Thinking Critically Vs Scepticism

by Phillip Brown

          As an apologist, I spend a lot of time engaging people and responding to questions about the evidence for God, or Jesus, or reasons for faith in general. And it isn’t uncommon for me to come across people who use the term “thinking critically” as a means of suggesting that they are too intelligent to actually believe in any kind of god. And that those who do believe in a deity, of any kind, are not thinking critically. We are also, quite often, accused of not thinking for ourselves. After a while, I began to pay even closer attention to people who make those kinds of statements. Then I starting thinking critically about their position. This brought me to two general conclusions about those people and their argument that believers are not thinking critically. Firstly, those who jump to the critical thinking argument, typically, don’t actually think critically about the evidence that I present them. Instead, they take a position of scepticism and confuse that with thinking critically. Secondly, they often violate their own claims about people not thinking for themselves. I want to break down these two conclusions a little bit and hopefully shine a bit of light on these common objections to faith. The majority of this article will be spent talking about the first of the two conclusions. Then I will briefly touch upon the second conclusion, as it relates to the first.

          The critical thinking argument is used often, but it’s a weak argument to make and I still get surprised when I come across this mistake. When you tell someone that you are a Christian, more often than not, they suggest that you aren’t really thinking about what belief is, or what faith actually means. Sometimes people default to evolution as their way of showing you that they have thought critically. Typically, though, I find that many people say things like “How do you know your way is the only way?” or “How can you know anything for sure?” or most commonly “Who’s to say that your way is the right one?” Then out comes the accusation of not thinking critically. I contend that those who ask those questions aren’t thinking critically, but have instead simply defaulted to a form of scepticism.

          So what is skepticism? Well, Oxford online dictionary gives two definitions for the term:

1. A sceptical attitude; doubt as to the truth of something.

2. The theory that certain knowledge is impossible.

The first of these two definitions seems reasonable in many situations. For example, where insufficient evidence exists to support an idea, or a claim, being sceptical about said idea, or claim makes sense. Or simply when you are not sure of the source of the information given and you think that something requires further investigation. I think that, generally speaking, it is wise to be sceptical under the above-mentioned circumstances. This is what one might call “healthy scepticism.” A healthy level of scepticism is essential to learning and to critical thinking. Otherwise we would just be taking everything that we hear and read at face value. That is called blind faith. Faith without any evidence to suggest that something is true is not only problematic from the standpoints of reason and logic, it’s also anti-biblical. After all, Jesus did command us to Love the Lord our God with all of our hearts, souls and all of our minds. We are supposed to think critically about God. The second definition is never reasonable. That kind of thinking undermines itself, because it makes all claims about truth virtually pointless. Including the concept itself. Unfortunately, however, it is not unusual to hear claims related to this second definition of scepticism. Some feel that it’s a knock-out blow, but really it’s just an attempt to allow those people to not have to provide evidence for their own arguments. As western societies become increasingly relativistic, this mode of reasoning is spreading. And it’s problematic to say the least.

          What, now, can be said for critical thinking? Well, Michael Scriven and Richard Paul say critical thinking is:

“… the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.”

If we use this as our baseline definition of the concept of critical thinking, it seems to me that there are a lot of people who don’t think very critically when it comes to challenging faith. When you reject something out of hand and are not willing to discuss the merits of the evidence that someone presents for a claim that they make, you are not thinking critically. If you are not actually evaluating information gathered from, or generated by observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, then you are not thinking critically. This kind of “non-critical” thinking is common among believers and non-believers alike. We must use all of the above-mentioned means of evaluating claims, ideas, or concepts. And you must not be guided strictly by emotion. That would be antithetical to the notion of thinking at all.

          So what happens, then, when we actually think critically? Well through the use of critical thinking we can actually come to conclusions. And that means that definition 2 of scepticism, as stated above, kind of gets thrown out the window. It’s one thing to simply disagree with someone’s view of a claim based on the weight of evidence. It’s quite another, however, to suggest that nothing can be known to be true, or false to begin with.

          So with all that having been said about scepticism and critical thinking, let’s briefly address their relationship to the idea that people of faith are not thinking for themselves and the hypocrisy that usually comes with that statement. The claim that believers don’t think for themselves usually follows directly from the claim that someone is not critically thinking. It makes sense that if one isn’t coming to their own conclusions that they might just be believing what someone else says. But why is it that, because I happen to have come to different conclusions than you, I am not thinking for myself? In my experience as an apologist, I have observed that when the average challenger to faith is pushed to divulge to you what they think is the truth, if they believe in truth at all, they just say things like, “I think that we are evolved.” And when you ask how they came to that conclusion they simply say, “I believe in science.” Then I push them one step further and ask if they have investigated the claims made by scientists in the fields relevant to evolution. The typical answer is no. They are just taking someone else’s word for it. And thus, they themselves have not really thought about the claims that they are making. They are either repeating what is popular, or defaulting to scepticism, but they are not thinking critically. And so the claim that believers are not thinking for themselves is a hypocritical one.

          In all fairness, the observations made in this article are generalizations. I want to make it clear that I have encountered many non-theists who are very thoughtful and have certainly engaged with the relevant evidence. They have just, by honest intentions, come to different conclusions. I try not to jump to the conclusion that people who disagree with me simply haven’t looked into things, however, I usually find that little, if any, real research has been done.

          So now we see that critical thinking and scepticism are not at all the same thing. It is unfortunate that many people confuse these two concepts, but it is common. And the tag along idea that because we are believers we are not thinking for ourselves is even more unfortunate. And often the accusation is made hypocritically. As Christians, we must think critically about our faith. It is also important that we maintain a healthy level of scepticism about the world. After all, if we think that God created the world and that He can be known through what He created, we must keep investigating His creation so that we can know Him and make Him known.

Works cited:
“Defining Critical Thinking.” The Critical Thinking Community. Accessed January 2, 2017. http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/defining-critical-thinking/766.