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Critical Thinking, Prayer, and the Free Inquiry Path to a Worldview
in the news: According to a Time / Carnegie Corporation survey while both USA adults and college administrators strongly agree that higher education is in crisis, they disagree as to its main purpose. As reported by Time's Josh Sanburn on October 18th, "Only 26% of the general public ranked “to learn to think critically” as either the most important or second most important reason people should go to college, compared with close to two-thirds of college leaders (62%) who included critical thinking in their top two choices." Surprisingly a few days later reports with headlines like "Evidence of Premonition Discovered in New Study" including statements like "Our bodies may be psychic," seemingly bolstered the case for humans relying on intuition or making snap judgments--the opposite of critical thinking. The stories were based on a scientific paper built around a meta-analysis of 26 reports. There lead author Northwestern University's Julia Mossbridge was quoted as saying, “I like to call the phenomenon ‘anomalous anticipatory activity.’ The phenomenon is anomalous, some scientists argue, because we can’t explain it using present-day understanding about how biology works; though explanations related to recent quantum biological findings could potentially make sense"
commentary and analysis (by Stephen P. Cook, project Worldview, www.projectworldview.org): To me this research is exciting for two reasons: 1) I once had a life-changing type premonition experience in the form of a dream involving a clock I was "seeing" on a TV screen and two events that unexpectedly occurred simultaneously , and 2) because it underscores the notion that the scientific conceptual framework is still evolving and eventually may be broadened to include currently unexplained phenomena. But despite the topic involved, I'd say it also points out the value of analysis and critical thinking. In looking toward the future and in solving the problems behind looming crises--such as figuring out how to restructure the economy so that it produces a more just society in an environmentally sustainable fashion--I see critical thinking and "The Scientific Method" (worldview theme #6) as our most important tools.
Others, including a significant portion of USA adults, might disagree. I suspect that some might use reports like the above to promote the opposite of critical thinking: a faith-based agenda built around prayer and Belief in a Personal God (theme #8b). To them I would initially say 1) "If prayer brings you comfort, use it" and 2) "I'm for using what works. If I become convinced that a prayer will solve a specific problem, then I'll pray." Having said that, I'd point out that there is little or no evidence that prayer works. If you investigate this issue with a quick trip to the Wikipedia entry for prayer you'll find this: "Scientific studies regarding the use of prayer have mostly concentrated on its effect on the healing of sick or injured people. Meta-studies of the studies in this field have been performed showing evidence only for no effect or a potentially small effect. For instance, a 2006 meta analysis on 14 studies concluded that there is 'no discernable effect'. "
I often avoid people associated with some religious movement who would otherwise urge me to pray because I suspect their real motive is not promoting my well being but rather their own agenda. Perhaps I feel that agenda is petty and small--like getting more people to fill the offering plate on Sunday morning, rather than the noble and big I'd like to associate prayer with. To me prayer can transcend organized religion and belief in a personal God. If someone is sick and I am deeply concerned, my empathy is such that I can imagine being connected to this person I love in some fundamental way--perhaps as suggested by Mysticism (worldview theme #7a). Praying for this person's recovery would be my way of sending my love and strength to him or her. I'd do it for two additional reasons: 1) so that I would feel better and 2) to express not just my own caring, but to promote what may only be a useful fiction but one that nonetheless I feel needs promoting: the idea that we are all fundamentally connected to each other and that what one person does affects everyone else. I would truly try to "Pray for Others"...
...And avoid--in the words of the bumper sticker I mentioned in this column last month--"Preying on Others". Since I wrote that issue of this blog, I received news of three people--friends who still live in the same county I once lived in. Upon hearing that Person A had experienced a life-threatening medical problem, I thought back nearly 35 years ago to how this person's father--I'll call him Lee--died. Lee was someone who was truly at home out in nature. Unlike most of his neighbors, Lee didn't believe in a Moralistic God (theme #14A). I don't know if he believed in a Personal God--yet it's hard to think of him as an atheist. I do know that while Lee had no use for organized religion he possessed a strong Earth-centered spirituality that connects with a Belonging to Nature (theme #27) perspective. Sadly, Lee died in a hospital with a neighborhood couple who were fundamentalist evangelical Christian zealots pestering him to repent and accept Jesus Christ as his savoir. Instead of allowing this wonderful man in die in peace, these supposed do-gooders preyed on him in their attempt to save his soul.
I eventually concluded that Person B, now a devout Christian, was preyed on--although he certainly wouldn't describe his religious conversion like that. Many years ago he, like Lee, was once in a highly vulnerable position. He wasn't on his deathbed, he was in prison. Highly sociable, my friend was slowly going crazy in solitary confinement. The only thing available to him was the Bible that prison authorities provided. Without any other source of simulation--perhaps without anything to live for--Person B found what someone apparently wanted him to find: God and Jesus.
Like Person B, Person C would likewise not characterize her becoming a devout Christian as being "preyed on." To be honest, I admittedly don't know exactly how it happened. But I suspect (partly because we're the same age) what happened to her may be similar to what happened to me. I was preyed on when, again in a highly vulnerable position, I was very young. As a rambunctious three and a half year old, I was told in no uncertain terms by a young caregiver who was also a Sunday school teacher that I would go to hell unless I was a good boy. This, and repeated references every Sunday to burning in hell unless I did certain things, added an unnecessary trauma (to what should have been a pretty good growing up) in the form of a recurring terrible nightmare that I had for many years. As I matured and realized what had happened to me, I began questioning the beliefs that others had tried to inculcate. I eventually renounced the religious path I'd been on as a juvenile in favor of something of my own choosing. I suspect that Person C never did...
...But then again I could be wrong. Perhaps she strayed from the Christianity of her youth and explored several other religions or belief systems. Perhaps she was even an agnostic, atheist or comfortable with Secular Humanism (theme #10), before she re-examined the religion of her childhood and returned to the flock. Typically after going through such a process a person's values and beliefs mean more, partly because of the effort invested in finding them. Regardless, Person C presently seems comfortable with her worldview, just as I am with mine.
I eventually became a strong advocate of what I now call The Free Inquiry Path to a Worldview. Having more fully described that elsewhere, let me just say that helping people (especially young people!) find that path and encouraging critical thinking is really what the Project Worldview website is all about.
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