Got Faith? Critical Thinking Requires Thinking Critically

"How do you define critical thinking?" I ask my students in a beginning-of-the-semester discussion and assignment. I always enjoy reading and listening to their ideas. Some responses make me smile: 

  • You can't be a critical thinker and be religious.
  • Those old Christian white men in Congress better keep their hands off my body (meaning access to abortion).
  • Christians are hateful. 
  • Christians are homophobic.
  • Republicans are basically insane.
  • I'm very open-minded and non-judgmental. (In the next paragraph this student condemns groups with whom she disagrees.) 
  • Religion is for weak minded people.
  • Religious people are irrational.
  • My parents are incapable of thinking critically. (Young people have been making this claim since the Stone Age.)
  • Religion is the cause of all world problems. 
  • Those crazy Christians...
  • My grandparents are conservative so they're closed-minded.
  • My parents are religious which means they're narrow-minded. 
  • We need to get the old white Christian guys out of government.
  • My parents believe in religion but I don't. I'm afraid to hurt them, so I go along with it for now. (This was written by a Hindu male.)

"An Old Scholar" by Koninck Salomon

Critical Thinking, Critical Theory, and Secularism

In this post, I very briefly discuss the basics of critical thinking and Critical Theory's secularist impact in academia and its trickle down effect on some who question their faith within Mormomism. Please note: I am not here to make a political statement or to criticize any particular political or marginalized group. This post simply reflects my own experiences, observations, and perceptions.

From the above student responses, we can see that much of my students' criticism is aimed at religion (specifically Christianity) because of its "oppressive" influence in American history. I don't deny that Christianity and other religions have engaged in their own brand of bigotry and racism. However, I don't adhere to the belief that religion is all that's wrong with the world. 

Jay Verlinden, the author of my course textbook, defines critical thinking: 

The active application of principles of reasoning to your own ideas and those of others to make judgments about communication and reasoning, to analyze arguments, to expose underlying assumptions, to achieve better understanding, and to approach the truth (Critical Thinking and Everyday Argument, p. 26).

Nowhere does this definition demonize religion or faith. For the past few decades, however, academia has used a concept called Critical Theory as an analytical and instructional lens within the Social Sciences and Humanities. Below is one of many rather long and boring definitions:

A third alternative to behaviorism is based on one of the most widely adopted forms of modern Marxism. Critical Theory, also known as the Frankfurt School or neo-Marxism, has been used by a number of scholars to analyze the way information technology is used in education. Critical Theory focuses on political, cultural, economic, and social relationships within a culture, particularly as they are related to what groups have power and which do not. A critical theorist, for example, might do an analysis of the ways schools are funded and point out that children from poor families tend to go to schools that are poorly funded while children of well-to-do parents go to schools with better funding. Critical Theory also argues that information technology, or technology in general, is not value free. Critical theorists view it as another means of production and as such it has to be viewed in the context of the political, ideological and cultural assumptions of the society that has given rise to it. Critical theorists are critical of behavioral models of instruction because they are based on capitalist "efficiency" models of factory work that demean the laborer (the student) and produce undesirable outcomes. Critical theorists also criticize educational software that portrays boys and men as the "movers and shakers" while portraying girls and women as "second class" participants. Similarly, critical theorists have looked at the way minorities have been portrayed in educational software. (For further information, see below: )

Other Critical Theory tasks: 

  • To create a social balance between the personal autonomy of the individual and universal solidarity of the collective.
  • To promote revolution against all forms of nationalism and fascism.
  • To promote revolution against all forms of discrimination including those based on sex, sexual orientation, race, and religious belief.
  • To preserve the good moral values that promote universal solidarity and will help bring about a more just, humane, rational, and reconciled society. (See: )

In a nutshell, Critical Theory seeks to liberate individuals, groups, and the larger society from circumstances that supposedly cripple and enslave while maintaining that ideology (such as religious ideology) is an obstacle to human liberation. Don't we all honor the idea of liberation? Unfortunately and perhaps unintentionally, academia has served to spearhead and foster secularism along with a sense of cynicism for all that is traditional. Additionally, a growing hostility toward society's dominant religion, Christianity, is its derivation. No wonder that many students question the concept of religious faith and faith in general because it coincides with society's trajectory away from faith. (Again, please note: I don't claim that secularism is inherently wrong or evil. My point is this: Any ideology, including secularism, can be used as a fascist tool to oppress.)

It's no surprise then that many students believe faith and reasoning cannot co-exist. In fact, many of them claim that religious voices don't even belong in the public square---let alone in helping to determine public policies within a democracy. Religion, according to them, has no place in America unless its practice takes place behind private closed doors. They cite (and misinterpret) the standard secularist talking point of "separation of Church and State." 

Legal scholar and LDS Apostle Elder Dallin Oaks has written extensively regarding the encroachment of secularism on religion and religious rights: 

Similarly, some public policy advocates have attempted to intimidate persons with religious-based points of view from influencing or making laws in our democracy. One part of this effort is the recent characterization of the free exercise of religion as limited to the privilege of worshipping in the protected space of our own homes, churches, synagogues, or mosques. Beyond those protected spaces, the argument goes, religious believers and their organizations have no First Amendment protection---not even normal free speech guarantees.

In his response to criticism from University of Chicago Law School's Geoffrey Stone who claims that it's "un-American" to allow the religious influence in the public square, Elder Oaks writes:

How is it 'un-American' and a 'serious threat to a free society' for a religious organization and its members to participate in a public process of lawmaking? Stone cited 'the principle of separation of church and state' and asserted that certain persons 'are not impose their religious views on others.' These arguments leave me wondering why any group of citizens with secular-based views that make up a majority is free to impose their views on others by a democratic lawmaking process, but persons of their organizations with religious-based views are not free to participate in the same democratic process whether in a majority or...merely a large group not comprising a majority? In view of current experience and culture, how should religious persons and their organizations whose positions are dictated or affected by religious beliefs lobby or otherwise enter the debate on public issues? They should not be required to forego or deny their religious or other beliefs or motivations, but they should be counseled to be prudent. They will usually be most persuasive in political discourse by framing arguments and explaining the value of their positions in terms understandable to and subject to debate with those who do not share their beliefs. All sides should seek to contribute to the reasoned discussion and compromise that are essential in a pluralistic society" ("A Mormon's Perspective on Religious Freedom," Claremont Graduate University, March 25, 2016).

For the full speech, here's the link: 

Secularism's Double-Bind Form of Reasoning

Religious people, particularly Christians, face an additional method of subversive reasoning perpetuated by self-proclaimed critical thinkers. The secularist double-bind form of reasoning is framed like this:  

Many secularists (and some Christians) dismiss Christian viewpoints and speech as "hateful" and irrelevant in the public domain. In the same breath, secularists fallaciously condemn Christians for their supposed inability to act and speak like "proper" Christians. In other words, non-Christians give themselves the right to define "appropriate" Christian views and behavior in attempts to deny Christians the right to define and speak for themselves. 

In short, the double-bind says, "You better not speak, reason, or act like a Christian because we will condemn you for being Christian---and even then we will condemn your inability to be a 'good' Christian" because you don't think, speak, or act like we think you should." As Christians, we can extricate ourselves from this unreasonable fallacy. We need not allow secularists to define the parameters of public discussion and argument. And, we need not indulge our critics when they use this fallacy against Christians (or any religion) in public and political discourse. Finally, Christians/Mormons need to recognize the importance of learning basic critical thinking skills and then challenge critics to argue constructively and productively. By doing so, we help to converge ideological divides in requiring critics to adhere to their own intellectual standards.  

Critical Theory and Mormonism

Like my students, some young (and not so young) Mormons are experiencing a similar faith crisis due to Critical Theory's influence. In today's society, younger Mormons have a tendency to view and interpret Mormon doctrine---along with the Church's patriarchy and hierarchy---through the Critical Theory lens. Critical Theory's humanistic approach often pits Mormon doctrine and Church policy against contemporary notions of tolerance, hate speech, sexism, racism, same-sex marriage, and self-identity politics. These concerns are surely understandable, and questioning one's faith is often a part of spirituality and growth. Unfortunately, many Mormons bring fallacious double-bind acrimony to moral and political discussions with each other. Devout and dissenting Mormons who engage in double-bind communication view themselves as tolerant and non-judgmental while casting judgment and intolerance against fellow Mormons who don't fit their definition of Christ-like or proper Mormon attitudes and behavior. 

Listed below are applications of Critical Theory that many Mormons (in my opinion) use as an interpretive lens in Mormon doctrine and behavior:

  • The virtue of inclusivity can become a form of exclusivity. I hear many young Mormons make claims such as "The Mormon church isn't the same church that I grew up in. It doesn't promote true Christ-like principles toward ____" (Fill in the blank of any marginalized group. I've lived my entire life within the Church. The Church doctrine has not changed. Society has. Sometimes (thankfully), the Church evolves along with society. But societal evolution doesn't always necessitate change in Church policy.) 
  • Another contemporary complaint: "The Church leaders lack compassion and need to catch up with our progressive society." One Mormon friend of mine insisted that in order to be truly Christ-like, Mormons need to step away from controversial societal issues and stop foisting Mormonism and/or Christianity upon others through democratic public policy decision-making. "Worship privately in our own homes. That's it," he insisted. When I pointed out that Mormons/Christians live in a democracy and have a right to vote and act on their own consciences in and out of the public square, he could not accept my perspective as pluralistic and inclusive. His idea of excluding Christians in the democratic process and "living our religion in private" was, in his view, inclusive. We're all entitled to our opinions, and I respectfully disagree with my friend. In my opinion, my friend's idea of inclusiveness was really a form of exclusiveness. His proposition was well meaning but to me, it sounded like a type of inverted bigotry. 
  • Another form of Mormon double-bind looks like this: "Mormon leaders and/or members had better not adhere to all facets of Mormon doctrine, or we will condemn you for your intolerance and your inability to be a 'good' Mormon." To be fair, many of us have also experienced "letter-of-the-law" politically conservative Mormons who also inflict this double-bind on liberal Mormons.

"Christ in the Temple" by Heinrich Hofmann

  • The culture of "isms": Young people have grown up in a culture of offense accompanied by its revulsion of "isms": Racism, sexism, classism, hetero-isms, etc. Public education's multicultural paradigms, academic sectarianism, the media, social identity politics, and the push for egalitarianism and social justice have added to a heightened awareness and---in many cases---a downright fear of "ism's." Consequently, younger Mormons especially are sensitized to past and present Church doctrine and teachings of Church leaders that suggest or promote any type of "ism." Thus, it's easy to be offended by any and/or all isms. Apostle Neal A. Maxwell's claim that "Many church members are waiting to take offense. And it doesn't take long," is surely applicable 25 years later ("In Him All Things Hold Together," 1991). Personally, I will embrace the time when the saints live under the United Order which will completely ban one type of ism: classism---and hopefully eradicate racism by creating wealth for all races and cultures. In the meantime, I'm hoping members can be kinder and gentler with each other by not rushing to anger or judgment whilst we live in our current society's culture of offense.

  • The anti-bullying ethos. Younger people have been carefully schooled in anti-bullying campaigns in public education. While a noble endeavor that has helped to sensitize young people and save lives, this movement has also unwittingly created heroes out of victims or potential victims. Thus, difference is not only celebrated but revered; minority status is now the equivalent of virtue. In fact, it's the "new" virtue---marginalized groups own the moral high ground by default. Members of non-marginalized groups are often considered de facto oppressors and/or bullies. Furthermore, large organizations, corporations, and especially religious organizations are seen as persecutors of the weak and marginalized. Therefore, a more powerful and hierarchical organization such as Mormonism will automatically be viewed with suspicion. Again, I applaud and embrace the anti-bullying ethos, and we should continue to give voice to the voiceless. However, we can also find balance (and thus more unity) by recognizing virtue in individuals and groups from all walks of life. "Big" vs "Little" doesn't have to be an either/or proposition. Neither should we view everything through an "us vs them" mentality. Either/or propositions turn everyone and everything into a "good or bad, right or wrong, moral or immoral" dichotomy. This simplistic mindset breeds contention and divisiveness.

  • The "virtue signaling" lexicon. To prove their virtue (and their ability to think critically), many non-marginalized and/or white people---including LDS Church members---will engage in what journalist James Bartholomew calls "virtue signaling." These people write or say things indicating or signaling to others that they are racially virtuous and non-bigoted toward marginalized groups. Virtue signalers seek approval and admiration for their compassion and kindness. Unfortunately, many virtue signalers use character attacks against those with whom they disagree by labeling them un-Christian, unkind, judgmental, etc. Bartholomew writes:

By saying that they hate [bigotry and prejudice], virtue signalers are really telling you that they are admirably non-racist, left-wing, or open-minded. One of the crucial aspects of virtue signaling is that it does not require actually doing anything virtuous. It does not involve delivering lunches to elderly neighbors or staying with a spouse for the sake of the children. It takes no effort or sacrifice at all. I compare them with people I met who thought they were virtuous merely because they voted Labour (Democrat) once every five years and expressed hatred of right-wingers. That is not a virtue. That is lazy, self-righteous, and silly" ("I Invented 'Virtue Signaling," The Spectator, May 23, 2016).

  • As stated previously, I see this in Mormonism as well. One young woman chastised me when I apparently failed to show compassion or kindness toward the disrespectful dissenters who shouted "Oppose!" at President Uchtdorf during the sustaining of Church officers at general conference. "How could you think that, Julie....just because they (the dissenters) were acting different. How could you? You are one of the kindest people I know," she said. When I pointed out that President Uchtdorf asked by a showing "of the same sign" (meaning not shouting out "oppose"), she no longer viewed me as a fair minded person. Pressing me further, she grew frustrated when I wouldn't apologize for supporting the First Presidency. Thus, my friend took great offense at my position and considered me unkind and without compassion.
  • BYU professor and scholar Daniel Petersen writes about his encounters with the "I'm-not-a-hater-but-I-hate-you-for-being-hateful" mindset. His comments are directed at Mormon dissenters who claim compassion for fellow dissenters (and humankind in general) while castigating other Mormons who support The First Presidency and the Apostles. In his Patheos blog he writes: In my experience, to the extent that there's been hatred involved, it's tended to be quite overtly expressed and to have come entirely from those, who, ironically enough, grandly announce that they're opposing hate. 
  • I see this same cognitive dissonance in academia and, of course, in political and social discourse in conversation, social media, and among my students during class discussions and assigned debates.

  • The compassionate "either/or" fallacy. Another type of virtue signaling falls under the fallacious "either/or proposition" framed around the virtues of kindness and empathy. This rule states: 

Interestingly, I've yet to see "empathy purists" muster up any empathy for so-called racists, bigots, homophobics, or anyone else with whom they disagree and deem unworthy. Using their own reasoning, I wonder if these dichotomous empathizers would feel any compassion toward any of history's true villains like Hitler or Stalin. Compassion or non-judgmentalism is not the supreme moral value or imperative. Love is. And sometimes, love hurts.

  • Entitlements, self-esteem, and narcissism. Hollywood and the media promote egalitarianism while celebrating narcissistic behavior with its accompanying sense of entitlement. We see the "all about me" attitude in celebrities, sports stars, and many young people's overall desire for infamy. In the late 1980's, I was a young mother while the self-esteem movement gained momentum. One of our state legislators, John Vasconcellos, launched the "California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility Act." Vasconcellos believed that low self-esteem was at the root of crime, teen pregnancy, drug addiction and other social problems. At the time, I was completely on board with this idea. Thirty years later, however, we see the resulting narcissistic self-entitlement manifest in selfish behavior and expectations. (I can't count the number of times entitled students claim, "I deserve an A in this class.") Our Church leaders and Church culture now grapple with entitled expectations regarding many issues like same-sex marriage, priesthood ordination for women, and other changes in Church doctrine and policy. Don't get me wrong, I feel great empathy and concern for these well-meaning desires of equality and equity. And, as I said previously, the Church often evolves with the changing times. However, demanding a change through contentious agitation is the antithesis of true humility; too many people expect the Church to morph into a democracy---which it will never be. Even when Christ ushers in the millennial era, He will rule and reign in a theocracy---not a democracy.   

"Jesus at Bethany" by James Tissott

Now that I've been teaching critical thinking for the past 20 years, I add my own criteria for thinking critically: 

  • Religion and critical thinking can be compatible. I've encountered a lot of closed-minded secularists and atheists.
  • A person can attain a lot of knowledge while attaining no wisdom.
  • Tolerance does not equate to thinking critically.
  • Making judgments and thinking critically are not mutually exclusive.
  • Compassion does not equate to thinking critically.
  • Dissent and/or anarchy does not equate to critical thinking. 
  • Traditional viewpoints and critical thinking can be compatible.
  • Kindness is not an inherent component of critical thinking. Humility is.
  • Persecuting others in the name of compassion, tolerance, or kindness is still persecution.
  • One does not have to be a Democrat to think critically.
  • One does not have to be a Republican to think critically.
  • Cynicism and suspicion do not equate to thinking critically. 
  • Critical thinking takes humility. Pride is the antithesis to critical thinking. I've read many academic articles written by arrogant and insular scholars who seem to have forgotten how to think critically. Those who think critically understand that they don't know everything.
  • Critical thinking takes grace. It is often an act of grace.
  • Critical thinking takes courage---the courage to be wrong.
  • Critical thinking requires us to challenge our own assumptions.
  • Critical thinking takes maturity and discipline.
  • Critical thinking requires listening.
  • Critical thinkers understand that the ends never justify the means.
  • Critical thinking can be a form of peacemaking.
  • Critical thinking is rigorous. Most of us are too lazy to fully engage the process.

Christ is the ultimate critical thinker. Honing our discipleship increases our ability to thinking critically.