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I grew up in a freethinking household—at least, where religion was concerned—and that has made all the difference. I know many atheists who grew up in religious homes, whose turn from religion never actually pulled them from religion’s sphere. Many spent the rest of their lives shaping personal identity around the decrial of religious faith. For some, this consumed identity came from a place of trauma, and a need for related activism. For others, it was a quick way of claiming superior intellect and reasoning, by way of spiritual contrast.

De-converts tend to go through a phase of fierce support for new charismatic figures, to replace the ones given to them by faith traditions. For some, new hero-worship only occupies transitional phases in adolescence and early adulthood. Others, though, go their whole lives without realizing they’ve retained patterns of authority first learned from religious practice.

I’ve also known atheists who grew up in expressly atheist homes: spaces where parents boasted of their children’s atheism. Many parents are so pleased to illustrate firsthand that a child has no natural sense of a god, they forget the danger of rewarding attempts to please one’s elders.

The freethinking life

Freethinking is a different concept. It doesn’t require that parental figures hide their religious or atheist beliefs from their children. It does require that parental figures redirect focus from what one believes, to the process through which a given belief was attained, and why it is sustained.

This was a touch easier to model, granted when I was a kid in the eighties and nineties. For my sixth birthday, I received my very own children’s dictionary. I loved that giant blue hardcover book, and the thrill of knowledge it contained. Whenever I asked what a word meant, I was directed to look it up. Similarly, whenever I asked about a specific concept relating to the natural world, I was first directed to my family’s encyclopedias.

Things are a bit different today. We have to be much more careful when telling children–or, let’s face it, each other–to “just go look it up online”. Modeling self-directed learning and the application of critical thinking to expert data is no longer quite as easy.

However, even when faced with confusing and conflicting intel, we can absolutely model freethinking behavior. And we do this in part by owning our mistakes and uncertainty in an age of big data. We can talk with children–and each other–about times when we made mistakes. Times when we re-posted an article without reading it first, or when we let initial reports about an incident shape knee-jerk emotional reactions to it. Times when it was difficult to foreground corrections and retractions to shocking stories that first received so much buzz.

In short, for a more freethinking approach to the world, we shouldn’t try to model confidence so much as curiosity, caution, and openness to change. “Let’s explore this claim together.” “Let’s see what counterpoints exist, and take a look at the credibility of all their sources.” “Let’s let this rest awhile, and circle back when we’ve settled our fight or flight response, to see if it still reads the same. Maybe there’ll be more info available then, too.”

The freethinking difference

It’s extremely tempting to want to turn our sandbox of discourse into a landscape of opposing sandcastles. When one group makes strong, declarative statements, it’s feeding on the expectation of a strong, declarative response. That’s how it gains a sense of righteousness: from being “besieged” by opposing points of view. And we all play into that rhythm from time to time. Sometimes, it’s because we thrill to feel like we’re taking a stand. Other times, because it feels more secure to know exactly where everyone sits on a given issue.

But this push-pull of strong claims and strong dissents can keep us trapped in a discursive arena set by the initial claimants. It takes away our ability to turn our energies to other issues.

Meanwhile, there’s quite a bit of power in another choice: The choice to refuse stridency’s game. The choice to lead with curiosity and caution and an openness to change. The freethinking way.

And it starts by refusing to give any fuel to folks who share their views expecting (or raring for) an argument. When we treat people’s declarative statements as exactly what they are, new facts offered up to our consideration, we destabilize the whole cycle of heated call and response.

And not at all to spread confusion! Not at all to condone destructive points of view! Simply to prioritize other values as more important to a truth-seeking society. Simply to separate our value as people from the views our current data and subject positions lead us to hold. And—maybe not as simply, but still every bit as important—to invite others to do the same.

Some examples:

My father and I differ in our manifestations of atheism. His is the more strident sort. He’s always loved a good opportunity to point out Biblical inaccuracy and views unmoored from science. He has his reasons for being who he is (and growing up in a religious small-town setting didn’t help), but although I disagree with his approach to discourse, I do so in strong part because he raised me to think for myself, not to parrot his beliefs.

By learning to value the exploration of ideas through my freethinking background, I came easily to secular humanism. And it serves me well when I encounter people with wildly different points of view. Whether someone tells me “I’m a flat-earther” or “I’m an anti-vaxxer” or “I believe damnation awaits those who do not seek divine mercy through Christ our Lord and Saviour,” you might be surprised how much mileage you can get out of a simple “Okay.”

(Or, depending on the case, “Thanks for letting me know what you believe.” Nice and potent. This works really well for acknowledging odious assertions without even a whiff of tacit acceptance).

Most folks who make such declarative statements are waiting for your reaction to affirm the power of their point of view. And if it doesn’t show up, many will ask if you understood what they were saying. Maybe you didn’t hear them correctly? They said they believed X! But if you confirm that you understand what they’re saying, many will then ask if you agree with their point of view.

After all, it’s a binary, right? And if you don’t answer vehemence with opposing vehemence, maybe it’s because you believe as they do, too? So then you get to say that, no, you don’t agree — straightforwardly, without answering provocation — and just… let the dissent sit between you.

And that’s where it gets interesting

A freethinking mindset isn’t one where your mind is “so open all its contents fall out.” It’s simply one where you allow yourself to hold the existence of multiple points of view in tension, and prioritize the process of seeking better truths from that fullness of data.

I for one am an atheist, so I disagree with the premise that there is a god. (Mind you, some atheists claim that atheism is a strong, standalone belief, but I grew up in a secular household and all my nephews did, too. It never occurred to any of us to have to say “there is no god” until someone claimed there was. Ergo, “atheist” will always be a reactive label to me).

However, as a secular humanist, my answer differs. There are around 6.6 billion god concepts, held in the minds of those who believe, and placed there by communities that taught members to attach religious vocabulary to universal feelings. They serve as megaphones for viewpoints believers already hold, as shaped by the sociopolitical spheres in which they live.

And they matter. They matter a heck-load when it comes to advancing better social policy.

Which is why I don’t see much value in not recognizing them as the key data points they are.

[E]ven when faced with confusing and conflicting intel, we can absolutely model freethinking behaviour. And we do this in part by owning our mistakes and uncertainty in an age of big data.

M L CLARK

Freethinking and the path to better truths

I don’t lose or deny my personal beliefs by operating with a freethinking mindset. I don’t have to hide that I disagree with racist statements and actions, or policies that I think will increase death rates no matter how many “pro-life” people try to advance them.

Freethinking helps us refuse the building of sandcastles in the sandbox of public discourse. That doesn’t mean I can’t still point to the existence of turds in the sand. It just means that I prioritize the process of identifying those turds above all else. If I were simply to believe that the turd is over there because that’s what my parents gave me to believe… what happens when the wind changes, and fecal matter shows up elsewhere? Where is my habit of critical thinking to adjust my position when the terrain changes, too?

Curiosity. Caution. An openness to change. When we value these aspects of critical thinking over the performance of confidence, and when we model the same for each other–including for our children–we gain the power to decide whether or not we’ll be locked into certain debates for life.

We all come to our chosen struggles, our current pathways to effecting social change, from diverging bodies of legitimate experience. Freethinking might not be an easy mindset to inhabit for those of us routinely assailed by tribalist stridency–but still: I encourage folks to give it a try from time to time. You might be surprised to find how much it frees up your energies, and gives you the space to decide what you really want your life and activism to do.

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GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.