The Awkwardness of Free-Thinking

A “freethinker” is defined as one who forms opinions on the basis of reason independently of authority, especially one who denies religious dogma. Perhaps unbridled intellectual freedom sounds seductive at first, but is this really a good idea?

Consider children. Truth is basically simple and if an idea wouldn’t make sense at a fundamental level to a child, then the idea is probably nonsense. For instance, imagine explaining to a five-year-old that he has free reign to think and conclude whatever he wants, permission to be an absolute free-thinker. Sound good?

“William, go for it! You are your own authority. Explore all possibilities independently, pick your own symbols, decide for yourself what is right and wrong, and try anything without restraint.”

What would William do? Well, at first he might take up the idea and have some silly fun. But eventually that trusting and innocent little boy would only be confused because the proposition is daunting. Perhaps he could try to take the proposal seriously and set out to construct grand schemes of axioms and conclusions. The problem is, at the end of such a time-consuming endeavor the knowledge would only make sense to (the no longer so little) William, and unless he converted the world to his ways, William’s free intellectual exercise would be futile.

That is simply to say, unbridled intellectual freedom is actually non-intellectual, and even children understand that knowledge is fiduciary. They naturally don’t want free reign, they really want guidance.

Or, consider daily life. We don’t go into the kitchen with unrestrained freedom, whimsically mixing pickle juice with heavy cream to see if it makes a good sauce for chocolate cake. We don’t approach our spouse each day as if we’ve just met a strange new person, tossing out all that we’ve come to know. Would we blissfully paint the porch if the house were burning down?

Sure some would have us believe, whether it is the Dalai Lama or H. Jackson Brown Junior, that the best instruction in life is to “approach cooking and love with reckless abandon” and while there may be a little to that, it doesn’t take much to see that this flinging of one’s self into the abyss is really not very wise, seductive though it may sound. Can we do anything at all – successfully – without training and restraining our intellectual powers under the guidance of authority?

No, and that is where real intellectual virtue lies – in knowing the appropriate boundaries.

The idea that true intellectual freedom must first be rooted in, and loyal to, fiduciary axioms is necessary for any discipline. A geologist cannot deny that the earth exists; the astronomer cannot deny that the heavens exist; and the physician cannot deny that disease exists. (1) In those disciplines the one who studies that body of knowledge must learn the fundamentals first, and accept them, to build, clarify and further the field of study. In this way the discipline is furthered, rather than continually struck down and rebuilt. That is not a limitation on intellectual freedom, but rather the nature of the existence of a discipline – and its own freedom unto itself.

But who is the ultimate authority?

God is knowledge. St. Thomas, in the beginning of the Summa Theologica, says that the study of Divine Revelation, what God has revealed to us, is the highest science. (2) In the study of scared science, theology, freedom is exercised only in communion with the Magisterium, which guards the Deposit of Faith. The theologian cannot deny canonical Scriptures and dogmas of the Church, the very foundation of Catholic faith, and still be a theologian.

The Church has addressed this theologically based on reverential fear of God, the Author of all Truth and ultimate authority on all knowledge. Christ was obedient unto death, yet the ascendency of the Catholic Church was the most liberating event in human history. Obedience to the authority of the Magisterium is a faithful assent to Revealed Truth. Why? Because truth sets man free.

St. Thomas considered in Summa Contra Gentiles what awkward things would happen without faith. Man would stagnate because each individual would not have enough time in a single lifetime to sort through falsity and truth enough to progress. We need supreme guidance, just like children need teachers. St. Thomas said that without faith in God, “the human race would remain in the blackest shadows of ignorance.” (3)

This idea of obedient assent does not go unchallenged, of course. Modern thought has become permeated with the ideology of liberalism, in which judgments are declared as valid because they proceed from individual powers rather than from an authority. The (generally labeled) Modernists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries promoted, to varying degrees, this kind of intellectual freedom, but they crossed the line into heresy when that freedom led some to reject the objective truth of Divine revelation.

That rejection, in turn, led to the idea that dogma evolves with cultures, that faith is merely individual sentiment subject to individual whims, and that science is the only objective truth. That’s why they think faith and science are separate, but of course they never can be. Further, as a brief tangent, the logical consequence of this separation was also that State and Religion are completely separate, and we see where that is going. The rejection of objective truth spread like poison through the Christian branches, as Pope Pius X predicted it would in the 1907 encyclical, Pascendi doninici gregis. (4)

The idea of free-thinking started with a rejection of Scholastic theology and of traditional Catholic doctrine, and it persisted both within and outside the Church. Some theologians want the freedom to dissent from traditional authority because they think that submission to authority is a form of servitude. This leads people to overestimate human facilities. Such an idea is false, and it induces foolishness and ungratefulness in civil society. (5)

Well, think about it.

If people enter intellectual endeavors under this metaphysical umbrella of skepticism (be it theology, philosophy, or social and physical sciences, domestic life or grade school) receiving teaching as a priori suspect, then its truth is continually contested instead of clarified and developed. The freedom itself becomes more important than the truth. (6) And that isn’t really freedom; that’s confusion.

Little William would do much better to first gain a true mastery of the basics and he, even at age five, would sense this fact of learning. That’s what Kindergarten is for. He needs to learn his alphabet and numbers, and basic rules for using them. A good cook must learn the basics of cooking first. A wife that loves her husband wants to know him better, not her idea of him. As for painting porches while buildings burn down, in many intellectual circles today, bereft of solid philosophical grounding, this analogy plays out as if the scholar or scientist is unaware of anything beyond the specialty of his immediate porch often shrouded with political agendas.

Consider the things we are asked to accept today in the name of science or intellectualism regarding human life, global conditions, our origins, our limits, our ethical behaviors. Besides testing an idea to see if it makes sense to a child, there’s another important test to examine the motives of the investigator. Does the investigator seek to conform truth to his worldview, or does he seek to conform his worldview to truth? If it’s the former, beware. There was only one man who was also God.

To disregard true authority brings the awkward pain of self-destruction, on any level.

Imagine the teacher’s conundrum if little William announces, “Erp, finquish pashegti!” because in his free exercise of language and symbols where he alone is his own authority, he has decided that this phrase means he needs to go potty.

Awkward indeed. So much for the seduction of free-thinking.


  1. Avery Dulles. Craft of Theology: From Symbol to System. (NY: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1992), page 167-8.
  2. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, First Part, Question One.
  3. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, Book One, Chapter Four.
  4. Pope Pius X. Pascendi doninici gregis: Encyclical of Pope Pius X on the Doctrines of the Modernists, September 8, 1907.
  5. Pope Leo XIII. Aeterni Patris: Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII on the Restoration of Christian Philosophy,  August 4, 1879.
  6. The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1990), “Instruction Donum Veritatis on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian.”

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About the Author

Stacy Trasancos is a wife and homeschooling mother of seven. She holds a PhD in Chemistry from Penn State University and a MA in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. She worked as a chemist for DuPont in the Lycra® and Teflon® businesses.

She teaches Chemistry and Physics for Kolbe Academy Online and Homeschool Program and serves as the Science Department Chair. She is teaching a set of summer mini-workshops titled "Science in the Light of Faith" for students, parents, other educators, or any Christian interested in the nuts and bolts of navigating science.

Similarly, she is teaching a "Reading Science in the Light of Faith" at Holy Apostles College & Seminary next Fall (2016). The course is funded by a John Templeton Foundation grant through John Carroll University for teaching science in seminaries. She is on the Board of Directors for ITEST (the Institute for the Theological Encounter with Science and Technology) where the essays from the course will be shared with the public.

Also in the Fall of 2016, she will teach a "Theological History of Science" course at Seton Hall University, where her mentor, the late Fr. Stanley L. Jaki was a distinguished professor. She is the author of Science Was Born of Christianity: The Teaching of Fr. Stanley L. Jaki.

Her new book, Particles of Faith: A Catholic Guide to Navigating Science is forthcoming with Ave Maria Press...

She teaches, researches, and writes from her family's 100-year old restored mountain lodge in the Adirondack mountains, where her husband and children (and two German Shepherds) remain her favorite priorities. Here is her website.

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  1. Stacy,

    Thank you for your insightful and important article on freethinking. A serious subject indeed but I found myself smiling––ruefully. Back in the days when my “brilliance” would rival the sun, I formed my opinion of God independently because I figured God would want me to do so without muddling around in the swamp of obedience and authority and intellectual constraint. My brain unshackled from the guidance of others, it roamed the hinterlands. One day it returned and triumphantly declared that there was no God.

    I’m serious. One day, all by myself, I discarded God as just another problem solved. Next.

    To expose my folly of freethinking to the world (a bit grandiose, I admit) I’ve crafted a simple story written in the present tense. Please bear with me but my idiocy of past is one for the books.

    I made a quick trip To California to talk to an executive recruiter. Their offices are in a modern high rise, a good address for those that care. I don’t expect much from the meeting; just getting my name in front of them is the objective.

    I enter the sleek elevator at the ground floor. There’s another man, smartly dressed, already inside. As we start our upward journey, we’re jarred by a sudden lurch, and we stop.

    “When these things happen, I go into a Zen state,” he says.

    “Really. I try and solve for the rate of acceleration of a falling object.”

    “You’re a mathematician?” he politely asks.

    “No. Just a smartass. And you?”

    “I’m a professor of theology.”

    “That’s impressive. Since we may have a few moments, can I impose on you? I’d like to hear your proof on the existence of God,” I said.

    “Ah, staring at death in a box on a wire. I can do one better. I can prove that He doesn’t exist.”

    He teaches theology? Most likely another Marxist secularist with tenure. Or I could be wrong.

    He starts. “Let’s imagine you spend your entire life on a secluded island. During this time, you never meet another human being. Books, CD’s, DVD’s, TVs, tapes, cellular phones, satellite feeds, Internet and Wi-Fi are nonexistent in your world.”

    “How did I get there? What about parents?” Details I wanted answered.

    “Fair enough. Your parents live in Bakersfield, California, and one night they do what parents do. Mom is now pregnant and then your Dad suddenly dies, of all things. Your Mom goes it alone. Shortly thereafter, pregnant Mom takes a trip to the Caribbean, all expenses paid, because she won some publisher’s clearinghouse contest. Waking up hung-over after celebrating her first night away from Bakersfield, please forgive her lapse in judgment, she decides to explore the remote regions of an archipelago, is dinghy wrecked and finds herself stranded on a deserted island. No way out.”

    “You teach this stuff?” I ask incredulously.

    “My classes have waiting lists. So. Your mother’s quite resourceful. Food, shelter and water are not a problem. Time proceeds as it does, and she delivers you beneath her favorite coconut tree. Key point, she’s a deaf mute, so Mom won’t be talkative or much of a teacher about life’s bigger issues. She nurtures you until you can finally take care of yourself, although you’re still quite young. Then, Mom dies. The irony.”

    I’m somewhat curious as to where this is going.

    He continues. “You’re now alone without any outside influences of any kind. You grow older. You survive. A little lonely now and then, but you do splendidly.”

    “I’m healthy, right? And tanned, no doubt.”

    “A regular Adonis. One glorious fall morning, you awaken to the aquamarine, tropical coolness of Nature’s breath. Not particularly hungry after gorging on your typical Tuesday menu of blueberries and coconut milk, you decide to sit on the beach, gaze out on the vastness and think. ‘Oh God, what have I done wrong? Why has life turned out this way? Why am I being punished to a life of solitude? Have I been less than moral? Have I done bad things? Have I not been your good servant? Have I talked trash about Jesus? What do I have to do to get into heaven?’”

    “Reasonable questions,” I inject.

    “So you think? Now we get to the good stuff, because there are a few things wrong and nothing right with this beach scenario. First, sitting there, you can’t articulate words because you’ve never been taught a language. Second, your questions belong in the intellectual domain and you’ve never been to that territory. Third, knowledge is an essential element when exploring the heterogeneity of thought, and you know nothing more than survival basics. To be blunt, you know squat. My point is you won’t be engaging, and never will, in far reaching philosophical monologues about God or death or pattern baldness even.”

    “So you’re saying that given the circumstances of my secluded island life, I could never possibly know about God.”

    “In my scenario, correct.”

    “You’ve only proven I don’t know about God. He may still exist,” I said.

    “Then what a spiteful being He must be. Hiding Himself from you. If man’s relationship with God is the pivotal reason for our existence, He would do everything in His unlimited power to introduce Himself. But He doesn’t. Does spite define love, God’s alter ego? Of course not. Ergo, no God.”

    Another lurch, and we once again begin to move upward. At the twentieth floor, my floor, the elevator opens and I step out. I turn, put my hand on the polished aluminum doors to prevent them from closing, and look at a man who is pleased with his denial of God. I offer wisdom I was taught from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

    “Since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partakers, in a way known to God, of the Paschal mystery. Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of His Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved.”

    The professor starts to speak but hesitates. “I need to think about that. Perhaps I’ll see you on the way down.”

    “If down is hell, I’ll pass.”

    I wanted to use this tale to reinforce the point that left to their own finite abilities, people will sometimes deny God, at least their understanding of God, without ever knowing the truth about the authentic God. Because if they were open to that truth, with His grace, an entirely different light would illuminate the fallacy of their thinking. My own experience taught me that valuable lesson.

    You see, I was a kindred spirit to our smug professor above. Sadly, the disavowal of other learned voices kept me away from God for decades. The chaos of going it alone can be devastating. Trust me.

  2. Marcus,

    I don’t know what to say! I love that story, pulls you in and makes you think before you realize it. A priest once helped me rethink what it means to say we are “made” to know God. It’s not just that we have the mental equipment to do it, but we have the longing, the desire, to will it. We all need to know and be known, to love and be loved – to the point of desperation.

    Perhaps it wasn’t supposed to, but I also found myself thinking about the uncontacted Brazilian tribes and the debates over whether or not missionaries should evangelize to them. I don’t know that answer, but it intrigues me.

    Thank you sincerely for the wonderful comment and story. Yes, I once fancied myself a force of free-thinking, haha. I relate to your introduction so much I shake my head in embarrassment. Oh dear! The hubris of youth. At least with age we’ll be able to lay some claim to a little wisdom (though my kids still have their doubts!).

    Have a Blessed Day!
    Stacy Trasancos

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