Religion and critical thinking

As Dr. Chip Bruce pointed out to me the other day, the Texas GOP has issued a formal statement that they oppose the teaching of critical thinking in public schools because, as they see it, what we call critical thinking is really just a way of convincing youth who are faithfully religious and obedient to their parents to become cynical and disobedient.

As a practicing Latter-day Saint, raised in an old pioneer family, I am very familiar with the tension between definitions of faithfulness or obedience and definitions of intellectualism. I say “definitions” because this ethnic culture that I was raised in (yes, Latter-day Saints can be considered an ethnicity) provides a theoretical and practical bridge between faith and reason, but nailing down exactly what that bridge looks like is the subject of neverending negotiation among individual members as well as church authorities.

In my religion classes in seminary and at Brigham Young University, as well as at the LDS Institutes of Religion in other locations, I was intentionally and purposefully trained to use my brain to interpret spiritual promptings, scripture, and the words of my religious leaders, as well as outside ideas. The goal of this training, I was told, was to make me an intellectually independent and self-motivated faithful member of a worldwide organization led by a living prophet of a living God.

Every Sunday at church meetings, I see and hear myself and others struggling to figure out how to apply that training to our lived experience. We struggle because it is hard to see eternal principles in a temporal existence, it is hard to see a perfect and divine purpose in the workings of a very human organization such as the LDS Church, and it is hard to maintain one’s individuality and simultaneously become wholeheartedly a member of an organization. The philosopher and psychologist William James (brother of author Henry James) wasn’t LDS, but he saw very well how problematic such tensions can be (see also this excellent BBC discussion download with presenter Melvyn Bragg).

In other words, I can understand why the Texas GOP wants to give parents more control over what their children are taught to believe. On the other hand, having embraced wholeheartedly the idea that, if God gave me a brain, I believe that He intends that I use it. Therefore, I cannot agree that critical thinking should not be taught and used at every opportunity.

Okay, tangent here for those concerned with pronouns and ideas of divine authority. I’m sure this won’t answer all your questions, because I believe it and I still have questions, but here it is: Latter-day Saints believe in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, all as separate and distinct beings. We also believe in God the Mother, usually referred to as our Heavenly Mother, who is the equal and eternal married partner of God the Father, but who is not Mary, mortal mother of Jesus. Each individual God has His/Her job or role. While we experience mortality, it is God the Father we pray to, in the name of God the Son. It all comes down to the idea that being God (or a God) means that you embody in the essence of your being (behavior and thoughts) that eternal law of covenants from which the authority springs to create and destroy (unite and divide). God’s purpose is to get as many of us, His children, to that point through a system of covenants dependent on the expiatory sacrifice of Jesus Christ (God the Son), and we throughout the history of this planet aren’t the first ones to go through this process. So there are lots of Gods, i.e., beings living according to the foundational law; but, there is only one underlying law, which began and continues in God the Father and His eternal partner. You can’t produce a race of Gods without two parents, because our human nature requires a union in order to procreate, and our physical nature here is based on the eternal nature we possessed before we were born and we will possess throughout eternity after we die. I’m sure you have lots more questions now. That’s absolutely fine. I don’t have all the answers. Do you?

Also: No, I don’t hate gay people.

Back on topic: religion and critical thinking.

Where does religion come from? I say it comes from critical thinking. As professor of cognitive psychology Daniel Willingham notes, it is impossible to teach critical thinking without teaching a subject field. I assert that it is impossible to teach mastery of a subject field without teaching the critical thinking by which that field is produced. The creation of knowledge in a field results in the establishment of categories and connections which can only be understood via the mental grammar used to define the specifics of the knowledge field. If we teach the field, we also teach the grammar of that field. New knowledge in that field must come about through the application of the grammar suited to the field (i.e., critical thinking).

Aside: Willingham clarifies that cognitive scientists identify critical thinking as having “three key features: effectiveness, novelty, and self-direction. Critical thinking is effective in that it avoids common pitfalls, such as seeing only one side of an issue, discounting new evidence that disconfirms your ideas, reasoning from passion rather than logic, failing to support statements with evidence, and so on. Critical thinking is novel in that you don’t simply remember a solution or a situation that is similar enough to guide you. For example, solving a complex but familiar physics problem by applying a multi-step algorithm isn’t critical thinking because you are really drawing on memory to solve the problem. But devising a new algorithm is critical thinking. Critical thinking is self-directed in that the thinker must be calling the shots: We wouldn’t give a student much credit for critical thinking if the teacher were prompting each step he took” (p. 11).

I will point out here that logic does not reside outside the grammar we use to create fields of knowledge. There is no such thing as pure logic. There is only logic relative to the subject field and the grammar used to create it.

As much as many modern thinkers wish to categorize religion as antithetical to critical thinking, the fact remains that no system of knowledge, including those of the various religions, would be possible without the use of critical thinking. It’s just that the categories and connections are different from one field (science, largely) to another (religion, largely).

Where does freedom of religion come from? Again, it comes from critical thinking. The idea that individuals or groups should be allowed to embrace whatever interpretive doctrine they choose is based on the acknowledgement of the limitations of the human mind. Even an atheist who thinks critically and ethically must acknowledge that, since there is more than one way of knowing, it is not ethical to force others to believe ideas they would not otherwise espouse.

Of course, that brings up all sorts of questions about the rights of the group and the rights of the individual. I’ll just say that the right to believe, while intimately tied to the right to act on one’s beliefs, is nevertheless qualitatively different. It is possible to allow belief and limit behavior. Though behavior will lead the individual to experience certain events and avoid others, which will influence belief derived from personal experience, the human mind is nevertheless able to interpret events according to its own will.

As quantum physics demonstrates, there is no way to prove anything beyond doubt. There is only the choice to believe: to roll the dice and commit to a particular grammar, which may or may not suffice to order our experience meaningfully.

So I must disagree with the Texas GOP that the teaching of critical thinking in public schools necessarily separates children from parents and acolytes from religion. What is needed to ensure the freedom of religion is the further application of critical thinking to the whole of human knowledge, which will result in the recognition that knowledge is not distinct from faith, spiritual or otherwise, but is the direct result of faith in one form or another. The most dedicated atheist believes his or her unprovable creed with a fervor that rivals that of the most religious fanatic to an equally unprovable theory.

Unprovable in this mortal life, anyway.

A former boss of mine who is an atheist enjoys pointing out that her position on the existence of an afterlife is the least self-righteous, because if she’s right, she will never be able to say, “I told you so.”


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