Teaching What to Think vs. How to Think: Former Pastor Tim Prowse Offers His Confession to Sam Harris

Tim Prowse, a former United Methodist minister, has an extraordinarily honest exchange with Sam Harris at Sam Harris’s website. Here’s Prowse recounting to Harris how the practice of critical thinking brought him to a loss of faith:

An interesting thing happened while I was studying at East Texas Baptist University: I was told not to read Rudolf Bultmann. I asked myself: Why? What were they protecting me from? I picked up Bultmann’s work, and that decision is the catalyst that ultimately paved the road to today. Throughout my educational journey, which culminated in an Ordination from the United Methodist Church where I’ve served for seventeen years, I’ve continued to ask the question “Why?”

Ironically, it was seminary that inaugurated my leap of unfaith.  It was so much easier to believe when living in an uncritical, unquestioning, naïve state.  Seminary training with its demands for rigorous and intentional study and reflection coupled with its values of reason and critical inquiry began to undermine my naïveté.  I discovered theologians, philosophers and authors I never knew existed.  I found their questions stimulating but their answers often unsatisfying. For example, the Bible is rife with vileness evidenced by stories of sexual exploitation, mass murder and arbitrary mayhem.  How do we harmonize this fact with the conception of an all-loving, all-knowing God? While many have undertaken to answer this question even in erudite fashion, I found their answers lacking. Once I concluded that the Bible was a thoroughly human product and the God it purports does not exist, other church teachings, such as communion and baptism, unraveled rather quickly.  To quote Nietzsche, I was seeing through a different “perspective” – a perspective based on critical thinking, reason and deduction.  By honing these skills over time, reason and critical thinking became my primary tools and faith quickly diminished. Ultimately, these tools led to the undoing of my faith rather than the strengthening of it.

As a teenager, I too had a taboo encounter with Rudolf Bultmann, which led to my reading of yet other authors despised (or worse, unknown) by the pastors at my Protestant church.

If liberal people really want to have an impact on stupidity in America, maybe they should focus less on taking prayers out of schools, and focus more on putting the formal teaching of critical thinking methods in.

Who can seriously say that critical thinking methods shouldn’t be part of a school’s curriculum? To do so would expose oneself, straight-off, as an ignoramus.

But grant only this single concession—that critical thinking methods should be self-consciously taught in schools—and so many other things, such as fundamentalist intellectual narrowness, would begin to take care of themselves.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to Teaching What to Think vs. How to Think: Former Pastor Tim Prowse Offers His Confession to Sam Harris

  1. Colin Hutton says:

    Nice post, thank you Santi. The approach speaks to my New Atheist sympathies. It would be a good outflanking manoeuvre – in conjunction with the full frontal attacks by NA’s on religion. As Santorum (referring to your post on 28 Feb.) probably appreciates.
    Also liked the first 5’ 59” of the Utube clip. Unfortunately, however, the last 40” is pure b.s. Leaps of faith reaching for pie in the sky. Antithisis of rational thinking.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      As an English teacher trying to help first and second year students navigate college culture more intelligently, I find that students are enormously grateful when you explicitly teach them critical thinking methods. It’s totally new to them. For example, nobody ever said to them in high school, “Here are the three laws of logic, according to Aristotle, and here’s how they’re applied in argumentation and the definition of terms, etc.”

      Or, if someone did, they weren’t listening.

      But after learning such basic things, students feel like they come out the other end of the semester genuinely able to write and think more clearly just by becoming a bit more literate and self-conscious about how rhetoric and arguments work, and how claims get supported.

      It’s the positive power of critical thinking. It demystifies a lot of things, not just dubious religious claims. It’s a universal acid.

      One of the things I respect about new atheist culture is its rejection of postmodernism in favor of empiricism. Its heroes are scientists, and if people simply applied the common sense methods of science to areas outside of science, a good deal of nonsense would not survive the scrutiny.

      New college students are often surprised to discover that the scientific method is not just for the science classroom (as weird as that sounds). They’ve compartmentalized in a way that, once that comes down, there’s no stopping their intellectual growth. It makes me hopeful for the future whenever I see that light come on in a student.

      It’s why I oppose Gould’s idea of “non-overlapping magisteria.” It’s a bad intellectual habit to let claims slide by without supports (whether in science or outside of it). If you’re going to believe something absent evidence, at least be self-conscious of what you’re doing and why.


  2. David Yates says:

    Hmmm. I guess it all depends on the schools you go to. At the Bible college where I got my first theological degree, and at the seminary where I attained my Masters, as well as at the schools where I was an instructor, Bultmann and his theology was regularly taught, referred to, and his works referenced (I’m not at home right now, but I probably have about a dozen of Bultmann’s books and commentaries in my personal library, including a few that weren’t authored by him but that treat his theology exclusively), and to the best of my knowledge this exposure to Bultmannian existentialism didn’t cost any of us our faith. It certainly didn’t mine. Granted, it wasn’t often that he was agreed with and so was frequently introduced for the express purpose of representing an idea or method that was faulty in some way, but he was nevertheless presented as a giant in the theology of the first half of the 20th-century and whose influence was rivalled only Barth. Thus he was regarded as someone with whom we would simply have to deal if we ever wanted to be serious in our scholarship. We certainly weren’t forbidden from reading any of his writings, nor was it considered “taboo” in any way.
    So, with all that in mind, I fully realize that it would be highly presumptuous of me to denigrate Bultmann too enthusiastically (after all, I very much doubt anybody is going to be talking about me and any of my ideas nearly 40 years after my death), but to be honest, although I found much of his thought laudable, I found just as much of so thoroughly anachronistic that it bordered on the positively silly.

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