Thinking critically about critical thinking.

How Critical Thinkers Loose Their Faith in God”.  Did you see this headline in Scientific American? 

Or how about this headline from the L.A. Times, “Thinking Can Undermine Religious Faith, study finds”.

When you read these headlines, what did you think?

There they go again, scientists bashing faith.

Or did you think, no surprise here, more proof religion requires people to stop thinking for themselves.

Or did you sigh and think, I’m worn out, I  just can’t read any more about the “science and religion controversy”.

Did the headlines make you more or less inclined to read the article? Did the headlines serve to reinforce what you already believed about “thinking” and “faith”?

I am, of course, stating the incredibly obvious when I say our personal point of view colors our interpretation of what we read and hear.  But as I read the Scientific American story, I started thinking about the ways our personal biases influence the way we talk about science and how we interpret results. There are some interesting word choices in the SA article and I wondered if they are the author’s or if they reflect the  point of view of the study’s authors?

For example, Daisy Grewal (author of the SA article) writes, “Gervais and Norenzayan’s research is based on the idea that we possess two different ways of thinking that are distinct yet related. Understanding these two ways, which are often referred to as System 1 and System 2, may be important for understanding our tendency towards having religious faith. System 1 thinking relies on shortcuts and other rules-of-thumb while System 2 relies on analytic thinking and tends to be slower and require more effort. ”

Now, if you follow the link back to the abstract, you might wonder if the phrase “shortcuts and other rules-of-thumb” is a fair description of System 1. Perhaps, as in this Wikipedia article, the more neutral terms “implicit” or  “experiential” might be better.

Grewal also writes,” It [the study] may also help explain why the vast majority of Americans tend to believe in God. Since System 2 thinking requires a lot of effort, the majority of us tend to rely on our System 1 thinking processes when possible. Evidence suggests that the majority of us are more prone to believing than being skeptical. According to a 2005 poll by Gallup, 3 out of every 4 Americans hold at least one belief in the paranormal. The most popular of these beliefs are extrasensory perception (ESP), haunted houses, and ghosts. In addition, the results help explain why some of us are more prone to believe that others. Previous research has found that people differ in their tendency to see intentions and causes in the world. These differences in thinking styles could help explain why some of us are more likely to become believers.”

Does Ms. Grewal express and anti- religion bias or am I over-reading when I wonder if that first sentence implies that people who believe in God are lazy thinkers? I know she doesn’t say that overtly. But if System 1 is associated with religious belief and requires less “effort” , isn’t that implied? And perhaps my bias is now showing when I object to belief in God being conflated with haunted houses and ghosts?

My bias is the other piece of the puzzle. Some of what I bring is good, some not so good. Sometimes my point of view is thoughtful and intentional and sometimes it is un-examined, simply assumed without thought on my part.  Both author and reader, speaker and hearer bring their point of view to any conversation. All of us bring who we are to any conversation.

There is so much to know about today that none of us can be experts, or even well read amateurs in most topics. We are all dependent upon the careful interpretive work of others. We need science writers who can help us understand the work of scientists. We need economic writers who can help us understand what’s happening in Europe.  Because we are by necessity dependent on the work of others, it is important to recognize when an author’s or scientist’s or anyone else’s bias significantly affects their work. “Significantly” being the important word. We all have our biases.  My example today is from science writing, But of course, biases are not restricted to one field. We can all cite examples from science or religion or politics, or any other number of disciplines for that matter. If we are thoughtful and careful we will recognize what some of our biases are. But not all of them, we are especially blind to the biases that are shared by the majority of people around us.

How do we recognize our biases? It helps to have other people point them out, gently, kindly and with some humility. Our society doesn’t need anymore shouting and finger-pointing. And we need to be able to hear the suggestions and corrections of others without feeling attacked and needing to be defensive. Not easy to do.

And I think  it helps to read and talk with people who have different ideas about things than I do. This can be tricky. If our ideas about a topic are too divergent, it is hard to hear each other. But some difference is good. It helps us stretch and grow. It helps us clarify what we believe and why.

I’d like to know, what do you think?


 My discussion of these articles about the research is about the articles and not the research itself. There is quite a bit more I would like to know about this study, published in Science.   Unfortunately the blogging budget doesn’t allow for purchase of articles and sadly, my local library doesn’t subscribe to Science.  How do the researchers define and quantitate religious belief? How long does this loss of faith last? If it only lasts a short time, perhaps what has been demonstrated is that it takes time for us to switch between these two ways of thinking. Does this effect occur with other non analytic sorts of thinking? If we substitute feelings about music or beauty or politics does the same effect happen? Interesting stuff. And work that ought to be done.

9 thoughts on “Thinking critically about critical thinking.

  1. Great provocative post. i don’t know that I’d say people don’t believe but I think, (like myself) people are rethinking their understanding of the traditional way the Gospel is preached and understood. We live in a time of great learning and scientific advancement but the language of theology has stayed the same and has not evolved to meet our every changing understanding of the world. The Evangelical view is being challenged. As people begin to question the “literalist” ideas taught over the last thousand years.

    At least those are my thoughts. 🙂

    1. I would just add that I think there are some theologians out there who are changing the language and ideas that have been traditionally held. I admire greatly the writings of NT Wright and Richard Rohr and think these two men are doing a great work.

    2. Thanks for your comments.How much change we need and how much change we will allow or accept is part of our struggle. And the more important the subject to us, the harder it is to change our views. But it seems to me, there is value in challenging ourselves to see with fresh eyes. We may or may not change our view but re evaluation/re assessment is good either to help us change or to remind us why we think what we think.

  2. When I started this post I was thinking about about 2 studies that followed the same methodologies, but 50 or so years apart – yet yield the same results. The studies showed that the faith of scientists remained unchanged. So, a study of a group that we would categorize as System 2 – yet, if my memory is correct, 40% are believers. Is 40% a statistical anomaly?

    Meanwhile, we carry our biases with us no matter where we go and want we do. The key is do we acknowledge their presence and influence. Such as me discounting the SA writers because I don’t believe them.

    Great post Nancy!

    1. Elaine Ecklund’s book Science vs. Religion: what scientists really think, is a good book to put to rest the notion that scientists can’t and don’t have faith. What faith is and where it comes from and what influences it is a complex topic, and one not done justice with silly headlines in newspaper and magazine articles. The tough part is not taking the log out of our own eye, it is figuring out there is a log there in the first place! Thanks, as always for reading and commenting.

      1. Unfortunately, silly headlines play to the misconceptions of the many. I continue to say and believe that the lack of a education about the science-religion interchange at the congregational level is a key reason for the silliness. Meanwhile, thanks for the reading recommendation.

        1. yes there is much work to be done at the congregational level. Another piece of the puzzle is better science education in schools. The general public’s lack of basic science knowledge is appalling. And then there is the problem of Biblical illiteracy in the church. Whew, lots to do!

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