Religion: circumventing critical thought one childhood at a time

Jesus loves the little children
Jesus loves the little children

At some point in our lives people will wonder about meaning, truth, and purpose.  Whether it is a time of plenty (and thus luxury of time to ponder these things) or of great struggle (and thus the seeming necessity of thinking of such things), people will find themselves considering what our purpose is, what the meaning of life is, and what is true.

Now, what matters, in my opinion, more than the answers to these questions is the method by which we get to them.  And one of the problems with our American culture is a lack of critical thinking skills as well as a terrible education system that focuses on answers rather than method.  Tens of millions of people in this country do not know how to think well, especially when it comes to questions of meaning, purpose, and truth.

So what do they do when they find themselves wondering what it is all about? What cultural factor comes to mind first when they wonder about why we are here, what we should do, etc? Religion.

Because most of us were exposed to going to church, synagogue, or temple (among other names for the places we go as a child to see religiousy stuff), this is the window through which many people begin to enter the realm of philosophical questions.  And there should be no doubt that philosophy and theology have been intertwined throughout history.  As the saying goes, “philosophy is the hand maiden of theology.”

Now, philosophy has certainly found new employment and has created a strong secular home for itself, but there is still much in our philosophical endeavors that look like theology to me.  It is precisely because we are exposed to religious ideas as a child and we rarely are exposed to much critical thinking or philosophy divorced from religious sources that this is the case.  What is that phrase? Oh, right; “Give me the child for seven years, and I will give you the man.”  Those Jesuits, they surely knew how to party.

After all, what other source can one turn to, especially when they reach adulthood, when questions of meaning come up? A person who has not been exposed to philosophy and critical thinking will surely remember the sermons on those early Sundays (or Friday evenings…whatever).  It is, thus, no surprise that when people look for meaning in their lives that they turn, or return, to religion. What other tool have they been given?

I’ve known a good number of people that could fit into the following description to varying degrees; A lack of interest in religion or god as a child, but exposure nonetheless.  As a teenager other things concern them as their hormonally raging bodies are distracting them towards boys or girls and other high school sort of things.  College; freedom, responsibility, parties, drinking, poor decisions, guilt, shame, boredom, unfulfilled, looking for something better.  Campus Crusade for Christ (or some other similar organization), Jesus loves you despite your “sins,” redemption, social support group, born again Christian, new life.

Credit goes to God.  They could not have done it without his grace.  No credit goes to them, for their decision to change, or even to the community of support that they surround themselves with.

Now, this is not my story, not by a long shot.  I was lucky enough to have been exposed to multiple religious traditions while young, an excellent education, and a strong mind. And in my travels I have met more than a few people who have described something very much like the previous paragraph as having been their experience.  Of course, there are other models for how people find their way back to religion.  They may even describe themselves as having been heathens, atheists, etc before their change.  Just look at Kirk Cameron.

No, people like that, in the vast majority of cases, just never took the time to really think about it.  And so when they were introduced to the message of the religion they return to, they were not equipped with the tools they needed to evaluate the claims made.  They were susceptible to a manipulative message because they felt like they needed something, some explanation, and they were approached by an evangelical at the right time.

And it is not that these people are completely bereft of critical thinking skills.  It is just that people have the ability to compartmentalize their minds such that they do not apply critical thinking skills to certain things that are accepted for emotional reasons.  Smart people are able to rationalize all sorts of things they accept to be true.

Our early exposure to religious ideas gives those types of ideas a kind of emotional association and import that sticks with us through our lives.  And so while for most of our childhood we may not think too much about these ideas, they remain assumed to some degree and our critical thinking slips right past them like they were cloaked in some invisible field that our intelligence just slides off of.  And when we, upon finding ourselves in need of answers, the evangelical message has a secret door to our mind held open by years of emotional associations and thus can circumvent the skeptical filters that we build up for just about everything else we evaluate.

This is one of the reasons that atheists are so vilified in culture; religion is a subject that causes emotional defensiveness when criticized.  Religion is held in our culture as an exception.  We are built to defend our religious beliefs and so they have a special place in the cultural conversation.

No more.  Stop making this exception.  It’s time for us to grow up and challenge our notions about religion, belief in god, and its role in our lives.  Learn critical thinking skills and apply them to your deeply held beliefs.  It will hurt.  It will be difficult.  But all growth involved the destruction of the ediface on which it is built.