A Skill I Had Somehow Skipped.

A Skill I Had Somehow Skipped. February 20, 2015

I was on the math team in middle school.

I took a lot of college-ish Advanced Placement courses in high school.

I was a member of the Honors Program in college.

I’m not a dummy.

And yet somehow I missed learning the most important skill there is: critical thinking.

I always hated group projects anyway. (Credit: Joe Goldberg, CC.)
I always hated group projects. (Credit: Joe Goldberg, CC.)

I went to decent schools, but I don’t ever remember learning that skill, which is not so much an indictment of schools as it is of our entire culture. We can’t really teach kids stuff we don’t value or understand, now can we? Nobody who looks at my country’s government would ever mistake it for a bastion of critical thinking. So if a kid learns to do it, chances are that kid is learning it at home.

Critical thinking is the process of learning how to assess and evaluate claims, weigh information, and come to rational conclusions. The idea is becoming a trend in education, I’m told by Scholastic’s website. Remember their book fairs from back in the 70s and 80s? My family wasn’t rich, but Mom always found a little money for the book fair. I was always so excited when I got the new color newsletter, unfolded it, and first beheld at all the new titles available. I understand now it’s become a bit more like a Toys R Us than a bookstore, but at the time Scholastic book fairs were where I got my first exposure to the classics. I still have some of those books: Island of the Blue Dolphins, Black Beauty, and most of the Black Stallion series, even some hardback Nancy Drew serials. They opened my mind–not enough, apparently, but I saw worlds in those books that I’d never even imagined (and that is saying something; looking back, even by the alarming parameters of childhood I was off the charts), worlds that drew me deeper into learning and growing.

Yet for all the reading I did–and let’s be clear here, I am a bookaholic who still rates houses by how many bookcases I can cram into them–I didn’t notice that there was one huge area of my life where I wasn’t learning and growing.

The funny part is that I never recognized that I had no critical thinking skills. I didn’t even know what they were. And I certainly did not notice that I’d absorbed and internalized a whole host of numbing phrases meant from the get-go to shut me up, sit me down, and keep me docile. They are the religious equivalent of a parent yelling, “Because I said so–that’s why!” at a child.

I can see why they’re so prevalent, too. Questions are the bane of religious zealotry, yet they form the backbone of critical thinking.

There are a lot of questions one might ask regarding Christianity that seem to boil down to “it’s turtles all the way down–now quit asking.” These answers are meant to stifle thought and questions, and they work marvelously:

It’s a mystery.

We shouldn’t question ‘God.’

We’ll find out when we get to Heaven.

‘God’ said it, I believe it, that settles it.

Don’t sow division/make your brothers stumble/muzzle the oxen/question ‘God’s’ representative/be rebellious.

‘God’ has his reasons, which we are too puny and limited to understand.

Don’t fall for vain philosophy.

The fool says in his heart, “There is no ‘God’.”

There are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy. (It’s not even Biblical and I almost always heard it as a misquote such as the one I wrote here, but I heard it shockingly often–and I strongly suspect the Christians who recited it thought it was a Bible verse.)

Chances are every ex-Christian could add to this list–and likely we’d end up with a book at the end, with people emailing us for years with more. But at the time I was Christian, I didn’t think I was wearing blinkers as I navigated my spiritual journey, or that I was shutting down my mind.

That Scholastic link is a good overview of how parents can teach their kids critical thinking skills; here they are:

* “Ask open-ended questions.”
Open-ended questions are the hardest of all to imagine most Christians embracing. Rigid control of the questions is a big part of how Christian leaders and parents gain control of the answers. Otherwise, unapproved answers could result. Heck, that’s one big reason why overzealous Christian parents are turning more and more to homeschooling, which emphasizes memorization of answers. When only one answer is acceptable, then it’s much easier for everybody if the question is structured in such a way that only that answer can be obtained.

* “Categorize and classify.”
The link explains that when kids learn how to correctly identify things and ideas and learn the rules by which stuff fits together, it helps them develop a host of skills revolving around research and inquiry. I can agree with that. The problem is that a lot of the worst kinds of religion nowadays involve denying those correct identifications and pushing things into the wrong groups. From Creationism’s science denial to totally mischaracterizing non-believers, to Christians’ negation of people’s civil rights to a complete misunderstanding of why people are rejecting their religion, it sure seems like a lot of its ideology and culture is based on not correctly identifying things and ideas or learning the rules by which stuff fits together.

* “Work in groups.”
I personally watched the ACE homeschooling pitch video on their own website so you wouldn’t have to. Kids dress up in uniforms and sit by themselves at desks, filling in workbooks’ blanks all day long. If they have trouble, they don’t even speak to ask questions; they raise a little flag on their desks and a “supervisor” comes up to them and grills them using a misunderstood, misapplied version of the Socratic questioning system. I’m serious. (There don’t appear to be actual teachers, largely because none of them are teaching; I also suspect that giving these adults the title of “teacher” would probably entail licensing and certifying them in their states–and I’m betting ACE wants to avoid that part.) In the video, this “supervisor” condescendingly asks a little girl who requests math help, “WELL, DID YOU LOOK IN THE BOOK?” and apparently this scripted comeback is what the students face every time they ask anything. I can’t even imagine the huge frustration level every one of those students must deal with every single day in a setting where every answer requires them to jump through hoops like that. It would drive me out of my mind. I got furious just watching the video.

That said, in most places “group work” means one person in each group (guess who?) grudgingly does all the work while the others gleefully take advantage of that schmuck to slack and the sadist instructor catches up on his or her reading or emails. In one “gifted & talented” school program I was in as a kid, group work meant brainstorming and it was a lot of fun, and at one job I had groups actually enthusiastically worked together, but those short interludes were but brief respites in a long lifetime of hating how most schools and workplaces handle group activities in training/education contexts. And as much as merely hearing the phrase “group work” triggers rage in me as reflexively as the sight of a stick riles up a dogfighting canine in a cage, I’d still rather do that than sit alone at a desk day after day filling in blanks in workbooks. It’s hard to imagine a system better designed to isolate students and discourage them from ever encountering other ideas or even asking questions than how many Christians approach education.

* “Make decisions.”
It’s also hard to imagine a system more geared toward telling people what to think rather than teaching them how to think than religion. I was certainly allowed to make decisions–but they had to be the correct decisions, or else I was going to Hell or I was in rebellion. One of the favorite tactics I encountered was to sharply (and falsely) curtail what options I had in the hopes that I wouldn’t notice there might be some other answer, sort of like how parents might offer a child a choice of the red pants or the pink pants in hopes that the kid won’t think of dressing up like a dinosaur for school (reminds me of how toxic Christian Michele Bachmann warbled about how yes, sure, gay people had equal rights and could totally marry anybody they wanted, as long as it was someone of the opposite sex, and then got dumbfounded by the angry backlash her ignorant, cruel comment earned her).

I’d add these principles to learning how to think critically:

* Don’t start with a prearranged conclusion. Work from the bottom up, not the top down.
One thing that really killed my faith was noticing that if I started from the position of not knowing either way if any god existed and looked at the world and the facts of reality, I sure wouldn’t end with “… so therefore, obviously, Jesus.” That was when I realized that an opinion is built from facts, rather than being pre-decided upon and then facts found to support it. But that was largely how I went through life as a Christian. I ignored or denied information that contradicted me–or found ad hoc contortions for it. While denigrating both logic and the scientific method, I leaped on any stretch of logic or any pseudoscientific finding that even vaguely appeared to bolster my beliefs, just as many Christians do today.

* Don’t be afraid of doubt.
Doubt was acceptable–as long as it was resolved in favor of the correct answer and didn’t lead to any other conclusion. Real doubt was considered anti-Christian, sometimes even a sign of demonic possession or oppression (that’s a Christianese term used for people who’d get indignant at an accusation of being possessed). Faith was what cured doubt, so if you still had doubts still after reading the relevant apologetics books and talking to the ceiling praying, then obviously your faith was suffering. Above all else, doubt could not be honestly pursued by genuinely questioning a claim because doing so could lead to debunking it, and we have to be okay with that or else we’re not really genuinely questioning that claim but, instead seeking confirmation of our opinions.

* On a practical level, acquaint yourself with the raft of cognitive biases and logical fallacies to which human minds can fall prey.
Knowing these mental traps won’t necessarily mean you aren’t falling into one, but the possibility becomes lessened–and if someone else points out that you’ve fallen into one, you’ll be able to see it more easily if you already know what it is. And you will be less likely to do something I see Christians doing constantly: totally misusing the names of these biases and fallacies, erroneously accusing others of using one, and flatly denying that they’ve fallen into one when they have.

* Fact-check claims and story before repeating them.
Before disseminating something, make sure it’s true. Even if the story aligns with your opinion, check it out first. (Y’all know about Snopes.com, right?) If Christians would do this, what a different world it would be.

* Seek out people whose opinions differ from yours, especially people who are credible authorities in their fields.
There might be a distressingly good reason why they differ from you.

* If you hold a position, know why you hold it and what objective, credible information would make you change your mind.
The great part about knowing exactly why you hold an opinion and having objective support for that opinion is that if better information comes along, you can recognize what’s happened and refine your position accordingly without reacting like you’ve just received some kind of personal insult or challenge. It’s also okay not to hold a position at all until you know what’s going on. We don’t have to have strong, well-researched opinions about every topic in the world. Don’t get into arguments if you don’t, is all.

* Learn what topics are likely going to be mysteries for a while longer–but never stop questioning.
I want my life to be a continual process of learning (which is good, because everybody’s is, whether they want it to be or like it that way or not), but that said, I know some stuff probably won’t ever be answered. That doesn’t mean I’ll never ask questions about it or just remain content to let the mystery sit there. For example, the existence of any sort of afterlife is a huge mystery. There is no reason whatsoever to think there is one of any kind, but if we ever find out about one, it won’t be because we shrugged our shoulders and said “Well, I guess that’s it–nobody knows.” We learn by asking questions and testing our ideas, by solving mysteries, by answering that which was previously unanswered. The second we decide something’s simply unanswerable, we’ve given up. As Jason Nesmith thundered, “Never give up–never surrender!” Folks, that works for more than just science-fiction movies.

Putting these principles into practice will get us a lot closer to reality than trying to meander and flounder our way to the understanding of reality without them. Thinking critically will sometimes scare us and will often challenge us, but in the end, I’d rather live in reality than in a lie–no matter how comforting it is.

Next time I want to talk about one of Christianity’s most comforting lies, and I hope you’ll join me on Monday for it. Have a great weekend!



* Think of the Children. How a newly-deconverted ex-Christian couple began unraveling the well-meaning indoctrination they’d impressed upon their young children.

* Letters for My Daughters. Our fellow Ex-Communications blogger Neil Carter shares letters he’s written for his young children to help them learn critical thinking skills, as well as empathy and a host of other moral values they sure aren’t getting from Christianity.

* How Not to Teach Children Critical Thinking. Fellow Patheos blogger Libby Anne talks about how valuable critical thinking skills are even outside of their usefulness in debunking religion.

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