Several years ago I published a book advocating that robustly teaching kids critical-thinking skills throughout their education offered the most practical path to effectively blunting Christianity’s perpetually corrupting effect on American life. A new study underscores this theme.
I suggested in my book — Holy Smoke: How Christianity smothered the ‘true’ American Dream (2018) — that such critical-thinking courses should be taught separately from so-named STEM courses (in science, technology, engineering and math) but with the same priority and robust emphasis.
My view is that it’s critical to teach critical thinking fully and separately, not just as a part of STEM classes, because the skills and intrinsic value of rigorous inquiry should be automatically employed by students in every class, including, say, humanities subjects such as art and history.
But in American primary and secondary education today, students only learn critical thinking indirectly and implicitly, and only in STEM-type courses, where understanding and utilizing the structures and truths inherent in material reality is thought particularly essential (e.g., the testable force of gravity, the inerrancy of 2+2=4, how computers physically process information, the mathematically predictable destructive power of atoms, etc.), unlike in fact-untethered musing.
A skill set that accommodates vigorous inquiry into the nature of reality and the use of its material laws can also be applied — and should be — in every facet of learning, from religious ideology to quantum physics to evolution. Finding the closest approximations of truth in existence requires ruthlessly asking “Why?” of virtually everything, not just some things.
Which is the opposite of what Christianity and all other supernatural religions require, which is unqualified acceptance — “faith,” in Christian parlance — of fabulistic ideas for which no material confirmation exists. Like “God” (in one part, two, or three), “Heaven,” “Hell,” the “soul,” resurrection, and bread and wine supposedly imbued with the actual “body and blood of Christ.”
When it comes to learning reason in school, the problem for kids is that they are taught only to question the material knowledge of scholarship, not unsubstantiated, immaterial concepts presented as true, as religion does.
So students aren’t taught to ruthlessly question everything, starting with everything they’ve been taught even before entering school, which is to say, religion. This gives religious ideology a decided advantage in schools without even being there (although on-campus “Bible Clubs” are proliferating rapidly). Students are not directly taught to apply STEM rigor to the faiths they inherit at birth and are continuously indoctrinated in thereafter, so religious ideas get a pass during the school week and until re-inoculation from truth the following Sunday or at youth religious group meetings during the week. Which habit do you think gets most embedded in youthful minds?
Think of the value of students taking continuously required core courses in critical thinking throughout their educations in which they are tasked with parsing truth from such abstract concepts as the existence of supernatural realms, biological evolution vs. creation myths, what causes “crop circles,” the objective analysis of “out-of-body experiences,” alien abductions and the like.
My sense has always been that most kids, if taught to be habitually skeptical, would automatically learn to thoroughly question every idea they come across, in schools and out, as youths and later adults. To demand testable, falsifiable, real-world evidence before embracing their every belief. A tall order, of course, people being frequently gullible and not always very intelligent, but we can get much, much closer to truth with facts than dreams.
So it was gratifying when I ran across a new academic study the other day that seemed to corroborate the central theme of Holy Smoke. According to a report on the study published in the journal Sociology of Religion (“Inquiry, Not Science, as the Source of Secularization in Higher Education”), critical thinking instruction in general, not just in STEM classes, is key to the secularization process of young people, especially those from families that embrace “conservative Protestantism.”
Hemant Mehta also wrote about this study, conducted by professor John H. Evans of the University of California at San Diego, in a May 17 post in his The Friendly Atheist blog, and he underlined the same conclusion.
The abstract for the study published in the official journal of the Association for the Sociology of Religion succinctly summarizes its findings:
“The traditional claim in the literature on religion and science is that exposure to science leads to secularity because the claims about the natural world in the two systems are incompatible. More recently, research has narrowed this claim and shown that conflict over knowledge in the USA is primarily limited to one religion—conservative Protestantism—and only to a few fact claims. In this paper, I test this claim using longitudinal data from matched surveys taken in students’ first and fourth year of university. I find no evidence that the science is more secularizing than nonscience. I then turn to a distinction in university majors long used by sociologists of education—between majors focused on inquiry versus those focused on applying knowledge—and find that majors focused on inquiry are more likely to secularize than those focused on application. I interpret this to mean that learning to inquire secularizes.”
A 2016 article in the periodical Answers in Genesis by Ken Ham (of Ark Encounter notoriety in Kentucky) with Avery Foley, shows how fundamentalist Christianity is deeply alarmed by the widening chasm between religious believers and doubters, with kids especially in the latter camp. The article notes Ham’s 2009 book based on research he says he commissioned from America’s Research Group.
“[O]ur research revealed that, as early as even elementary and middle school, young people have doubts and questions about the Bible that are going unanswered. Research shows that many of these questions are related to Genesis and scientific issues such as evolution, long ages (millions of years), dinosaurs, and Noah’s Ark. These young people are not getting solid answers from church leaders and parents but, sadly, are often told they can believe in the big bang, millions of years, and evolution; they’re then admonished to reinterpret or ignore Genesis while being told to “trust in Jesus!” These young people recognize the inconsistency of reinterpreting the first book of the Bible and yet being expected to trust the other books that talk about Christ. If we can doubt and reinterpret Genesis, where do we stop doubting and reinterpreting?”
Indeed this is the question that energizes all fundamentalist loathing and terror of the objective truths that empirical science relentlessly uncovers — truths that fulsomely debunk the fantastic proclamations of scripture.
That’s why evangelical Christians are so laser focused on ruthlessly indoctrinating children from the cradle on, hoping their embedded beliefs will be impervious shields against later truths they might learn.
This is exactly why public schools should be laser focused on instilling the habitual protective skills of evidence-based skeptical inquiry in all children so as they mature they are better able to interpret reality as it is and not as they might wish it to be — or as religious “authorities” tell them it must be.