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Can a Christian be a Free Thinker?

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Can a Christian be a Free Thinker?

Commentary by Walter Hesford | FāVS News

In late January I attended a showing of Bill Maher’s 2008 documentary “Religulous,” sponsored by the Palouse Free Thinkers. Coming out of the film, a friend, knowing that I was a member of Emmanuel Lutheran, said he was surprised that I would have come to such an anti-religious film. This got me wondering if a Christian can be a free thinker.

Before showing the film, the Palouse Free Thinkers did a little evangelizing, noting the dwindling number of people — especially young people — who belonged to an organized religion and predicting that by the end of this century a majority would be nones, potentially free-thinking folk who check “none” when asked for their religious affiliation. (For more about nones, see “New Pew Study Debunks Myths About America’s Nonreligious.’’)

I think many who do acknowledge a religious faith would agree that a fair number of the practices and beliefs “Religulous” ridicules are, indeed, ridiculous.

Examples of Low-Hanging Fruit in Maher’s Film

Maher picks a lot of low-hanging fruit to bite into and spit out: money-grubbing televangelists wearing lots of bling; places of worship with even more bling; biblical literalists who peddle a walk through the recreation of a giant Noah’s Ark; Islamic fundamentalists calling for death to infidels; Christian fundamentalists delighting in the Rapture and the fiery end of the world they see promised in Revelation; etc.

Maher spends no time with mainstream or liberal Christians who, for example, do not read the Bible literally, do not wait for a rapture and do not interpret Revelation as a call for the destruction of the oppressive Roman Empire.

Raised a Catholic, Maher seems obsessed with the concept of the Virgin Birth, deeming it foundational to Christianity, a foolish foundation. He might be surprised to learn that for many, the concept is not at all foundational and that the word translated as “virgin” might simply mean unmarried woman.

Given the amount of film time Maher spends mocking creationists, he must also think that the majority of Christians reject scientific evolution. In fact, the Catholic Church and most mainline Protestant churches now embrace modern scientific theory.

Many Christians are open to contemporary scholarship and are not afraid to raise questions about their faith. When I was thinking of joining the church I now belong to, I told the pastor that I had a lot of doubts and questions. “This is the church for you,” he said.

The question still remains, though, am I a free thinker? Can a Christian be a free thinker?

Still, Am I a Free Thinker?

The answer to this question seems to be “yes” and “no.” In his 2005 lecture “The Saga of Free Thought and its Pioneers: Religious Critique and Social Reform,” Fred Edwords provides a cogent overview of free thinking from ancient Egypt up to modern times. He defines free thinkers as those who “inquired into traditional religious beliefs, tested them against experience, and dared to draw their own conclusions.”

Edwords, past president of the American Humanist Association, includes deists, liberal religionists and religious innovators among those who might be so daring, though the motto of his association is “Good without a God.” Maybe you can also be good with a God, as long as this God thinks like you.

My favorite American free thinker is Thomas Paine, just because of his dazzling rhetoric. Consider this sentence from his 1794 book, “The Age of Reason”: “My own mind is my own church.”

This assertion has its attractions. It bespeaks a radical individualism Americans especially admire. The assertion, however, makes me realize why I am not wholly in the free-thinking camp. I prefer to be in a church with people who have different minds, who help me grow in understanding through our differences.

Being a Lutheran, I am also tied to ancient creeds and liturgies even many modern Christians, let alone free thinkers, might deem too tradition-bound. For me, these words and songs provide a home. I might find my own room in this home and sometimes wander from it, but it is there as a welcoming space.

So I feel free to go to a film like “Religulous” and chuckle at its satire. But I also feel free to return to church.


The views expressed in this opinion column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of FāVS News. FāVS News values diverse perspectives and thoughtful analysis on matters of faith and spirituality.

Walter Hesford
Walter Hesford
Walter Hesford, born and educated in New England, gradually made his way West. For many years he was a professor of English at the University of Idaho, save for stints teaching in China and France. At Idaho, he taught American Literature, World Literature and the Bible as Literature. He currently coordinates an interfaith discussion group and is a member of the Latah County Human Rights Task Force and Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Moscow. He and his wife Elinor enjoy visiting with family and friends and hunting for wild flowers.

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Chuck McGlocklin
Chuck McGlocklin
1 month ago

I consider myself a “free thinker” even though I am a very conservative Christian. I have attended a number of FFR meetings and I hate the god they hate: one that would torture people for eternity. That is NOT the God of the Bible. It is the pagan subversion of Him. I also hate those that identify as Christians but have no idea what a Christian is: one that loves like Jesus.
I am a skeptic. I am skeptical of both naturalistic science, a science that excludes possibilities relegating knowledge to only what we “think” we know, which has often been proven wrong and religion that excludes science.

Andy Pope
Andy Pope
14 days ago

Great column, Walter. And thought-provoking. I resonate with the “yes and no” aspect of freethinking. If I were not a freethinker, I would not have been able to think my way into a mode of Christianity that appeals to me. Admittedly, this comes largely from having been a pianist for numerous denominations, and weighing out their pros and cons, as pertained to me. I have not seen the film, but it appears that Maher is operating according to many assumptions, some of which do not apply to many believers This would include many Lutherans, Presbyterians and the like. I shared this column on X. Thank you.

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