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June 14, 2011


Freethinker is a Stupid Label That Should Not Be Used

by juju2112

There’s some disagreement in the atheist community over labels. No one can agree on what to call ourselves. Atheist? Agnostic? Non-theist? Non-believer? Anti-Theist? Freethinker?

I’d like to focus on the term “Freethinker” today, because that’s the only one out of all of them I really hate. Let me list the reasons why.

It’s Confusing

No one knows what the hell you mean. I might as well call myself a widgetizer. It would mean just about as much to someone else. Yes, I know the word has a history, but we live in the here and now. A label should be clear and communicate exactly the message you want to convey.

For many, however, the term “freethinker” is intentionally obtuse. Freethinkers like the fact that it’s confusing. They like that religious people mistakenly call themselves freethinkers because it sounds good. It gives them a chance to correct them and extoll the benefits of reason over faith.

Although freethought is really more analogous to skepticism, some atheists still choose to use this label as a soft synonym for nontheism. They do it because they’re afraid to offend people. Since saying you don’t believe in God is offensive, they want to be vague and unclear about it to save face. Let’s not offend the theists by letting them know we disagree with them!

By using the term “freethinker”, you give credence to the idea that it’s bad to not believe in God.

If it’s about reason, Skeptic is a better label

The term “freethinker” includes both skepticism and atheism. So, if freethinkers are into both of these but are afraid to express their atheism, why don’t they just call themselves skeptics? There’s already a good skeptic movement going on that you could identify yourself with. By telling someone you’re a skeptic, they’ll immediately know what you mean.

Wait a second… people will know what we mean? We can’t have that!

It’s insulting

So, what, religious and superstitious folk aren’t “free” in their thoughts? Isn’t that a little smug and insulting? Don’t you think they’ll take that the wrong way? I’m all for insults. Heck, I love them. But there is a time and a place for them. I don’t think your identifying label is the right place.

Atheism no better

It’s not like the term “atheism’” has it any better. Most people think being an atheist means that you believe there is no God. They don’t understand the difference between not accepting a belief in God and actively believing there isn’t one. This is a big problem for the “atheist” label. It spreads confusion of its own.

Some people also have a problem with labeling themselves by the absence of something. They want to be labeled by what they do believe in. I can understand this. But I don’t think “freethinker” concisely communicates what you believe in. I think humanist might be a better term for that. At least it’s specific and not deliberately vague. Someone can google “humanist” and get a set of beliefs back. Even “skeptic” would be better.

I don’t fault people for not wanting to call themselves atheists. The word definitely has its problems. But I don’t think “freethinker” is a valid choice, as it’s intentionally confusing.  “Atheist” communicates exactly the message I want to send: I do not believe what you believe, and I’ve thought it through enough to choose a decisive label.

Let me just close with some mock conversations to make my point:

Conversation with a freethinker

Theist: “So, what church do you go to?”

Heretic: “Oh, I’m a freethinker.”

Theist: “Huh?”

Potential Theist takeaways:

  • I have no idea what this person believes in.
  • This person has insulted me by saying I’m not free in my thoughts.
  • I think I might still be able to witness to them.
  • They are okay with religion, they are just into that sciencey-stuff.

Conversation with an atheist

Theist: “So, what church do you go to?”

Heretic: “I’m an atheist.”

Theist: “Oh…”

Potential Theist takeaways:

  • They do not believe in God.
  • Outrageous! How can this be! I’ve never met someone who didn’t believe in God before.
  • They must have thought this through quite a bit to voluntarily assume a label like that.
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27 Comments Post a comment
  1. TheRealThunderMonkey
    Jun 14 2011

    In that case, why use labels at all?

    It seems to me that it would be better just to tell someone that you are who you are. If they want a real conversation, you’ll be willing to indulge instead of engaging in mindless small talk.

    • juju2112
      Jun 14 2011

      There’s not always time for a deep conversation. A label is designed to communicate the maximum amount of information in the shortest amount of time. It’s not always 100% accurate, but it at least gives someone a general idea of your beliefs in a few seconds.

  2. That asshole, Demetri.
    Jun 14 2011

    People can google freethinker/freethought and get a vague set of “beliefs” back as well. The basic fault of using a word like freethinker is that people don’t know what it means because they’re ignorant of the definition. However, that can be said of any word you’ve alternatively proposed.

    Many religious people think themselves sceptics–whether that’s because they’re sceptical of science, the government, liberals or UFOs is dependant on their own ideas. So, saying, “I’m a sceptic,” in response to a question of religious orientation can be just as misunderstood as using atheist or freethinker.

    Connotation is the key, here. Words like humanist may have their own definition, but as they have easily discerned roots people can immediately associate with their own definitions (“Humanist? That has human in it… So they must like doing things for people; so do I!”) without understanding the irreligious one. This is also why people have a tendency of thinking an atheist is one who does not believe in a god; they were probably taught that this was the definition, or looked the definition up themselves but from a source that is misleading. (Many dictionaries actually have atheism in a gnostic sense which is terribly annoying.)

    I do not think that the term freethinker is intentionally obtuse for the sake of propriety and isn’t necessarily insulting of those that practice religion (unlike Bright, which is both of those things). It is, however, perceived as a very broad term which suits many people of differing attitudes. I think there are some people in the Fay Freethinker group that are at the very least pseudo-religious–if not outright–but still come to the meetings to listen to the lectures. (Or give them, as it were. I caught the professor who spoke about climate change denial making the Sign of the Cross as he was about to eat.)

    Though why you didn’t mention secular, I am not certain. Most religious people probably are aware of it as being opposed to religion.

    Anyway, just my thoughts on the matter. Sorry for the wall of text, yo.

    • juju2112
      Jun 14 2011

      Good points!

  3. Jun 14 2011

    On the plus side, LOTS of people like the word “freethinker.” Everyone likes to believe that they are not bound by dogma, that they think freely. It is a word the theists envy–because they do NOT think freely in most cases. If it’s confusing, that gives you the opportunity to explain it to them. If it’s insulting, too bad. Tell the other person to abandon dogma. It shouldn’t be an insult to proclaim that you think freely. And “skeptic”? That word has a much more negative connotation. Not as bad as “atheist” in the minds of most, but “freethinker” has a much more laid back kind of connotation.

    • juju2112
      Jun 14 2011

      I don’t like having to pretty up my beliefs with a fancy word. I tell it like it is, using the simplest and most direct language possible. As I said in another comment, many times, there won’t be time for a conversation to explain things. Clarity is very important to me.

  4. Jun 14 2011

    Hey Donald, about giving a five minute presentation at our next freethinker meeting, on why it’s a dumb word. Should stimulate some thought and discussion. Here is what I think:

    Don: “It’s Confusing”>>

    Not really. A combination of two simple words everyone understands. And an opportunity to teach the history of how they came together, and why.

    Don: “If it’s about reason, Skeptic is a better label”>>

    Skeptic is nice, but far more vague. Freethinker is, by definition, skepticism narrowed, directly toward religion.

    Don: “It’s insulting”>>

    If someone is insulted by my using a label that attributes two nice adjectives to myself, to bad. Want insulting? See “I am a member of the one true religion.” (“Jehovah’s Witness”, “Church of Christ” etc.)

    Don: “Atheism no better”>>

    Considering most people associate it with eating babies, yes, it’s pretty bad.

    I’ll post here the response I posted to your similar question on Facebook:

    Excellent question Donald.

    All labels have limited utility but freethinker is much more broad and inclusive than either “atheist” or “skeptic.” Yet, most of the time it ends up including them. When we started the Fayetteville Freethinkers, Doug wanted an atheist group, and I didn’t want to be in an atheist group (in fact, I think I was going by “agnostic” at the time). I still wouldn’t want to be in an atheist group, and be labeled by one single thing I am “not.” The vast majority of people who are not theists, are not interested in going by the label atheist, for the reason stated above. So when you do get a group that is very into, and strict about going by that title, they tend to me more radical, angry, and to be honest, fundamentalist/dogmatic.

    Some people, such as Dan Barker, think we should all use the word atheist much more and then it will change from the near swear word that it is to something more pleasant. I disagree. Why carry such a burden for a word with such limited utility? A word that only does one single thing, and that thing is to tell the one thing you *don’t* believe?!

    One of the signs we made for our early Springfest booths was “Your local Skeptics Club.” So we have always made it clear from the beginning that we have an emphasis on skepticism and debunking bullshit. The word freethinker of course means there is an emphasis on debunking religion and looking at it skeptically.

    Skeptic magazine did a poll of their readership years ago, asking which label people prefer to go by. “Freethinker” won by a landslide. The word also has other benefits. It’s made up of two words that people really, really like: “Free” and “thinker.” So we will get religious people come up to us and say they are freethinkers (and we explain to them why they’re not), or they say they want to be freethinkers (and then we explain how then can be). Who wouldn’t want to be a freethinker? It’s a real peach of a word, and we get to glide on the history of a word that was coined when thinking was so restricted and orthodox, the notion of going against the stupid conventions of the day (back when girls couldn’t vote or wear pants etc.) was considered “freethinking.” It’s changed a lot, but not enough. Otherwise, we wouldn’t need freethinker groups.


    • juju2112
      Jun 14 2011

      If you ask a religious person if they are a freethinker, they would likely always say “yes”. That confusion is what I have a problem with. You seem to like it. I don’t want confusion. I need it to be clear that I don’t believe in their God.

      Many times, there won’t be an opportunity for a conversation to explain things. If they see an advertisement or a reference in a newspaper, for example, you can’t correct their misunderstanding. I think it’s a poor label for what it’s meant to do.

      As for a presentation, considering not a single person has agreed with me so far, I dunno if I’d want to do that. :)

    • Sep 2 2011

      My lengthy reply to Darrel here, and a little of what Don said:

    • Sep 3 2011

      I’ve responded to Knight’s comments here:

  5. Jun 14 2011

    I agree that the word doesn’t tell much about the person labeling themselves just as “freethinker”s… but it doesn’t mean it’s not a fair label.

    Theist: “So, what church do you go to?”

    Heretic: “Oh, I’m Italian.”

    Theist: “Huh?”

    Your heretic example illustrated confusion because your heretic didn’t answer the question. Although I get what you’re saying, I think it’s fair to label yourself a freethinker, and I generally have a good sense of what that means when someone says it. But, I also think we should elaborate more.

    I mostly say I’m a free thinker to mean a) I’m not religious and b) that religious people don’t think freely..

    Anyway, those were my thoughts..

    • juju2112
      Jun 14 2011

      That’s kind of the point. “Freethinker” doesn’t communicate to someone that you don’t believe in God. “Atheist” does.

    • Sep 3 2011

      a) lots of people who use freethinker don’t want to communicate that they don’t believe in god.

      Probably to some degree because…

      b) lots of freethinkers, aren’t atheists.

  6. Jun 14 2011

    Another point: Freethinking is a method, not a set of beliefs. Anyone who is insulted by the idea of thinking for yourself is an idiot. A Christian can be a freethinker. So can a Nazi. So can an atheist. It all depends on HOW you reach your conclusions, not what the conclusions are. Now, I believe that a Christian and a Nazi who become freethinkers will soon abandon those positions if they are sincere and informed, but it is misleading for Christians to understand “freethinker” as equivalent to “skeptic” or “atheist.” A skeptic is characterized in a negative way, by his or her finding fault with some belief (i.e. “I’m skeptical that Bigfoot exists.”) It is a method too, but necessarily a negative, parasitic one. A freethinker does basically the same thing in practice, but strictly speaking needn’t be a skeptic. For example, imagine Tarzan growing up in the jungle free of dogma. He is a freethinker, but he is not a skeptic.

  7. Michael McAlexander
    Jun 14 2011

    I utilize the atheist label, to Donald’s point, because it clearly defines my stance on theology. Any connotations or misinterpreted denotations can be disillusioned in conversation. Anything and everything discussed outside of the idea of god is philosophy, be it cosmology, ontology, epistemology, aesthetics, morality, or what have you. I don’t mind the label because it serves its purpose; what *doesn’t* help is adding more labels, such as ignostic, amythist, non-theist, and any other creative yet confusing phrases.

  8. Joshua Skains
    Aug 14 2011

    I am very religious and a free thinker to the degree one can become “free”. Atheists imagine themselves non-dogmatic, yet I see many seem to worship Richard Dawkings or similar people and drool over their repetitive anti-religious dribble like it’s liquid gold. No one truly has unique or self created thoughts. The freedom is in picking which idea you like. Like Hollywood, the Mecca of liberalism, everyone is out of new ideas.

  9. Freethinker
    Feb 28 2013

    The page tittle sounds like a command of an angry god on what he assigns as stupid or sensible.

    When defining oneself as ‘Freethinker’; theism or atheism does not come into consideration. Any atheist necessary defining his identity or world view related to theism is because of deep frustration. Limitations are for theist, for a sense of belonging to collective identity like catholic/protestant to be herded like sheep of shepherd. Non theist do not confine their identity relative to theism and have independent views regardless of definition.

    Imagine. Two Atheist going….”I am an atheist, you are an atheist too, We share the same world view about not believing in any deity.” Meaningful ?
    You identify people by their interest towards their religion, passion, profession and not lack of it.

  10. Atticus Denzil
    May 14 2015

    The term free thinker is easy to understand and has a meaning and origin, just like other terms.

    Just because you don’t understand it doesn’t mean it’s true for everyone else. In fact people who are ignorant to its meaning and origin don’t understand it and missuse it, while confusing its meaning with that of another word.

    What else can you call people who practice free thought?

  11. Apr 25 2016

    The fundamental flaw in your argument is that you seem to have some sense of entitlement to be able understand what you don’t understand whilst thinking inside a box. By nature, freethinking is to think on a level that can only be subjective, and is only understood through intuition – not simply the perception of information. You’re confused by freethinkers because the terms by which you think people ought to be labelled and understood cannot logically accommodate all types of thinking; you don’t understand freethinkers because you aren’t thinking freely.

    • Stalker
      Sep 19 2017

      “By nature, freethinking is to think on a level that can only be subjective, and is only understood through intuition”. Nonsense. You have no idea what you are talking about.

  12. Freebama
    Aug 4 2016

    The “Freethinker” club generally includes Athiests and Agnostics, perhaps more agnostics. Some freethinkers could be theists who decide not to follow all the tenets and dogma specified by their religion at birth.
    In summary, all freethinkers do not accept religious dogma and authority.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Response to “Letter to a Freethinker” from an Atheist | Donald Morton's Blog
  2. Atheists Do Worse Than Eating Babies: Response to Darrel the Atheist « Knight's Christian Commentaries and Worldwide News

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