As I was growing up (and also as I went through my de-conversion), I often heard Christians criticize certain lines of argument by saying that they used “human reasoning.” But if we really think about this complaint, we should realize that it’s almost meaningless. We use human reasoning in everything we do (or we should). First of all, we’re humans. So the only kind of reasoning that’s available to us is the human kind. There’s nothing wrong with that. If God exists, then he gave human reasoning to us and expects us to use it. After all, human reasoning is just an attempt to be wise — we are trying to make the best decisions possible based on our accumulated knowledge and experiences. This is actually a very biblical concept, and Proverbs in particular tells us that we should be striving to do this every waking minute.
The truly puzzling aspect of Christians using “human reasoning” as a derogatory term is that they actually use human reasoning to justify their own beliefs. In Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris points this out:
Along with most Christians, you believe that mortals like ourselves cannot reject the morality of the Bible. We cannot say, for instance, that God was wrong to drown most of humanity in the flood of Genesis, because this is merely the way it seems from our limited point of view. And yet, you feel that you are in a position to judge that Jesus is the Son of God, that the Golden Rule is the height of moral wisdom, and that the Bible is not itself brimming with lies. You are using your own moral intuitions to authenticate the wisdom of the Bible — and then, in the next moment, you assert that we human beings cannot possibly rely upon our own intuitions to rightly guide us in the world; rather, we must depend upon the prescriptions of the Bible. You are using your own moral intuitions to decide that the Bible is the appropriate guarantor of your moral intuitions. Your own intuitions are still primary, and your reasoning is circular.
We decide what is good in the Good Book. We read the Golden Rule and judge it to be a brilliant distillation of many of our ethical impulses. And then we come across another of God’s teachings on morality: if a man discovers on his wedding night that his bride is not a virgin, he must stone her to death on her father’s doorstep (Deut 22:13-21). If we are civilized, we will reject this as the vilest lunacy imaginable. Doing so requires that we exercise our own moral intuitions.
In other words, people have a tendency to pick and choose what they like from the Bible, relying primarily on their own ideas of what’s good and right. Then they claim to get their ideas of “good and right” from the Bible itself. As Harris says, their reasoning is circular. But if they could break the cycle, they could see that their moral compass isn’t actually coming from the Bible, but from themselves. Elsewhere in his book, Harris says:
It is a scientific fact that moral emotions — like a sense of fair play or an abhorrence of cruelty — precede any exposure to scripture. Indeed, studies of primate behavior reveal that these emotions (in some form) precede humanity itself. All of our primate cousins are partial to their own kin and generally intolerant of murder and theft. They tend not to like deception or sexual betrayal much, either.
Normal human beings have empathy, which makes us care about how others feel. We can actually achieve morality by combining our empathy with human reasoning, and this is simply letting “our conscience be our guide.” Human reasoning is vital to this process.
In fact, it’s when people ignore human reasoning that they make bad decisions. If the people who followed after Jim Jones had used some healthy skepticism and human reasoning, they probably wouldn’t have drunk the Kool-Aid. Instead, they assumed that faith was the opposite of human reasoning, rather than a component of it. Therefore, they made a bad decision.
When we deeply believe in something (like religion or politics), we use our human reasoning to build a case for our beliefs, even if the evidence for our position is scant. For instance, there is strong evidence that Global Warming is caused by pollution. Some people have convinced themselves that Global Warming is a myth, and they have used their human reasoning to find ways to support their position (usually with a strong reliance on pseudo-science). Typically, human reasoning helps us make good, clear decisions. But in this case, those who deny Global Warming have made a poor decision because they have let their beliefs drive their reasoning, instead of the other way around. True faith should be driven by and based on reason.
Here’s my point: human reasoning is not the enemy, it’s the answer. And anytime we toss out an argument because its proponent is using “human reasoning” we should probably ask ourselves if we’re thinking clearly. Unbiased human reasoning is the only hope we have for finding the truth about anything. Let the data speak for itself.