading to incorrect conclusions even based on correct reasoning still holds.

Secondly, their tying reason solely to the “strict tests of the scientific method” is false. They are operating under the illusion that the only way to ‘prove’ something is scientifically. There are at least four different kinds of proof in approximate order of rigor: mathematical, scientific, statistical and legal-historical. (See my post on the topic.) Each of these has a different standard or burden of proof, and are properly applied in different situations. Not every form of proof can apply to every situation. You cannot scientifically prove that George Washington was the first president of the U.S., but you can use scientific tools to contribute evidence to a nearly ironclad legal-historical proof. So by limiting the truth of a statement according to the strict tests of the scientific method, they themselves are unable to prove that Washington was our first president.

They go on to define in a little more detail what they mean by the scientific method, but what they define goes beyond the “strictest” classical definition of the scientific method. They include various tests of the other types of proof, and while scientists do use them in various studies, that does not make them the strictest tests of the scientific method. The required type of proof is dictated by the question being asked, not who is trying to prove the answer.

They go on to make numerous similar statements and significant mistakes in their historical assertions that I don’t have time to cover here. In short, for a group that touts their ability to think clearly and dismiss any who disagree with their conclusions, I am sorely disappointed in the success of their endeavour.

(The pamphlet contains a link to, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, should you wish to visit their site. I have not explored the site well enough to know if the text of the pamphlet is reproduced there somewhere should you wish to see the whole thing.)

Day 2 Praise:  God’s wisdom in making the night sky so vast to remind us of our smallness and puncture our swelled heads. (Honestly, this was my praise for today before I started working on this post—I promise!!)


1 comment:

  1. Patricia Fanning, Ph.D.October 27, 2011 at 12:48 PM

    Another great post, Robb.