Why We Have a Hard Time Thinking Clearly:  I Blame Psychologists and Scientists from the 1950s.  And Adam.

I was a computer science major my first year in college.  My students think this is hilarious, because of what happens when I use computers in class.   My power point crashes, regularly.   A file I saved to a drive mysteriously disappears.   The sound doesn’t come through on a video clip and I frantically check six different volume controls in the system to try to recover it.  They might think this is all incompetence on my part.  I tell them that there is an e-conspiracy against me by advanced technology.

Whatever the source of my current conflicts with computer systems, it is certainly true that I didn’t really have good judgment when I thought computer science would be my thing.  I could do the work, but I wasn’t very good at it.  Nor did I get much satisfaction or joy from it.  As it turned out, history was a much better major for me.

I didn’t see myself very clearly.  But why is that?  Of all the things we try to understand in this world, we ought to understand ourselves better than anything.  Right?

Well, no.

My problems in seeing myself clearly are connected to themes I have been blogging about lately.  That’s why I told my embarrassing grad school story.  And why I argued that we have blind spots about race, we have blind spots about religion, we think we are better at being wise than other people, and we have difficulty in thinking clearly about Islam and politics and football.

Why?  Sin affects our thinking.

We often don’t think about how sin affects our thinking because….well, sin affects out thinking.  In our pride, we don’t want to admit that we are wrong.   We don’t want to admit that we might be misguided in our convictions for what ails the health care system, our boss, the Cleveland Browns, or the stupid traffic light system up on Maple Street here in North Canton, Ohio.  (Don’t get me started).  We cherish our sense that we have it figured out.

That’s where I blame Adam (the one who hung out with Eve).

But American culture exacerbates this problem by encouraging us to believe that we really do see clearly.

Take, for instance, certain developments in psychology in the 1950s.  Carl Rogers, perhaps the most popular and influential psychologist of the era, promoted what he called “client-centered therapy.” Rogers held great optimism in the ability of humans to make choices that were good, true and in the terminology of the time, “self-actualizing.”  In other words, trust yourself.

That's right Calvin.  You see everything clearly.

That’s right Calvin. You see everything clearly.

Boy, what great news that is!  Of course I am correct about the health care system, the Cleveland Browns, my boss, and the stupid traffic light system up on Maple Street.  And while I’m at it, let me tell you what’s wrong with Islam, racist policemen, the Democratic party, Fox News, NPR and AT & T.  I can see it all, clearly.



And then I’ll blog about it.  (Why is the joke so often on me, anyway?)

This therapeutic turn towards trusting our “self” gained authority in the 1950s and 60s because Rogers and others like him argued this methodology was scientific.  As he explained, his client-centered therapy stemmed from a discipline with a “genius for operational definitions, for objective measurement, its insistence upon scientific method, and the necessity of submitting all hypotheses to a process of objective verification or disproof.”  How can you argue against that?  Rogers’ psychological analysis for why we should trust ourselves carried the authority of science.

That’s where the scientists (and those who thought they were scientists) come in.  Most intellectuals of the 1950s (including those professors who taught everyone in college) held a faith that scientific methodology would help us all see clearly.  Science had enabled humans to produce jet airplanes, television and the polio vaccine, had it not?  Scientific advances in the realm of psychology should produce “self-actualized” persons as well, should it not?

In some ways, this was not new.  Faith in this version of scientific thinking had been since the Enlightenment.  And faith in the individuals who trusted themselves had been around since the nineteenth-century Transcendentalists.  But as George Marsden points out in The Twilight of the American Enlightenment, this doesn’t mean the two are actually compatible.   After all, scientific methodology is designed to determine truth by the study of objective realities while faith in the self looks inward, subjectively, for truth.

Z(By the way, Marsden’s book, which is geared for non-academics, is a very accessible, clear, and compelling read if you want to learn more about the development of intellectual ideas in America in the 1950s and how it led to the culture war of the 1980s.  You don’t have to be a professor or a pointy-headed intellectual to understand or enjoy it).

As Marsden also points out, there is one more significant difference between thinkers of the 1950s and those of the Enlightenment:  Enlightenment thinkers believed in a Creator who established moral laws, while psychologists and scientists alike in the 1950s believed that moral laws were produced by humans as they evolved over time.

In other words, psychologists and scientists alike by the 1950s believed humans created morality.  By implication, they placed a great deal of faith in the ability of humans to see clearly, apart from any reference or guidance from God.  God was irrelevant because He may or may not exist, anyway.  Instead, the scientific examination of the outward objective world and the psychological examination of the inward subjective world would help us see more clearly.  This was communicated to Americans through universities, popular magazines, TV shows and movies.

50 million copies sold.  That's a lot of kid.

50 million copies sold. That’s a lot of kids.

The best selling expert on child care, Dr. Benjamin Spock, made this point explicitly in his opening line to parents in The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care:  “Trust yourself.”  He told parents that “your baby is born to be a reasonable, friendly human being.”  The Baby Boomer generation grew up with this message.

And if we can trust ourselves, and if our babies are going to naturally be reasonable, and if we have this on the authority of scientists and psychologists, then we all must really think clearly, don’t we?

Of course, the idea of sin is long gone by this time.  Let alone the idea that sin affects our thinking.

And that makes it even harder to see, let alone admit, that our thinking may be distorted.

Christians Killed in Libya: Natural and Unnatural Reactions

You may have been aware of the news that an ISIS-affiliated group in Libya recently beheaded twenty-one Egyptian Coptic Christians.

It doesn’t surprise me if we react to this news with anger, dismay and anxiety about the actions of Islamic extremists.  Those would be natural reactions.

My daughter, Brenna, who is working alongside Coptic Christians in Egypt this year explains how her Coptic Christian community has reacted:  by grieving, by praying for those who persecute them, and by trying to love their enemies.

There is something unnatural about the praying and loving part.  It is unnatural because it is not normal or natural to pray for our enemies or to love them.  We need the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit to do this.

Yet this is what Coptic Christians at Anafora are doing – or struggling to do.

As we all should.  And if we are unable to love our enemies –since it really is unnatural–we might start by mourning for the deaths of these Christians.

You can read Brenna’s post here.


A Christian Historian speaks about Obama, Islam and the National Prayer Breakfast. Consternation ensues.

In keeping with the themes of a few of my last few posts, I thought I should direct you to an interesting blog post by a friend of mine, John Fea, who is a professor of history at Messiah College.  John was commenting on Obama’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast.

John’s post was picked up by the Religious News Service and an edited version by the Washington Post.

John has gotten some criticism from fellow Christians for his post, which is not surprising because it involves Islam, politics and some criticism of Christians in history.  The post is primarily about humility, dependence upon God, and using history to help us think more clearly, but those sort of things can get overlooked when we get all riled up reading about, well, Islam, politics, and criticism of Christians in history.  That’s how we are, sometimes.






The Challenge of Being a Religious Minority. And Majority.

This is the wall on the back part of the property, with a mosque just beyond it.

The wall on the back part of the property, and a mosque just beyond it.

The accompanying picture is of a wall on the back portion of the property of Anafora, a retreat center in Egypt run by the Coptic Church.  If you look closely, you will notice a building beyond the wall.  That’s a mosque.  There are actually three mosques bordering the property of this facility, which is located out in a farming area south of Cairo.  Therein lies a story.  Or an observation, at least.

In early January, my wife and I returned from a week in Egypt, where we visited my daughter Brenna, who is working for a year at Anafora.  Actually, Anafora is more than a retreat center.  It is also a monastery/farm/conference center/school/commune/counseling center/biblical exhibit/oasis kind of thing.  You know.

Interior of the Coptic church at Anafora.

Interior of the Coptic church at Anafora.

Anyway, the church purchased the land about thirty years ago and began building on it about fifteen years ago.  Among the structures they built, the Coptic Christians, unsurprisingly, erected a church.  After that happened, three mosques were built at different places around the edges of the property.  A couple of Coptic Christians told me that whenever a church is built in Egypt, Muslims will build a mosque as close to it as they can.  One Coptic Christian laughed a bit in explaining this, saying, “They like to keep us company.”

As Brenna gave us a tour of the Anafora property (which I estimate to cover about 85 acres, a good size for a monastery/farm/conference center/school/commune/ counseling center/biblical exhibit/oasis kind of thing), we walked along the back edge and looked at the mosque beyond the wall.  That’s when I noticed a speaker, one speaker, up high on the tower and pointed directly at the Anafora property.

Keeping the Christians at the retreat center company.

Keeping the Christians at the retreat center company.

And the purpose of the speaker?  The Islamic call to prayer.  Five times a day, mosques in Egypt broadcast a chant in Egypt that is the call to prayer.  You hear it everywhere in Cairo.  You also hear it at the Christian retreat center of Anafora, as I did at 6 a.m. when I was turning over in my sleep.  (Many Muslims get up earlier than I do, apparently).  It is not even clear that anyone attends the call to prayer at the mosque at the back of the Anafora property, which is out in the middle of a bunch of irrigated fields.  One story, unverified but probably true, is that somebody investigated the mosque during the call to prayer.  They not only did not find any Muslims engaged in prayer, but did not even find a muezzin there singing the prayer.  The prayer floating out over Anafora seemed to be just a recording.

I’m not sure, exactly, what motivates the Egyptian Muslims to aim that speaker right into the Christian retreat center.  It might stem from a desire to harass and intimidate.  It might be a desire to constantly remind the Christians that Egypt is an Islamic nation.  It might stem from an anxiety that Christians pose a threat to an Islamic society. It might even be a pretty bad attempt at evangelism.  And it might be some sort of combination of these things.

Whatever it is, I would not call it a good thing, even though I wouldn’t put it in the category of religious persecution.  Harassment, maybe.

Here is my main observation:  it is at this point that we Christians (and other non-Muslims) are tempted to shake our heads at this behavior and file the situation away in our mind as another example of the problems with Islam.  I know I am tempted that way.

I use the word “tempted” because there is a danger here that sin would distort our thinking.  I’m not saying these particular Muslims are innocent of bad behavior.  I’m saying that the flip side of the “problem with Islam” way of thinking is that it subconsciously and conveniently assumes that a “Christian” or “secular” society (take your pick) does not have the same problem.  In other words, we are tempted, even in an unconscious way, to think, “I’m sure glad we aren’t that way.”

A colleague of mine, Steve Moroney, identifies this sort of things as a “self-serving comparison.”  Moroney published an interesting study which drew upon social psychology and theology to explain how sin affects our thinking.   Simply put, when we are considering a trait that is socially desirable, most of us report that we are better than average.

Of course, it is impossible for a majority of people to be better than average.  (Do the math).  But consider that most Americans consider themselves to be safer drivers than other Americans.  Most business executives consider themselves to be more ethical than the average business executive.  78% of Australians consider themselves to be better parents than average. When high school students were asked to rate how well they got along with others, all rated themselves as at least average, 60% considered themselves to be in the top tenth of this trait and 25% thought they were in the top 1% of those with the ability to get along with others.

Ah, those funny business executives, Australians, and high school students just can’t see themselves as clearly as, say, professors.  After all, it is our job as professors is to think clearly.  Right?  Well, 88% of all professors think their teaching is above average.  10% rate their teaching as average.  Only 2% consider themselves to be below average, which just goes to show you that just about every college class produces great teaching that is well above average.

Of course, Jesus understood all of this two thousand years ago, when he asked, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?”

A question to ask, then, is how do we treat Muslims in the United States?  Do we have our own version of speakers blaring into their retreat centers which, I should say again, is a very bad method of evangelism?  Maybe we do a better job, but we should not assume we do.  Instead of assuming that obnoxious or bad behavior is a “problem with Islam,” we should probably ask different questions, individually and as a society, as to whether we might have blind spots in this area and how we would find out if we did.  We need to get better at recognizing our own blind spots.

A friend of mine told me that he once heard a lady walking out of his church one Sunday morning saying, “I’m sure glad we Quakers don’t stereotype other people like the Baptists do.”

And I’m sure glad I’m getting better than that Quaker lady at recognizing my own blind spots.