'Critical' Thinking
David F. Gianotto

Our response to this letter was returned as undeliverable. The phony address casts doubt on the truthfulness of the anecdotal claims bolstering the arguments herein.

Graphic Rule

Cliff Responds:

"Critical Thinker" is the name of the magazine I edit. It implies our organization's philosophy that observation and reason is the only reliable method for gaining knowledge, and that faith is useless for basing one's understanding of reality.

If by "Christians" you mean people who believe the claims of the Bible on faith, and people who consider reason to be flawed and inferior to faith (as a method for gaining knowledge), then the implication stands: Christians are non-critical or, at best, less-than-critical thinkers.

While everyone uses reason in at least some aspects of their thinking, a Christian suspends reason when conceding to the claims of the Bible and believing them on faith. I have yet to encounter a Christian who does not resort to faith when answering my objections to the claims of the Bible and to the idea of theism.

As I mentioned above, everyone uses reason in at least some aspects of their thinking. You used reason to suggest that I think otherwise. Perhaps your use of faith leads you to the false conclusion that I might summarily dismiss all thinking done by Christians as non-critical. Faith does not necessarily need evidence or proof, and often concludes things despite evidence to the contrary. Faith also tends toward blind loyalty to a particular set op ideas and toward dismissing the ideas of those who disagree.

I have published several essays about critical thinking skills, and I use these skills often when debating Christians and Hindus (I have yet to debate a Muslim). These skills inevitably force the theist into the corner of admitting that certain things are known only through faith. At this point, we cannot continue the discussion, because I reject faith as a valid way to gain knowledge: anything which can be known is subject to the processes of observation and reason.

And so do fundamentalist Hindus and Muslims. However, I doubt that a scientist who has a broad-based (non-specializing) experience would, for example, deny the arguments in favor of evolution. (In fact, I argue that one must be pretty clever to remain a creationist in light of the overwhelming evidence against that notion.)

This is not to say that a creationist cannot make ground-breaking discoveries in the field of his or her specialization: Louis Pasteur, a creationist, refused to believe that microorganisms could ever generate spontaneously, and eventually proved his ideas and earned himself a place in history.

Many people use faith to come to their personal ethical values, but faith-based people use critical thinking skills (not faith-based) when doing their work. This is also true when thinking about gods and the supernatural. Everyone uses reason in some aspects of their thinking; no one is entirely faith-based no matter how vehemently they may dismiss reason and human thought as unreliable or inferior to faith in an alleged revelation.

If people think they are using faith when analyzing the results of various laboratory experiments, then they hold a unique definition for faith. For several examples of such unique definitions of "faith" and "dreams," see the letter "To all you intellectually dishonest 'thinkers'" in our letters section. More than once I caught this fellow shifting between several different definitions of a single word during the course of a single paragraph.

I'm not sure whether this is what you mean when you say the "'bottom line' in much of their philosophy is based on faith"; we would need to discuss what you mean by this in more detail. I apologize if I came to a premature conclusion, but think it is important to point out that not all thinking which appears to be faith-based is, in fact, based in faith.

This is a popular slander against atheists which harkens from the ideas of Roman Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain and which misrepresents the nature of atheism. Atheism is simply the lack of a god-belief -- for whatever reason (including the mental incompetency to form a god-belief). One either has a god-belief or one does not. Thus, atheism is the absence of faith: it is not a different kind of faith. In its positive sense, atheism is a different kind of thinking from theism, to be sure, but it is not faith; it is slander to say that unbelief is a kind of faith.

First, it takes thought (not faith) to conclude, philosophically, that gods and the supernatural are logical absurdities -- especially when one has been raised in a theistic society. It always takes much thought to convert away from the world-view of one's parents and culture.

Secondly atheists are atheists in that they do not believe theistic traditions. To say that an atheist has faith is to misunderstand or misrepresent both the idea of faith and the idea of atheism: atheism is the absence of faith; atheism is freedom from faith.

Thirdly, not all atheists are of the philosophical variety (those having chosen not to believe after much thought). Some of us are infants and some of us are imbeciles, and some of us are members of isolated tribes who do not have a god-belief built in to the tribal world-view. Some of us have rejected the faith of our fathers through resentment, not having thought about it philosophically. The rest of us have challenged the theistic traditions handed down to us and have rejected them on philosophical grounds.

This is one more step than a philosophical atheist takes: we acknowledge where our knowledge ends, and admit that we don't know more than what we can determine through observation and reason. We do not take the arrogant step of claiming knowledge that we cannot verify through our senses and our powers of reason.

For a thorough discussion of the nature of atheism, please read the article "The Scope of Atheism" by George Smith, listed in the Atheism and Awareness index.

I would like to hear your case against the writings on our page in this respect: Please tell me which writings "quickly ... dismiss Christains ... as non-thinkers" and in what manner do these authors do this?

This is a serious charge, and you need to substantiate your accusation. Please note that you say this about "a good majority of the material on your Web page" -- which means that over 50 percent of our material dismisses Christians as non-thinkers, according to you. The "Positive Atheism" page contains almost seven megabytes of HTML text and over four megabytes of Acrobat files. That is a lot of reading for you to have done, to make a knowledgeable pronouncement concerning "a good majority of the material on your Web page."

If you cannot give examples and then argue that these examples fit the description you give, then I insist that you retract the above as slander.

The article "Religion for the hell of it" by my friend Robert Anton Wilson mentions the General Semantics and the non-Aristotelian logic of the Polish-American mathematician and philosopher, Count Alfred Korzybski. Korzybski urged certain linguistic taboos -- which he called "matters of semantic hygiene" -- and would not use the words "is" and "all," for instance, because they imply certitude and omniscience and Korzybski believed post-Einstein people should speak relativistically. This preserves students of Korzybski from racism, sexism, and dogmatism, since the worst they can say about any group of humans or animals would be "Some members of that group seem offensive, to me, at this stage of my education." I cannot say this about students of the Bible -- Christians -- because the Bible teaches bigotry and commands death to "all" members of certain races simply for refusing to believe in the volcano god of the Old Testament.

Thank you for your time, and I would enjoy engaging in some sparring matches with you. However, I will always try to be very careful when handling a letter which is cautious and reasonable.

Cliff Walker

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