September 4, 2008

Promoting Reason and Critical Thinking

It has been awhile since I posted the first plank of the emerging Atheist Revolution platform: ending anti-atheist bigotry. But this is something with which I want to take my time and devote some real thought, so I am okay with my slowness. What else do I really want to see bad enough that I am willing to work toward it? It is time to unveil the second part of the platform: promoting the application of reason and critical thinking. Admittedly, this is a big one with many components. I also happen to view it as an essential part of what I want to do here.

Reason, Critical Thinking, and Atheism

For many of us, atheism is the natural outcome of the application of reason to all spheres of one's life. Like many of you, I started by learning how to apply reason in very focused matters (e.g., certain academic courses that required it). I discovered the utility and even beauty in these methods. Eventually, I would apply them to matters of religion. Like most atheists, I found this to be an extremely revealing endeavor.

Not everyone who gains reasoning skills and critical thinking ability is going to end up as an atheist. You know what? I'm perfectly fine with this. Many believers maintain their religious faith by exempting certain spheres of their life or worldview from critical thought. While not ideal, this is far better than never acquiring these skills at all. I suppose what I am trying to say is that reasoning and critical thinking are valuable in their own right and not diminished if they do not lead to atheism in every case.

I think I would have more in common with a Christian capable of reasoned and critical analysis than an atheist who had never gained these abilities. Sure, it might bug me from time-to-time that the Christian was unwilling to shine the light of reason on his or her faith, but I believe I could tolerate this far easier than the atheist with poorly developed reasoning or critical thinking skills.

The Necessity of Reason and Critical Thinking in Politics

The application of reason and the ability to think critically are central to science and other academic pursuits but are also necessarily for the effective application of such fields through politics. We do not need to demand that our President is a scientist; we simply need one who is both able and willing to bring reason and critical thinking to bear in making decisions.

We have seen the dismal failure of "cowboy diplomacy" when leaders are praised for using gut feelings instead of reasoned analysis. We have learned that making decisions based on ideology can be dangerous when it leads one to ignore facts which are inconsistent with one's ideology. We have also seen again and again, that policies made without the benefit of science tend to waste tax dollars on ineffective and sometimes harmful programs (e.g., abstinence-only sex "education").

I am desperate to see reason return to politics. Just imagine what would happen if leaders made policy decisions on the basis of data rather than wanting to appear tough, a desire to pander to certain segments of voters, or other methods of political manipulation! And for the record, let me be clear that both political parties are guilty on these accounts.

What Can We Do?

I know this is not going to be easy, but we need to work on changing a culture which celebrates ignorance, acting on hunches, and intuition. Instead of debasing intellectuals to bring them down to our level, we need to aspire to raise ourselves to their level. By celebrating the C student, we may protect our self-esteem, but this comes at a price.

I am sure you will have many more ideas on how best to accomplish this, and I hope to develop more too. In the meantime, I'll offer the following thoughts for now:

  • Supporting secular public education is critical, for this is where our children are first exposed to reason and critical thinking.
  • As important as public education is, it will matter little if educational achievement continues to be undervalued. We must find creative ways to reward this type of accomplishment.
  • When the media presents anti-intellectualism uncritically, we must be there to label it what it is and calmly explain how this trend hurts all of us.
  • The politicians who wallow in anti-intellectualism and who disparage reason and critical thinking do so because we have allowed them to get away with it. It is time to send a clear and consistent message that we are not interested in being represented by the average students when the future of our nation is at stake.
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