Hook, line and Kool-Aid

Although not an educator by training, I keep wondering about the degree to which critical analysis can be taught or at least nurtured. Why? Because, obviously, independent thinking is in short supply.

When reading online publications and forums that allow for immediate feedback, I think the prophet Amos would have phrased his words differently today: “Let justice roll down like ignorance in a comment stream…”

At issue is not the expected conflict of ideas or opinions. It is about expressed opinions on varied issues — across the ideological spectrum — that are rooted in no serious critical thinking.

So many lazy-minded persons choose an ideology and simply agree with those voices they deem as right on all things. Political leaders, talking heads of the airwaves and pompous preachers blab on to nodding heads that shake rather than think.

Then such loyal followers freely offer mindless regurgitations of what they have heard as if Moses had just brought something new down from a mountaintop encounter with God. So-called “group think” is not thinking at all.

Critical analysis should be a prerequisite to making up one’s mind. And even made-up minds should leave room for continual re-examination and fresh revelation.

Ignorance spreads like wildfire in the digital age. That’s why snopes.com and critical thinkers are desperately needed.

Martin Luther King Jr. once observed: “Rarely do we find [persons] who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.”

I hear ads on TV or radio and realize that there must be listeners out there who believe a car salesman will sell them new trucks below his cost — and give them more for their used ones than they are worth.  Even with bad credit history.

And I wonder how poll-driven promises of politicians today can be taken more seriously than the opposite poll-driven promises they offered yesterday. Or how listeners will send portions of their meager income to wealthy TV preachers with no accountability.

Such mental laziness makes suckers out of us. We become easy targets when we believe whatever we are told without second-level thinking. We look like larger fools when we repeat claims we have never explored.

It is not enough to latch onto a good word and assume that the whole related idea is a good one. Christians are particularly lazy and gullible in this regard.

A politician uses religious language and the assumption is made that, therefore, the political philosophy that follows is pure and faithful. Or a preacher barks out: “The Bible says…” and listeners assume that’s what the Bible says.

A recent letter to the editor in a daily newspaper defended a particular faith statement being imposed on a college faculty. The writer argued that each doctrinal point was unquestionably accurate because — drum roll, please — it had a Bible reference at the end. Really? Is that all it takes?

Falling for an espoused ideology without any critical thinking or showing blind allegiance to a charismatic leader is often referred to as “drinking the Kool-Aid.” That phrase is rooted in the tragic mass suicide of cult followers of Jim Jones in Guyana in 1978.

In earlier years, we simply spoke of someone who falls for a fallacy without serious examination as taking it “hook, line and sinker.”

Critical analysis is not about simply being smart. It is about making an effort to think before we reach a conclusion — and especially before we repeat it as unquestionable truth.

We need more pain in our lives: the pain of having to think rather than drink the Kool-Aid … hook, line and sinker. Otherwise, we will suffer the greater pain that results from widespread ignorance and gullibility.

(John Pierce is executive editor of the Baptists Today news journal, from which this article is reprinted with permission. It was originally published on November 29, 2011.)