Jonathan Graf is not afraid of complexity. A Ph.D. student in computer engineering, Graf works predominantly with IT security. But there's a much simpler tool he's honed during his time as a Freethinker.
He calls it the bullshit detector.
"By developing a sense of skeptical thinking, you're able to sort the wheat from the chaff," said Graf, a member of Virginia Tech's Freethinkers Club. "That's why I say that so much of free thought is how you think and how you come to your conclusions, and if people practiced more free thought and skeptical thinking, it's really an exercise of the skill that leads you to good knowledge in every endeavor."
Freethinkers are typically agnostics, claiming "atheism with respect to any God that's described in any religious literature and agnosticism in respect to God in general," as Graf put it. While they take pains to not close their doors to those with religious faith commitments, they see it as difficult to hold freethinking and confessional religion at the same time.
"You could apply Freethought to other areas of life and leave it out entirely of the religious question," said Melissa Lauer, a senior architecture major and president of the Freethinkers. "But would you be a full freethinker at that point? I don't think so."
But those packing detectors are not the most publicly supportive of the Freethinkers, a small organization that usually finds only half a dozen students and faculty at its weekly meetings. For the Freethinkers, however, there is one article of faith: They know you're out there.
Even if, as Lauer put it, "organizing atheists is like herding cats."
The organization was re-started in the fall semester of 2008 after then-senior microbiology major Jon Hughes came across the wrong Internet site.
"One of my guilty pleasures is surfing the net for anti-evolution/creationist propaganda - it's fun," Hughes said. "In reading some of that stuff, I got into freethinking blogs online. I realized there was this whole network out there."
When he hopped over to the Freethinkers at Virginia Tech site, he noticed the meeting times were three years old. After he contacted the faculty sponsor, the Freethinkers were reborn.
The science of freethinking
At the base of the freethinking attitude is a direct connection to the modern scientific mindset. It's hard to work one's way through a single Freethinking sentence without running into the words "evidence," "logic" and "rational" in quick succession.
"My father's a scientist, and I was raised with that ideal, and that's what freethinking is all about - questioning everything and approaching everything with a logical basis," Hughes said.
But Hughes' story is half the equation. Both Lauer and Graf said they made their way from confessional Christian homes into the company of freethinkers. For Lauer, her family is still hoping she'll return to the fold.
"When I'm around my family, they do try to push on me a little, saying things like, 'When are you going to come around?'" Lauer said.
Graf, the son of missionaries and a one-time collegiate missionary himself to Japan and Guatemala, was home schooled until the age of 16, and when he arrived at Tech as a freshman at 18, was a firm, evangelical Christian.
In reading and engaging with both liberal Christian texts and scientific inquiry, Graf moved from "fundamental, Young Earth Christianity to more and more liberal Christianity until, in throwing out all the bathwater, I realized there was no baby there to be had," Graf said.
In going through the process of a sort of conversion to Freethinking, Graf said there were a "lot of tears" in his house because of his parents' concern "for the future of my soul." But it was through this process that Graf found a pattern for connecting to believers.