Critical Thinking

The need to withhold belief until there is compelling evidence (Carl Sagan).
Many of the problems of the Christian
religion stem from literalism.

Critical thinking involves determining the meaning and significance of what is observed or expressed, or, concerning a given inference or argument, determining whether there is adequate justification to accept the conclusion as true – skilled, active, interpretation and evaluation of observations, communications, information, and argumentation – or more naturally as the careful, deliberate determination of whether one should accept, reject, or suspend judgment about a claim and the degree of confidence with which one accepts or rejects it.

Critical thinking employs not only logic but broad intellectual criteria such as clarity, credibility, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth, breadth, significance and fairness. A critical evaluation of an argument, for example, might conclude that it is valid. Thinking is often casual and informal, whereas critical thinking deliberately evaluates the quality of thinking.

Critical thinking calls for a persistent effort to examine any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the evidence that supports it and the further conclusions to which it tends. It also generally requires ability to recognize problems, to find workable means for meeting those problems, to gather and marshal pertinent (relevant) information, to recognize unstated assumptions and values, to comprehend and use language with accuracy, clarity, and discrimination, to interpret data, to appraise evidence and evaluate arguments, to recognize the existence (or non-existence) of logical relationships between propositions, to draw warranted conclusions and generalizations, to put to test the conclusions and generalizations at which one arrives, to reconstruct one’s patterns of beliefs on the basis of wider experience, and to render accurate judgments about specific things and qualities in everyday life.

Critical thinking can occur whenever one judges, decides, or solves a problem; in general, whenever one must figure out what to believe or what to do, and do so in a reasonable and reflective way. Expressed most generally, critical thinking is “a way of taking up the problems of life.” Irrespective of the sphere of thought, “a well cultivated critical thinker”:

  • raises important questions and problems, formulating them clearly and precisely;
  • gathers and assesses relevant information, using abstract ideas to interpret it effectively
  • comes to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards;
  • thinks open-mindedly within alternative systems of thought, recognizing and assessing, as need be, their assumptions, implications, and practical consequences; and
  • communicates effectively with others in figuring out solutions to complex problems; without being unduly influenced by others’ thinking on the topic.
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5 Responses to Critical Thinking

  1. Dave Price says:

    There is one issue which critical thinking always fails when it comes to religion, and that is the subjective nature of life and faith. Critical thinking involves objective information that is observable, recordable, reproducible – thus science, mathematics, etc. are objective pursuits of critical thinking. Religion, on the other hand, is a subjective experience, in that it is the specific, individual, discerning interpretation of a religious doctrine, scripture or experience. Subjectivity belongs to the thinking subject rather than to the object of thought. Philosophy and theology relate to the nature of an object as it is experienced in the thought of the subject distinct from the object itself.

    I suggest that your description of critical thinking above is not actually critical thinking, as belonging to the exact sciences, but logical thinking, which is an entirely different animal in itself. Therein lies its difficulty. Philosophy is the study of logical thinking, learning to think rightly about subjective experience. Theology is the philosophy of religion. The difficulty of both when it addresses the questions of faith is the subjective nature of faith. Faith is, and belongs to, the one who believes according to his own interpretation of his experiences, however he might come to those conclusions.

    For at least 1700 years it has been debated whether or not reasoned, or objective, thinking about the divine is even possible. The long history of defining the Divine Unknowable continues to this day. Christian theologians have recorded struggles with this problem for at least 1800 years. There is an extent to which doctrine, or dogma, can be concluded through the study of Scripture, tradition and the history of the church. There will always remain,however, the fact that in the end faith is subjective – it has and always will belong to the subjective experience of the believer – and there is a very real aspect of faith which must and always will remain so. As it is said, if we knew everything, God wouldn’t be God, and faith wouldn’t be faith.

    That being said, the issue of literalism is an entirely different question. I defer to a quote from the Anglican priest and scientist John Polkinghorne: “For the Christian, the unique significance of the Bible is that it gives us indispensable accounts of God’s acts in Israel and in Jesus Christ. Without that scriptural record we would know little about Israel and very little indeed about Jesus of Nazareth. These events happened in the course of history and the accounts that we have of them necessarily originated at specific times and in particular cultural contexts. Yet the revelatory character claimed for them implies that insights of enduring significance are embedded in the pages of Scripture. A central task for the Christian interpreter of Scripture is to discern what in the Bible has lasting truthful authority, rightly commanding the continuing respect of successive generations, and what is simply time-bound cultural expression, demanding no necessary continuing allegiance from us today. Absolutely no one is free from having to make judgements of this kind.”

    Thus we come to the real crux of the matter. If one is a studied philosopher or theologian, versed in the art of intelligent conversation, does that make his conclusions about faith or Scripture or the Divine any more legitimate than those of the simpleton (and I don’t say that all who take Scripture literally are simpletons) who takes each word of Scripture at face value? We can each be proud that we have, to the extent of our own abilities, made sense of those things which we can understand and made peace with those we can not understand. Polkinghorne is no less insistent on the need to do so individually than the Apostle Paul is to Timothy and to us all: “Meditate on these things, give yourself entirely to them, that your progress may be evident to all. Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you.” I Tim 4:15-16. As Christians, however, we are also admonished by Jesus’ words to take heed that our own actions do not lead someone astray. Matthew 18 begins with a question, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom?” Jesus replies that we must come to God with the simple faith of a child, and anyone who does harm to that simple faith would be better off tying a rock around their neck and casting himself into the sea.

    I do believe there is purpose and legitimacy to the philosophical and theological discussion of the Bible. I also believe that there are greater minds than mine who have wrestled with these subjects to no universal conclusion. Thus I say that to pursue knowledge of the Divine may indeed be a noble pursuit, yet we ought also to approach it with the deepest humility and honest confession of our own ignorance, lest by our ignorance we cause the smallest one to stumble. At least then, whether we come rightly or not to the proper understanding of the knowledge we seek, we stand not on our own finite capacity but on the infinite grace and mercy of the One whose mind is beyond our mortal comprehension.

  2. rantz72 says:

    I especially gravitated toward the wisdom and kindness expressed in what Dave said in the following; “I do believe there is purpose and legitimacy to the philosophical and theological discussion of the Bible. I also believe that there are greater minds than mine who have wrestled with these subjects to no universal conclusion. Thus I say that to pursue knowledge of the Divine may indeed be a noble pursuit, yet we ought also to approach it with the deepest humility and honest confession of our own ignorance, lest by our ignorance we cause the smallest one to
    stumble. At least then, whether we come rightly or not to the proper understanding of the knowledge we seek, we stand not on our own finite capacity but on the infinite grace and mercy of the One whose mind is beyond our mortal comprehension.”

  3. Peter says:

    I wouldn’t want to argue about the differences between critical thinking and logical thinking. As a believer who has twice been forced to reconsider just about everything that I had ever been taught, I would like to think that I can hold on lightly to the beliefs that are important to me, knowing that as a result of some very different journeys, others have a different perspective of some parts of the overall picture.

  4. Dave Price says:

    I agree with you, Pete. I think, given the paths that you and I and Richard have taken, for example, there are times when we feel indignant about our own right to think critically about our faith, and yet because of our histories there is still a small voice in the background asking if that’s OK. There are times when we are adamant about the need to look at certain things differently, and there are times we almost sheepishly apologize for rocking the boat. What I would like to say is, do we really think we are that different than anyone else? I don’t think we are much different than most – and I do say most – except for the fact that we are at least willing to vocalize our questions and ideas in ways most people in mainstream Christianity are led to feel ashamed or heretical to vocalize the same thoughts.

    The great benefit in my life is to have a friend like you, someone who is confident enough to ask the difficult questions and sure enough in your own faith not to feel threatened by the questions of others. I think that is the most important part of what you are doing in these pages – providing a safe place to ask questions, to talk about ideas, and to explore areas of faith in ways that can’t be accomplished in a mainstream setting.

  5. rantz72 says:

    Being able to think out loud about so much of what has been in my opinion a managed spirituality for our lives, just intensifies the innate longing to allow the Father of our spirit to keep leading, guiding us into All truth.
    Bring it on Jesus!

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