We may not be always aware that, our thinking is prejudiced by our ideologies (religious, racial, social, political etc.). If that happens, we are not really free-thinkers. Are we? Then, who are free-thinkers?
A free-thinker can interpret his/her surrounding circumstances without prejudice. He is a contrarian, and he understands the fact that there are good and bad in all ideologies, and some are better than the other, but none is complete or perfect. Ideologies came from human imaginations, and they all have inherent limitations. If someone can realize this simple truth, he/she will become a free-thinker in no time. Therefore, the criterion for becoming a free-thinker should be: the ability to think outside the box.
A religious bigot forms his/her opinion based on edicts of religious scriptures, and seeks advice from scriptures to make his/her decisions. He/she surrenders the ability to form independent opinion, and cannot think outside the box. A moderate religious person, on the other hand, may be able to push his/her thinking prowess outside the ideological barrier, and can become a free-thinker. How about Atheists? Are they free-thinkers?
Atheism used to be considered as contrarian view, but not any more. It has become just another ideological belief. Atheists are bounded by the ideological barrier also. So, to become a free-thinker, they too need to think outside the box. As I alluded before, absolute truth about any ideology is in the eye of the beholder. Therefore, only characteristic that can set our mind free is: the ability to think outside the box.
How about people who form their opinions based on other people's views on the subject under consideration? They substantiate their arguments with references and quotations. How do they differ from someone, who throws religious verses from scriptures for every opinion he/she formulates? The only difference between these two groups is the points of view. Are they free-thinkers?
This reminds me of a discussion I had with someone about cremation. The question was: why some people chose cremation for a dead body rather than burial? He cited environmental reasons for cremation, and also supported the procedure with religious sanction, using quotes and instances from religious scriptures. My arguments for cremation, on the other hand, were quite different from his. I told him the following metaphor.
When we move out of a house after living there for a long time, our mind keeps wondering about that house, and we keep coming back to see that house at every opportunity/excuse we have. One day, we came back to see the house, and it was gone. It was perhaps burned down or demolished for a new one. What will happen then? That will be, perhaps, our last visit to that house, meaning our mind will be finally free from that house. The same goes with our soul after death, which keeps wondering about the remnants of the body as long as they exist. The body is the house of the soul. In order to set it free, for reincarnation or whatever, people need to burn down the body. He immediately asked me if I had any scriptural support for my hypothesis. I could not provide any. If I had, may be he would have accepted my analogy.
This is a contrarian (i.e., outside the box) view, and, I think, it is a quite convincing one. Free-thinkers should depend on solid arguments for their thoughts, even though they may go against the established norm or ideological belief. This may require a special mental ability/quality/talent/power. The most essential ingredient of a free-thinker is to admit that all ideologies have limitations. Free-thinkers should be able to criticize their own ideology or belief-system. Once someone is capable of doing so, his/her mind will be free like a bird. The goal is to set our mind free by burning our ideological barriers.
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