Letters to My Daughters #4: “The Beauty and Value of Critical Thinking”

Letters to My Daughters #4: “The Beauty and Value of Critical Thinking” September 10, 2013

kids-tee-minecraft-evolution-black_designNot too long ago, I started a conversation with you girls that we didn’t really get to finish. I stopped because it seemed to be making one or two of you very uncomfortable. I brought up the subject of evolution because one of you indicated you didn’t approve of the idea, and I felt like we should discuss it for a minute. I suppose the subject was a little intimidating, and I think I understand why. The idea that humans developed from other species over such long periods of time (millions of years) goes against what many people believe, and wrestling with those differences of opinion can be a bit scary and overwhelming. It’s hard to know what to think when the people you trust don’t agree with each other about really important things. I wish for your sakes that tension weren’t there, but it is. What’s more, I suspect you typically hear from only one side of this controversy (even at school), and it’s past time for you to hear from the other side.

This is an excellent opportunity for you girls to develop your excellent critical thinking skills (more on that in a minute). You’ll have to weigh two very different options to determine for yourselves which way of thinking makes the most sense. It seems to me that if there is an intelligent Being behind everything, he/she/it should be pleased to see us using our brains to figure things out for ourselves. But not everyone seems to think this way. Some even appear to believe that it’s bad to think for yourself. As crazy as that sounds to me personally, they have their reasons for thinking the way they do…about thinking. I just happen to disagree with them.

The way I see it, a biology topic like the origin of our species is a question for science, not for religion. Some people feel you shouldn’t say things like that, but I know quite a few Christians and people of faith who agree with me on this. If you don’t ever distinguish between matters of science and matters of faith you can end up embarrassing yourself like the people who told Galileo he was wrong about the Earth going around the Sun (instead of vice versa). The motion of the planets should have been a question for science, but some well-meaning people objected because in several places the Bible seems to say something different on the matter. But the Bible wasn’t written to be a science textbook, and we shouldn’t treat it like it was. I’m convinced that questions about the biological origins of the human race fall into that same category. I know the writers of the Bible give a different version of how it all went down, but they couldn’t possibly have known the kinds of scientific details we know today. That would be an unreasonable expectation on our part.

Sometimes people make a religious issue out things that shouldn’t be religious issues at all. I remember back when I was in high school Jim Henson died of a strep infection because he refused to get treated for it. He was raised in a version of the Christian religion which teaches you should avoid medicines and hospitals and just pray your illnesses away. Because he refused to get treatment, he died way too young. The world was deprived of his creative genius too soon, all because someone decided to make a religious issue out of seeking medical treatment when it shouldn’t have been a matter of religious belief at all. Another version of the Christian religion teaches that you shouldn’t receive blood transfusions, and countless people have died for that reason as well. Blood transfusions are a useful and pretty necessary part of modern surgery, but somebody decided to make a religious issue out of it and it has cost many lives.

Modern science has pretty much settled the question of evolution (believe it or not), but people have decided to make a religious issue out of that now as well…and it shouldn’t be. Understanding more about evolution and how other animals are related to us has already led to countless advances in science and medicine, and there’s still so much we have yet to discover. Our understanding of evolution has helped us better understand how diseases change and spread, and it has even begun to help us develop ways to prevent future birth defects and inborn diseases before they can be passed down from parent to child. I worry sometimes that people who are afraid of the concept of evolution will oppose these advances and hold us back from discovering new ways to make life better for all of us.

In case you girls didn’t know, you’re all really smart, and this makes me immensely proud. Of course, I can’t take full credit for that myself since half of your genes came from your mother, and certainly those of you who make the highest grades didn’t get that from me :) Then again, there are many different kinds of intelligence, and no one method or test could account for every one of them. But each of you has that sharpness of mind and that curiosity which come with high intelligence and little would please me more than to see each of you develop that in whichever direction your hearts take you. You girls know how to think for yourselves, and I don’t see you following a crowd without first asking if they’re headed in the right direction. It matters a great deal to me that each of you continues to value and nurture these critical thinking skills which enable you to be independent thinkers.

That’s also why I love to see how each of you at different times has taken an interest in some aspect of science or technology. Both of those things are driven by that hunger to understand more about the world around us and they both help us make the most of what’s possible in the world. I don’t ever want to see anything dampen that interest or that scientific curiosity which seeks to understand the natural world. For me, learning something new makes me happy, gives me joy, and makes me only want to learn even more. It reminds me that there’s always more to learn, so that a person need never become bored with life. There’s always some new discovery to look forward to, and you’ll never know how much the next new discovery will improve the quality of your lives and of everyone else’s you know.

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  • I am amazed at your care and rationality you have with your daughters. I hope that you and them can get to the bottom of the evolution/creation debate soon and with no unnecessary arguments.

  • Thanks, man. I don’t feel a personal need for them to think the same way as me on everything, but I know they’re smart, and I want to see them use that to its fullest potential.

  • I am finding it very difficult to not want my children to be atheists. I do want them to come to this conclusion on their own, but honestly, the thought of them being fundamental evangelical Christians makes my stomach hurt. I feel like religion was very bad for me emotionally and I don’t want my children to suffer the same fate. So far, they seem to be following my lead, even though the oldest were brought up in church. Funny enough, they still like to go to youth group, even though my oldest daughter is a pretty staunch atheist already. I don’t stop them, I think that would be wrong. However, I do not bring my youngest children (9, 7 and 4) to church at all. The only religious talk they hear is from my uber religious mother. My 9 year old son has already started asking questions about god, and I am trying to help him sort out what he believes on his own. He is very into science, so just giving him the facts and asking him what he thinks has pretty much led him not to believe. But he isn’t 100% sure yet, and I told him that is ok. This is just a very difficult parenting struggle for me, especially since we are the ONLY atheists I know in real life. . Oh, and my husband did deconvert with me, so we are both on the same page, which makes it much easier. From what I understand, your daughters’ mother is still a Christian. That would make your situation a lot different from mine.

    I will say this, no matter what, I will not tolerate scientific ignorance. I am very clear that evolution is factual and Creationism is nothing more than a fairy tale. I refuse to even pretend that they are two sides of the same coin. I tell my children that if they want to believe the earth is 6,000 years old and everything was created in 6 literal days, they might as well believe that the earth is flat.

  • Lee

    Love the minecraft/evolution pic Neil…sad, but genius!

  • Piobaireachd

    Maybe you could read through “Why Evolution is True” by Jerry Coyne with them. Or maybe an abridged version of it. There really is no controversy here and it’s important for the kids to here some of the basic facts. I know that they’re young and these are difficult concepts, but there are some nuggets that they should grasp pretty easily (some of the predictive powers of evolution, for example).

  • I loved this book! I checked it out from the library, but I think I will buy my own copy to use with my children. Needless to say, the true Theory of Evolution is nothing like what I was taught evolution was in my Christian faith.

  • If I may suggest, for teens and even adults, Richard Dawkins “The Magic of Reality”. It has a brilliant section on evolution, and it also includes many other scientific topics all explained in a way that are easy to understand and entertaining with beautiful illustrations and examples. The iPad version goes a step further with animations and “mini-games” related to each topic. I would suggest Jerry Coyne’s book once they have the basics as shown in the Magic of Reality. In any case, WEIT is also a fantastic book. I read it a few years ago and coincidentally, I am reading again now for a second time.

  • Lee

    Recently purchased and read along with my 12 year old son. Perfect presentation, delightful artwork, concise, poignant, easy to read and utterly powerful in simplicity. After reading, I have and will continue to suggest it for anyone as a first step into the world of reality. Though written for children, it would, in my opinion, be very effective at opening the eyes of fundamentalist…if they can get past the first “blaspheming” of their God…

  • MJ

    Hey Godlessindixie,

    I’m Back!

    I just wanted to say that this is one of the most heartfelt letters I have ever read. Your daughters are absolutely blessed to have you.


  • Mike

    While this is a nice letter, I think you are being biased.

    -This letter isn’t about science, its about evolution

    -Creationists DO believe in evolution and things changing over time. You are more concerned with the age of the earth.

    -Why should they be concerned about “embarrassing themselves”? This seems to contradict them “being themselves”. Parents and educators shouldn’t use embarrassment as a motivation.

    -You completely leave out the geniuses of our time that believe in evolution AND God. Francis Collins? Freeman Dyson? Don Page?

    -Critical thinking is important (you can tell you are a teacher) but so is love, commitment, and stability.

  • Of course I am biased :)

    And don’t worry, I have mentioned Francis Collins before. I totally agree that Christians do not have to have an anti-science attitude. I see no reason why Christians should react negatively to concepts like common ancestry. Thank you for pointing that out.

    Also, I agree that love, commitment, and stability are important. Have I said something here which implies I don’t feel that way?