Critical Thinking and Christianity

One of my pet peeves is when Christians are characterized as blind fools who can’t think for themselves. Perhaps this is because I don’t like being insulted in this fashion, but honestly it bothers me more because it simply isn’t true. Not only do I know many incredibly smart and thoughtful believers, but as a student pastor I regularly encourage young people to take the brain God gave them and put it to good use. I say things like, Being a Christian doesn’t mean you stop thinking and just “have faith”. Faith is based on reason. Christians should be people who strive after the truth and think critically. They should not be blind followers. If your faith hasn’t been well thought through then it will collapse when the challenges of life confront it.

Even the Bible, which promotes faith, also promotes critical thinking. The greatest command of all is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength” (Luke 10:27). The centre of Christianity is, in part, loving God with your mind. There is a thinking aspect to faith. We are not given the capacity to reason and think so that we could leave those faculties at the door. Rather, they are to be harnessed for the right purposes—namely, loving God and loving others.

Scripture has other things to say about the role of thinking in the life of a Christian. Proverbs 14:15 says “The simple believes everything, but the prudent gives thoughts to his steps.” The biblical stance is that gullibility is to be resisted, and careful thinking used in its place. Even people of faith are actually discouraged in the Bible from being those who will believe anything. 

Another passage, 1 Thessalonians 5:21, says to “Test everything, hold fast to what is good.” In context, this is referring to “prophecies”, or statements made either about God or from God. In other words, just because someone comes along and says something about God doesn’t mean we should believe it. Instead, truth claims about God or from God should be tested. There is an element of critical thought that goes into this process. Christians should not believe everything they hear, because some information is true and some information is false.

The Bible never anywhere calls for people to have blind faith. This is because faith is not entirely blind. There is an element of acting on the unknown when it comes to faith, but that does not mean that faith can’t be grounded in reality. It certainly can—and should—be.

For example, Christians believe that God created the universe. That is an act of faith. Hebrews 11:3 says “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.” Yet, that does not mean this belief is objectively “blind”. No one was there to see how the world came about. Those who believe the universe came into existence by purely natural forces are also exercising a degree of faith, since they were not there to see it either. Neither truth claim can be objectively proven to be true. But, there are reasons why one might believe a particular view over another. The question is, do Christians have any reasons to support their claim? The answer is that indeed they do.

As I have talked with skeptics and unbelievers, it becomes clear that many of them have such a limited understanding of what the Bible actually teaches or why Christians believe what they do that any real discussion about it is impossible. I remember when I was young and still pretty naive in my faith I would get very troubled by some of the arguments against Christianity. Only after I looked into it for myself and took the time to think through my faith did I become more grounded in the reasoning behind it.

I have tried on this blog and in my pastoral teaching to help people wrestle with the tough questions about the Bible and Christianity. I have regularly resisted the idea that Christian faith is to be naive and nothing but a leap in the dark. That’s not true for me, and I don’t want it to be true for others. A faith that is tested with hard questions and critical thought is what I’m after, and what I want to help forge in others.

My point in all of this is to encourage critical thinking among individuals and thoughtful dialogue among those who disagree. Hearing both Christians and non-Christians throw around the same old ad hominem attacks or straw-man arguments is tedious to say the least. There needs to be more respect among those who disagree and careful, honest conversation between them. Rather than dismissing one another with a wave of the hand, we should pursue the truth with an attitude of civility. I would very much like to be a part in helping that kind of thing happen more often.

13 Comments on “Critical Thinking and Christianity”

  1. I appreciate how you must feel when your belief is looked upon as blind, unthinking belief. I just tackled this on my blog, but I’ll sum up quickly for you.
    You aren’t unthinking. You aren’t believing for no reason. You aren’t mental. But I’m convinced you believe for bad reasons.
    Not a few bad reasons, but hundreds or thousands of bad reasons acquired over a lifetime of confirmation bias and group think.
    I don’t think you’re a dumb sheep. I really don’t. But you do have a lifetime of really bad information to wade through.

    • Hey there Spartan Atheist, thanks for reading and commenting! I appreciate you not attacking the intelligence of people who disagree with you. That’s a refreshing take for people of different viewpoints to have, and I hope I share that too.

      It’s interesting that your take on my belief is that it comes through confirmation bias, groupthink, and bad information. I’m not exactly sure how you can know that though, since you haven’t experienced my life first-hand. It’s just as easy for me to say the same about you, because those things exist in all kinds of walks of life, don’t they?

      Anyways, I’ll have to check out your blog when I get the chance. At the very least you seem like the kind of person it would be fun to discuss things with. Take care!

  2. Thank you, jeremyedgar3. I generally like people, and still like people that have one or two views I disagree with. So I enjoy calm and thoughtful and respectful discussion.

    So, you’re right, I don’t have your particular experience. I don’t even know you. This is true. What I do know is my experience as a religious person. I’m also familiar with the beliefs of people of many different faiths. I’m also somewhat experienced in discussing mental wellness, and various cognitive issues we have that affect our everyday lives and interactions with others.

    All I really need to do now is ask this two-part question- is there a religion that is wrong, and does it’s followers believe it is right? The answer is a yes for both. Even if I don’t know which religion is wrong, the many world religions do contradict each other. So at the very least, most of them are wrong. And if most of the religions are wrong, then most of their adherents are also wrong.

    So why do adherents to religions stick to something that is wrong? Again, in theory I don’t know which one is right or wrong, I just know many are wrong. But the answers that all religious adherents give in defense of their faith boil down to the same failed fallacies.

    Have I examined every argument in defense of every faith? No. This is my hypothesis. So far, with the information I have, it bears out on Christianity.

    • Well, adherents stick to something that is wrong either because (a) they don’t realize it’s wrong or (b) they DO know it’s wrong but refuse to change for any number of reasons. But that doesn’t really support either your view or mine directly in any way. All it shows is that someone (or everyone) is wrong.

      The statement that religious arguments in defense of one’s faith are all “failed fallacies” would take some proving. I have not found it to be the case personally. Perhaps the failure or success of an argument is in the eye of the beholder.

      • I completely admit I’m making a general statement there. I can not ever prove that in every single instance a believer believes based on bad arguments. But I have watched dozens of online debates by the leading apologists of the faith, spent years speaking with preachers and the faithful of various religions, and had lifetime of listening to religious viewpoints. I have not yet heard of any evidence for any god, and without evidence we’re left with the remaining arguments that are just fallacious. If there were any good arguments, or evidence, I would think the leading apologists would have brought them up by now.
        This is how scientific theories come into being. One guy says that all living things are made of teeny-tiny individual structures called cells. Others scoff and begin to look for something to falsify the claim. However, every single example meets the claim. We can’t prove that EVERY single living thing is made of cells, but every single observation ever on the subject supports it. Cell Theory is therefore correct. Likewise, I claim no evidence, bad arguments. I’m eagerly awaiting the results of others to try to prove me wrong. They either will or they won’t, we shall see. Feel free to try yourself.
        But I completely agree that most adherents stick to their faith because they don’t realize it’s wrong. I see this as the role of atheists like myself voicing our disbelief- to get people to analyze their belief and shift toward believing in things that are real.

  3. Spartan to say that no apologist has brought forth a good argument concerning the existence of God is simply your opinion. Which as we know will never be swayed. No amount of evidence would sway you, as you simply brush aside the mountains of evidence all around you. The fine tuning of the universe, the complexity of life at all levels, the impossibility of our universe springing into existence out of nothing – from nothing, the existence of objective morality, the historicity of the crucifixion and empty tomb, the stalwart beliefs of the apostles that led them to torturous deaths – while they denied Jesus only days before to save their hides, the INCREDIBLE collection of inspired documents we call the Bible- written over a 1500 year period by over 40 authors on three continents.

    I could go on, but carpal tunnel will soon kick in. You can deny some things, or all things, but you cannot claim that no apologist has brought forth evidence in support of God. You just don’t agree with the interpretation of that evidence. Countless others do, myself included. Not just blind fools, but some of the worlds most educated, most esteemed and well respected from all walks of life and cultures see and accept the vast evidence for God all around us. We do not need a scientist in a while lab coat to validate that.

    In actuality, science is the wrong instrument to detect God in the first place… as God by definition must be Supernatural, which is well outside of the reach of science.

  4. Pingback: Debating Atheists: Three Types of Atheist – Stand Tall For Christ

  5. Thank you very much for this thoughtful post. Faith is something that I have been struggling with recently. I know that part of my journey needs to be further study and reasoning beyond what I know on the surface, and I am glad I am not the only person who thinks that is the best way to approach it.

  6. Thank you so much for writing this. One of my college teachers who teaches critical thinking is choosing assignments against God, who have quotes of God being almost a joke to them, and this is just week 2. Why not topics on the effects of carpet? Or eating dairy? Why attack God? Thank you for writing this.

  7. Hi there. I stumbled onto your post in my search between critical thinking and being a Christian. I recently started university. It is not even a month and I have been confronted with a lack of thinking critically. I was not raised to be a critical thinker, it was not encouraged that much at home around the dinner table nor in church.

    A really good friend of mine is an atheist and we often have the conversation of Christianity. It is the first time I am being challenged in why I believe, why I have faith and when did I choose to do so. Some of the arguments he makes is valid. And I do not always have the answers to the difficult questions he confronts me with. This post, however, gives a little more insight in the answers I am after.

    Thank you for seeking out the hard questions. I really appreciate it.

    • I’m glad that you found some value in my post! I also was not raised to be a critical thinker…or, perhaps at that time in my life I didn’t really care and just wanted to play sports and video games. Either way, like you, my faith was tested in university. I was not prepared for what I faced there. Looking back, however, it was one of the best things for my faith because it FORCED me to dig deeper and look for answers. For some people, it ends up destroying their faith. Thankfully, for me, it actually saved mine. I hope it does for you too. I have had some help from lots of good resources over the years, but the one that helped me the most was the very first book I read along these lines: The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel. It gave me some confidence that believing in the Bible and Jesus wasn’t completely crazy. It also gave me some specific names of people to look up further and read their books and blog posts. In short, that opened up a whole new world to me of academic-level thinkers who love Jesus and made good arguments for the faith. Perhaps your journey will take a similar route as mine. If you’re looking for specific resources I would be happy to help as best I can.

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