In Defense of Critical Thinking

Contemporary culture sees a taboo in discussing religion and politics. Robert Jensen sees this constructive dialogue and critical thinking necessary for the health of our nation.

| May 2013

In Arguing for Our Lives (City Lights Publishers, 2013) a lively primer on critical thinking, Robert Jensen attacks the problems head on and delivers an accessible and engaging book that explains how we can work collectively to enrich our intellectual lives. Jensen connects abstract ideas with the everyday political and spiritual struggles of ordinary people. Free of either academic or political jargon, this lively book is for anyone struggling to understand our world and contribute to making it a better place. The following excerpt comes from chapter one, In Defense of Intellectual Life.   

Stop Avoiding Taboos

There are two clichés about our intellectual lives that illus­trate contemporary U.S. culture’s confusion and cowardice. One is the response to one’s attempt to analyze a difficult problem: “You think too much.” The second is the common advice for getting along in groups: “Don’t talk about religion or politics.”  

On the first cliché: Yes, it’s possible to overthink, if we engage in endless analyzing as a way to avoid taking action we should take, or if we get stuck in our heads and cut ourselves off from our experience and emotions. We don’t want to fall into passivity or disembodied abstraction. But too often in this culture, when we want to tackle a tough problem and think it through carefully, we will be accused of thinking too much, as if somehow the problems we face can, and should, be handled without using our intellect.  

On the second cliché: If we don’t talk about religion or politics, what else is there of interest to discuss? In this context, I’m defining “religion” broadly, as wrestling with ultimate questions of existence that are wrapped up in the query “What does it mean to be a human being?” I’m using “politics” broadly as well, to mean the quest to answer the unavoidable question in any society, “How should power and resources be distributed?”  

We all should think a lot, especially about religion and politics. We should all be striving to be the best critically thinking intellectuals we can be.  

Both those terms—critical thinking and intellectual—come with some baggage. Some people fear that encouraging “critical thinking” is really a euphemism for an attack on tra­ditional values, especially those rooted in religious faith. And many assume that “intellectuals” are elitist snobs who tout their academic credentials as proof of superiority. Both terms can be misused that way, of course, but that is not the only fate for critically thinking intellectuals.  

Robert Johnson
5/27/2013 1:04:14 PM

Great and important article - thanks! I look forward to reading the book. Society's rejection of critical thought and the progress critical thought makes real is also seen in its turning away from the ancient philosophies of Greece and Rome such as Stoicism. Regarding religion, a great way to bring critical thought and reason into religion is through Deism. Deism is belief in God/The Supreme Intelligence based on the application of our reason on the laws and designs in Nature (the study of which is science). Deists believe the designs presuppose a Designer/God. Read Thomas Paine's outstanding thought provoking book The Age of Reason, The Complete Edition and Deism: A Revolution in Religion, A Revolution in You to learn more. Progress! Bob Johnson