Image via WikipediaReligion, Politics, and the Value of Critical Thinking
by Ryan Joseph Delaney
When I was a student in Catholic school, we were forced, from about the Fourth Grade onward, to do “critical thinking” exercises:
“In two to three well-developed sentences, explain how John Denver’s ‘Country Roads’ alludes to the West Virginia mining industry. Is his representation accurate? How so?”
Generally, these exercises could be found in the workbooks and worksheets that accompanied our Literature and Social Science texts. At the end of every chapter we would be expected to form a well-supported opinion. And if we groaned about having to write in—gasp—full sentences, well, needless to say, we lived.
I believe that these critical thinking exercises were a remnant—like the ruins of a fortress—of the classical education that died with my grandparents’ generation. Like the more thorough philosophical training before, these exercises established us, in a more limited way, in a discipline of thought. They taught us that education was more than a merely passive reception of facts, but engaging in a conversation, even a debate. And I would contend that if our religious and political discourse in this country has become—not for want of a better word—“polarized”, one can credit it to the fact that our people, even our elected representatives and ordained ministers, have forgotten how to think critically.
More to the point, they have forgotten how to argue effectively, let alone in a civil manner. They have forgotten how to construct valid arguments (and I mean valid in the formal sense, not in our colloquial sense of factual or “relevant”) that are supported by true premises. The result is that, argument failing, we clobber our opponents over the head with dogmas, from the Right and the Left. Just last week, the ladies of ABC’s “The View” hosted neo-conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly. He spoke (on the offensiveness of the Ground-Zero mosque), and they didn’t like what he had to say, so they shouted over him. When they realized that their curses wouldn’t turn him into a toad, Whoopi and Joy walked off set. It was truly pitiful.
And yet, I fear it is typical of our religious and political discourse. How has this come to pass, and how to correct it? For it is not enough to bemoan—as Barbara Walters did in the most sanctimonious terms possible—the “polarization” of American politics. In fact it is not “polarization” that is the issue, since by that term most mean the fact that there is a divergence of opinion. What will bring this country down is not our opinions, no matter how wildly they may diverge, but our inability to articulate and defend those opinions intelligently and civilly.
In fact, I would suggest that the Apostle has the best possible prescription for our ills, “to speak the truth in love” (Eph 4:15). For to sacrifice the truth for love is naïve, and to sacrifice love for the truth is futile. They are the way of the Sadducee and the way of the Pharisee, respectively, and neither is the Way. Or, as our blessed Lord puts it, more poetically, we must “be wise as serpents, and innocent as doves” (Mt 10:16).