by Zachary Wright
Have you ever wanted to problem-solve better? Not just the daily issues we deal with, but the massive world-changing problems we deal with constantly? What about wanting to be more effective in your study? Have you ever wanted to learn to differentiate between what’s true and what’s not? Maybe you’re not as ambitious, but you want to be a better disciple of Jesus Christ and learn more about Him and His gospel. All these skills, and more, apply at least some form of critical thinking skills, and I’m here to help you learn how to be a more effective critical thinker.
Throughout this series, we’ll explore some basic principles behind critical thinking and practice critical thinking about LDS theology and history, answering questions about them. We’ll discuss basic logic principles, learn to evaluate sources, and become informed about topics orbiting the restored gospel. Join us every other Sunday to learn how to become a better thinker, debater, and advocate for your beliefs. With the skills you learn in this series, you’ll be able to be more effective in every single field of your life and find ways to help other people in meaningful ways.
I invite you to join me as we learn together, starting our journey of learning “by study and by faith.”
Episode 1: What is Critical Thinking?
When I began my research on Critical Thinking in preparation for this series, I came across an article that described “The Emerging Crisis in Critical Thinking”. Consider the following:
“Unfortunately, rather than creating a generation of “super-geniuses,” there are emerging reports that although modern students are quite adept at memorizing and regurgitating facts presented in class or in reading materials, the ability to reason, think critically, and problem-solve has actually been dramatically reduced in recent years.” (1)
I didn’t need an article to tell me that critical thinking is something that modern schools struggle to incorporate. I went to charter schools for most of my life, but while it seemed that my teachers seemed to pay lip service to the almighty “critical thinking skills,” I don’t recall them ever sitting down and explaining to the students “Critical thinking includes X, Y, and Z”. Why would they? It’s not in the syllabus. 😉
It wasn’t until I was about 18 that I began picking up on what it actually meant. Critical thinking has far more to do with how you go about learning and solving problems, and far less to do with what you’re actually learning. You don’t need a college degree in American Religious History to think critically about Joseph Smith’s religious and cultural background, and you don’t need a degree in Biblical Greek to think critically about the New Testament texts. While such knowledge may be helpful, it is not essential to employ critical thinking skills. Latter-day Saints should know and care about these critical thinking skills to help others, solve problems, become good citizens, and “contend for the faith” (Jude 1:3). So, what does it mean to think critically? Let’s explore that topic for a moment.
What is Critical Thinking?
If I had to boil down the concept of “critical thinking” to one concise statement, I’d probably summarize it as “Us making sure that we have good reasons for what we believe” (2). How is this done? Well, according to the University of Louisiana, the process of critical thinking includes an ability “to question; to acknowledge and test previously held assumptions; to recognize ambiguity; to examine, interpret, evaluate, reason, and reflect; to make informed judgments and decisions; and to clarify, articulate, and justify positions” (3). Fair enough; but consider this for a moment, as you were reading this list, did you stop and consider what each item of the list meant? Did you think about how this list may apply at home? School? Work? Church? Such practices are important aspects of critical thinking, but if you’re like me, you probably didn’t the first time around…and that’s okay. Critical thinking does NOT come naturally to people any more than running a marathon comes naturally to people. Like with any skill, it comes with deliberate practice, and experience…lots of it.
If I’ve succeeded today, you will be able to practice these critical thinking skills more effectively than you were able to before. This doesn’t mean that we’ll go over every aspect of this definition here, but we will be going over some of it. Specifically, we’ll talk about how to ask effective questions, look at events from different perspectives, and then discuss what it looks like to be a critical thinker in conjunction with the spirit.
Asking Effective Questions
An essential aspect of critical thinking is the ability to ask important questions. One pair of researchers noted that in relation to critical thinking, asking questions can: stimulate the brain, open communication/create an exchange, prompt discovery of what others know, encourage listening, provide the opportunity to acknowledge other ideas, and lead to the process of discovery (4). Consider the following:
“Not only do questions and critical thought have an appropriate place in the Church, but as President Dieter F. Uchtdorf has pointed out, the Church would not exist without it. He explains that the doctrinally loaded and foundational experience of the First Vision came as the result of Joseph Smith’s critical thought toward existing churches and a desire to know which he should join. Knowing for ourselves if the church that was restored through Joseph Smith’s efforts is truly the “only true and living church” (D&C 1:30) can be done only by following his lead and “ask[ing] of God” (James 1:5). “Asking questions,” President Uchtdorf said, “isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s a precursor of growth.” (5)
With both secular and religious voices united in the call for asking questions, it almost goes without saying that we should be willing to ask important questions when dealing with important subjects. Why should it be any different when dealing with theological and historical questions regarding the church?
So, what kind of questions should we be asking? Well, cursory internet searches may be helpful here (6), but it may be best to begin by focusing on the basic idea of critical thinking: How do we know what we know? This may include questions such as:
- How does this source claim to be getting their information?
- How reliable is that method of getting information?
- Do other ways of getting information corroborate this source?
- Is what the source claims being overly distorted by bias, positive or negative?
- When was the source speaking/writing about the subject?
A case study of how a critical thinker may approach a subject with good questions may be helpful here. Consider how a critic of the church may assert that Joseph Smith manufactured a set of fake (not gold) metal plates, and presented those plates as the ancient record of the Book of Mormon. Is that possible? Sure, but a critical thinker would ask questions like:
- Where did Joseph Smith learn to make such plates?
- Who taught him to create metal plates?
- Did anyone contemporary to his time mention his ability to make plates?
- What materials did Joseph use? Where did he obtain these materials?
- Where did he manufacture these plates?
- When did he have time to make these plates?
I could continue, but this should suffice. Do you see how all of these are important questions to ask when dealing with historical issues in LDS history? Anyone making the claim that Joseph was fabricating the plates would need to answer these questions in order to make a more compelling case.
Note that asking these questions doesn’t counter their arguments; it gives the critic the opportunity to support their position. Questions, in this manner, are not to be confused with arguments (we’ll deal with logic and arguments another day). You can support your questions with other sources, but it’s important to recognize that this method of asking questions can be more impactful in the realms of apologetics and research than practically anything else. If a faithful believer can learn to ask pertinent questions about LDS history and theology, it will make the conversation go much more smoothly. However, in order to improve your questions, it’s important to understand how to look at things from different perspectives, which is what we’ll discuss now.
Looking at Problems from Different Perspectives
A worldview is described as “a set of values and assumptions about the world, through which we interpret our experiences” (7). In order to ask important, pertinent, and even faithful questions, it’s essential to understand what ideas your questions are based on. A worldview is also described as “a collection of attitudes, values, stories and expectations about the world around us, which inform our every thought and action” (8). In order to be an effective critical thinker, it’s important to be able to differentiate between, and look at, different perspectives or worldviews. In truth, we do something similar all the time, almost daily, most of the time without us ever realizing it just by going about our day. A faithful church-going man who wakes up and goes to work may be looking at things from a variety of perspectives: his perspective as a father, his role as a husband, his role as an employee, his role as a child of God, etc. All of these perspectives have different ways of manifesting themselves and have different questions and goals. Similar analyses may be applied to how we critically think about certain topics. Consider the following:
“Furthermore, since belief and belonging are intricately interconnected, these changes in identity will often be accompanied by cognitive forms of restructuring, which allow the coexistence of faith and of secular knowledge of religion. One such form may focus on the recognition of two distinct layers of explanations of reality: a faith-based one, with supernatural foundations, and a secular one, with a focus on human dynamics within the phenomenon of religion.” (9)
I appreciate this analysis because while it’s careful to maintain that the secular and spiritual are connected, it is keen on pointing out that there are two different viewpoints to look at events that both answer different questions and have different presuppositions. We’ll go over a couple of these viewpoints now.
The restored gospel perspective is one that we Latter-day Saints are most experienced in. This viewpoint is primarily focused on things like our relationship with our Heavenly Father, the morality of our choices, and how Jesus Christ established, re-established, and guides his church today. It looks at this world as being a step along an eternal path, one with divine potential, where God’s purpose is to bring about “the immortality and eternal life of man” (10). This perspective assumes that those who deal with it believe in God, believe Jesus Christ is the Savior of mankind, believe that God has called prophets (like Joseph Smith) to teach us, and that those who make and keep covenants will return to the presence of God. (This is not a comprehensive view of this perspective, but it will suffice.)
As you can imagine though, other perspectives can be useful. Consider the Historical perspective, which is primarily focused on gathering data from various sources in order to synthesize an understanding of what occurred in the past (11). This perspective is focused on trying to figure out what occurred by studying what people before them wrote and thought about events. They are primarily concerned with finding out what people make what claims and interweaving each of the accounts into one coherent, plausible, and accurate narrative of events. This perspective presupposes that the events are able to be known by the people who record them, and they know there are gaps in the data that are irrecoverable as it stands right now. Even so, they are able to study documents as a means to the end of learning about events in the past with varying degrees of certainty.
Another perspective that Latter-day Saints encounter is the scientific worldview. Tracing its roots back to the Renaissance (and Greek Philosophy), it seeks to establish causality for everything that occurs in the world. Much can be said about the history and assumptions of empirical science, but suffice it to say that it is assumed that knowledge can be obtained through direct observation of the material world (12). In this perspective, scientists are concerned about how different things interact with each other, what causes different reactions, and what variables can be manipulated to bring about what result. Assumptions made by scientists vary, but it wouldn’t be untrue to state that they assume that everything is a long string of “cause-effect” reactions. This perspective, when taken to its extreme, may result in the acceptance of determinism (13).
The perspective of this very article and series is worth mentioning…I wrote this under the belief/assumption that God exists and that concepts such as morality and libertarian free will (14) are true. With those presuppositions in mind, I hope that I’ve been able to show that each of these perspectives is based at least somewhat in reality and may be useful in determining the truth, that is “knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come;”. Practicing looking at things from different perspectives may be challenging, and it may push you out of your comfort zone, but it is infinitely worth it (15). However, every one of these perspectives can be warped, leading to conclusions that are unhealthy, harmful, and not conducive to the moral life we try to build. This doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with the worldview itself, any more than it would mean that a hammer has something wrong with it because it can’t mow the lawn. The purpose, assumptions, and answers each worldview provides are different, and I posit that each one should be used to answer questions in its respective domain.
Now, how does this relate to critical thinking? I mention this because a critical thinker is able to take information from multiple perspectives to find ways to solve problems and make decisions with data from a variety of worldviews. Ignoring one or more perspectives in favor of another is referred to as “bias”. For example, when discussing controversial topics such as the relationship between members of the LGBTQ+ community and the church, it’s important to understand what perspectives are at play and to avoid bias in any format. For example, LDS critical thinkers should be careful to not ignore what role genetics might play in homosexuality (16), and the critical thinking members of the LGBTQ+ community should be careful to remember the role that traditional families play in the afterlife (17). Allowing one perspective to cloud another will lead to contention, frustration, and a lack of intellectual and spiritual engagement with all parties involved.
To recap, a critical thinker needs to be aware of the inherent worldviews/perspectives of every source being analyzed. While not separating the perspectives or allowing bias to cause them to distort or ignore other worldviews, critical thinkers are able to collect, synthesize, and evaluate data from different sources. After all, we believe in anything that is “virtuous, lovely, of good report, or praiseworthy” (18). Latter-day Saint critical thinkers will then be able to look at the problems and questions of others, and either ask questions about, or provide answers with, the differing worldviews/perspectives in question. In this way, I believe that being able to differentiate between the worldviews (and assumptions) of different people, will prove to be yet another essential aspect of LDS apologetics and research.
An Invitation to All
That was kind of long, I hope you’re still with me. In our discussion above, I’ve alluded already to the idea that I, the author, am carrying a few assumptions with me as I’m writing, namely I believe in God, agency, and moral law. The critical thinker will rightly be able to point out that no one can prove empirically that these things are real with a scientific perspective…and they would be right. There are limits to every worldview, but the careful reader will be able to realize that these very limitations are exactly why I’m writing this article in the first place. We can’t just use “one worldview” as the be-all-end-all standard by which we are to view the universe, any more than we can expect a plumber to be able to perform heart surgery. We need to be willing to look beyond mere bias, and thus, I have an invitation to every critical thinker out there, both church members and non-members alike.
For members, I invite you to study LDS church history and theology, employing critical thinking skills as you research. I invite you to listen to the spirit, and accept truth from all sources. I invite you to redouble your efforts to “Come unto Christ, and be perfected in him” (19). Do things to increase your faith as you increase your knowledge of other domains. As you do so, I promise that both your spiritual and intellectual capacities will increase and that you will find greater happiness and confidence as a result. In other words, continue your efforts to seek learning by study and by faith (20), and share the blessings of such efforts with everyone that you know.
For those who are not members of the church, I assert that there is a spiritual domain and that it can be known through spiritual methods. These methods include meditation, prayer, and the study and application of the words of the prophets. Over time, upon acting on these spiritual exercises, I claim that you will begin to feel a rejuvenated sense of power and confidence and that you will feel the inert “good” that comes from each of these (21). I testify that this spiritual perspective will not contradict truth, but will help you embrace it wholeheartedly. I invite you, in this sense, to seek God, and to believe in his Son, Jesus Christ. I invite you to study the words of the prophets, both ancient and modern, and look for the spirit to testify to you of this higher plane. I invite you to Come and See, Come and Help, Come and Stay (22), and most importantly, I invite you to follow Jesus Christ’s admonition to follow him (23).
Hopefully, you’ll take the skills I’ve presented here about asking questions and examining things from different lenses to heart as you do this. I also hope that you don’t dismiss this invitation off-hand. I promise you that as you look over the collective history of God allegedly working with people, you will see His hand, and you will feel Him calling you. I further promise that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can help you find a relationship with God that you cannot find anywhere else. If you have questions throughout your spiritual endeavors, please contact us! We’d love to help however we can.
In conclusion, much more can be said about critical thinking, and those working on this series will spend most of their time finding ways to foster critical thinking, and demonstrating that these skills inevitably leave room for faith. The irony of writing a series on critical thinking is apparent though, seeing as I would hope that you would thoughtfully examine, and even challenge the ideas presented here when appropriate. Even so, I hope that I’ve been able to show the utility of asking good questions, understanding differing worldviews and perspectives, and inspire everyone to more deeply study LDS theology as a means to the end of building faith in Jesus Christ. While I make no claims of omniscience, I do think that these skills will bless lives in both spiritual and secular domains. I look forward to helping pave the road to a far better future as a result.
- Kowalski K. (2007). The value of asking questions. Journal of continuing education in nursing, 38(5), 200. https://doi.org/10.3928/00220124-20070901-04
- Anderson, Shayne. “Critical Thinking in Religious Education.” Religious Educator: Perspectives on the Restored Gospel 18, no. 3 (2017): 69-81. https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/re/vol18/iss3/6
- Gray A. J. (2011). Worldviews. International psychiatry : bulletin of the Board of International Affairs of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, 8(3), 58–60.
- Mauro Properzi; Belonging (and Believing) as LDS Scholars of Religion. Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 1 January 2009; 42 (3): 37–44. doi: https://doi.org/10.5406/dialjmormthou.42.3.0037
- Moses 1:39
- Hepburn, Brian and Hanne Andersen, “Scientific Method”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2021/entries/scientific-method/
- https://www.google.com/search?q=determinism+definition&rlz=1C5CHFA_enUS998US1000&oq=determinism&aqs=chrome.1.69i57j0i433i512j0i512l8.2690j1j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8; see also Churchland P. Neuroscience: reflections on the neural basis of morality. Edited by Walter Glannon. Defining Right and Wrong in Brain Science: Essential Readings in Neuroethics. New York: Dana Press; 2007
- Meredith, Adrianna (2020) “Plea to Professors: A Passionate Approach to Controversy in the Classroom,” Intuition: The BYU Undergraduate Journal of Psychology: Vol. 15 : Iss. 2 , Article 11. Available at: https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/intuition/vol15/iss2/11
- Mukherjee, S. (2017). The gene.
- Articles of Faith 1:13
- Moroni 10:32 (see also vs 33)
- D&C 88:118
- Alma 32
- Matthew 4:19
- “Real Vs. Rumor” by Keith Erekson from the 2021 FAIR Conference
- “Worldview Apologetics: Revealing the Waters in Which We Swim” by Jeffrey Thayne
- Socratic Questioning Series [Disk 1] [Part 1] (Specifically the first video, the other videos cover different portions that will be called on later in this series)
- https://go.gale.com/ps/i.do?p=AONE&u=googlescholar&id=GALE|A121765630&v=2.1&it=r&sid=AONE&asid=358e44db (has great list of questions you can ask when evaluating sources)
- https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/prophets-and-apostles/unto-all-the-world/as-he-thinketh-in-his-heart-?lang=eng (In this talk, Elder Oaks discusses how the presuppositions that LDS have lead them to different conclusions about different topics)
Zachary Wright was born in American Fork, UT. He served his mission speaking Spanish in North Carolina and the Dominican Republic. He currently attends BYU studying psychology, but loves writing, and studying LDS theology and history. His biggest desire is to help other people bring them closer to each other, and ultimately bring people closer to God.