The End of PoR – Part 2

John Loftus has begun laying out his views on PoR in greater detail on his website.  I’m going to comment on a few key points that he makes in a recent post:

What Exactly is My Proposal For Ending the Philosophy Of Religion Discipline in Secular Universities?

It will probably take me a few posts to cover a few points made by Loftus. First,  I will discuss some points by Loftus that relate PoR to critical thinking.

I have a special interest and background in critical thinking.

My first course as a philosophy major was in the summer of 1981 at Sonoma State University.   I received credits in philosophy for attending an International Conference on Critical Thinking, held on the campus of Sonoma State University under the leadership of Dr. Richard Paul, a philosophy professor at Sonoma State University, and a leading figure in the Critical Thinking movement. That was the first of a number of annual conferences on Critical Thinking that I would attend.  At Sonoma State University, I took an Introduction to Critical Thinking course from Dr. Richard Paul.  I did well in the course and became a teaching assistant to Dr. Richard Paul and helped him teach sections of Introduction to Critical Thinking.  Through Dr. Richard Paul I learned a good deal about the theory and practice of critical thinking, as well as about the relationship of Critical Thinking to education, again both in theory and in practice.

Thanks to Richard Paul, I also was able to meet several philosophers and educators who were involved in the critical thinking movement as well as in the informal logic movement.  I met one of the founders of the critical thinking movement, Dr. Glaser, a psychologist who formulated the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Test.  I also met two leaders of the informal logic movement: Ralph Johnson and Tony Blair (I would later go on to do graduate study in philosophy under Ralph and Tony at the University of Windsor in Canada).

I also have learned about critical thinking from: Michael Scriven (Primary PhilosophyReasoning), Gerald Nosich (Reasons and Arugments, Learning to Think Things Through), Howard Kahane (Logic and Contemporary Rhetoric), Vincent Ruggiero (Thinking Critically about Ethical Issues, Beyond Feelings: A Guide to Critical Thinking), Harvey Siegel (Educating Reason, Relativism Refuted), Robert Ennis, (“The Ennis-Weir Critical Thinking Essay Test” with Eric Weir, Critical Thinking, Prentice Hall), and Alec Fischer (a leader of the critical thinking movement in Britain: Critical Thinking: An Introduction, The Logic of Real Arguments).

At the University of Windsor I was a teaching assistant for a Critical Reasoning class that used the text by Ralph Johnson and Tony Blair (Logical Self-Defense).  As, a graduate philosophy student at UC Santa Barbara, I helped Dr. William Forgie teach large courses in Critical Thinking, and I was the official note taker for Dr. Francis Dauer’s course in Critical Thinking (Critical Thinking: An Introduction to Reasoning, Oxford Univ. Press).  I also taught an upper-division philosophy course on The Theory of Critical Thinking at UC Santa Barbara.

I have a long-standing interest and background in critical thinking and the relationship of critical thinking to education.

Some points about critical thinking and PoR by Loftus:

First, I am proposing that secular PoR professors stop teaching their classes according to “the received model” of teaching. The received model, the one I used in my college classes, is that as instructors the main goal is to help students learn to think critically. The class could be on ethics or philosophy or the philosophy of religion, but for the most part these classes are little more than extensions of an Introduction to Critical Thinking class. The subject matter is important, since there is specific factual content to teach the students for each class, like Aristotle’s view on ethics for an Ethics class, or Plato’s Forms for a Introduction to Philosophy class, and Anselm’s Ontological Argument for a Philosophy of Religion class. But the main goal is the same, to teach students to think critically, no matter what the subject matter is before them. [emphasis added] [...] What’s wrong with the received model is that we end up with nothing more than a critical thinking class with the PoR as it’s subject matter. While it’s true that teaching in this manner may affect some attitudinal change in the students, if the goal is to teach critical thinking then do it in a critical thinking class.

I don’t see a problem with the “the received model” of teaching PoR, at least not with this aspect of the model.  Critical thinking is at the heart of both education and philosophy.  In my view the main goal of almost every college course should be to help students learn to think critically.  Certainly the main goal of every introductory philosophy course should be to help students learn to think critically,  and more specifically to help students to think critically about philosophical issues, to think critically within the discipline of philosophy.

If an instructor succeeds at getting students to (temporarily) remember some facts and terms related to philosophy of religion (What is a teleological argument? What is a cosmological argument? What philosophers or writers have put forward versions of teleological argument?  What philosophers or writers have put forward versions of a cosmological argument? How do the different versions of cosmological argument vary from each other?  What are some common objections to teleological arguments?  What are some common objections to cosmological arguments? etc.), yet fails to help the students to think critically about religion and religious beliefs and practices, and key issues in the philosophy of religion, then that teaching effort should be considered a failure.

Helping students to think critically about historical issues or about scientific issues or about health issues might not be central or essential to a PoR course, but helping students to think critically about religious and philosophical issues and philosophical issues about religion ought to be a central, if not the central, objective of a PoR class.  There might well be aspects of critical thinking that should receive greater attention and be explored in greater detail in a PoR class than in a standard critical thinking class, but teaching intellectual principles, theories, skills, tools, and methods should take priority over teaching specific content.

More points by Loftus on relationship between critical thinking and teaching PoR:  

My call to end the PoR stems from Dr. Peter Boghossian, who has challenged the “received model” in his book, A Manual for Creating Atheists: “We need to train educators not just to teach students how to think critically, but also how to nudge attitudes about faith on their downward spiral” (p. 177). Teaching students to be critical thinkers is very important but teaching them to have a skeptical disposition is more important. “Anyone can develop a critical thinking skill set,” he says, even people who are pretending to know things they don’t know (p. 220). [emphasis added]

It is a mistake to see the promotion of critical thinking as some sort of alternative to the promotion of a skeptical attitude.

First of all, one thing we do NOT want to promote is UNCRITICAL skepticism.  Skepticism has historically been used to support Christianity and the status quo.  When reason and rationality threaten the firm position of Christianity or of the ruling elite, one weapon is to cast doubt on the ability of humans to figure out what is true and what is false.  Skepticism is wielded as a weapon to cut down rational criticism and objections to religion and to self-serving rulers and regimes.

Some of the most irrational groups in our society are deeply skeptical.  There are White Supremacists who are skeptical about the holocaust.  There are creationists who are skeptical about science and the theory of evolution.  There are shit-for-brains right-wing commentators who are skeptical about global warming.  Skepticism is NOT the answer to the problem of human irrationality.  What we need is critical skepticism, skepticism that arises out of critical thinking and that is constrained by the standards and principles of critical thinking.

I identify myself as a skeptic.  I believe that my skepticism is largely a product of my cynicism.  I am a skeptic because I am a cynic.  What I mean by that is that I view the problem of human irrationality as a deep, serious, and widespread problem. The problem is not that there are a few foolish people around, a few nut jobs here and there.  The problem of human irrationality is huge and it infects and affects everyone.

Furthermore, there are dozens of different aspects of human irrationality, so there is unlikely to be a silver-bullet solution.  There are multiple psychological forces and tendencies built into our brains that prevent us from being fully rational.  There are multiple social forces and tendencies that prevent us from being fully rational.  There are the idiots and fools on AM radio.  There are the idiots and fools preaching from thousands of pulpits each Sunday.  There are the corporate dominated mass media that give us “Business” news, but no sections devoted to “Workers” or “Employees”, and that make a profit by skimping on actual investigations of actual problems and substituting government propaganda and celebrity gossip and photos of disasters for actual journalism.

I’m delighted that many teachers and professors have taken an interest in critical thinking, but the sad reality is that most teachers and professors who claim to value critical thinking cannot provide a clear explanation of what critical thinking is, nor do they have any clear and specific ideas about how to promote or measure improvement in the thinking of their students.  We all LOVE critical thinking, whatever the hell that means.

To be a big fan of critical thinking, one must be a cynic.  If human thinking is just fine as is, then critical thinking can be, at most, icing on the cake of human rationality.  But given a cynical view of human beings and human society, critical thinking is our one hope of salvation in a world filled with irrational people, who are constantly engaging in bad epistemic practices, habits, and tendencies.  I am a skeptic because I believe that human irrationality is a BIG PROBLEM not just in the world, but in the USA.  Not just in the South, but also the North.  Not just in the North, but in my state (Washington).  Not just in my state, but in my city and in my community, and in my family, and in me.  My skepticism and my appreciation for critical thinking both are grounded in my cynicism.

More importantly, promoting critical thinking is the best way to promote skepticism.  As I said before, we DON’T want to promote uncritical skepticism; there are already enough nut jobs around doing that on AM radio every day.  We want to promote critical skepticism, skepticism that arises out of critical thinking and that is constrained by the standards and principles of critical thinking.  But critical thinking does promote healthy skepticism.

First, a critical thinker demands reasons and evidence for claims, conclusions, theories, and points of view.  That is a basic aspect of critical thinking.  This is also part of what it means to have healthy skepticism.  A person who is a rational skeptic demands reasons and evidence for claims, conclusions, theories, and points of view.


From The Art of Asking Essential Questions by Richard Paul & Linda Elder (p.6) :

3. Questioning Information, Data, and Experience.  All thoughts presuppose an information base.  Assume that you do not fully understand the thought until you understand the background information (facts, data, experiences) that supports or informs it.  Questions that focus on information in thinking:

  • On what information are you basing that comment?
  • What experience convinced you of this? Could your experience be distorted?
  • How do we know this information is accurate?  How could we verify it?
  • Have we failed to consider any information or data we need to consider?
  • What are these data based on?  How were they developed?  Is our conclusion based on hard facts or soft data?


Second, when information is presented in support of a claim, theory, or point of view, a rational skeptic will often question or challenge the truth or accuracy of that information.  This is also an important aspect of critical thinking.  A critical thinker is aware of the possibility that false or inaccurate information is often presented as being fact, and a critical thinker will thus often question or challenge the truth or accuracy of information presented in support of a claim, theory, or point of view.


From Critical Thinking: Tools for Taking Charge of Your Learning and Your Life by Richard Paul & Linda Elder (p.69):

Some Key Questions to Ask

One of the most important skills in critical thinking is that of evaluating information.  The skill begins with the important recognition that information and fact, information  and verification, are not the same thing.  It requires also the important recognition that everything presented as fact or as true is not.  A third important recognition is that the prestige or setting in which information is asserted, as well as the prestige of the person or group asserting it,  are no guarantee of accuracy or reliability.   Consider the following, very helpful maxim: An educated person is one who has learned that information almost always turns out to be at best incomplete and very often false, misleading, fictitious, mendacious–just dead wrong. =======================

Third, often when a person gives evidence or reasons in support of a claim, theory, or point of view, they do not explicitly state all of their relevant premises and assumptions.  So, a person who is a rational skeptic must be sensitive to this and actively seek to uncover and clarify unstated assumptions that constitute part of the argument or justification for a particular claim, theory, or point of view.  This is also an important aspect of critical thinking: the identification, clarification, and evaluation of assumptions.


From: The Art of Asking Essential Questions by Richard Paul & Linda Elder (p.6):

6. Questioning Assumptions.  All thought rests upon assumptions.  Assume that you do not fully understand a thought until you understand what it takes for granted.  Questions that focus on assumptions in thinking include:

  • What exactly are you taking for granted here?
  • Why are you assuming that?  Shouldn’t we rather assume that…?
  • What assumptions underlie our point of view?  What alternative assumptions might we make?


Fourth, a critical thinker is willing and able to suspend judgement on an issue, to wait until all of the relevant facts, reasons, and arguments have been considered, analyzed, and evaluated.  If a judgment must be made prior to having all of the relevant information and reasoning, or prior to a full and careful examination of the evidence and arguments, then a critical thinker will form a belief only tentatively and will understand that such a belief is uncertain and only probably true to some degree and subject to re-evaluation as additional evidence and reasoning becomes available.  Similarly, a person who has a healthy sort of skepticism is willing and able to suspend judgment on a question at issue until all of the relevant facts and reasons are available and have been carefully considered and evaluated.


From Critical Thinking: Tools for Taking Charge of Your Learning and Your Life by Richard Paul & Linda Elder (p.411):

PREJUDICE  A judgment, belief, opinion, or point of view–favorable or unfavorable–formed before the facts are known, resistant to evidence and reason, or in disregard of facts that contradict it.  Self-announced prejudice is rare.  Prejudice almost always exists in obscured, rationalized, socially validated, functional forms.

From same book (p.90):

When we consider the issue at hand from every relevant viewpoint, we think in a broad way.  When multiple points of view are pertinent to the issue, yet we fail to give due consideration to those perspectives, we think myopically, or narrow-mindedly.  We do not try to enter alternative, or opposing, viewpoints.

Humans are frequently guilty of narrow-mindedness for many reasons: limited education, innate sociocentrism, natural selfishness, self-deception, and intellectual arrogance.  Points of view that significantly disagree with our own often threaten us. It’s much easier to ignore perspectives with which we disagree than to consider them, when we know at some level that to consider them would mean to be forced to reconsider our views.

In the same book, a quote from William Graham Sumner (p.396):

The critical habit of thought… Men educated in it cannot be stampeded by stump orators and are never deceived by dithyrambic oratory.  They are slow to believe.  They can hold things as possible or probable in all degrees, without certainty and without pain. They can wait for evidence and weigh evidence, uninfluenced by the emphasis or confidence with which assertions are made on one side or the other.  They can resist appeals to their dearest prejudices and all kinds of cajolery.  Education in the critical faculty is the only education of which it can be truly said that it makes good citizens. (Folkways, 1906)


Fifth,  a critical thinker is aware of the seriousness and breadth of the problem of human irrationality, and is aware of the many problems and pitfalls that humans face, both psychologically and socially, in trying to be rational and reasonable and just.  There are many bad epistemic practices, habits, and tendencies among human beings, so a critical thinker is cautious and somewhat pessimistic about the rationality and quality of the thinking of others and also of his/her own thinking.  A person who has a healthy skepticism is also aware of the many obstacles and pitfalls and temptations that incline humans towards bias and distortion and irrationality in their thinking.  A person who has a healthy skepticism is aware of the real possibility, even the probability, that bias and irrationality may have infected a given bit of thinking by others or from his or her own head.


From Critical Thinking: Tools for Taking Charge of Your Learning and Your Life (p.415)

UNCRITICAL PERSON   One who has not developed intellectual skills; is naive, conforming, easily manipulated, dogmatic, easily confused, unclear, closed-minded, careless in word choice, inconsistent, unable to distinguish evidence from interpretation. 

Uncriticalness is a fundamental problem in human life, for when we are uncritical, we nevertheless think of ourselves as critical.

From same book (p.402):

HUMAN NATURE  …Our primary nature is spontaneous, egocentric, and strongly prone to the formation of irrational belief.  It is the basis for our instinctual thought.  People need no training to believe what we want to believe: what serves our immediate interests, what preserves our sense of personal comfort and righteousness, what minimizes our sense of inconsistency, and what presupposes our own correctness.  People need no special training to believe what those around us believe: what our parents and friends believe, what is taught to us by religious and school authorities, what is repeated often by the media, and what is commonly believed in the nation in which we grow up.