An extremely common demand made by non-religious folks is that you ought to ‘think for yourself’. On the surface, this seems like a reasonable request – certainly, the people who make this claim believe it is morally exemplary to do so! But what does it mean to ‘think for yourself’ and what moral weight can this directive bear?
It is worth observing that the demand to ‘think for yourself’ is often made against the background assumption that if you are part of a religious tradition you do not think for yourself. This appears to be based on two separate but related assumptions: that religious folks do not think for themselves because a centralised autocratic institution dictates norms of behaviour, and that ‘thinking for yourself’ is necessarily a mode of freedom. The latter claim is largely the converse of first, based on the logical connection that says ‘either you think for yourself, or an institution thinks for you’, and the problem with this is that it is solely by drawing against traditions and institutions that any kind of thinking or language is possible. The trouble with the former assumption is that it doesn’t describe contemporary religious institutions outside of purely fictional narratives very accurately.
Of all the world religions, only Catholicism has a central bureaucracy and single leader, and yet Catholics (if you actually talk to a reasonable number of such people) are generally far more independently minded about their theology and religious practice than protestant Christians who – despite their branch of that religious tradition having expressly broken away for the purpose of ‘thinking for themselves’ – all too often align around congealed interpretations of their scriptures. (I personally find it fascinating that an education system that purportedly discourages independent thought creates so many independent thinkers, and suspect this says more about schools than religions). If we move away from Christianity, the situation is even less one of outsourced thinking: the norm for global religion is distributed religious practice, with no centralised elements whatsoever.
There is, however, at least one way that religious folks can be said to not ‘think for themselves’, which is that when they face moral crises they will turn to their co-religionaries or (local) community leaders for advice. This is, however, what is required in this situation, since the best philosophical and scientific evidence suggests that you can only operate in a moral context when you are embedded in a common moral community and can engage with others in what in Chaos Ethics I have termed moral representation. A person who solely ‘thinks for themselves’ i.e. who never checks their reasoning, ethics, or assumptions against another person cannot be relied upon to think reasonably, or to reason morally, because humans naturally skew their reasoning towards their own benefit.
This question of ‘thinking for yourself’ also takes a strange turn when we bring in psychologists and psychiatrists who provide life advice and moral representation to their patients. This relationship is parallel to that between a religious community leader and their congregation; only the framework of reason and morality is distinct, as it is when we move between religious traditions. Is a person who is extolled to ‘think for themselves’ prohibited from seeking psychological assistance? I doubt this is the intent of the phrase. Indeed, I suspect that this kind of secular (and allegedly scientifically grounded) advice-seeking is something that would normally be encouraged. Similarly, the advice to ‘think for yourself’ is turned on its head in the context of scientific consensus, which advocates of this phrase typically align with while opposing those (such as people who dispute the reports of climate scientists) who ‘think for themselves’ on empirical issues, and thus where independent thinking is both mocked and disdained. In this regard, ‘think and verify’ might be a better phrase to bandy about.
So the demand to ‘think for yourself’ transpires not to be advice to think independently – which anyway, would be both impossible (since our linguistic concepts are maintained collectively) and undesirable (since thought without cross-checks is self-serving and apt to mislead). Rather, it risks becoming a demand that you think within the same framework of reason and ethics that the person making the assertion holds. Which at this point means that it has become simply a non-religious version of the very complaint being levelled against the religious alternatives i.e. it is an insistence of adopting specific norms of reason and ethics, namely the secular descendant of the Enlightenment tradition of reason and ethics. This is a great tradition – one that both religious and non-religious people are participating in – but it cannot be elevated to the sole source of norms without transgressing its own values of freedom and autonomy.
The one good thing I can say about a demand to ‘think for yourself’ is that at least it is a positive claim. I would rather hear this than incoherent fantasies like ‘the world would be a better place without religion’, which is only a secular version of an all-too-familiar religious bigotry that insists everyone who isn’t like me is necessarily inferior. There are authentic moral values being espoused in the claim to ‘think for yourself’ – it is just that in its most basic form, ‘thinking for yourself’ is also likely to lead to terrible vices. In this, as in all ethical affairs, we need to be part of a community if we hope to live up to our chosen moral standards. Besides, we now have plenty of people who ‘think for themselves’ and it isn’t helping any more: what we need is not a greater supply of autonomous thinkers, but better forms of collective reasoning. And this requires co-operation between everyone, whether they ‘think for themselves’ or not.