Think For Yourself

This morning on my commute I passed a truck that had this slogan cut into a steel ladder attached to the bed: "No God. No Master. Think for yourself." I don't have a picture, because I was driving. I guess this is a somewhat common saying among atheists. 

But it also suggested a question: where do you draw the line? At some point, presumably, you have to take someone's word for something, or be willing to learn from a professor, mentor, teacher, or someone who has more experience or knowledge than you do (what you might call a "master"). You can hardly expect everyone to independently rebuild the entirety of human knowledge from scratch. At least, not if you want humanity to move forward. The more advanced we get, the more we rely on the masters of the past: the more we have to just take their hard work and discoveries as assumptions to base our work on. It's not that they can never be questioned, but there's always a baseline level of belief in those who lay the foundation for you. For instance, you don't need to question fundamental math, but you do need someone to teach it to you. Or take physics. The discoveries of Galileo, Newton, and others aren't perfect, but we learn them for a reason, and few people feel the need to recreate the great experiments of the past before they will trust what we learned from those experiments. And once you do start to see where those laws break down, it doesn't mean you need to hold Newton or Galileo in contempt. They're still the same geniuses—still the masters—but because we believed them them we can learn more than they were able to in their time.  

This is much like believing a trusted person who has faith in God and tells you the reasons for that faith, or who teaches you moral or religious principles. It may not be in the same realm of knowledge, but the implicit trust in the teacher is the same, as is the ability to build on what you've learned through independent experience, study, and seeking. So I guess atheists who use this slogan must be making frequent pilgrimages to the leaning tower of Pisa with assorted spheres in order to retain their intellectual integrity, or something.

Also, doesn't including "No God" in the slogan also imply that if you think for yourself you will necessarily come to a certain conclusion (namely, that there is no God)? But if you really wanted people to think for themselves, you would gladly allow them to take any position on God's existence, including the believing one. After all, thinking for yourself means you don't automatically accept the conclusions of others, but instead come to your own, whether they're the same or not. And some of the great scientists who made the astounding discoveries we base our understanding of the universe on were theists, and their discoveries didn't undo their beliefs. They may have even reinforced those beliefs. What if thinking for themselves leads a person to believe in God? It would be far from the first time that happened, though I wonder if the guy driving that truck would be happy to admit it. 

To me, "No God. No Master. Think for yourself" has the same energy as when online conspiracy theorists say "do your own research" instead of relying on the news (not that any one news source is always right). Often, the only "research" they do is listening to different pundits or different news outlets than the ones they consider to be mainstream. So what they really mean is "buy the lines I buy instead of the ones you buy." Or to put it differently: "I don't like what you say, so you're wrong." 

That's fine, we can disagree. Many religious people like myself hold allowing others their own ideas to be a tenet of their faith, though it doesn't require us to stop share our own. But the argument that faith is an unthinking position and that "free" thinking or empirical learning destroys religious faith is tired and obviously false. Talk to the proponents of that idea, and once you start probing how much of their "own research" or how much thinking for themselves they've actually done, it quickly becomes clear that in many cases the answer is unsurprisingly little. Instead, their position is based more on emotion and biases than on any careful intellectual work. 

To be fair, that same thing is true of most people. Most of us base a lot of our daily mental work on how we feel or what we unthinkingly assume. We often use our experiences as pieces of our personal compass, and take it for granted that the lessons we learn should apply equally to everyone. We decide things based on incomplete evidence or partial information. It's hard to criticize that. To demand that we do differently all the time would be impractical. No one could do it in every part of life, and to do it well in any part is a lifelong endeavor: one we should be engaged in about the most important things, by the way. But it certainly doesn't require that we reject notions of God out of hand, or refuse the help of the masters who came before us. Instead, we all need to decide where to put our trust, and how to build from there.


Th. said…

Not quite the same thing, but you remind me of this article I just read.
That's a good read. Thanks for pointing me to it.

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