Monday, September 12, 2011

Critique of the Freedom From Religion Foundation's nontract "What Is A Freethinker?"

A critique of the Freedom From Religion Foundation's nontract: What is a Freethinker?

The FFRF was founded by Dan Barker and is a popular atheist/agnostic/freethought group. They sell several "nontracts", which are parodies of Biblical tracts except that they deal in atheism and other forms of freethought. This particular nontract, which you can read in full online, is interesting because it captures the essence of the way many (though not all) modern atheists think.

free-think-er n. A person who forms opinions about religion on the basis of reason, independently of tradition, authority, or established belief. Freethinkers include atheists, agnostics and rationalists.

OK. Sounds good.

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

Sounds OK as well. 

Clarence Darrow once noted, "I don't believe in God because I don't believe in Mother Goose."

Uhhhh....OK. There is a slight chance that Mother Goose was a real person, but if Darrow is talking about depictions of Mother Goose as an actual goose, then here is the reason I do not believe in her: I know a little about birds, and birds do not have language capability, or if they do it is not complex enough to tell stories or to write. So Darrow does not believe in God because geese don't have language capabilities?

Obviously, that's not what he means. I believe he is saying that Mother Goose is obviously a fairy tale, and that he doesn't believe in God because God is obviously a fairy tale as well. But the reason Mother Goose is obviously a fairytale is because of the reasons I outlined above. What are the reasons for thinking that God is a fairytale? This is what some might call "strong atheism", and I would like to know the evidence for this position...

Freethinkers are naturalistic.

I would presume this means metaphysical naturalism. If so, this is a specific claim, and needs to be backed up by evidence. Let's see if they deliver.

Reality is limited to that which is directly perceivable through our natural senses or indirectly ascertained through the proper use of reason.

This seems OK. Empiricism and rationalism are often considered the two primary "ways of knowing." You can observe things via the senses, directly or indirectly, and/or reason things out using a priori methods, such as math and logic. Philosophers are often divided as to how much of each one is best, the degree of overlap, etc.

Reason is a tool of critical thought that limits the truth of a statement according to the strict tests of the scientific method. 

Whoa whoa whoa! What? Science is empirical. They are defining "reason" as science. So they think that the way we know something is true is via empiricism and reason, which they define as empirical. So "empirical" and "empirical". I.e., just empiricism. So no logic, math, or metaphysics?

For a statement to be considered true it must be testable (what evidence or repeatable experiments confirm it?), falsifiable (what, in theory, would disconfirm it, and have all attempts to disprove it failed?), parsimonious (is it the simplest explanation, requiring the fewest assumptions?), and logical (is it free of contradictions, non sequiturs, or irrelevant ad hominem character attacks?).

This is the basic creed of scientism, the idea that all worthwhile knowledge is scientific knowledge. But I thought "freethinkers" are free of creeds and Since scientism restricts knowledge to just science, then this is, if not a creed, at least a philosophical position that needs to be argued for and not just asserted. Unfortunately, the above statement of scientism itself is a philosophical one and not a scientific one, and thus it is self-refuting. The above statement is either false, or if it's true then it renders itself false. So it can't be anything other than false.

Also, the basic statement of scientism is a descendent of logical positivism, which held that only empirically verifiable statements are meaningful. This philosophical movement collapsed fifty years ago because it is, as explained above, self-refuting. There are very few movements in philosophy that have been so thoroughly junked, and yet here is the FFRF, merrily whistling along without a hint that they are even aware that they practice a long dead philosophy.

There is no great mystery to morality. Most freethinkers employ the simple yardsticks of reason and kindness.

OK, but there is still the question of what morality is, and what makes one action morally right and another morally wrong. But that's a whole topic unto itself, and not space enough to touch upon it here. Fine with me.

Most freethinkers are humanists, basing morality on human needs, not imagined "cosmic absolutes." This also embraces a respect for our planet, including the other animals, and feminist principles of equality.

Catholic morality is based on natural law: whatever is good for us is whatever does not interfere with what "goals" nature intends for us. For example, the "goal" of life is to survive and reproduce. You don't have to look farther than Dawkin's The Selfish Gene for a defense of this premise. Whatever interferes with these "goals" is what is immoral. And this morality is entirely based on...reason! Human needs! And what we can naturally discover via the scientific method! Isn't this what the atheists want?

Freethinkers argue that religion promotes a dangerous and inadequate "morality" based on blind obedience, unexamined ultimatums, and "pie-in-the-sky" rewards of heaven or gruesome threats of hell.

Well, perhaps the fundamentalists do that, but as above natural law theory is based on what reason tells us about the natural world. Saying that "religion" uses rewards of heaven or threats of hell is to make a broad and inaccurate brush stroke, trying to paint all religions as fire-and-brimstone fundamentalists. This is, to say the least, inaccurate and disingenuous.

Freethinkers know that meaning must originate in a mind. Since the universe is mindless and the cosmos does not care, you must care, if you wish to have purpose. Individuals are free to choose, within the limits of humanistic morality.

To know that there is no meaning or purpose in the universe is to know that materialism or naturalism are true over, say, theism. I would like to hear what evidence there is for this philosophical viewpoint.

The complexity of life requires an explanation. Darwin's theory of evolution, with cumulative nonrandom natural selection "designing" for billions of years, has provided the explanation.
No doubt about it, Darwin's theory provides an absolutely beautiful and unifying theory of all biology.

A "Divine Designer" is no answer because the complexity of such a creature would be subject to the same scrutiny itself.

Classical theism holds to divine simplicity, which says that God is without parts and all his properties are the same as his essence.  It's not clear what it could mean for a non-corporeal being to be "complex."

Even a child knows to ask: "If God made everything, then who made God?"

Since God, as classically conceived, is not a being but rather being itself (see the meaning of YHWH), then this question makes no sense. "Who created existence itself?" implies that something existed before existence, which is nonsensical.  Atheists themselves have actually argued that it is not possible for "nothing" to exist, since that would be a state of affairs in which there is no state of affairs. Therefore, it is necessary that something exists but not necessary that it is any particular thing. I.e., this argument is that "existence itself" must exist.

Freethinkers recognize that there is much chaos, ugliness and pain in the universe for which any explanation of origins must also account.

Good! The first rational argument against theism I've seen so far!

Freethinkers are convinced that religious claims have not withstood the tests of reason. Not only is there nothing to be gained by believing an untruth, but there is everything to lose when we sacrifice the indispensable tool of reason on the altar of superstition.

OK. Other than the above argument from evil I have not seen a whole lot of support for this, but it's a short nontract so I forgive them.

Religion does not have a monopoly on good deeds. Most modern social and moral progress has been made by people free from religion

"Most?" Maybe, maybe not. But this would get into having to dig up statistics and historical facts and so forth, so I am going to skip it.

No, freethought is a philosophical, not a political, position. 

It's philosophical? But I thought only science can tell us truth. It seems to me that it is in fact more political than philosophical, from the poor arguments above. It seems more of a reactionary against fundamentalism than a carefully though-through position, but I'll leave that aside for the moment.

No. Atheism is not a belief. It is the "lack of belief" in god(s). Lack of faith requires no faith.

But you quoted Clarence Darrow above, who compared God to Mother Goose. I.e., obviously mythical. If something is obviously mythical, then this is the belief that it does not exist. It is strong atheism, not weak atheism. To pull in other quotes from the FFRF, Dan Barker's motto is that "there are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell, there is only our natural world...". This is a statement of strong atheism and materialism, which requires evidence before believing it.

You also said above, and I'll requote:

Not only is there nothing to be gained by believing an untruth, but there is everything to lose when we sacrifice the indispensable tool of reason on the altar of superstition.

So religion is an "untruth" and "superstition." It is extremely dishonest to so strongly imply that you think religion is false out of one side of your mouth, and then out of the other claim that, oh, you just "lack belief." This is nothing more than an attempt to make a positive claim (God does not exist; materialism is true) without having to bear the burden of providing evidence for that view.

Secular humanism has no god, bible or savior. It is based on natural rational principles. It is flexible and relativistic--it is not a religion.

"Rational principles" meaning empirical evidence only. Which is a metaphysical position for which not a shred of evidence or argument is provided. 

Freethought is reasonable. Freethought allows you to do your own thinking.

Except that you have to hold to the non-scientific creed that only science counts as knowledge. 

Freethinkers see no pride in the blind maintenance of ancient superstitions or self-effacing prostration before divine tyrants known only through primitive "revelations."

Natural theology and natural law, both foundations of classical theism, hold that these things can be known rationally, apart from any so-called "revelation. " What about those types of religions?


So, to recap, freethinkers think free of any creeds, tradition, or authority. Except for strict adherence to the creed of logical positivism, a position that is fifty years dead. And forming an opinion of religion on the basis of reason implies learning what those religions actually believe, but from the above comments it looks as though you have never even heard of natural law theory of morality, or natural theology as opposed to revealed theology. If you are truly using reason, you would show some awareness of what these religions actually believe rather than the cartoonish distortions above.

It appears to me that Dan Barker has not embraced reason and dumped his old fundamentalism, but rather just switched what he is fundamentalist about. Once a fundie, always a fundie?


  1. You write: "This is the basic creed of scientism, the idea that all worthwhile knowledge is scientific knowledge. But I thought "freethinkers" are free of creeds and"

    But there is no such statement in the nontract that says anything about knowledge being worthwhile. It is a definition of something as "true". There are many worthwhile things that may not be true. For example, imaginary thoughts and conditions can be thought of to help stimulate imagination which often is then used to come up with NEW ideas on how things do, in fact, work.

    I don't think there was any argument that non-true thoughts were not, or could not be, worthwhile.

  2. What they say is that for a statement to be considered true, it must be testable. My point was that that statement itself is not testable, and is therefore false.