According to Wikipedia, “free thinking” or “freethought” has come to refer to a certain philosophical viewpoint.
Freethought (or “free thought”) is a philosophical viewpoint which holds that positions regarding truth should be formed on the basis of logic, reason, and empiricism, rather than authority, tradition, revelation, or other dogma. [3/28/2017]
This school of thought is variously termed, “free thought,” “freethought,” “free thinkers,” or “free thinking.” But the core issue is, apparently, a deliberately refusal to be constrained by the strictures of religious dogma, authority, or tradition. The International Humanist and Ethical Union, clarifies this secular aspect saying
“Freethought [is] An intellectual and cultural movement. A freethinker is a religious unbeliever who forms his or her judgments about religion using reason rather than relying on tradition, authority, faith, or established belief.”
Language is flexible, and there’s nothing wrong with using old words, like “free” and “thought,” in specialized or news ways. So I have no objection to the free thinking community for their chosen title. I would however expect people who are self proclaimed “free thinkers” to be the kind of people who “think freely,” that is, they actively try to avoid malicious bias, secular dogmatism, anti-intellectualism, and so on. I would hope that the title “free thinker” is also a descriptor. The description of “free thinker” can describe most anyone, but to be fair, we are all prone to the kinds of errors listed below. So, just to be clear, I fully acknowledge, and intend, to include self proclaimed “free thinkers” in this critique as a sort of “consistency check” for those who wear the title of “free thinker” without actually thinking freely. But, this post is also a wider critique of all of us. We all have a general duty towards academic integrity, intellectual honesty, and scholarly discourse, even though we often fall short.
In that way, I recognize that the phrase “free thinker” isn’t strictly limited to the freethought community–the concept of “freely thinking” existed long before this group coopted the terms. “Free thinker” can equally signify anyone who is “thinking freely” and “intellectually liberated.” Free thinking, in the wider sense of the phrase, does not require any additional baggage sometimes identified as “free thought” such as atheism, agnosticism, secularism, humanism, political progressivism, scientism, etc.