I’ve been thinking the last few days about critical thinking, or more specifically, the lack of it.
I’ve written about critical thinking before. I realise that critical thinking can be difficult, and it doesn’t always come naturally to us humans. And in discussing it here, I don’t want to give the false impression that I expect everyone to suddenly become Aristotle or Francis Bacon, but I’d like to think we can all have enough critical thinking skills to have some basic common sense.
A case in point came across my Facebook feed tonight. A Facebook friend had laryngitis and was about to embark on a speaking engagement and was asking the hive mind for some advice.
Now I know that this was a question posed to lay people, and I wasn’t expecting anyone to be giving specific medical advice … but it was interesting that the answers, by and large, didn’t even pass the common sense test. Most of the answers recommended either gargling or drinking various home-made potions. Except, when you gargle something or drink something, it doesn’t go anywhere near the voice box – we know that because we know what happens when you get liquid into your voice box, you cough or choke. So clearly, no matter what you’re gargling or drinking, it isn’t going to affect your vocal cords one bit. You don’t need a medical degree to know that, you just have to use a little bit of common sense.
The same deficiency in entry-level critical thinking is seen in the church all the time. It afflicts everyone from pew-warmer to pastor. Common sense so often escapes us when it comes to understanding scripture. Christian celebrities skew the text of the Bible to suit their own agendas all the time, and most Christians are too gullible and just accept the incorrect interpretation. Sometimes a scriptural misinterpretation can be passed down from generation to generation because people don’t question the orthodoxy for fear of appearing divisive or ignorant.
A funny example of how the scripture can be taught with all sincerity but without much understanding is in relation to sperm. When I was in my final year of high school at a prominent Christian school, one of the male teachers took it on himself to get all the boys together from our year level for a chat about important man things.
One of the things that was mentioned was that we shouldn’t masturbate, because of the story of Onan. In Genesis 38, Onan ejaculated on the ground rather than in his sister-in-law and God smote him. Somehow, that was taken to mean that semen is precious, therefore it shouldn’t be wasted. This lead to a historical view, expressed by Clement of Alexandria who wrote, “Because of its divine institution for the propagation of man, the seed is not to be vainly ejaculated, nor is it to be damaged, nor is it to be wasted. To have coitus other than to procreate children is to do injury to nature.” This lead to the concept that masturbation is evil because it is seminal genocide, which eventually lead to the Monty Python parody “Every sperm is sacred” (https://youtu.be/fUspLVStPbk?list=RDfUspLVStPbk).
Anyway, back to my high school – the teacher wasted our entire morning tea time talking about Onan, and about how we should be chaste and not masturbate because every sperm is sacred. But he clearly didn’t read the actual scripture, nor did he or anyone else ever consider why, if God was so stressed about wasting semen, He would create men to have wet dreams. I really wanted to make this point, but didn’t because it was morning tea time and everyone wanted to get out of there, and I also didn’t want to be mercilessly harassed about being pro-masturbation by every guy in my grade.
My high school teacher and the story of Onan is an example of how people can be well meaning and still misguided, and why we need to apply common sense to scripture. It doesn’t take a great deal of biological knowledge to know that men have nocturnal emissions of semen, yet for centuries, the story of Onan was about how he was smitten because of his treatment of his sperm, not about how he was disobedient.
Another example of how well-meaning but misguided teaching can be perpetuated comes from the Christian course, “Valiant Man” by Australian pastor, Dr Allen Meyer. The “Valiant Man” program was a ten-week series of small group sessions designed with the intention of helping men develop their Christian character in the area of sex. In week three, Dr Meyer (not a medical doctor) tried to show that men should respect women more because we all started off in the womb as females, and the Y-chromosome eventually turned us from a girl into a boy.
This little factoid wasn’t the only significant defect in the Valiant Man program, but it was one of the most memorable. “We all start off female” was one of the things that the other participants in the program all remembered, and it even made it to Sunday morning church as part of a testimonial one of the men gave about the program. And yet, it was one of the most clearly inaccurate parts of the program – all embryos have the structures to be either male or female. We didn’t all start off as women. Men aren’t an aberration of the female default setting*.
In week one of the program, all participants were required to agree to some ground-rules in order to keep going on the program. Point 2 of this ‘contract’ said, “intellectual opinions play no part in our discussion, except where they are relevant to our growth.” In other words, don’t challenge the material gentlemen, and don’t think for yourselves. While this might be conducive to running a smooth program, it meant that gross errors and distortions were left unchallenged.
This pattern of unquestioning acceptance of misguided teaching continues throughout the church. This is something that Dr Leaf does all the time. It doesn’t take theological training to see that her use of scripture is inaccurate (like her interpretation of Proverbs 23:7, for example), but the vast majority of Christians simply accept her misguided interpretation and theologically trained church leaders also accept it, or don’t correct it (both of which are just as heinous).
I know that critical thinking is sometimes tricky, but I’m not advocating for anything more than common sense. Entry level critical thinking doesn’t take much effort but it can be particularly life changing. Like with “Valiant Man”, a little bit of critical thinking can stop bad teaching from being accepted as truth. Like the story of Onan, a little bit of critical thinking can stop centuries of incorrect teaching being perpetuated. Like with my friends Facebook status, a little bit of critical thinking can help a person make the best choice for their own personal health.
As Christians, we need to have some self-respect and stop being so gullible, just accepting something as the truth because some Christian celebrity says it from the pulpit.
Ultimately it’s the truth that sets us free, not some gilded assumption.
* In fairness, I did the program in 2010 and it may have been updated since then … here’s hoping.