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The most pervasive obstacle to good thinking is confirmation bias, which refers to the human tendency to search only for evidence that confirms our preferred beliefs. Even before the advent of social media, search engines were supercharging confirmation bias, making it far easier for people to find evidence for absurd beliefs and conspiracy theories, such as that the Earth is flat and that the U.S. government staged the 9/11 attacks. But social media made things much worse. 

In 1994, when the internet, so far as the general population was concerned, was in its infancy, Vice-President Al Gore spoke at a conference at UCLA about the emerging internet, saying, “We have a dream for… an information superhighway that can save lives, create jobs and give every American, young and old, the chance for the best education available to anyone, anywhere.” Which, at a certain level, is sort of true, in spite of the fact that the information superhighway has turned out to have a number of speedbumps.

It has put a lot of information at our fingertips. Not as much as we had hoped, but, still, I would hate to have a job selling sets of encyclopedias right now. But more than just information, the internet has made it possible for us to be in contact with people anywhere in the world without charges.

People can work remotely, and we can find information on almost any subject in an instant, whether it is accurate information or not is suspect, but it is available. We have a university library in our home office, available at the click of a mouse. Still, this access to information has not given us the education that Al Gore dreamed of.

In fact, most of the traffic on the internet is not comprised of searches for information. Most of the traffic is still pornography and social media sites, which may be, either literally or figuratively, pornography of a different sort.

We use social media to spread the links to our sermons all around the globe and I can say with a high degree of certainty that without FaceBook, our church would have failed a decade ago when our primary donors began to pass away. So, I use social media a lot professionally and I very much enjoy being able to stay informed about old friends who now live far away, even if I could stand to know a bit less about what they are having for lunch.

I was intrigued by an article that appeared in the Atlantic early this year in which the author, Jonathan Haidt, talked about why Americans have been so uncommonly stupid in the past ten years. If I had written it, I think that I would have gone for the past 30 or 40 years but I suspect that I am a good deal older than Jonathan Haidt since, these days, I’m a good deal older than almost everyone. But his point is that the advent of 24-hour cable news, social media, and the internet itself have given people the opportunity to choose what information they are willing to expose themselves to.

When we hear someone say that a certain person is a “Fox News” viewer, we immediately know what kind of person they are talking about. A couple of generations ago, whether you watched the evening news on NBC, ABC, or CBS, it didn’t really identify you as being either Republican or Democrat, educated or uneducated, liberal or conservative, but folks, Walter Cronkite is dead, and it does not look like he will ever have a replacement. There is no such thing as an entirely objective news source but these days, our news sources are not only not objective, they are, in fact, rarely news.

You have to be carefully discerning to suss out what has actually happened in the world without ingesting the refined sugar of the pre-digested opinions of the talking heads on TV. Social media can be even worse, disseminating conspiracy theories, propaganda, and lies to a public that is just not that good at critical thinking.

The Lack of Critical Thinking Threatens Democracy

We self-select the people, pages, and sources we will be exposed to, which means that we are constantly seeking confirmation of what we already believe, and we often do not even allow a new idea or information that might challenge our beliefs to come into our view.

Social media would destroy us if we didn’t protect ourselves from some of the vitriol and misinformation that some of our family members and contacts are trying to spread. You don’t have to rent space in your skull to your crazy uncle or some nut job that you happened to have gone to high school with. Still, we really must expose ourselves to ideas and information that challenges our comfortable beliefs, or we will all become a little more stupid every day.

Think about it, if you have not changed your opinion about anything in the past three or four years, you are already the same as dead. You have stopped thinking. I am not generally ashamed of my whole body of work, but a few years ago, I disposed of the manuscripts of my first 30 years of sermons along with the papers I wrote in grad school. They were all steps along the journey of becoming who I am but some of those intellectual detours were uninformed, immature, and just wrong enough that I didn’t want for there to be any evidence left out there.

Thinking people will always change their opinions in the light of new and better information. But, of course, one of the things that religion in general has in common with the Republican party, in general, is that they would both prefer that you not think to much and that you never change what you were taught to believe.

I invite you to check my sources on this. Here is a link to the Washington Post article that reported 10 years ago, that the Republican platform in Texas proposed cutting funding for all critical thinking skills education in the state. They said, and I quote: We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking, critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority. 

This is clearly under the heading of “you can’t make this stuff up,” but the sad fact is, that if conservative Republicans want their voting public to keep voting for them, suppressing critical thinking is their only hope of survival. I don’t say that gleefully or with any personal satisfaction. As I have said several times lately, I really believe that we must have at least two viable political parties in this country and I wish that we had four or five, but the Republican Party, as it now exists under its far right and Trumpist influence, is not a viable party and it is dangerous to democracy, and it even shortens the lives of the people who listen to them.

Yes, I realize that may sound like a stretch, but, once again, I will publish my sources with this manuscript: the British Journal of medicine just published conclusive studies showing that the mortality rate is higher in Republican counties than it is in Democratic counties. They don’t list the reasons, but it is not hard to come up with some very credible assumptions for why that is. Republican governors have been successful in limiting the expansion of Medicaid, they spread inaccurate propaganda about Covid vaccines, precautions, and treatments, and in spite of all of their pious rhetoric, they seem to have an affinity for heroin, fentanyl, methamphetamine, and OxyContin. . . not to mention Hydroxychloroquine or Ivermectin. And, of course, their love affair with guns is now causing more than 40,000 deaths per year. You have a legal right to be stupid in the United States, but you should be aware that it may shorten your life. 

You have to know; someone has been listening to Dr. Oz all of these years. I think that Oprah owes us all an apology for ever giving that snake oil salesman a public forum. I want to reiterate, I am an old school liberal, but I do not want to see the Republican Party go extinct. I want it to evolve or at least return to its roots. Eisenhower was a Republican, you will recall. And I can tell you, as recently as 1988, when George H. W. Bush beat Michael Dukakis in the presidential election, one of my liberal friends was able to say to me, “Well, I didn’t vote for him but there is a certain reassurance we can enjoy that the country is back in the hands of the east coast intelligencia.”

And yes, while I was relieved to have Ronald Reagan out of office, trying to think of “east coast intelligencia” while realizing that Bush put us just one heart attack away from Dan Quayle becoming president wasn’t easy, but you have to admit that Trump and Pence made Quayle seem like Aristotle! But given what our country has been through these past few years, can you claim to be an intelligent person and be opposed to an assault rifle ban?

We have had a million people die from Covid-19 and we are expecting a new surge of infections this fall, can you in good conscience still be opposed to expanded Medicaid or covid vaccines? To do so is almost murder through misinformation and paranoid political speech.

Still, let me say it again, this is not to paint a halo over the heads of elected Democrats. I agree very much with Dr. Cornel West who went on a bit of a rant on Bill Maher’s show last Friday, pointing out that our primary and election systems rarely give us a choice between two moral or intellectual giants. West complained that our last election gave us a choice between a neo-fascist in Donald Trump and a milk-toast liberal in Joe Biden. Maher objected to West’s dismissive description of Biden as being milk-toast, but West insisted: With all of these decent people in America how do we end up with such mediocre people at the top?

And I agree, from among 300 million people in America, our two choices were Biden and Trump? Barack Obama was often criticized for seeming to always think that he was the smartest person in the room but seriously, do you think that anyone has ever accused either Trump or Biden of being the smartest person in the room, even if it was Darwin’s Waiting Room? I think that Joe Biden is a decent enough sort of fellow and he has done or tried to do a lot of things that I applaud but we all know that we could walk into any Starbucks in town and find at least a dozen people who are smarter than either Trump or Biden and most of them would be more qualified to be the President.

Our nominating system is absolutely horrible, which is why our health care system is horrible, and our energy distribution system is horrible, and our mass transit system is horrible. Look, I am a very educated pastor and I think that I’m a pretty good guy who has tried to do a lot of good things in the world, but it is no mystery that I am never asked to sing, even in our tiny church gatherings. I could do it, but it would be obvious to everyone immediately that I am not qualified to do it and we may as well admit it…. Just like we may as well admit that our nominating system does not deliver us a choice between two of the smartest and best candidates. And, too often, it gives us a choice between two very mediocre and unqualified candidates who are not up to managing such a demanding job. Those are just the facts, and nothing would make me happier if you could prove me wrong but you know that you can’t.

When I first read this article in the Atlantic a couple of months ago, my first thought was about the people in Russia who are only exposed to one state run news source. Most Russians seem, if you can believe any opinion poll taken in Russia to be accurate, to generally be in support of Putin and his invasion of Ukraine. It isn’t just the USA that suffers from a paucity of critical thinking skills. Most Russians, just like most Americans, are willing to swallow pre-digested views without much of a filter. It is a ubiquitous problem and you have to admit that both governments and churches tend to discourage people from ever fact checking them or thinking for themselves.

Our church began fourteen years ago with a small band of people who were disaffected refugees from traditional Christian Churches with a couple of inactive members of the local synagogue and some fairly confirmed atheists. We had the courage to start putting the religious beliefs we had been taught under the microscope and to slowly distance ourselves from beliefs which we could discern were simply not true. We accepted that the Bible was not written by, inspired by, nor endorsed by God but it was simply a collection of treasured writings from a distant and ancient culture which could not be taken as in any way a unique or authoritative source of wisdom.

All of the writers of all of the scriptures of all religions, as I have noted many times, did not know where the sun went at night. They can hardly be counted on as a source absolute truth. We accepted the full humanity of Jesus and all other founders of religious movements, and that whatever is meant by the word “God,” it certainly doesn’t reference an imaginary friend in the clouds who capriciously either does or doesn’t grant requests, answer prayers, or deliver presents on Christmas morning.

Our spirituality evolved into a community search for truth, for an ethical way of living, and a shared passion for making the world, including ourselves, better. In that same spirit, I believe that we need to put all our assumptions, political and religious, economic and social, under the same microscope.

Choosing to watch MSNBC rather than Fox, as laudable as that decision is, doesn’t necessarily make you smarter and it can just make you more insufferably arrogant about your prejudices.

Wannabe billionaire astronaut, Elon Musk, has publicly styled himself as a free speech advocate, threatening to buy Twitter and open the flood gates of lunacy to allow foreign bots to spread misinformation, propaganda, and hate speech, all under the banner of “free speech,” without regard for how much harm has already been done by social media being used to spread lies and really bad medical advice.

Just as we have had the courage to set aside a great deal of our most treasured articles of faith when we exposed those beliefs to the light of reason and found them wanting, we have to be more concerned with the search for what is true in politics, medicine, and economics than we are in just giving a platform to lies and propaganda while it declares itself to be representing free speech.

I will conclude where I often begin, with wisdom from the Great Dane, Soren Kierkegaard: People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use. Let’s face it, there is no way to make America great again if we cannot first make America smart again.

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