Monday, October 20, 2008

Critical Thinking and Christianity: A Case of Complement or Contradiction?

Everyone wants to be a skeptic these days it seems. There used to be a time when the term “skeptic” meant someone who opposed believers in everything from UFO’s to séances but as a recent series of articles in at the James Randi Educational Foundation noted, these very believers in the paranormal are now referring to themselves skeptics! I noticed the same thing on various internet discussion boards – everyone from Young Earth Creationists to a wide variety of conspiracy theorists are describing themselves as skeptics. What happened? It seems as if somewhere along the line being a skeptic became cool and now everyone wants to be one. Which leaves me with the question – what am I?

After all I call myself a skeptic yet most of the great skeptics (the real ones like James Randi and Phil Plait) would probably not agree with me. After all, though I may not believe in alternative “medicine” (like homeopathy, reflexology and acupuncture), astrology, numerology or the Loch Ness Monster but I am still a Christian. I do believe in strange and improbable/impossible things like the God and angels and the virgin birth and bodily resurrection, so really how much of a right do I have to call myself a skeptic? Should I not be applying the same rules to Christianity that I used to come to the conclusion that New Age “remedies” is total BS? I remember that in the opening chapter of his book “Tricks of the Mind”, the mentalist Derren Brown tells of his journey from Pentecostal Christian to Atheist and how it all started with him investigating various “demonic” New Age practices and how finding that it was all just smoke and mirrors and self delusion led him to the eventual conclusion that the same could be said of his Christian faith. Is this really the only destination that thinking critically can take me? Is it the eventual destiny of all who discard superstition to discard their faith as well?

To me the mark of a true skeptic is the ability to think critically and therein lies the rub does it not? After all in my own previous post I lamented the lack of critical thinking skills among Christians. Added to that, no matter how much I would like to, I cannot separate myself from that. Being a Christian and believing the things I do, requires me to take some things on faith after all. There is no way for me to use logic, evidence and critical thinking to vindicate my beliefs no matter how much I wish it could be so.

What then can I do? Should I reject critical thinking in order to be a better believer? That is not an option available to me. I cannot simply switch that part of myself off, especially not now. Should I try to be selective? Be critical of some things and blindly accepting of others? I honestly do not see how I can do that. How will I draw that line? I can’t look at some evidence and ignore others. I can’t open my eyes to the facts I like and close it to the facts I dislike. I cannot, like some of my brethren, act as if science and archeology proves the Bible as factual for I know it cannot. Finding the city of Jericho does not prove that the Israelites marched around it for seven days. Knowing that Pontius Pilate was a real person is not the same as having proof that he washed his hands in innocence. Finding an empty tomb or two does not prove that Jesus rose from it. Some things can be proven as fact and others cannot. Maybe it is in the acceptance of this fact that I must live then.

I was reading a great book called “Becoming a Critical Thinker” (well the free online first chapter which is all I can afford for now…) by noted skeptic Robert Todd Carroll and something struck me in its description of what the attitude of a critical thinker should be. In it he writes that: “A critical thinker is neither dogmatic nor gullible. The most distinctive features of the critical thinker’s attitude are open-mindedness and skepticism” (©2004 Robert Todd Carroll). When I read that I realized that maybe being a critical thinker and a Christian is not such a complete contradiction. It seems to me at least that a true critical thinker has to live in the balance.

On the one hand he should be skeptical without being dogmatic. I believe it is here that a lot of wanna-be internet skeptics fail. Being a skeptic doesn’t mean rejecting everything out of hand. A knee-jerk skeptic is not a skeptic. Simply disbelieving and dismissing everything out of hand doesn’t make you a skeptic, it makes you an ass. Skepticism should carry with it the willingness to evaluate and investigate. Skepticism isn’t (or shouldn’t be) the assumption that you already know all truth, rather it is the willingness to search for the truth – continually if you have to. Skepticism means you are willing to check and recheck any idea for truthfulness, even those ideas most dear to you. For this of course you need the other side of the balance, the ability to be open minded. Open mindedness is not the same as gullibility. Most people consider themselves open minded when all they really have is a hole in the head where their brains are leaking out! Open mindedness does not refer to believing everything you hear, it refers to the ability to give all ideas a fair chance. Now not all ideas are equal, but if someone tells you something you are skeptical about and they offer to prove it, the open minded thing would be to at least give their proof a chance. The moment you refuse to even hear what someone with an opposing viewpoint has to say you are closed minded. Open mindedness is nothing more than the willingness to listen, explore and give a fair hearing to different ideas.

Now granted this only scrapes the surface of critical thinking and deals with the attitude of the thinker, not with the various tools involved. I admit freely that I have a lot left to learn about skepticism and critical thinking and that I still have to undo years of uncritical thinking patterns. However the more I learn about critical thinking and skepticism the more hopeful I become that there is hope and room for me amongst the skeptics. All of us, even the best critical thinkers face innumerable hurdles to truly being a critical thinker about everything. Most, if not all of us, find it easy to be critical about some issues but hard regarding others. For instance one person may be extremely skeptical about politicians but really gullible when it comes to infomercials while another may analyze everything his preacher says, yet never ask for a second opinion on anything his doctor tells him! We all have our strengths and weaknesses in this way. In many ways, critical thinking is hard no matter who you are. So much of our very wiring seems to be set against it. We seem to be wired to seek out opinions that agree with ours and reject those who do not, sometimes without regard for their actual truthfulness. Following the trail of truth to wherever it may lead us is no easy task for a human. Its not a matter of intelligence either, the smartest people can be the worst and critical thinking and do the dumbest things sometimes! In fact, sometimes intelligence may be more of a handicap - the more intelligent a person is it seems the easier it is to rationalize away the things that prove them wrong!

The best any of us can do is to try to live with a continuous willingness to seek the truth and to examine what we find. We cannot possibly hope to know or understand everything yet that should not discourage us to try to know and understand as much as we can. It is in this balance we must all attempt to live. I have heard it said that poets don’t go mad, chess players do. Yet I can’t help but wonder how many chess players end up drowning themselves in large bodies of water like poets often do... I believe that balance is the key element. While there are things that we are certain about, that gives us no excuse never to re-examine and re-explore them, testing our own sacred certainties. At the same time there are some things which may always remain mysteries, things that may forever elude our understanding. Yet I don’t think this means we shouldn’t constantly try to get a better grasp on them, to try to further our insight into them.

I certainly believe that the church should be more welcoming of critical thinking. We allow so much nonsense into our midst, simply because no one ever thinks to question or think about it. Did the Old Testament not require prophets to be accurate on pain of death? Does the New Testament not say that we should "test the spirits" and that there is "no private interpretation" of the prophecies? Why then is there such an (unBiblical) unwillingness to be more skeptical in church? (I'm not suggestion we stone people for getting something wrong but really, would it kill us to admit when we made a mistake?)

As for my faith, I believe there is room for that right alongside my skepticism. After all, no amount of skepticism rules out the existence of God and any skeptic who claims that is not being true to the tenets of critical thinking. Even a devout atheist (in this case, Youtuber AronRa) stated that:
“Everything within the capacity of human understanding contains a degree of error, and everything men know to be true is only true to a degree. Everyone is inevitably wrong about something somewhere. We don’t know everything about everything. We don’t know everything about anything! And what we do know, we don’t know accurately on all points nor completely in every detail. Honest men admit this. “

This means you can’t rule out the existence of God using only critical thinking and logic. At the same time this also means you can’t claim with absolute certainty that God exists or that anything in the Bible happened the way it was described. I fully accept that. That is why God is a matter of faith to me, not knowledge. In fact I was hesitant to even bring this up because this happens to be my least favourite defense of the existence of God, the “Well you can’t prove He DOESN’T exist!!!” argument. I mention this only to say that I don’t think it is absolutely contrary to be a critical thinker and a man of faith. My faith is just that, faith. I don’t pretend it’s anything else. Terry Pratchett had a character in his Discworld novels named “Abraxas the Agnostic”. Now he was nicknamed “Charcoal” Abraxas because he had been struck by lightning fifteen times - which suggests that being an agnostic in the Discworld requires an enviable strength of mind, not to say thickness of skull. His own comment, just before the fifteenth stroke, was “They needn't think they can make me believe in them by smiting me the whole time”. In studying critical thinking and skepticism I often feel like a mirror version of Abraxas – I comprehend all the reasons for not believing in God, I understand the reasoning of Agnostics and Atheists and I see the sense and reason in their arguments. Yet for some reason I cannot stop having faith. God is real to me and I believe in Him, try as I might, God remains real to me whether I want Him to or not. Therefore, my life remains in this strange juxtaposition of faith and reason, skepticism and mysticism. It may all change one day, it may never change. Come what may I will continue to both explore and enjoy the mystery and question and probe the certainties of my life, wherever that may lead me in the end.


GumbyTheCat said...

Everyone has faith in something, even the most skeptical atheist. For example, we have faith that science is more or less correct when it comes to describing phenomena such as evolution or electromagnetism. Every time I argue evolution with a creationist I'm taking a leap of faith that the scientists are correct. After all, I've never seen the fossil record, or remnants of endogenous retroviruses in DNA, or radiocarbon dating. But I choose to "have faith" in the scientists who tell me such things are real and accurately quantified.

It's about damn time you posted... your blog is like a monthly magazine, lol. Just like National Geographic, but without the naked pygmies.

TPluckyT said...

"Simply disbelieving and dismissing everything out of hand doesn’t make you a skeptic, it makes you an ass." Great line . . .

One of things I like about you, Eugene, is that you're not afraid to use a quote from an athiest to defend your postion on faith . . . Refreshing in this age of regurgitated Christian writing . . .

Tania said...

I love the honesty of this piece - great work, and ample food for thought (as usual)!
Although I am not a theologian (and therefore not that knowledgeable), I believe Jesus was a critical thinker - He didn't take everything at face value, and He challenged the religious traditions of His time.

RandomSue said...

I too am having to undo a lot of programming from my religious upbringing. I was taught not to ask questions. I always did though, as a child. It was in my nature. I pissed A LOT of people off. My own Mother for one, but mostly people at my church and the Christian School I attended. I didn't know why until I grew up. Very sad. I hope my kids always feel safe asking questions and thinking for themselves. May God give me the grace to always encourage this.

Eugene said...

Sue - that is unfortunate but it happens a lot, questions make a lot of Christians uncomfortable. Anti-theists know this, to quote Richard Dawkins regarding a campaign to put atheist slogans on London buses: "This campaign to put alternative slogans on London buses will make people think – and thinking is anathema to religion." Personally I think that is a sad truth right there, Christians DO often times fear anyone questioning their faith which in turn gives the impression that it is built on a tissue thin foundation! That is one of the reasons I feel so strongly that we need to ask the "why" questions and be educated as to why we believe what we do as well as what the limits of knowledge and faith are.

Tania - You mention traditions and that was something I meant to include in this post. Certainly most traditions started as good and necessary things, but from time to time we should be willing to re-examine them and ask "Are they still good and/or necessary?". I personally believe that there is a tendency in the church that when God does something we latch on to the "thing" part and neglect to check back if God is still using the same "something". We tend to get stuck in a moment and that may very well keep us from noticing that God has moved on and we are leaving ourselves behind.

Tim - Thanks! I feel very strongly about the fact that just going "Your opinion is different from mine and therefore you are utterly wrong and I don't have to listen to a word you say" is a terrible way to go through life, one which will rob you of a lot of opportunities to learn. I actually love talking to atheists and learning from them. I think that both Christians and Atheists need to realize that no side is going to get rid of the other one via ridicule.

Gumby - I agree, at some point each one of us accepts that we are working with good information and we put faith in it. Science does it all the time - Dark matter, Dark energy, strings, large parts of quantum mechanics - its not like we can prove it but those represent our best guesses right now. The part about science that I like is that in it, people are constantly willing to check and re-check and if they find out they were wrong all along then that's good too. I feel that in religion we can learn from the scientific idea that being wrong about something is not the end of the world, its an opportunity to learn more.

Oh and I have no plans to include pygmy porn any time soon but this is the internet so I'm sure there are places you can go...