What Is Critical Thinking Anyway—And Why Does It Matter?

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Critical thinking is incredibly important when evaluating competing claims. But what does "critical thinking" really mean—and why should Christians care about it?

Pop Quiz: Define Critical Thinking:

  1. Mentally criticizing everyone you think about
  2. Thinking quickly in dangerous situations
  3. Evaluating messages to see whether they’re worth believing
  4. Nobody really knows, but teachers and textbooks sometimes mention it
  5. A synonym for “extra work”
  6. D and E
  7. None of the above

Okay, so if this were a real exam question, it’d be easy enough to eliminate the wrong-sounding answers and be left with C. But honestly, while I was growing up, the answer D and E better summarized how I viewed critical thinking. I’d see critical thinking referenced in places like textbook exercises, which suggested that students “think critically” about different concepts but didn’t often explain how to do that. So, I began to suspect that critical thinking is just a vague phrase which educators like using to make up assignments.

But then, I read another textbook that explained what critical thinking is really about: logically evaluating messages.1 I realized that by thinking critically, I could avoid being taken in by bad arguments, manipulative advertisements, and even false teachers. After all, since God’s Word is true, any teaching that opposes Scripture must be a lie, and recognizing lies in every area of life is what critical thinking is all about.

I started seeing how biblical, critical thinking skills can come in handy for almost any situation.

As a young person following Christ in a world which often opposes Scripture’s teachings, I started seeing how biblical, critical thinking skills can come in handy for almost any situation. Whether online, in classrooms, or on the media, we’re bombarded daily by persuasive (but often, unbiblical) messages that try to alter our thinking, sway our beliefs, and direct our decision making. Some of these messages may be at least partially true or promote useful ideas. But others, not so much. How can you tell what’s worth believing, and what isn’t?

Enter critical thinking.

Critical thinking is like a mental toolkit. The tools inside include skills such as spotting faulty logic, sensing psychological manipulation, and sorting out facts from opinions, interpretations, or assumptions. And after testing these tools over four years of secular university, I’d rate them a must-have for any Christian in secular classrooms and culture.

Wait, Isn’t “Critical Thinking” a Secular Toolkit?

Granted, some people may associate the words “critical thinking” with secular humanist agendas. Humanism is an atheistic worldview, relying on human reasoning alone as man’s ultimate authority for truth. Often, humanists (and even many Christians) may contrast “thinking” with “faith,” defining faith incorrectly as belief without evidence. Typically beginning with the belief, “If you can’t measure it, then it doesn’t exist,”2 humanism praises rational thinking—where rational is often defined as “excluding any mention of God.”

Critical thinking is rational, in the technical (though not atheistic) sense of the word. So, through a quick switcheroo of these different definitions for “rational,” some people claim critical thinking is a bulwark of humanism. As a pamphlet from the American Humanist Association called Humanism and Critical Thinking states:

Since humanism is a rational philosophy, it is dependent on a methodology that successfully addresses questions and problems related to the natural world. Critical thinking provides that methodology and includes skills, attitudes, and dispositions that a person can learn and practice. In fact, science itself can be thought of as a subset of critical thinking.3

No human can know everything, and human reasoning is fallible even by humanists’ own standards—especially since humanists believe the mind is a byproduct of evolution (and ultimately, a cosmic accident). And how do we know whether any thoughts resulting from a cosmic accident are trustworthy? Those thoughts would be accidents too. Besides, logic, rationality, and truth can’t be measured. So, they technically wouldn’t exist within a consistent humanist worldview anyway.4

Being all-knowing, God can reveal truth to his creatures and give them faculties to know things for certain.

In contrast, a biblical worldview states that humans are made in the image of a logical God, who knows everything, who is the source of absolutes, who created an orderly universe, and who reveals truth through His Word. Being all-knowing, God can reveal truth to his creatures and give them faculties to know things for certain. Unlike humanism, then, a biblical worldview provides a consistent philosophical basis for logic, reasoning, critical thinking, and true knowledge. And since the Bible is the revelation from God, who cannot lie, it will always stand up to scrutiny. So, Christians have no reason to avoid critical thinking—and every reason to embrace it. In fact, you might say that it’s humanists who must have a much greater ‘faith’ than Christians to claim they can know anything for certain, without a mechanism to explain knowledge itself.

The Garden Analogy

Here’s another way to look at critical thinking skills. At the house where I grew up, our backyard had a small garden surrounded by rocks. Tall, weedy grass would grow around the rocks, out of reach of the lawnmower. So, my job was to snip back the weeds with a massive pair of garden pruners. Sometimes, their blades would run into rocks as I tried maneuvering the pruners between stones. But would the rocks get severed along with the grass? No way—they were too solid.

God’s word, as humanity’s only absolute authority for truth, is rock solid.

In the same way, critical thinking skills are like garden tools: pruners, hoes, and spades for destroying the weeds of lies, irrationality, and flawed logic in our thinking. God’s Word, meanwhile, as humanity’s only absolute authority for truth, is rock solid. And no matter how determinedly anyone might try hacking against biblical teachings with a critical thinking tool, God’s truth will ultimately remain unscathed.

Furthermore, just like critical thinking is only possible because God’s Word provides a foundation for logic, that person in the garden can only stand up to hack against the stones because deep underground, a foundation of bedrock is upholding everything. Grounded on this bedrock of God’s Word, Christians have every right to apply their critical thinking tools against any weedy lies obscuring the rock-solid truths of biblical teachings.

Tools for the Real World

Personally, I began realizing how valuable these tools truly are during my time as a student. While taking my science degree, I regularly heard repeated, persuasive messages which came from intelligent people, but which also contradicted the Bible. For example, I heard that Genesis 1–11 is a myth, that there’s no evidence against evolution, and that anyone who believes science points to some Intelligent Designer is from a “whacked-out tea party movement” which no “real” scientist supports. I even heard a professor argue that teaching kids about Jesus is the same as telling them about Santa.

Apologetics equips Christians to answer specific worldview questions.

Remember, these messages were coming from authoritative professors and textbooks, often backed by official-looking diagrams and illustrations. Sitting under these messages day after day became wearing, even though I’d spent years learning apologetics to defend my faith as a teenager. Apologetics, the study of why believing the Bible makes intellectual sense, equips Christians to answer specific worldview questions, like “How do we know the Bible is true?” or “What about apemen, evolution and millions of years?” Being able to answer these questions is part of having the intellectual foundations that Christian students I’ve interviewed all over the world said was so important for keeping their faith at secular university. But as I discovered as a student myself, no matter how many apologetics answers you learn for defending your worldview, you're always bound to have new questions, because there will always be new information.

And then what do you do?

That’s where critical thinking skills come in. These skills help you think like a Christian apologist—to reason about any message that challenges Scripture and to arrive at a biblical, logical conclusion yourself. God’s Word is true, so anything that contradicts it must be a lie, and critical thinking skills equip you to identify how those lies fall apart.6 This is especially important for students, who need accessible tools to process the faith-challenging messages they hear every day without draining valuable study time. But at some point, all of us encounter persuasive information presented as fact which challenges a biblical worldview. So, critical thinking matters for everyone.

For more on how to think critically about messages which challenge the Bible’s teachings, stay tuned for future posts and my new video series, CT (Critial Thinking) Scan, available now on the AiG Canada YouTube channel and AiG Canada Facebook page.

Footnotes

  1. The most helpful definition I’ve found for critical thinking (Answer C from the “quiz”) is based out of MacDonald & Vaughn, The Power of Critical Thinking, 4th Canadian edition, (Don Mills, Ontario, Canada: Oxford University Press, 2016), 406–410.
  2. This quote, which summarizes the atheistic belief of materialism, comes from the following TED talk which a professor played in one of my university classes: https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_the_power_of_vulnerability/transcript?language=en#t-126460.
  3. American Humanist Association, “Humanism and Critical Thinking,” 2016, http://americanhumanist.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/05_brochure.pdf.
  4. For more on the inconsistencies of atheistic worldviews, see Jason Lisle, The Ultimate Proof of Creation: Resolving the Origins Debate, (Green Forest, AR: New Leaf Publishing Group, 2009).
  5. I once heard my critical thinking professor, a secularist, tell a student that we can’t know anything for certain. This stance is a consistency requirement for atheistic worldviews.
  6. Answers in Genesis specializes in helping Christians develop a consistent, biblical worldview and has a ton of great resources (many that are absolutely free!) than can be accessed online at www.AnswersinGenesis.org.

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