Van Gogh and “freethinking”

One of my favorite quotes on “freethinkers” – a term which I find to be a misnomer at worst and not broadly applicable (i.e. not applicable to all who bear the label) at best – comes from a letter written by Vincent Van Gogh in response to his brother Theo:

Freethinker, that is really a word I detest, although I have to use it occasionally faute de mieux [for want of anything better]. The fact is that I do my best to think things through and try in my actions to take account of reason and common sense. And trying to belittle someone would be quite contrary to that. So it is perfectly true that on occasion I have said to Father, “Do try to think this or that through,” or, “To my mind, this or that does not stand up,” but that is not trying to belittle someone. I am not Father’s enemy if I tell him the truth for a change, not even that time I lost my temper and did so in salty language. Only it did no good, and Father took it amiss.

It should be said here that Van Gogh’s point of view was decidedly different than mine: marked by criticism of religious organization, as in the sentence directly following – “In case Father refers to my saying that, ever since I have acquired so much dessous les cartes, I haven’t given two pins for the morality and the religious system of the clergy and their academic ideas, then I absolutely refuse to take that back, for I truly mean it.” (Van Gogh did have a similar position to mine in one respect, however – his father was also a minister.)

What appeals to me so much about this quote is that it sets out a perfectly reasonable position that cannot be assumed solely by the “freethinker” movement (i.e. atheists and agnostics). A Christian like myself can certainly try to think things through and account for reason. As much as the claim is made, reason and logic are not the sole property of “freethinkers,” nor are they the only group to utilize them, and it is worth stating that fact whenever necessary.


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