19 May 2007

Defending Freethought

Since we at Leicester Secular Society, according to our badge, promote Freethought Secularism I thought we ought to post a response to this attack: freethinking ruins all things. Although it is from an obviously hostile website, devoted to defending 'Christendom' against 'Jihad and Liberalism', it was recently featured on the Richard Dawkins site, because of its attack on the book God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens.

The first false claim is that:

The atheists and freethinkers say they want openmindedness, but their minds are plainly shut off to the fountains of wisdom of thousands of years because the wisdom contained in scriptures and hymns--from which virtually all great Western art and literature derive and to which all of it pays often unwitting tribute--is expressed in an idiom and attributed to a source that they reject out of hand.

In The God Delusion, at the end of Chapter 9, Richard Dawkins lists a whole series of phrases from the Bible that have become a part of the English language and are often quoted idiomatically without realising their origin. The difference of course is that freethinkers recognise the "source" as being human and not supernatural, and that the sentiments provide a stimulus to thought and expression, not a rigid dogma or unquestionable wisdom. This is not "narrowness of spirit", indeed it is a spirited response to part of our literary heritage.

The next paragraph begins quite well:

Freethinkers supposedly want "the pursuit of ideas for their own sake," but no one pursues ideas simply for their own sake, but in order to understand, to act or to believe, or to have some combination of these. Men pursue ideas so that they may understand the world, and they seek to understand the world to have wisdom. Men desire wisdom in order to live well, and part of living well is to pursue and know the Good, and the Good is that which fulfills human nature and causes it to flourish. The desire to know is a natural desire, one implanted in us as part of our created being;

Apart from the capitalisation of "Good" and the next to last word "created" this is all very reasonable. We cannot always be sure of what the good is before we have investigated the ideas and their consequences. And a freethinker would say of course that our desire to know is part of our EVOLVED being - it is one of the instincts that is important for our survival, and one that is distinctly human.

A final quote:

The typical freethinker believes that he is at home with uncertainty, and that it is the religious man who is in dire need of certainty, but the opposite is quite obviously true: the freethinker cannot really stand to have loose ends, puzzles or paradoxes. If this, then that is impossible, the freethinker says. The religious man not only assumes that paradox will occur, but he takes the paucity of reason to explain paradox as an indirect confirmation that there are realities that not even reason, as estimable and valuable as it is, can penetrate or comprehend.

This confuses uncertainty with vagueness or nonsense or self-contradiction. Personally I enjoy puzzles, especially if they are solvable, and paradoxes if they provoke thought, and there are many loose ends in science, tying them up or exploring where they lead is a stimulus to many researchers at the frontiers of our knowledge, but "believing six impossible things" to start with does not lead to enlightenment.