Email: how do you think critically?

I got the following email from someone we’ll call “Pad Britt” after my interview on The Thinking Atheist.

I just heard the episode of The Thinking Atheist on which you were a guest and I had a question. I’ve been an atheist for a couple of years (I was raised Southern Baptist…. so yeah….) and I’ve learned to repeat counter apologetic responses to the claims of theists fairly successfully. While I come off as an intelligent person to other people, I know that I’m just regurgitating arguments that I’ve learned from people like Matt Dillahunty or Robert J. Ingersoll. But when I heard you on the podcast, you seemed to have thought deeply about the replies that you gave.

I just wanted to know (and bear with me. I don’t really know how to phrase this question.) how do I think critically? Is there any specific place to begin trying to think critically? Is it even something that can be learned? Is there a way that it can be practiced so that I can get better?

I just really don’t feel comfortable repeating what others have told me as fact; that’s what I did as a christian and it feels dishonest.

Thanks for the email, Pad.  I will first suggest that Dan Fincke may be a much better person to ask about this subject than I.  But I’ll take my best stab at it.

Don’t think that using the arguments of others means you’re not thinking critically.  You use those arguments because you evaluated them and found them to be cogent and worded in a way that resonated with you.  You did not accept them because they came from a source that was supposed to be infallible.

Even for people like myself and Matt Dillahunty, most of our arguments against the offerings of theism were developed by people before us.  My stance on morality?  Thank Matt Dillahunty and Richard Carrier for that.  My rebuttal to the argument of “you can’t prove god doesn’t exist” that starts with accusing the person presenting the argument of being some sort of criminal?  That came from a commenter on this blog.  In fact, most of my debates with theists as a budding young activist were saturated with arguments taken directly from Sam Harris (and almost to the letter of how Sam phrased them).  The arguments only now appear to be my own because over time (and after a great deal of reading) I’ve found my own style and applied it to those arguments.  But most of the arguments aren’t mine, they’re just spoken with my flippant voice and using the facts I found to be most convincing (facts that were uncovered and reported by other human beings).

Accepting an argument and using what you consider to be the most effective presentation of that argument does not mean that you aren’t thinking critically.  Thinking critically just means you evaluate claims fairly and consistently and do not accept them until you’ve determined to the best of your ability that they are reasonable and in harmony with the facts.  It means trying to remove as much bias as possible.  That starts with getting away from the mindset of “x claim must be true because my pastor/Jesus/Matt Dillahunty/JT Eberhard said it”.  But there is no shame in the fact that we learn most of our facts and arguments from other people – this is why college students aren’t just plopped down in a classroom with no book and no instructor.

So don’t feel bad.  Even the greatest painter begins by emulating what other talented painters have done.  Emulation is the precursor to talent and to discovery.  It’s also the precursor to one’s individual style.  Do you think there’s a composer in the world who didn’t first learn how either The Beatles or Mozart arranged notes to make them appealing (I can assure you that in college you spend entire classes trying to resolve harmonies as Mozart would have done)?  And yet, what great composer spends his/her life trying to do exactly what Mozart did?  The more you read and the more you see how different people approach the rebuttals to theism, the more you’ll take a little bit here and a little bit there and subsequently discover your own voice.  Mine is greatly influenced by Sam Harris, Richard Carrier, and PZ Myers.  Who knows who will influence yours?  And afterward you’ll begin to mold those arguments into something unique that may be traceable to the people from whom you learned them, but which will undeniably be yours.

The good thing is that most of the atheist debaters I know, including Matt Dillahunty and Rick Carrier, are very good about understanding that people will use their words in discussions about god’s existence.  I’m the same way.  If I’ve phrased an argument in a way that appeals to you, feel free to use it verbatim.  You need not give me any credit.  I’m flattered you found it useful.  And if someone can use my wording until they see how to improve on it, more power to them.  Hell, at that point I might just use the new phrasing too!  :)

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