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Free Thinker, Humanist, Atheist – What’s the difference?

On our Westwood Unitarian Congregational journey to wider inclusion, we have been attempting to become more “FreeThinker” Friendly.

The problem with the term FreeThinker is that every Unitarian-Universalist I know thinks freely – at least to some and mostly a large degree. Or lets take another,  often used equivalent – Humanist – Who reading this post is now not a human? So obviously these terms cry out for definition.  Since we know that definitions themselves, are culturally and historically defined,  I think it would be useful to define the terms in context in which they are or were used by Unitarians over the years.

Thus, I was delighted to come upon an article in the spring 2017 Issue of the UUWorld and article titled ” Humanism at 100: Across a century of change, Humanism has continued to evolve”.  I was hoping the article would serve as an introductory Humanist 101 course and it didn’t disappoint. The focus of this article is on a Unitarian Minister, John H. Dietrich (1878–1957) who first began, 100 years ago,  pushing his own church, and other Unitarian congregations to get beyond tolerance to accept and respect for those who are not theists.  As the article explains, this does not necessarily mean that a nontheist is an atheist. Dietrich himself claims

“Atheism, I believe, is properly used as a denial of God; and my attitude toward the idea of God is not that of denial at all; it is that of inquiry. I am entirely open-minded and not dogmatic toward the idea of God . . . [N]either do I call myself a theist. Theism involves a belief in a guiding intelligence which is working out some definite purpose, and as I look out upon the universe I see no evidence that the processes of nature are guided by a supreme intelligence aiming at a fore-planned result. But, mark you, I do not deny such intelligence. “

So please review the article for a more in depth discussion of our Humanist, Unitarian Universalist struggles and history.

Back to FreeThinkers – First an aside, on average over 20 people a day do a Google search on  the search term “FreeThinker definition” which is only a few searches lower than the daily average searches for Unitarian definitions.  So, the term does raise confusion among many.  The first problem of definition is that it seems unclear if the term should be spelled as one word, two words or two hyphenated words. Google NGram searches all the books, in English that  it has found from the 1800’s and charts the frequency (in percentage of all words published), of any word(s) you enter. Thus, a graph of Freethinker’s usage shows a large number of references in the early 1800’s, but a falling off over the next two centuries. The term as a single word shows equally high use in early 1800’s and a spike in the 1920’s . This period of relatively high usage, was followed by continuing, but small numbers of references.  By contrast the graph for Humanist shows the term came into use later in the middle of the 19th Century and it continues at quite high levels through to modern times. Thus, Humanist is the more popular term.

So, back to definitions.  Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a freethinker as “a person who thinks freely or independently :  one who forms opinions on the basis of reason independently of authority; especially :  one who rejects or is skeptical of religious dogma”   Thus, this definition points to the process of critical reasoning in general but notes its association with scepticism in regard to religious dogma. That same dictionary’s 3rd and most relevant definition of  humanist is ” a doctrine, attitude, or way of life centered on human interests or values; especially :  a philosophy that usually rejects supernaturalism and stresses an individual’s dignity and worth and capacity for self-realization through reason”. Once again we see reference to a type of thinking and as well a reference to superstition, which for most humanists includes belief in any interfering gods.

Thus, I think that the terms freethinker and humanist can and often are used interchangeably. It is curious that the Unitarian Universalist Humanist Association choose the less commonly used term Freethinker for their initiative, but it seems that in general use, the terms freethinker and humanist are synonymous.

As for atheist definitions, like Dietrich, I don’t like the definition as a denial of a god, but rather the notion that an atheist has no valid basis for believing that a theistic, or interfering god really exists.

I hope this post and the referenced article in the UUWorld, serve to reduce confusion surrounding these important and related words.

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