A post I came across recently got me thinking. One of the many monikers for atheists is freethinker. Many atheists (myself among them) consider the lack of religious restrictions to be freedom to pursue the evidence of a particular line of thought. It has been my experience that every idea comes with a set of preconceived notions we default to. For some Christians, evolution comes with a host of religious implications. For some atheists, religion comes with all the negative aspects right up front.
The article linked above quotes liberally from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer is most well-known for his stance against the Nazi Party in Germany during the buildup to the 2nd World War. As a theologian, Bonhoeffer had a great deal to say about the Church and the role it could play in an increasingly secular world. Of particular note to the essay I’ve linked written by Scot McKnight, is the examination by Bonhoeffer concerning the difference between obedience and freedom.
Reading the quotes from Bonhoeffer made me think of a quote from Benjamin Franklin: “To follow by faith alone is to follow blindly”.
Let me also state here that I am not a trained theologian. I am approaching these quotes from Bonhoeffer as a humanist and a naturalist. The following quotes come from DBW6, Ethics, 287-288.
“Obedience without freedom is slavery, freedom without obedience is arbitrariness”
One of the statements I’ve heard from the faithful (particularly monotheists) is that they are a slave to their deity. From some of the activities I engage in in my personal life, I can understand this statement. One part of freedom is the ability to give it, willingly and without coercion, to another or an ideal. One example would be a soldier, who decides to give up a significant portion of his or her freedom (and life potentially) for the opportunities military service can provide.
Freedom without obeying some greater authority is not just arbitrariness, it is anarchy. This is where “Do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law” comes from. Anarchy may be viable option when dealing with small groups but large nations require structure and some measure of obedience in order to succeed. As a secular humanist, my ultimate responsibility is to live within a cultural collective, to obey the laws of the collective (unless they violate my conscience), and try to make the collective whole better for those that come after me. To do so, I must have the freedom to obey and the freedom to disobey.
Fundamentalist belief systems tend to demand obedience. In this version of religion, you can be convicted of thought crime by your deity. This is a form of totalitarianism in both scope and evil. Thoughts are not crimes, actions are.
“Obedience makes clear to human beings that they have to be told what is good and what the Lord requires of them (Mic 6:6), freedom lets them create the good themselves”
One hallmark of Fundamentalism I reject is the idea that we are born as abject horrors and need a celestial dictator to keep us in line. We require guidance for certain but that is why we have family, community, and culture. We also have individual choice and personal responsibility. The Fundamentalist view of humanity is ultimately self-defeating. If you cannot understand why you must take the feelings of others into account, you’re a psychopath.
I try to base decisions less on what a deity might or might not approve of and more on the harm the decision may cause. The minimization of harm should be at the forefront of a right thinking person’s mind. Sometimes a decision is made that will inevitably cause harm. As a freethinker I can create the good in myself and in others through my actions. I don’t need a celestial dictator over my shoulder demanding that behavior.
“Obedience follows blindly, freedom has open eyes” and
“Obedience acts without asking questions, freedom asks about the meaning”
Both quotes approach the same problem: blind obedience. If one is convinced an authority figure speaks with divine mandate, that figure’s words become the same as the words of their deity. One need only look at the Branch Dividians in Waco or 9/11 to see the effects of this. It is the absence of freedom promulgated by fundamentalist religious doctrine that causes many atrocities. To paraphrase Steven Weinberg, whether religion exists or not good people will try to do good things and evil people will try to do evil. To make a morally upright person do something evil requires religion.
Is it any wonder that the overwhelming number of genocides committed in the last hundred years have been motivated by fundamentalist religious dogma? Morally free people, people with full reasoning capacity, do not fly planes into buildings or kill entire villages of people. Morally free people don’t try to use their fellow citizens as human shields and reject every opportunity for a peaceful settlement. For these people to commit such actions, it requires years, decades even, of fundamentalist indoctrination.
To modify a line from Star Wars: only a fundamentalist deals in absolutes.
As a freethinker, I want my questions to guide me, even if they lead to more questions. How to live morally knowing that my time here is finite is the first question. Perhaps it is the best question to start with. Blind faith and obedience to religious fundamentalism has and will continue to cause enormous issues for civilization. It is up to both freethinkers and believers to throw off the shackles of fundamentalism. The world is big enough for people to obey their god and for those who want the freedom to ask questions.