Group Think vs. Free Thinking

Updated: Nov 10, 2018



Religion is the masterpiece of the art of animal training, for it trains people as to how they shall think… [Arthur Schopenhauer][i].

Recently, due to the Tweets of Kanye West, there has been a lot of talk about group think vs. free thinking (here).[ii] The argument basically goes, ‘don’t let others tell you what to think, think for yourself.’ That seems reasonable enough. The question is: Is group think always bad and free thought always good?

That depends.

Christianity, among other religions, is often referred to as a crutch for those who don’t want to think for themselves, face the difficult realities of life, or make an effort to improve the world in which we live. It is viewed as the catch-all solution for the intellectually or morally lazy. How did the world come about? God made it. How do I have to act? God will tell me. How do I fix this problem? God will take care of it. What happens with the responsibility of my wrong-doings? God takes care of that too. And as for Catholics, we don’t have to even struggle to understand God or the Bible; the Church will do that for us. We just pay, pray and obey. It is seen as the epitome of group think.

It certainly seems like an easy way out.

Yet Christianity isn’t the only means to conveniently escape the tougher questions of life. Atheism and Skepticism can equally be used as a crutch or a shield. Questions such as our ultimate origin, the meaning of life and our final destiny are quickly dismissed as unanswerable, so why bother? This is also applied to moral issues. A young atheist, living with her boyfriend, told him: ‘But if there’s a God, then we can’t do whatever we want.’ This is very true.

So if Marx’s maxim that religion is the opium of the masses aimed at keeping you happy while you suffer can hold true, then atheism can be dubbed as the morphine which deadens your senses to troubling human and moral issues. As for group think, there are plenty of skeptics insisting that others follow suit: look at the culture on university campuses.

Atheists may cry ‘foul’, claiming that the superficiality of some atheists doesn’t translate to atheism as such being superficial. Surprisingly enough, I would agree. However, the same holds true for Christianity. Both can be superficially used to avoid effort on an intellectual or moral level. To quote Peter Kreeft, a Catholic philosopher, ‘The one thing everyone must start with is total honesty… If I decide to stop believing just so that I can commit all the sins I want without feeling guilty, without asking what’s true and what God thinks – that’s dishonest. And to decide to believe just to avoid the hassle of thinking for myself or just because it’s socially convenient – that’s dishonest too.’[iii]

It’s not enough to believe just because that’s how I was raised, because that’s my tradition. As Pope Benedict once said in an interview: ‘What is interesting is that the concept of tradition has to a great extent made redundant that of religion, and that of confession or denomination – and, thereby, that of truth. Particular religions are regarded as traditions… (and) everyone should respect each other’s (traditions). At any rate, if traditions are all we have, then truth has been lost. And sooner or later we will ask what in fact traditions are for. And in that case a revolt against tradition is well founded.’[iv]

The point is you should follow something because it’s true, period. That is intellectual honesty. And that truth may or may not be with the group. The group is not the criterion.

Free thought is nevertheless essential. The Church insists that a person not be coerced into belief - they must be free to discover the truth.[v] That neither translates into meaning that all ideas are of equal value – some ideas are right, some wrong; for example, the idea of racism is wrong. Nor does it mean that ideas shouldn’t be shared with others. The Church presents a unified body of teaching to be considered, and hopefully embraced in the conviction that it is true… but freely embraced.[vi] Christ never forced himself upon others. The Church from the beginning has been called to do the same, although the Second Vatican Council admits that on this point those in the Church haven’t always acted in ‘accord with the spirit of the Gospel.’[vii]

For Catholics struggling with their faith, this is an invitation to dig deeper as to why we believe what we believe and do what we do. And for non-Catholics, this is an invitation to take a closer look. Ask the tough questions. In doing so, I remain convinced that you will eventually fall deeply in love with the truth that is Christ and his Church.

Yes, the Catholic Church is a group, but it still wants you to think.

Fr. John Bullock, LC

November 10, 2018

[i]quoted in Atheist Blogger:


[iii] Peter Kreeft, Yes or No, San Francisco, California: Igantius Press, p. 58-59.

[iv] Ratzinger, God & the World, San Francisco, California: Igantius Press pp 34-35.

[v] Cf. Dignitatis Humanae, Declaration on Religious Freedom, n. 1, from the 2nd Vatican Council,

[vi] Dignitatis Humanae, n. 2

[vii] Dignitatis Humanae, n. 12

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