Jeet Heer wrote a nice article on Kanye West and freethought, and I just felt like sitting down and saying a few things about freethinking and freethought in general. So many people fail to understand the words!
Oh, look. A wild transcript appears!
I want to take a moment to share something that made me happy, an article in the New Republic. I’m one of the people behind a writing collective called freethoughtblogs — Ed Brayton and I put this blog network together back in 2011, and we started it with a specific mission: to create a site for progressive writers, and specifically, to make it a comfortable place for all the godless people who weren’t white heterosexual men, to leverage our traffic to call attention to the diverse ideas that are out there in the blogosphere.
Of course, we were a couple of white heterosexual men, but we never thought of this as a zero-sum game — it was going to be a win-win situation for all of us, because we like new ideas, and thought atheism and secularism were great unifying principles, that without religious dogma barking at our heels, we’d all naturally gravitate towards ideals of fairness and equality and social justice.
You can stop laughing now. This was about the time we were discovering just how thick the racist/misogynist dogma coating the the atheist community was. We were naive and innocent and optimistic.
Anyway, we were chatting back and forth, trying to figure out what we’d call this thing, among many other details, and all credit to Ed, he came up with the basic idea of linking our site to the tradition of freethought, rather than just atheism, and so we christened it freethoughtblogs. We were both conscious of the history of that term, we knew exactly what it implied, and we realized that it was exactly representative of the set of ideas we wanted to advance. And we made it so.
We built it, we recruited smart progressive people, we explicitly set it up as a pro-feminist, pro-liberal values site. We were then surprised, because we were naive and innocent, when harassment campaigns followed, and when ignorant people started complaining that we weren’t allowing anti-feminist or racist or wildly conservative voices on board.
“You’re not really about thinking freely if you don’t let Thunderf00t rant about how feminism is a cancer”, they said. “You can’t moderate comments because that violates free speech”, they declared, confusing free speech with freethought, and not comprehending either.
Some people get it, though. That’s not what freethought is about. I can’t recommend an article by Jeet Heer in the New Republic highly enough, because he really gets it. He is criticizing Kanye West who has come out as a conservative jerk, and then labels himself a freethinker…so Heer writes,
Many people who claim to be “free thinkers” today are, in other words, just ignorant right-wing trolls. That’s a shame, because the term “free thinker” has a long history, dating back centuries, and refers to a noble tradition that’s worth recovering.
Exactly. Freethought is not an empty word that implies an absence of values. The best summary of the term comes from Susan Jacoby’s wonderful book, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. It’s a book that came out shortly after Harris’s End of Faith, but before Dawkins’ The God Delusion. The End of Faith did not impress me; the major philosophical and historical work that shaped my attitudes towards atheism was Jacoby’s. I think the American atheist movement would be far better off if it had been inspired by Jacoby’s tolerant and historically aware ideas than the simple-minded “There is no god” and “I really hate Islam” approach of far too many atheists.
Jeet Heer quotes Jacoby to summarize the deeper meaning of freethought.
The term “freethought,” according to Susan Jacoby’s 2004 book Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, “first appeared in the late 1600s and flowered into a genuine social and philosophical movement during the next two centuries.” Freethinkers played an especially important role during the American Revolution and the early days of the republic, when they were key in securing the idea of a separation of church and state.
As Jacoby notes, freethinkers ranged from deists to outright atheists, but what they shared, “regardless of their views on the existence or nonexistence of a divinity, was a rationalist approach to fundamental questions of earth existence—a conviction that the affairs of human beings should be governed not by faith in the supernatural but by a reliance on reason and evidence adduced from the natural world. It was this conviction, rooted in Enlightenment philosophy, that carried the day when the former revolutionaries gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 to write the Constitution.”
Get it? It’s a positive set of values. It’s more than just rationalism and naturalism, though, but also includes a social and political agenda. Jacoby explains:
For if freethinkers did not have a political platform, they nevertheless agreed on a wide range of social, cultural, and artistic concerns, which generated such fierce debate in the decades after the Civil War that they would form a template for the nation’s ‘culture wars’ a century later. These included free political speech; freedom of artistic expression; expanded legal and economic rights for women that went well beyond the narrow political goal of suffrage; the necessity of ending domestic violence against women and children; dissemination of birth control information…; opposition to capital punishment and to inhumane conditions in prisons and insane asylums; and, above all, the expansion of public education.
That’s a movement I can get behind. There is meaning there. It’s not the vapid emptiness that too many people want to assign to atheism.
I’ll include a link to Jeet Heer’s article below, and I recommend it highly — it’s short, it’ll be a quick read. I’ll also include a link to the book Freethinkers on Amazon, which is even better if more than a bit longer. And of course I recommend that you read the fine assortment of freethinkers at freethoughtblogs.com!