Thinking Critically About Religious Claims

Last night, I had a short conversation with a student who is taking one of the critical thinking classes that I am teaching. He explained to me that he is taking a class in comparative religions and did not think that the subject would be good for applying the principles of critical thinking because religions are subject to faith. I told him that I thought that religious claims can certainly be subjected to critical analysis as some claims made by some religions strike me as simply illogical or factually wrong. I encouraged him to use the work he was doing in his comparative religion class to apply what he was learning in critical thinking.

I also told him that when one critically analyzes religious claims, one must first understand that it may not be possible to evaluate them definitively because some religions rely on faith alone divorced from fact and logic. In these cases if you are able to point to an irrefutable logical argument against a particular religious claim or demonstrate conclusively that the religious claim is based on erroneous facts, these "showings" may not constitute an appropriate refutation of that religious belief if that religious belief rejects logic and facts as a basis for knowing truth. But I also pointed out that this is a presupposition issue as to the nature of determining truth, and I did not find religions that reject logic and truth to be very compelling to me since my presuppositions say that logic and truth are crucial to religion.

Now, I think what I told him is absolutely true. If a person (who I will reference as the "believer" in this post) rejects all logic and fact and says "I will believe this religious belief in spite of the fact that you have shown that it is completely and utterly illogical" or "in spite of the fact that you have shown X, which is the basis of my religious belief, is untrue" because "there is no truth" or "logic doesn't apply to my religion", it is difficult to know how to respond. Certainly, such a believer is effectively saying that whatever is pointed out to her is irrelevant because she is going to stick to her religious beliefs regardless of whether truth and logic demonstrate the absolute falsity of her belief. If that is the believer's position, it may be time to abandon the discussion. Still, it seems very odd that anyone would actually adopt this position.

Think about it for a moment; if the believer adopted this same approach to his bank account, the results would be disastrous to his finances. If someone demonstrates to such a believer that his faith in the idea that he has a million dollars in his bank account is factually wrong because he has only $100.00 in the account, then that believer would be in serious trouble when he tried to write a check for more than $100.00. In some states, writing a bad check can result in penalties as much as three times the amount of the original check as punishment for passing the bad check. Obviously, rejecting facts for faith in a bank account is a very bad idea.

Suppose a believer uses this same approach about truth and logic in driving an automobile. She may deny that the stop sign actually means "stop" because "there is no truth" which could result in a painful collision with someone who doesn't share the believer's faith. Alternatively, she may contend that "stop" means "go" because applying a single meaning to the word "stop" would cause her to be in accord with the law of non-contradiction -- a principle rule of logic that says that one thing cannot also be its opposite -- again resulting in a potential tragedy. Obviously, applying the same rules rejecting truth and logic to everyday life can result in horrible consequences.

If the believer has enough sense to recognize that religion is necessary to give any real meaning to life, and enough sense to realize that holding the correct view may be essential to where one spends eternity upon death -- both of which are more important in an ultimate sense then the balance of your checkbook or the rules of driving -- then it seems a bit odd that they would accept the idea that neither facts nor logic matter in determining whether a particular religious belief is true.

Some may say "well, Christianity is a religion of faith, so shouldn't you reject Christianity?" This objection misunderstands the nature of Christian faith. Christian faith is not blind faith. Many people understand Christian faith to be the second type of definition for faith found on Infoplease, i.e., "belief that is not based on proof." But the first definition is actually closer to the Christian idea, i.e., "confidence or trust in a person or thing." Christians believe Christianity because they believe that God actually exists, that Jesus is actually His Son, that Jesus actually lived, died and rose again, and a number of other very significant doctrines that are all factually true and make good logical sense. Jesus said "I am the truth, the way and the life," and we believe that the facts and logic back that up.

One should never be afraid to use critical thinking skills on religious beliefs. I am not afraid to have Christianity subjected to such scrutiny because it not only survives such review, it actually stands up very well to such scrutiny if it is done truly objectively, and this ability to stand up to scrutiny separates Christianity from many other religious beliefs.


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