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Do Religious Life and Critical Thought Need Each Other?

Richard Carrier

[The following article was originally published in the Fall 1996 issue of Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines, published by the Institute for Critical Thinking at Montclair State University (Upper Montclair, NJ).]

William Reinsmith’s paper “Religious Life and Critical Thought: Do They Need Each Other?” was well written and very communicative, but I was disappointed that it failed to address the question it raised.[1] I would like to return to this topic and cover the ground which Reinsmith missed.

The Real Problem

Reinsmith introduces the nature of the conflict and difficulty between religious and critical thought, and then supports his own thesis with only one example: meditation, or in his preferred words, “mental culture.” But the process of meditation which he describes in good detail would have merit even if there were no god, immaterial soul, or “Ultimate Truth” in the usual sense. It is a behavior that can be participated in without even regarding it as “religious”, and being only a behavior rather than a claim or belief, it is not the central thesis of any world religion. Consequently, it is a bad example. Although Reinsmith’s exposition and analysis of the process is wonderfully informative and valuable, it does not directly deal with the problem which is elaborated in his introduction.

In simplistic terms for the sake of example, the core thesis of the Buddhist religion is the belief that all is suffering, our immaterial souls are trapped forever in an illusion, and the only way to escape the illusion of suffering is through a particular path to enlightenment, which varies with each sect of Buddhism, but which usually involves not just meditation but adherence to various behaviors and attitudes (largely of a moral nature). In comparison, the core thesis of the Christian religion is the belief that we all have immortal souls which are damned by the sin of Adam and we will be condemned not merely to misery and sin in this world, but to an eternity of it in an afterlife, and the only way to escape this damnation is through believing that Jesus was the son of God and washed away our sin by dying on the cross. Beyond that, Christian sects vary with respect to the exact entry requirements for heaven (including specific moral standards which must be lived up to) but they all tend to agree that true and heartfelt belief in this central thesis will not only lead to a life of happiness and goodness in this world, but to an eternity of it in some kind of afterlife.

To deny either of these claims is to deny the whole validity of these respective religions. Indeed, even to suggest that these claims are irrelevant or of merely secondary importance is to deny the whole validity of these religions, since everything they teach only makes sense in reference to these ultimate claims about the true nature of human existence. To the extent that anything they teach does make sense without these claims, it can already be found adequately defended by secular rather than religious thought, which disagreeably renders all religions as superfluous and unnecessary. This is the cause of all real controversy between critical thought and religion.

Reinsmith writes that without applying critical thought to religion there is “only self-deception and self-imposed ignorance” and “religious growth will founder in illusion and superstition.”[2] Lacking qualification, these statements appear to assert that the central tenets of Buddhism and Christianity as given above are merely superstitious, illusory, or otherwise the products of self-deception and ignorance. Although Reinsmith may not have meant that, by failing to address the real issues of religious thought he fails to address his own central question adequately. Focusing our attention on a behavior such as meditation misses the real problem: whether religious life and critical thought need each other.

Where the Plot Went Astray

The mistake which may have led Reinsmith’s otherwise superb paper to miss the mark lies within the answer he gives to this problem: “religion needs critical thought not merely as a debunking device, but as a cleansing tool to maintain clarity and to root out false views.” [3] The problem is that these two things are exactly the same activity, and thus both are equally adversarial: “a cleansing tool” which “maintains clarity” and roots out “false views” is by definition a “debunking device.” By erroneously assuming that these are not the same activities, Reinsmith sends himself on a tangent. However interesting that tangent is, it has less to do with the problem he set out to explore. This is not to say that Reinsmith has not done us a service by making this statement. If we take it as a definition, it is an excellent clarification of what critical thought actually involves. The basic idea that its purpose is to get at the truth by eliminating error can, as Reinsmith noticed, be misplaced with the idea that its purpose is merely to refute. However, few honest critical thinkers make this mistake. Rather, such a mistake in identifying the purpose of critical thought actually seems most common to people who are not practiced critical thinkers.

Critical vs. Creative Thought

All critical thought is by nature adversarial. A “positive” role belongs instead to creative thought. While the role of creative thought is to create ideas and possibilities, the role of critical thought is to debunk them, and it is only by these two processes working together that we arrive at knowledge and truth. Critical thought can be viewed in much the same way as natural selection: it does in a sense “create” by eliminating the “weak” and leaving the “strong”. Thus, critical thought’s role as a debunking device is essential and indispensable, and it must play a part in every act of knowing. But it does not eliminate ideas and possibilities until none are left. Nihilism is as irrational as blind faith, and as self limiting as naivety. Rather, critical thought eliminates until all that remains is the consistent, the probable, the tenable, the reliable, the useful–in other words, knowledge.

Reinsmith writes that “critical thought must not see itself perpetually at odds with religion or spiritual practice; rather it must get to know and value its place within that domain.” This cannot be true, because critical thought is perpetually at odds with everything, even ordinary and mundane thoughts and ideas, and critical thinkers not only accept this, but cherish the fact. This is not to say that we disbelieve everything; rather, it is to say that any honest critical thinker occasionally attacks everything with critical thought, even what they take for granted or believe to be certain or irrefutable. Needless to say, much of what we believe survives the assaults of critical thought by virtue of its being most probably true, but we nevertheless sick the dogs of critical thought upon even these beliefs, and rightly consider it a virtue to do so. We never know when we might uncover a mistake or an unwarranted assumption, or when new information may change what we now think to be true. But critical thinkers know that this is the only way to learn.

The Role of Critical Thought in Religion

So far I think Reinsmith would be in complete agreement. Yet he still tells us that critical thought must find its “place” within the “domain” of religious thought. Before asking what “place” that could be (or why it would be any different from its place in all other endeavors), we must first ask what the “domain” of religion actually is. Reinsmith makes a solid attempt at doing this, and rightly comes to the conclusion that what makes something uniquely “religious” is human religious or spiritual experience, not the institutions of religion (ideological or physical). This is because the most important institutions of religion are based on spiritual experiences, both in the sense of having originated with them and in the sense of being proven or justified by them. In contrast, those institutions which do not have any similar and certain foundations in religious experience belong more properly in the cultural or social domain, and are called “religious” merely because they are associated with those aspects which are genuinely religious in nature and origin.

However, religious experience is something most if not all of us can agree is a fact: it unquestionably exists, regardless of whether we agree with the conclusions people draw from it. Reinsmith gives us one example of a religious experience in the form and process of a particular kind of meditation, but he applies critical thought only to the activity and not to the conclusions people draw from it. Yet this is what religion is ultimately all about. While it is based on religious experience, only when certain conclusions are arrived at and acted upon does a religion exist- and only then does critical thought really have something to question. Reinsmith reveals where he missed this point when he writes in his conclusion that “the modern critical thinker must first admit to the possibility of a spiritual dimension to human existence, the denial of which in the working lives of academics and intellectuals is one of the great biases and blocks of the 20th century.”[4] The mistake here is assuming that “the possibility of a spiritual dimension to human existence” is what academics do in fact deny, but this is rarely, or at least not generally the case. What academics most frequently and ardently deny are the conclusions people draw from their spiritual experiences, and any examination of religious debates will reveal this fact. Few people of note question the existence of spiritual experiences, and as spiritual experiences constitute a “spiritual dimension to human existence” it should be clear that Reinsmith is attacking a phantom.[5] In contrast, what permits Reinsmith to identify critical thought as “adversarial” to religion is the application of critical thought to the conclusions drawn from spiritual experience, such as the core tenets of Buddhism and Christianity summarized above, and this is where the real problem lies.

The Nature of the Spiritual as Psychological

Reinsmith contributes an excellent, lucid, and enlightening analysis of a particular behavior which is often regarded as religious, but could without contradiction be classified as psychological (quite unlike the central claims of most world religions). This is where critical thought must begin in this domain: we must recognize that experiences which we classify as spiritual or religious exist as a subset of ordinary psychological experiences, and not as something separate and different from them. This is not because we are obliged to assume that there is nothing supernatural or special which corresponds to spiritual experiences. Rather, it is because before we can make any such conclusion at all we are obliged to see that there is no inherent way to distinguish ordinary psychological events from spiritual events. Because they originate within the same domain (i.e. our mental life), the possibility always remains that they are merely different aspects of the same thing, and thus may not correspond to anything outside of our own, private mental existence. In particular, spiritual experiences may represent glimpses of ourselves more than of anything beyond us or common to others, and this and other possibilities must be eliminated before we can assume it is ever the reverse.

Applying Critical Thought to Religion

I will first use Reinsmith’s own example to show how critical thought must be applied to religious claims, in order to better expose the difference between his point and mine. He gives us an adequate example of a religious claim derived from spiritual experience in the words of Walpola Rahula,[6] where the many things that meditation can accomplish are listed as “cleansing the mind of impurities and disturbances” of various kinds.[7] While Reinsmith shows us how critical thought can be employed in the process of reaching these goals of meditation, a claim which is not very controversial, he misses the real controversy which lies between religious and critical thought: in this case, whether these things can actually be accomplished by meditation at all. A comparable example in another religious tradition might be explaining how critical thought can be used to find eternal truths in biblical scripture, while ignoring the more important question as to whether what one finds through this process is actually true (or eternal), or even whether the bible is the proper place to be looking for such things.

Walpola Rahula is cited as first stating that meditation can cleanse the mind of “lustful desires, hatred, ill will, worries and restlessness.” This is a straightforward empirical claim, open to scientific investigation. In fact, I happen to believe this claim is well supported by the evidence, and therefore most likely true (I doubt many would contest it). This is also true for the rest of Rahula’s claims with the exception of the last two: that through meditation one can obtain “the highest wisdom which sees the nature of things as they are, and realizes the Ultimate Truth.” First, I am extremely skeptical that meditation of this kind can produce any special faculty of perception with regard to “things” other than through reexamining our otherwise ordinary perceptions of them. At the very least, it begs the question as to how such a claim is capable of being tested (and thus known to be true). Second, the very concept of “Ultimate Truth” begs a definition. It is not clear how we could know that meditation would lead to more certain truth than other forms of cognition, or what exactly would make that truth “Ultimate.”

A solution to these problems can be found in the understanding of spiritual experience as a psychological phenomenon. If seeing “the nature of things as they are” is merely seeing the nature of our perceptions as they are (where “perceptions” includes emotions, memories, and thoughts, about both things and ourselves), then this becomes a testable claim, and it would entail no contradiction to classify this as a purely psychological phenomenon. Likewise, if seeing the “Ultimate Truth” means nothing more than seeing the truth about our own perceptions of ourselves (and of other things), then this, too, appears less “mystical” in nature and can safely be folded under the purview of psychology. If, however, there is anything more implied in either of these claims, they must be defined in such a way that they can be tested before they can have any intelligible meaning, and then they must actually be tested before we can regard them as true or false. While it is easy to see how this might be done in Reinsmith’s example, it is much harder to see this in more controversial, and arguably more important, religious claims (such as the core tenets of Buddhism and Christianity summarized above). Nevertheless, at least in the example provided by Reinsmith, what is ordinarily given special status as a “spiritual” rather than an ordinarily psychological experience can be shown to be psychological and not peculiarly spiritual at all–unless we wish to define “spiritual experience” as a particular kind of psychological experience, which is what I propose.

A Definition of Spiritual Experience

Religious claims often seem to be believed in more for their personal worth in answering what Reinsmith identifies as our “need for an ultimate meaning to life” than for their logical or empirical merit.[8] While most attempts to define “spiritual experience” rely on complex lists of the qualities of the experiences themselves, I am skeptical that any such list is capable of serving as a sine qua non for “spiritual experience.”[9] Rather, the one thing which appears definitive of a spiritual experience is whether it is interpreted or can be interpreted in such a way as to be relevant in some sense to an “ultimate meaning to life.” This means that the test for a truly spiritual belief is whether it accomplishes the goal of answering our need for meaning (and how well it does so), and this matters more than whether that belief is consistent, proven, or true.

This would explain Reinsmith’s observation that “holders of firm religious beliefs do not merely resist attempts at critique, they are often impervious to them.”[10] This kind of behavior, which seems inexplicably irrational, is revealed to be quite explicable (though perhaps still irrational) when we recognize that the religiously devout are often interested in things more important to them than the truth (such as an ultimate meaning to life). Since the personal, emotional benefits provided by spiritual beliefs do not depend on those beliefs being true, their truth becomes (in practice) irrelevant. Thus, while Buddhism and Christianity each provide a supernatural explanation for our ills, and an equally supernatural solution, within all this lies a purely practical belief system which not only provides an ultimate meaning to life, but attempts to produce a greater balance of peace and happiness by providing both a moral standard and a reason to live up to it. But all of these benefits are gained merely by the claims being believed, and not by their actually being true, which is quite unlike scientific claims or technological inventions, where benefits are usually gained only when we believe in theories which are true (and definite hazards are often created by believing in false ones). I am not even arguing here that all religious claims are false. Everything I have said so far would apply to all religions regardless of whether the claims of any religion were true or false.


In the title of his paper, William Reinsmith asks whether religious life and critical thought need each other. Reinsmith makes a fair case that only one aspect of “religious life” in this question is primarily relevant, and I agree. “Religion seems founded,” he writes, “on a need for an ultimate meaning to life.”[11] Recognizing this, it becomes more obvious how people can become so emotionally attached to their religion, and why criticizing their religion can so quickly be regarded as a personal or blasphemous attack, or be pathologically ignored or avoided altogether.

This must impress upon us the need to remember the proper role of critical thought, as Reinsmith himself explains and as I have concurred above: not to merely refute, but to refute with the end in mind of leaving exposed the most consistent, probable, tenable, reliable, or useful. Its role is to eliminate, but to eliminate falsehood and ambiguity in order to arrive at the truth. Thus, in the domain of religion, the role of critical thought is not to destroy all meaning, but to find true meaning by eliminating falsehood and nonsense. It may be tempting to assume that, since having any meaning to life appears more important than whether it is a valid one, we should not bother applying critical thought to this question at all. However, I argue that this is unwise. Not only may having a false source of meaning lead us to a life of conflict and unhappiness (from anger, disappointment, or fear), but it may leave us otherwise happy and at peace while bringing conflict and unhappiness to others (examples range from Islamic suicide bombers to the conservative Christian treatment of homosexuals). Even more importantly, however, it is hazardous to get into the habit of not genuinely caring whether we are wrong.

Thus, religious life needs critical thought–because it is unwise to solve our problems with false beliefs even when there appears to be no direct harm in doing so; and critical thought needs religion–because religion consists of beliefs which provide us with an indispensable meaning to life (which, I should add, also serves as a meaning for our values, without which we could not rightly be called human). However, we must remember that “religion” is here used in a sense which can actually include “atheistic” belief systems such as Secular Humanism, Marxism, or Objectivism, since an ultimate meaning to life can conceivably be found without reference to anything supernatural, and actually has been by numerous groups of people.[12] Determining whether the supernatural claims of the various religions are true is identical to determining whether a scientific theory is true, except perhaps in the difficulty or impossibility of testing them. However, since these claims are regarded as indispensable because they provide meaning to life, few will even regard them as theories capable of refutation. On the other hand, once we know that meaning can be found without such claims, we no longer need them, and thus can criticize them with an open mind.

There is a second conclusion to be drawn. Reinsmith cites William James as declaring that “mystical states” are “absolutely authoritative” but “no authority emanates from them which would make it a duty for those who stand outside of them to accept their revelations uncritically.”[13] This betrays the real nature of spiritual experience which is all too often underplayed or misunderstood: since the definition of objective reality is that which is at least in principle verifiable by all observers, “mystical states” (i.e. spiritual experiences) provide no knowledge of objective reality (because their observations are not independently verifiable). Thus, even if they happen to contain objective truths, no means exist to identify which aspects of these experiences, if any, actually do contain objective truths. Thus, they are largely useless as a means of acquiring knowledge about the world all observers share in common.[14] This should first caution us against using phrases like “absolutely authoritative” which may lead us to think we can deny things like our own mortality or the existence of the dog across the street, based on spiritual experiences alone. On the other hand, it should alert us to pay attention to the value of spiritual experiences as a window into ourselves. If we get carried away with unjustified assumptions about the “objective truth” of our most subjective experiences, we may totally ignore their value in examining and understanding ourselves and our perceptions of the world. Again we can see how religious life needs critical thought–to tell us what we may justifiably regard as objective knowledge of a shared world; and critical thought needs religious life–to provide us with a direct and unique means of examining ourselves and our perceptions of the world.


1. Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines, Summer, 1995, Vol. 14, No. 4. pp. 66-73. [Additional note added to this online version: Reinsmith’s reply to me has also been printed, and is available in the Spring 1997 issue (Vol. 15, No. 3, pp. 92-3). I have no substantial objections to his comments that are not already obvious in my original reply above, but I would greatly appreciate feedback from anyone who has troubled to read all three articles.]

2. Ibid., p.71.

3. Ibid., p.71.

4. Ibid., p.71.

5. Thus many may be surprised to read the following words of Carl Sagan: “Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual” (from Carl Sagan, “Does Truth Matter? Science, Pseudoscience, and Civilization.” Skeptical Inquirer, 20:6. 1996. p. 29.). This is not an uncommon type of sentiment among academics, revealing that spirituality is not exclusive to what we normally, and incorrectly, regard as “religious” life, nor does the term always entail something supernatural.

6. Op. Cit., Inquiry, p. 71.

7. In a strictly logical sense, the statement I am referring to only lists the “aims” of meditation and thus may be true by definition. For example, I could say “the aim of meditation is to implode the Earth” and I would be telling the truth (if that was in fact my reason for meditating) since I would only be stating what I was attempting to do–and that could be true whether that aim were feasible or not. However, for the sake of example, I am regarding Rahula’s statement as the claim that meditation is actually capable of accomplishing these things.

8. Ibid., p. 67.

9. Since any telltale sign of a spiritual experience can also be found in hallucinations and other mundane phenomena, they are useless by themselves for indicating whether an experience can rightly be called spiritual. This problem is perhaps a central source of confusion in the debate between those who try to classify all spiritual experiences as hallucinations and those who attempt to deny the validity of such a classification.

10. Ibid., p. 66.

11. Ibid., p.67. Reinsmith implies that this is the same thing as “a longing for connection with a transcendent principle” but no logical case can be made for this. Nor do I think it would be proper to claim that this is a second foundation point for religion, since it appears to be offered merely as a means to the end of finding ultimate meaning, and it is inherently ambiguous and logically troublesome–just to begin with, it is not clear what a “transcendent principle” is or how anyone can be connected with it (or even know anything about it) if it is in fact “transcendent”.

12. I have ignored one aspect of spiritual experience which may also be substantially important. The actual feelings such experiences produce may contribute a useful and necessary quality to human life. Indeed, I believe they do. However, this benefit can actually be gained solely from the experiences, without any conclusions of an objective nature being drawn from them, and thus there is little in this to be examined by critical thought, except in the pragmatic fashion aptly described by Reinsmith.

13. Ibid., 72.

14. Even those aspects of spiritual experience which may be found in common with all observers do not necessarily entail special perception of objective truths, since they can be produced by factors shared by human minds and bodies and thus still be purely internal. Likewise, although theories about objective reality can arise from spiritual experience, this is true of all states of consciousness, and such theories are no different than any others: they must still be tested logically and empirically before they can be assigned any knowledge value.