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Faith & Critical Thinking David Mendoza

25 August 2013 Prof. W. Niu PSY 260 Pace University

Believing in God, having faith, and practicing religion, are major components of human life in almost every region of the world and in almost every society. Places of worship churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, etc.are everywhere. It is safe to say that if you find humans inhabiting a place, without regard to where that place may be, you will also encounter some form of theism. Moreover, most people are heavily invested in their faithrelying on it to give them purpose, guidance, morality, hope for an afterlife, and much more. For some, the key to their soul's salvation rests strictly upon believing that their faith is true, i.e., that their god is the true God. Indeed, when people consider placing great stake in a decision that will have profound consequences for their lives (e.g., moving, choosing an occupation, choosing a romantic partner, etc.), they normally give it a great deal of thought. They seek advice, they do not give their trust lightly, and they make the most educated decision based on their experience and knowledge. However, when approaching the issue of choosing a faith (arguably the most important choice of all), most people do not give it much thought, they do not seek advice, they give their trust lightly, and they do not make an educated decision based on their experience and knowledge. In fact, often a choice is not even made because most people are simply born into their faiths. As defined by California State University, Chico, Professors of Philosophy, Brooke Moore and Richard Parker (2009), critical thinking is "the careful application of reason in the determination of whether a claim is true" (p. 3). The process of critical thinking can lead us away from falsehoods and steer us toward the truth. Among other things, it can help us "recognize the ways in which evidence might be limited or compromised," "recognize logical flaws in arguments," "avoid overstated conclusions," and "identify holes that a problem may

have no clear answer or single solution" (Moore & Parker, 2009, p. 3). Indeed, if we prudently approach a decision with critical thinking, we find ourselves basing it on reason, logic, and fact. Unfortunately, an undeniable problem arises when we attempt to approach the matters of faith, belief in God, and religion, with critical thinking. Actually, it is almost impossible to entertain these prospects after thinking critically about them. To appreciate this problem, we must look beyond the pious parishioners kneeling in prayer in the churches of the world and beyond the pervasive kneeling and bowing that occurs in the direction of Mecca. Although these particular practices, among others, are harmless, the belief in God as a whole is assuredly not. From the Crusades, to the conquest of the Americas, to the current jihad by militant wings of Islam on the western world, religion has commonly been used as grounds for waging war. Therefore, although some of the consequences of theism are good, history has shown that there are others that are wholly dangerous. Moreover, given the negative consequences of believing in God, scrutinizing this belief with critical thinking is not only prudent, but responsible. Richard Dawkins, former Oxford University Professor for Public Understanding of Science, concludes, "Faith requires a total absence of critical thinking" (Kidd & Barnes, 2012). Indeed, the following is an analysis of faith using critical thinking, and it results in the same conclusion. Naturally, our analysis must begin with the most fundamental claim made by all religions: "There is a higher power." This statement can be expressed in many other ways. Catholics say, "God is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit." The first of the Thirteen Principles of the Jewish Faith is: "God Alone is the Creator" (Parsons, n. d.). Muslims are required to recite the "Shahada," or Creed of Islam, which is: "There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is His prophet" (Universal Life Church Monastery, 2013). In a general sense, these claims are all similar in that they assert the existence of Goda higher power above the physical

world. Indeed, this is the claim of most faiths, and it is a claim that demands respect in every country and in every town. However, is it true? Through the lens of critical thinking, we can attempt to deem this claim, like any other, either true of false. Despite the lack of modern, verifiable evidence of his existence, every faith offers a different argument for why its practitioners believe in Godfor they have faithto substantiate the claim that their God exists. To use the Catholic Church as an example, Saint Thomas Aquinas, offered five "proofs" in the thirteenth century which are considered eminent arguments for God's existence. The first three of these proofs can be grouped together because they employ the same logic. They are: 1. The Unmoved Mover. Nothing moves without a prior mover. This leads us to a regress, from which the only escape is God. Something had to make the first move, and that something we call God. 2. The Uncaused Cause. Nothing is caused by itself. Every effect has a prior cause, and again we are pushed back into regress. This has to be terminated by a first cause, which we call God. 3. The Cosmological Argument. There must have been a time when no physical things existed. But, since physical things exist now, there must have been something nonphysical to bring them into existence, and that something we call God. (Dawkins, 2006, pp. 100-101) Each of these arguments refers to a beginning that could not have been begun without the existence of a higher being, called God. Expressed in basic terms, the argument is a deductive syllogism with a major premise, an unstated minor premise, and a conclusion: Something began our universe, and that something is God, therefore God exists. If we assume that the universe

has to have a beginning, then this argument is rather compelling. In fact, using critical thinking, I admit that this deductive argument is valid because it is impossible for the premises to be true, yet for the conclusion to be false (Moore & Parker, 2009, p. 47). Although the argument is valid, however, it is not sound, i.e., the premises of the argument need not be true (Moore & Parker, 2009, p. 47). Even though, Aquinas reasons that nothing moves without a prior mover and nothing is caused by itself, these claims may be false. Like a circle, the universe may have no beginning or end. The universe is special and its characteristics may not fit within Aquinass claims. Moreover, Aquinass unstated minor premise is far more difficult to accept. The catholic saint chooses to terminate the cycle of events that led to the present with an omniscient and omnipotent being called, God. Even if something created the universe, logic does not necessitate that something to be omniscient nor omnipotent. Furthermore, believing that there is a creator, does not necessitate the belief that the creator can hear our silent prayers as well (Dawkins, 2006, p. 101). As such, we can see that the first three of Aquinass arguments are logically unacceptable. His fourth proof takes a different, but even less satisfying, approach. It is stated as follows: 4. The Argument from Degree. We notice that things in the world differ. There are degrees of, say, goodness or perfection. But we judge these degrees only by comparison with a maximum. Humans can be both good and bad, so the maximum goodness cannot rest in us. Therefore there must be some other maximum to set the standard for perfection, and we call that maximum God. (Dawkins, 2006, p, 101) This is another deductive syllogism with three basic parts (two premises and one conclusion). It can be condensed as such: There must be a maximum of goodness, and that maximum is God, therefore God exists. This is also a valid argument, but again it is not sound. First, we would

have to accept that there is a maximum of goodness, which is the least tenable of Aquinass statements. Second, we would have to accept that the maximum of goodness is the higher authority to which humans must answer. Again, this argument does not hold up under scrutiny. Last, Aquinass fifth proof may have been reasonable in his time period, but scientific inquiry has since supplanted it. It is stated as follows: 5. The Cosmological Argument. There must have been a time when no physical things existed. But, since physical things exist now, there must have been something nonphysical to bring them into existence, and that something we call God. (Dawkins, 2006, p, 101) Like his four prior proofs, Saint Aquinas presents another deductive syllogism with this argument. Again, it features three basic claimsof which one is unstatedthat can be condensed as such: Physical things were designed, and only God could have designed them, therefore, God exists. This argument is also valid, but it relies heavily on the veracity of the second claim. Could something else have designed the things in the physical world? Without another explanation for how physical world around us came to be, Aquinas was presenting an entirely logical reason for its existence with this proof. In the thirteenth century, this would have been an acceptable argument. The world lacked a strong scientific explanation for the designs of all its resident organisms until Charles Darwin provided it with evolutionary theory, about six hundred years after the time of Aquinas. Now, because of Darwins work, we can attribute the designs of all the diverse forms of life to natural selection instead of a supernatural designer. Evolutionary theory provided a scientific alternative to Aquinass unstated claim, and thus, makes his fifth proof logically unsound. All five of his proofs turn out to be insufficient. With

these five examples, we can appreciate how a careful application of critical thinking can debunk some of the most eminent arguments for the existence of God. Yet, despite the lack of a sound argument for God's existence, an overwhelming majority of people believe. Perhaps this is because religions have evolved cunning defense mechanisms to thwart doubt and logic. Simply taking the obvious unfairness of the worldin which, often the innocent are exploited and killed, and the evil persist and thriveis enough to present doubt of an omniscient and omnipotent God to any believer. After all, if God is all-knowing and allpowerful, why does he allow injustice and atrocities to occurknowing that they will happen and having the power to stop them? It is an entirely legitimate question to ask, especially if we are thinking critically. Christianity answers it with the common fallacy of rationalizing. Most people have heard the following statement as consolation after experiencing some type of misfortune: "God works in mysterious ways." If we accept this statement, then all the evil in the entire world can logically co-exist with a God who represents the maximum of goodness. Rationalizing involves using a false pretext to satisfy one's own desires (Moore & Parker, 2009, p. 192). Even though we cannot prove that the statement, "God works in mysterious ways," is false, as a pretext, it cannot be proved to be true either. Regardless, we can see that Christian religious authorities are using it to protect their argument that God exists, and as such, their interests. In addition to containing the fallacy of rationalizing, the statement, God works in mysterious ways, is also saturated with generality. This statement accomplishes the seemingly impossible feat of defending every possible action or inaction by God. It is so general and allencompassing, that is applies to everything and excludes nothing: the Holocaust, the Great Depression, natural disasters, the appearance of HIV, even everyday accidents. More than that,

it implies that there is some good in all events, even those just mentioned, because all of these events are part of some grand plan that exists in Gods mind. It is surprising that a statement so saturated with generality is not questioned more often. If it were used to qualify the actions of any other entitya person, an organization, etc.it would immediately dismissed. For example, if an elected official defended a decision to raise taxes by claiming that he/she worked in mysterious ways, he would be immediately recalled. However, when the statement is applied to God, it is entirely acceptable. Indeed, it seems like God is given an exception to scrutiny by critical thinking. Obscuring the fact that there is no sound argument for theism can take a more negative approach. For religious people, their faith is their salvation. In other words, it is what saves them from the most prohibitive prospect imaginableeternal damnation. Many religions do not limit their description of the afterlife to the bliss and peace of a heaven. They go further, by explaining that hell also exists, created especially for sinners, murderers, rapists, other evil-doers, and of course, nonbelievers. The imagery used to describe hell is scary to say the least, e. g., fire and brimstone. However, using critical thinking, we can see that idea of hell is nothing more than a scare tactic. Scare tactics try to scare people into doing something or accepting a position (Moore & Parker, 2009, p. 186). Indeed, religious authorities are dangling the scariest scenario imaginableone that by definition provides the worst suffering of all and never ends in front of their audiences. The mere prospect of this scenario will undoubtedly cause people to believe out of pure fear. But, Believe, or else you will go to hell, is not a logical argument. It is a fallacy because it substitutes fear for reason. It spurs us not to think. It is certainly not proof for Gods existence. Simply put, it is another rhetorical device that is obvious to appreciate with critical thinking.

Often, the choice of having faith, believing in God, or practicing a religion, is no choice at all, because humans can be born into a religion. If a child is born to Jewish parents, he/she is Jewish, by definition. Or, if a child is born to Muslims, he is automatically identified as a Muslim. Although there are cases where individuals choose to believe in a faith, in most cases this part of their lives is simply inherited. In this way, religious identification has penetrated humanity on par with citizenship or ethnicity. Like citizenship and ethnicity, this identification can confer a sense of pride. The problem with feeling pride in belonging to a religion is that this feeling can substitute for the reason for believing in it. This phenomenon is known as the groupthink fallacy (Moore & Parker, 2009, p. 191). Indeed, the feeling of solidarity that comes with congregating with masses of others who share the same belief is powerful. Arguably, this is the most dangerous aspect of faith. Pride when it comes believing in a certain God, particularly because believing in God almost always involves accepting guidance from religious leaders has had violent consequences: e.g., the Crusades and jihad. Regardless of whether a religion has aggressive positions built into its scriptures or doctrines, affiliation with it carries a heavy group identification. Therefore, its members can be easily swayed into taking up arms and agreeing to things despite their better judgment, let alone believing in God. Theism benefits from this groupthink fallacy. Furthermore, these benefits can compound the larger and larger the group of followers becomes, as more fallacies can be derived from it. Believing in God is so pervasive and widespread, just the sheer number of people who do can present an argument for it. To use an analogy, if there were a spotted mushroom in a forest that mostly everyone said was poisonous, we would be strongly inclined to believe that it was so. This would make sense. Perhaps before Ferdinand Magellan circumnavigating the globe for the first time in history, mostly everyone said that the Earth was flat. It would have made sense to

believe this was so, but it would have been incorrect. In fact, to accept a claim simply on the grounds that all or most or some substantial number of people (other than authorities or experts, of course) believe it, we commit the fallacy known as the argument from popularity (Moore & Parker, 2009, p. 192). This is actually not an argument at all. The fact that most people are theists does not provide evidence that God exists. Moreover, it is true that the longer a belief has been propagated, the more valid it is held to be. This is another fallacy, a variant of the argument from popularity, known as the argument from tradition (Moore & Parker, 2009, p. 194). A good example is the idea of the Assumption of Mary. The idea that Mary, mother of Jesus, did not die, but rather that she physically rose to heaven is not found in the Bible. It is a myth that began to be circulated 600 years after Jesuss death, but whose followers grew in number with the mere passage of time. Indeed, this myth has been spread for about 1400 years. So long, that the Assumption officially became Catholic canon in 1950 when Pope Pius XII declared that God had revealed to him that it was actually true (Kidd & Barnes, 2012). Logically speaking, a claim cannot be proved simply because it is a long-standing tradition to believe in it. This is another case after a careful application of critical thinking, a belief in God, religion, or having faith is untenable. Finally, without a logical reason to support the existence of God, many people reason that religion is acceptable simply because it provides the moral framework of society. This is undoubtedly one of the benefits of religion. It offers a code of what is right and wrong, of what is proper and improper. Actually, a critical thinker would agree that practicing religion is acceptable as the basis of moral reasoning for some people. However, this critical thinker would not say that all humans need a religion to form a basis of moral reasoning. In fact, studies have shown that morality predates all religions because it predates humans altogether as a species.

Chimpanzees have also been observed to uphold a moral framework in their communities. Actually, scientists note those chimpanzees with a strong moral compass, who intervene to settle disputes and demonstrate good leadershipbehaviors that are akin to public serviceare rewarded with higher social status (Kidd & Barnes, 2012). However, Chimpanzees do not believe in God nor do they practice religion. Indeed, morality is a trait that we have genetically inherited from our evolutionary ancestors, and since expanded. Therefore, the argument that we should practice religion because it is the only source of morality is invalid. Although some people may need for this reason, religion is not our only source of morality. For these reasons and others, it is clear that critical thinking and believing in God, or having faith, or practicing religion are in opposition. If we accept that critical thinking is a process that will lead us away from falsehoods and toward the truth, then it followsas wrong as it may soundthat the belief in God is false. There is no evidence for the existence of God, and the logical arguments for Gods existence are not sound. Religious authorities rely on obscuration devices and fallacies like, rationalizing, generality, groupthink, and argument from popularity, to convince their followers to have faith. Unfortunately, it seems as though having faith is the same as non-thinking. In light of the events of September 11, in which almost 3,000 people died on one morning, it may be time to leave the ideas of God, faith, and religion, in the past. If this position is too extreme, then at least these prospects deserve the same scrutiny that other significant prospects, like choosing an occupation, deserve. Critical thinking should be encouraged in every case, even that of faith.

REFERENCES Dawkins, R. (2006). The God delusion. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. Kidd, D. (Producer), & Barnes, R. (Director). (2012). The God delusion [Television Documentary]. Available from http://youtu.be/9FiHRVb_uE0 Moore, B., & Parker, R. (2009). Critical thinking (9th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill. Parsons, J. J. (n. d.). Sheloshah-Asar Ikkarim: The thirteen principles of the Jewish faith. Retrieved from http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Scripture/ShloshahAsar_Ikkarim/shloshah-asar_ikkarim.html United Life Church Ministry. (2013). Islam. Retrieved from http://www.themonastery.org/guideto-divinity/islam