I am a “cradle Catholic”. By this, I mean I was born into the Church without much of a say during my Baptism. I kicked and screamed as I was doused with water, but needless to say that did not really constitute a reasoned opinion. Either way, I was ignored –– for which I am very glad. I am glad because I strongly believe that my faith in a greater, forgiving and loving being significantly contributed towards my contentment as a child. Atheists, notably Richard Dawkins, often chastise the notion of being born into a faith. At a talk recently held in St Andrews, he tried to illustrate the absurdity of saying that a new born was Jewish, Catholic or Hindu by using the analogy of new parents fresh from the maternity ward, telling friends that their child was a logical positivist. Of course, we are not born with the ability to critically think about the types of defining aspects of a particular faith, rather this is something that develops and is fostered over many years. However, is it really such a bad thing to be born into a faith, or to accept faith blindly as children often do? It is this question, the role of critical thinking in religious belief, with which this essay is concerned. Ultimately, I want to show that in the absence of the ability to think critically about religious beliefs, most notably as a child, there is nothing wrong with blind faith; but once we do develop such a capacity to think critically, rational reflection becomes essential.
Blind faith is as ubiquitous as it might ever have been before, it is only the object of blind faith that has changed over time. God was once the face of the inexplicable, but now the microchip is almighty. Every time we turn on a phone, or send an email, we trust electronic devices to perform their expected function. Of course, the parallel between God and technology is incomplete, as a significant minority perfectly understand the marvellous advances of the science and technology that guide our lives –– we do not have this same type of knowledge of God. However, compared to the entire population of users of modern technology, those that could explain with a high degree of accuracy on a physical level, for instance, every mechanism from the contact between the finger and the screen to the receipt of a message 1000s of miles away between phones, constitute a very small proportion. In other words, ignorance is rife amongst most users of modern technology. But surely, this does not matter? On the occasion that a smartphone stops working, we are happy to defer to a greater authority – normally an overseas call centre. We can still enjoy the use of most modern technology without understanding well how they function.
The point in the preceding paragraph is simply that there are many instances in the modern world where blind faith is abundant, and it is not really an issue. It is not really a problem that the vast majority of users of modern technology do not have a strong grasp of the science they are dependent upon, because 1) on the whole, this ignorance has no negative consequences, and 2) it does not prohibit enjoyment gained from using these devices. Why then, for vocal atheists, can the same reasoning not analogously be applied to the blind faith of a child holding religious beliefs? As an uninquisitive child holding faith in God, there were 1) no negative consequences to unquestioningly accepting the existence of God and 2) it did not prevent me from enjoying the fruits of faith, particularly the comfort of believing in an omnibenevolent being. To argue that millions of children ought to be stripped of this type of comfort and happiness that is unique to being born into a religious faith, a strong argument must be put forward.
People opposed to the notion of being born into a faith would likely claim that the reason it is absurd to say that a new born or young child belongs to a particular religion, is because this claim assumes that they hold particular religious beliefs for which it is unreasonable to assume they could rationally defend.
But this criticism fails to appreciate the fact that holding religious beliefs can import a great deal more meaning than other types of beliefs, such as those about empirical facts. Were someone to say that they believe in God, they would be saying something more than just claiming that God exists. By expressing a religious belief, they would be expressing something about their own state of existence. I have tried to point to those aspects of my state of mind as a child that were characterised by my religious beliefs. In particular, my belief in an omnibenevolent God. Empirical beliefs, such as my belief that the earth is round, simply do not bear the same type of significance on someone’s state of mind, and as such, I would argue are fundamentally different in type. Whilst it might be defensible to claim that a child should not hold empirical beliefs that they cannot defend with reason, in virtue of the far greater emotional significance of religious beliefs, this claim alone is insufficient. I think a much stronger argument would be needed to show that it is wrong for a child to uncritically hold religious beliefs. Given that there is more meaning to religious belief than claims to empirical facts, it is not absurd for a child to hold these claims without critically thinking about them.
However, I think that the relationship between religious beliefs and critical thinking does significantly change as our capacity to think independently develops. In fact, I would go as far as to say that when we do develop a capacity to reason and think critically, contemplating beliefs becomes an essential part of faith. Furthermore, throughout that turbulent transition from childhood to adulthood, during which we mysteriously begin to become more inquisitive and reflective, I think that the nature of belief changes. So much so, that for beliefs to really count for someone who is able to think critically, they have to be able to stand up to scrutiny.
Once you have the ability to think critically, a reluctance to challenging religious beliefs would be very troubling. Reluctance to serious reflection, for someone who is capable of reasoning well, would amount to acknowledging that your beliefs may not stand up to inspection. If you are concerned that your beliefs would not stand up to inspection, then a critical thinker should have less of a reason to hold them. This is why holding faith in God, and willingly challenging this faith critically is a tremendously courageous act. It involves a step into the darkness from which you could suddenly be beaten back. For atheists this might be a strange notion to fathom but to believe in something for which there is no substantive empirical proof, and to genuinely challenge those beliefs which are often central to your own existence, is exceptionally difficult.
I was 12 when I first truly challenged my faith in God. I distinctly remember praying one evening, when I suddenly felt overcome by a sense of stupidity. Sitting there with my palms clasped and eyes closed, I felt like a fool imagining things into existence. Then almost immediately afterwards, a vivid crushing sensation as I suddenly felt a sense of isolation and meaninglessness that I had never experienced before. I was a disposable sack of atoms that would one day be nothing more than soil fertiliser.
For me this episode prompted a definite changing point in my relationship with my own religious beliefs. I could no longer accept them and be content in the same way I had been as a child. Now, I felt a strong necessity to question their coherence.
But it would be very wrong to think that this weakened my faith. Through rational reflection, one actually consolidates and strengthens belief by posing and overcoming critical challenges.
In the Catholic Church, I believe this is why the sacrament of confirmation is so important. It is an essential step in your own religious life that demands that you, and no one else, affirms your faith in the Church. This process demands stringent contemplation about your own beliefs, and for those that do become confirmed, it serves to strengthen faith.
I have tried to show through this essay that the nature of the relationship between critical thinking and religious beliefs changes throughout someone’s lifetime. During childhood, religious beliefs carry sufficient meaning in virtue of their significance to justify their being held uncritically. However, once we have developed a capacity to reason and think reflectively on our beliefs, thinking critically about religious beliefs becomes a necessity. Through challenging these religious beliefs, our faith actually becomes stronger.