Nearly three weeks ago, I published a post on critical thinking in the church. I briefly discussed what critical thinking was, and I posed a number of possible reasons why we didn’t see more critical thinking in the church.
Having thought some more about the issue of critical thinking in the church over the last three weeks, I wanted to devote one more blog post to it – to add some more to the discussion, and round it out a little.
But first, I want to offer an apology to the church. In the last three weeks, I’ve come across research where experts have looked at the issue of critical thinking across our society, and their conclusion is that critical thinking is hard, and is poorly done across the board. The church, therefore, isn’t necessarily worse than the rest of the community at large, so I may have been a little harsh on account of some unrealistic expectations.
Still, I would suggest that if the Christian church is to be salt and light, we shouldn’t rest on our laurels and think it’s ok to be as undiscerning as everyone else. Instead, we should be looking to lead our community, in our love for God, our love for people, and our love of the truth.
In the essay, “Teaching Critical Thinking: Lessons from Cognitive Science” , Tim van Gelder outlines a number of lessons from cognitive neuroscience on the nature of critical thinking, how we learn, and why we don’t learn critical thinking. These have important implications for critical thinking in the church.
- Critical thinking doesn’t come naturally to us
“Humans are not naturally critical thinkers; indeed, like ballet, it is a highly contrived activity. Running is natural; nightclub ‘dancing’ is natural enough; but ballet is something people can only do well with many years of painful, expensive, dedicated training. Evolution didn’t intend us to walk on the ends of our toes, and whatever Aristotle (“Man is a rational animal”) might have said, we weren’t designed to be all that critical either. Evolution doesn’t waste effort making things better than they need to be, and homo sapiens evolved to be just logical enough to survive while competitors such as Neanderthals and mastodons died out.”
Instead of thinking critically, humans tend to be “pattern-seeking, story telling”. Problems occur because we naturally tend to accept the first account that “seems right” and don’t challenge whether that account is actually true. The test of truth for most humans is not intellectual but intuitive.
- Practice makes perfect.
Critical thinking is a higher order cognitive skill. If you don’t practice the skills, you won’t become good at them or eventually master them. So learning the theory of critical thinking won’t make someone better at critical thinking any more than watching a sport on TV will make you better at it. Though if you want to become really good at something, one needs to engage in deliberate practice of the skills of critical thinking on a regular basis, as well as broadly practicing critical thinking.
Transfer refers to the difficulty in transferring skills applied in one area and applying them broadly. This is an issue across all learning, not just critical thinking. The mind is a cluster of specialised independent capacities, and a skill learnt in one capacity isn’t easily transferred to the rest.
Of course, if it were impossible to transfer skills across to our broader knowledge, there would be no point in teaching anything. So it’s not impossible to broaden critical thinking skills, but this skill must also be learned. It’s unlikely to happen on its own.
- Practical theory.
Australian is a nation of coffee drinkers. Even though we consume a lot of God’s wake-up juice, most coffee drinkers don’t know much about the coffee they consume. They have practical coffee knowledge (what they like), but little theoretical knowledge (why they like it). Improving in critical thinking mastery, just like increasing the depth of coffee enjoyment, involves learning a little more theory. Better theoretical knowledge improves your perception of what’s going on, which then improves insight enabling better self-monitoring and correction, as well as enabling better improvement from external coaching. Better understanding of critical thinking comes from better understanding some of the theory of critical thinking.
- Belief Preservation
Sir Francis Bacon said,
“The mind of man is far from the nature of a clear and equal glass, wherein the beams of things should reflect according to their true incidence; nay, it is rather like an enchanted glass, full of superstition and imposture, if it be not delivered and reduced.”
Or in other words, the human mind is prone to illusion, distortion and error, both because of innate hardwiring, and social learning. These cognitive beliefs and blind spots are many, and sometimes subtle. In this discussion, belief preservation is important. It is the tendency “to use evidence to preserve our opinions”. Humans seek out evidence which supports what we believe and avoid or ignore evidence which goes against it. We also rate evidence as good or bad depending on whether it supports or conflicts with our beliefs, and we tend to stick with our beliefs even in the face of overwhelming evidence against them, so long as there is a sliver of evidence in support.
Critical thinking requires us to work against this bias, and doing so feels very unnatural, so while it might be challenging, it’s nevertheless, very important.
- Map it out
The core of critical thinking is argument (the connected series of statements intended to establish a definite proposition, not an angry dispute). We tend to handle arguments by expressing them in either writing or speaking. But there concept of an argument map in which the statements that make up the premises and the conclusion of the argument are drawn diagrammatically. Critical thinking skills improve faster when taught with argument mapping.
So how do we apply these lessons to critical thinking and the church?
- Critical thinking is hard but not impossible.
Critical thinking doesn’t come naturally to most people. Hence, why I apologised earlier in this essay – I was wrong to expect that critical thinking should come naturally to everyone.
But that doesn’t mean that the church should shy away from it either. At the very least, all Christians should be aware of the most fundamental basics of critical thinking – that we naturally tend to believe what’s intuitive, not necessarily what’s right. And, it’s ok to ask questions. No topic should be taboo.
- Those who can, should.
We’re all members of Christ’s body (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31). Some are more gifted in hospitality or leadership – the hands and feet. Some people are intercessors – the heart. So it’s not really a stretch to think that there are some members of the church whose gifts lie in the academic or the intellectual – the “brain”.
So those who want to think about God and their faith on a much deeper level should be encouraged to do so. If there aren’t any already, courses could be developed to teach the interested Christian how interpret Biblical Hebrew and Greek to increase the understanding of scripture. Courses in critical thinking can be added to every Bible college and seminary, and courses in critical thinking can be encouraged or taught by churches, along side courses in ministry and the supernatural.
At the end of my last post, I said that I would do an idiots guide to critical thinking so that we could all have the skills if we wanted them. Actually I don’t need to, since there are very good courses in critical thinking online already: http://philosophy.hku.hk/think/
- Be aware of our limitations
Lastly, pastors and leaders should be aware of their own limitations and their potential for cognitive biases. Our pastors work hard, and do a very good job on the whole. But they’re not all like Solomon. Just because something seems right to them, doesn’t mean that it is. Sometimes there will be people who will legitimately question what they say, or a ministry or minister that they’ve endorsed.
Rather than taking this as an affront to their authority, they need to consider that the alternative view might be right. If they’re not in a position to weigh up the evidence for themselves, there’s no reason why they can’t ask for assistance from trusted elders who do have the knowledge. If Moses can delegate, then so can they.
The same goes for Christian leaders all the way to the highest levels of church leadership. Our church leadership can’t plead ignorance when significant issues are raised. Burying your head in the sand just makes your arse a target.
Critical thinking is an important yet unrecognised major issue for the Christian church. If I have missed anything, or if you would like to further the conversation, I welcome your comments.
Happy thinking everyone.
 van Gelder T. Teaching Critical Thinking: Lessons from Cognitive Science. College Teaching 2005;53(1):41-46.