How logic can help us or make us stumble
Rational analysis of competing world views is especially crucial in our day, given the reach of the internet and the sometimes blinding influence of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and the like. Thankfully, four easy-to-understand principles can guide us as we examine the beliefs of others and our own beliefs.
First, watch out for false premises – starting points are foundational. For example, consider these parallel claims:
- Muhammad is the greatest teacher in history.
- Jim Jones, founder of Peoples Temple, is the greatest teacher.
- L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, is the greatest teacher.
In contrast, Christians believe Jesus is the greatest (Philippians 2:9–11) and that Muslims, Temple followers, Scientologists and other non-Christian religions are beginning from false premises.
False premises lead to other false views and sometimes terrible realities. For example, the worst cases of Islamic jihad are rooted in the belief this is what Muhammad would do. Trust in Jim Jones led to suicides and killings in Guyana in 1978. Likewise, trust in Hubbard leads devout Scientologists to waste enormous amounts of money to go up the ladder to Clear and Operating Thetan Level 8.
Second, watch out for leaps in logic or nonsequiturs (the Latin term for an assertion that doesn’t follow from the evidence or reasoning presented).
For example, Islam is not proven true by the fact it spread rapidly in the 1st century after Muhammad’s death. Historian Tom Holland has shown that Islam’s early sweep had to do with military might and the weakening of Catholic and Orthodox military powers (In the Shadow of the Sword, Little, Brown, 2012).
The integrity of Jones is not proven true by the fact his followers were willing to die for him. Rather, as Rebecca Moore and Fielding McGehee show (Jonestown.sdsu.edu), Jones was a manipulative, lying, narcissistic, sexual predator who captured his followers by persuasive rhetoric, fake miracles and coercion. (See also Tim Reiterman and John Jacobs’ Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People, TarcherPerigee, 2008 .)
Scientology is not proven correct by the fact Hubbard was a very successful novelist. This should not blind us to Hubbard’s deceptions, contrived theories and enormous ego, as shown in Jon Atack’s book A Piece of Blue Sky (CreateSpace, 2013) and his Getting Clear conference (co-organized by yours truly).
Third, watch out for common mistakes and appeals to authority that can mislead us. Here are six.
- Emotion does not settle truth.
- Popular views are not always correct. Remember Christian paranoia about Y2K?
- Tradition is not always right. Think of Martin Luther’s critique of Catholicism.
- Name calling does not settle debate.
- No, the truth is not always in the middle.
- Experts can be wrong.
Fourth, watch out for misunderstanding reason’s place. Some Christians understate its value. Be wary of a church where education is mocked. See Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Eerdmans, 1995). Likewise, although John MacArthur comes on too strong at times, his warnings about charismatic anti-intellectualism are apt.
More tragically, some Christians harm their use of reason by not teaming it with gentleness, compassion and love (1 Corinthians 13). Beth Moore is right to condemn elements of hate in battles over female ordination, Donald Trump, Covid response and Critical Race Theory in the Southern Baptist Convention (and other denominations).
Bottom line: Loving God with your mind (Deuteronomy 6:4–6) is a crucial element in what Jesus called the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:37; Mark 12:30–32; Luke 10:27).
James A. Beverley is research professor at Tyndale University in Toronto. He earned an Honours B.A. in philosophy at Acadia University (1975) and won the first John Diefenbaker gold medal for debating. Read more of these columns at www.FaithToday.ca/ReligionWatch.