Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Thinking Critically About God

My recent lecture to the Stanislaus Humanists in Manteca, CA on Jan. 15 has caused some controversy locally.  See some of the heated letters to the editor here:
www.mantecabulletin.com under the Opinion section.  

In response, I wrote this letter to the editor of the paper.  Let's hope they publish it and I get an opportunity to talk to some of that local church groups.  The pastor of the church that demonstrated that night has declined my offer.  

My name is Matt McCormick.  I am the professor who gave the lecture to the Stanislaus Humanist group at the Manteca Library on January 15. 

I’d like to thank the Stanislaus Humanists for inviting me to speak.  And I’d like to thank all of the people from Manteca who came out either to hear me speak, or to participate in the events outside the building that night. 

My lecture has stirred up quite a bit of controversy.  I’d like to present a few thoughts on what I take to be a fundamental issue, and I’d like to make an offer to any churches or other groups in Manteca. 

The most fundamental requirement for a successful democracy, and for human prosperity and happiness, is for individuals to, first, be informed with the full range of relevant ideas, particularly concerning important decisions, and, second, for them to have the critical thinking skills to be able to reason clearly, accurately, and reliably about that body of information. 

In religious organizations, to a greater or lesser extent depending on the tradition, the social model is fundamentally authoritarian; the clergy lead, they shepherd, they give their congregations the answers, they enforce belief conformity, they exclude dissenters, they exclude contrary ideas, they discourage doubts, and they discourage independent thinking.  Much of this was evident in the dangerous rhetoric in response to my coming to speak in Manteca.  Many of the comments and reactions before, during and after have been dangerous, combative, and confrontational.  One pastor, praying about my lecture before I came to town said, “We drive back any atheist movement right now in the name of Jesus. . . We must repel the demonic attack on our city," and he prayed, "God, cause a storm to happen or something [on Wednesday night]."  Another pastor said that I was an "evangelical atheist," and "they're going to try to put up billboards, they're going to try to do other things to convince people that God is not real. . .  And, as far as I'm concerned, this is our house.  This is our house.  This is our city." 

The social model for a liberal arts education at a university like where I am a professor is fundamentally democratic; my job is to encourage people to actively consider contrary ideas, think for themselves, make their own decisions, be independent, to not blindly trust authority, and to not be manipulated by emotional ploys or rhetoric.  Our goal is to get people to reason well.  We are neutral with regard to the outcome of that reasoning process; people should be free to draw whatever conclusion they deem to be best supported by sound reasoning and the evidence.  Creating atheists is not my goal; I would rather people become thoughtful, rational, well-informed believers in God than have them be dogmatic and irrational. 

Many pastors, preachers, priests, and other clergy are dedicated to keeping you believing no matter what the evidence is.  And they wittingly or unwittingly use a variety of methods to do it that are at odds with your being an independent, informed, and effective critical thinker.  Some of them and some of their methods encourage ignorance, superstition, intolerance, irrationality, and narrow-mindedness.  We should all be deeply concerned about clergy who would capitalize on the ignorance of people who don't have the critical thinking skills or the information to know any better, to keep them from making thoughtful, informed, reasonable decisions for themselves. 

So with all of that in mind, I’d like to make an offer.  I would like to come and speak to any church or group in the Manteca area who would host me, and present some of my questions and doubts about the resurrection of Jesus.  People should have free access to information, including viewpoints that may seem outrageous or offensive, and they should be able to develop informed, reasonable conclusions about matters of great importance on the basis of the full body of relevant information.  My email address is mccormick@csus.edu


Unknown said...
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Anurain Design said...

I really appreciate your view on this. Trying to simply educate and encourage critical thinking skills against 'creating atheists' as you said. The concept of critical thinking in and of itself is a threat to the basics of religion though which is based on faith (believing without evidence) and not questioning what you are told. I hope some people are open mined enough to take you up on the offer.

DZ said...

Professor McCormick, I really enjoy your clear and concise writing. Thanks.

Anita said...

I've just finished listening to your interview by Alan Litchfield. I found it really enjoyable and appreciated having my thoughts being expressed by you in such an articularte manner. Thanks again. I'll try to remember your phrasing for future reference. 5

Anonymous said...

"The social model for a liberal arts education at a university like where I am a professor is fundamentally democratic; my job is to encourage people to actively consider contrary ideas, think for themselves, make their own decisions, be independent, to not blindly trust authority"

I tend to question this. It seemed to me in various schools that many teachers just want to people to parrot back what they tell the students. Whether teachers even realize this questionable. Also my brief experience with academics is that they seem to be very cliquish. Holding certain religious or political views leads to them being ostracized.

I wonder if you would agree that public schools should be allowed to teach creationism along side evolution if the democratically elected local government so decides?

Personally I do not believe in Creationism, but like you state I think education should be "encourage people to actively consider contrary ideas, think for themselves, make their own decisions, be independent, to not blindly trust authority."

What do you think? I wonder if a teacher were to say that they agreed with me if that would have an impact on their relationship with fellow academics who might have influence on their ability to publish or get tenure etc.

I find people who I meet at churches much more open to entertain different opinions. I get much less of the view that if you think that you are just a f___ing idiot because its my way or the highway.

But then again like different churches I am sure different schools have different styles as well.

Anita said...
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Anonymous said...

The more I think about it the more I see my conversations with people in my church and others as less authoritarian than conversations I have had with my teachers in general. Don't get me wrong I have had some great teachers but allot of the time that was clearly not the case.

Teachers assign your grade. Students are not inclined to really argue or cut down a teachers argument even if it is foolish. Actually, especially if it is foolish. This may lead to a bad grade and no letter of recommendation. Holding your tongue is something that many students do but I doubt professors realize it.

In fact I think students often tell teachers how wonderful and logical they are just to get the grade and move on. Teachers often want to hear and reward students for parroting their own views. Of course, they think their own views are true, so there is no bad intent. But often its their own views that they want to hear if you want the grade.

It seems professors may also become accustomed to people being very gentle when suggesting they are wrong, or telling them they are right.

As a lawyer my experience is very different. I am used to adult lawyers giving opposing arguments. I do not expect that I will be given undue deference thanks to my power to give a grade or recommendation.

I learn to just deal with arguments and respond if I can. Not that the legal system is all that. But I do think academia is far from unbiased or anti-authoritarian. BTW these biases exist for religious teaches as well as atheists teachers.

Anonymous said...

Now let me know whether the nature which functions in such a well-planned and well-ordered fashion possesses knowledge and power or is it devoid of also of intelligence and reason, without power and without knowledge?

If you admit that it possesses knowledge and power, then what obstructs you from a belief in the Creator?

What we say 's that all things are created by One Who is Master of Knowledge and Power.

You say that there is no Creator and yet admit that nature had done this with ingenuity and plan. As such nature is the cause of their creation, while you deny the Creator.

If you say that nature produces such things without knowledge and power - not knowing what it is doing nor the power to do it - in connection with the type and having design and ingenuity that subsists in all phenomena, it is inconceivable that something may be performed without the corresponding power to do it and without a knowledge thereof.

As such it is obvious that the action emanates from an Omniscient Creator, Who has laid down as only a method among His creation through his Omniscience, which you people call nature.

In other words, Almighty God has ordained a method to produce everything according to its definite cause and principle.