Introduction to Critical Thinking

This lecture broadly defines critical thinking as the art of analyzing and evaluating thinking with a view to improving it.[1] Critical thinking has a long tradition, with Socrates, the 5th century Greek philosopher, being an exemplar of the method.[2]  Critical thinking should be deployed in evaluating arguments, lectures, written work (texts) and articles, editorials, speeches, media stories, religious statements and our own viewpoints.

Why do atheists and secular thinkers need critical thinking skills?  They are certainly already critical thinkers, having thought their way out of some of the most convoluted, exigent, and pervasive belief systems in The United States and the rest of the world.  They have discarded belief in a supernatural creator, an immortal soul, and the concepts of heaven and hell.  Atheists have thought beyond a metaphysical system to a naturalistic stance; they have often been unsupported by prevailing attitudes in their countries, their families, social groups, and workplaces.  Their ability to leave myth and untruth behind demonstrates a formidable proficiency in logic and reason.

Many atheists have an affinity for the wide view of naturalism and humanism. But there are questions residing within these philosophies that each secular thinker must answer for herself.  Can we, as atheists, look at arguments from well known theist scholars such as Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne (See Arguments for and against the Existence of God) and know how to evaluate and counter them?  Can we approach the controversy within the secular community of free will versus determinism ( Determinism versus Free Will) with open minds and solid positions?  Do we listen to both sides of the compelling dispute concerning the New Atheists and how militant and “out” atheists need to be?  Are we able to nullify theists’ cosmological, teleological and ontological arguments for the existence of god with logical and strong reasoning?  It is not enough to deny compelling religious arguments with the assertion that we know they are incorrect because we do not believe there is a god.  Have we reinforced our position of unbelief with cogent philosophical thinking?  

Moving beyond our secular stance, atheists are citizens, and many of us are parents and spouses.  We belong to civic organizations and are part of our communities. We are bombarded with information from all sides in the present day, and rather than a dearth of communication, we are on overload with far too much.  There are many people and groups who want to tell us what to think and how to behave. Professionals in the field agree that what we need, however, is to learn how to think, and not what.  Fortunately, there is a plethora of guides to critical thinking on the Web and in print books that has responded to people’s need for evaluative skills and methods.  The Book List and websites cited at the end of this Preface are invaluable for the help they extend, guiding the reader through the steps she needs to become more effective in evaluating and debating other viewpoints.  They also provide the reader with skills to assess truth claims from various sources.

In general, most people faced with media and cultural information overload, absorb rather than question, gather rather than challenge. It’s not just the media, politicians or religious leaders that attempt to skew our viewpoints in their favor. We may listen skeptically to the politician or pundit.  But there are others who take stances against received opinion; while their statements may have resonance with our belief system, it is still important to question their claims. Do we believe what we read in our textbooks? What about conventional medicine’s claims versus alternative methods?  What happens when we hear resonant words, such as democracy or patriotism? Experts in critical thinking point out that speakers and writers frequently use words associated with certain cultural or intellectual assumptions that tend to shut out reasoning. It is often difficult for people to separate the abstract word from the genuine emotion connected with it.  The word is not the feeling.  If a person tries to think beyond the resonating word, he is depicted as disloyal or antagonistic by those who benefit from mindless acquiescence.

Professionals in the field of critical thinking have similar advice.  When assessing arguments, including our own, it is important to be accurate (check facts) and precise, know the purpose of the argument and focus on it, and check our assumptions.  In addition we should try to check our emotional investment in a point of view and make an attempt at empathizing with another viewpoint.  We should know our own biases and try to reason independently of other outlooks and other perspectives.  It is important to check the assumptions of the speaker or writer and the implications and consequences of their stance.  We should try to suspend judgment when reading or hearing an argument and expose ourselves to the opposite point of view. 

We can be sure that assumptions exist in every stance; it is important to identify and evaluate each one for logic and accuracy. Professionals in the field of critical thinking maintain that it is not a process of “tearing things down,” as some fear, but a process of gaining a more informed perspective.  It will not immobilize us from action through too much thinking, but rather help us make more informed decisions concerning enterprises.

Professionals also agree that applying critical thinking to our belief system will not necessarily change it, but will help us achieve a more nuanced stance within that system.  We will be more flexible, because we will feel more comfortable understanding that there are complexities and incongruities in life.  We will be more equipped to function in our technological, information based world, and enter the contemporary multicultural milieu with achieved and internalized intellectual, ethical and philosophical standards.

Recommended Books

Browne, M. Neil and Stuart M. Keeley. Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking. 9th ed. New Jersey, Prentice-Hall, 2009.

The authors define critical thinking as (1) awareness of a set of interrelated critical questions; (2) ability to ask and answer critical questions at appropriate times; (3) desire to actively use the critical questions. (2.)  They employ a metaphor that is not merely colorful but useful when they discuss the difference between being a sponge and panning for gold.  Panning for gold is the thoughtful process of looking for crucial elements in the argument the reader is evaluating.  There are fourteen chapters with each chapter discussing a critical question for the reader to consider, such as issues and conclusions, ambiguous words and phrases, assumptions, evidence, fallacies, what important evidence might be omitted from an argument and so on.

Browne and Keeley’s Asking the Right Questions is easy to understand, and readers report that they have benefited from its advice.  The volume is on the top or near it on many lists of best books concerning critical thinking.  Now in its 9th printing, it is highly recommended.

Schick, Theodore and Lewis Vaughn.  How to Think About Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age.  6th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010.

Many readers consider this textbook the best of its kind.  How to Think covers basics of logical possibility versus physical impossibility, trying to ascertain truth in personal experiences, how we create our own reality, appeal to mystical experience and so on.  The book discusses topics such as homeopathy, dowsing, UFO abductions, communicating with the dead, near death experiences, ghosts and conspiracy theories.  The authors don’t state definitely whether these subjects are right or wrong, but rather teach the reader how to evaluate the evidence and come to his own conclusions.

How to Think might be a better introduction to scientific method than some freshman science classes.  Schick and Vaughn communicate the many details of a particular thinking error and then explain to the reader why it is an error. The authors think deeply on subjects and they discuss their belief that relativism is self-defeating thinking.  This is a recommended volume for secular readers who value rationality, independence and science.

Vaughn, Lewis.  The Power of Critical Thinking: Effective Reasoning about Ordinary and Extraordinary Claims. 3rd ed. U.S.A.: Oxford University Press, 2009.

There are critics who state that Lewis’ volume is the best on the market.  Chapter Nine, Inference Explanation, is praised for its thoroughness in several reviews.  There are two unique features to Power: the stand-alone writing modules and the collection of exercises that include field problems and quizzes. The text is an introduction to the skills of scientific and moral reasoning, and logical and argumentative essay writing.  It discusses how to determine the credibility of a website, an important skill in contemporary research.  Vaughn writes concerning the many factors that cloud a person’s objectivity, such as emotion and psychological output. An added feature for secular readers is Vaughn’s negative attitude toward religious illogic. 

Weston, Athony.  A Rulebook for Arguments. 4th ed. New York: Hatchet Publishing Co., 2000.

A Rulebook is arguably the best volume for composing a rational argument and for evaluating one.  There are 45 rules, illustrated with vivid examples.  This edition is more concise than earlier ones and has added material on oral presentations and web sources that people frequently read for information. The volume contains seven principles, such as natural order of argumentations, no loaded language, consistency in terminology, and starting from realistic premises.  It also explains how to know when an argument fails and “disrobes” many fallacies.  Weston urges the reader to use reason and evidence in support of conclusions, to be clear instead of confusing, and to be persuasive rather than dogmatic.

This book is an excellent guide to logical and effective communication.

A Few Books for readers who wish to study more in the area of Critical Thinking:

Paul and Linda Elder. Critical Thinking: Tools for Taking Charge of Your Professional and Personal Life (2002); Irving M. Copi and Carl Cohen. Introduction to Logic (2008); Larry Wright. Critical Thinking: An Introduction to Analytic Reading and Reasoning. (2001); Thomas Kida. Don’t Believe Everything You Think: The 6 Basic Mistakes We Make in Thinking. (2006); Gregory Basham, et al. Critical Thinking: A Student’s Introduction. (2007.)

Helpful Web Sites dedicated to Critical Thinking:

Critical  The Foundation for Critical Thinking. ( This organization is the combination of The Center for Critical Thinking and Moral Critique and The Foundation for Critical Thinking.  They state that their mission “is to work closely together to promote essential change in education and society through the cultivation of fair-minded critical thinking.”  Their website offers online courses, library/articles, research information and more. This website contains a brief history of critical thinking which is very well done. 

Critical Thinking (Web

“This educational web provides 100 free online tutorials on critical thinking, logic, scientific reasoning, creativity and other aspects of thinking skills.”

(Sul Ross) The Sul Ross University website lists several sites dedicated to critical thinking that have been chosen for their help in “piloting changes for student engagement concentrate on critical thinking.”

Daylight Atheism.  How To Think Critically.  A nice series of how to think articles on such topics as extraordinary claims, falsifiability, human memory and more.

The Skeptic’s Dictionary. (Link)    

This website offers an excellent bibliography which includes titles on critical thinking.  The Skeptic’s Dictionary contains a very good history of skepticism and a lucid explanation of the various types of skepticism.

The Teaching Company offers courses on several aspects of Critical Thinking and Arguments.  The courses are taught by top-rated professors in the United States and are divided into 12 or 24 classes of about a half hour each. ( The titles of some of the courses are: Tools of Thinking: Understanding the World Through Experience and Reason; Argumentation: The Study of Effective Reasoning; Medical Myths, Lies and Half Truths: What We Think We Know May be Hurting Us.


1  “A Brief History of the Idea of Critical Thinking.” in The Critical Thinking Community. (Web)  

2  Richard, Paul and Linda Elder.  The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking: Concepts and Tools. 6th ed. Print. n.p.: Foundation for Critical Thinking, 2009.


Browne, M. Neil and Stuart M. Keeley. Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking. 9th ed. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2009.

The Critical Thinking Community. (Web)

Richard, Paul and Linda Elder.  The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking: Concepts and Tools.  6th ed. n.p.: Foundation for Critical Thinking, 2009.

Schick, Theodore and Lewis Vaughn.  How to Think About Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010.

The Skeptic’s Dictionary. (Link)

Vaughn, Lewis. The Power of Critical Thinking: Effective Reasoning about Ordinary and Extraordinary Claims. 3rd ed. U.S.A.: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Weston, Anthony.  A Rulebook for Arguments. 6th ed. Boston: Hatchet Publishing Co., 2000.