Human Reasoning

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.
[p. 49-50]

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.
[p. 21-22]

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.

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21 thoughts on “Human Reasoning”

  1. I guess I just haven’t been around too many christians using “human reasoning” as a derogatory term. Now often I’ve seen quoted “your ways are not My ways” in other words man’s reasoning isn’t the same as God’s and it is hard or possibly impossible for us to understand God’s way of doing things.

    But yes, to your point I also believe at the end of the day all we are left with is human reasoning and faith to get us through the world. Sometimes faith and reasoning aren’t that different from each other either.

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  2. I think in order to progress towards our goals we adapt to what is effective, and remove what is ineffective. There are multiple ways of achieving our own goals, some ways more effective than others. The tension comes when people have different goals 🙂

    I think decisions have to involve a degree of reasoning, unless someone is guided by a divine prompting, in which case they may not be following their own reasoning (and maybe even going against it). But this depends on whether there is such a thing as divine guidance, in which God communicates to His creation that seek Him, in which case there is a distinction between human reasoning and divine guidance. But this distinction is only possible if there is a Higher Conscious Power.

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  3. or to put it another way, the ways we want to achieve something may not be the same as Gods ways of achieving something, which would go against our reasoning.

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  4. But just because it goes against our reason doesn’t make it any more less effective and/or sound.

    True. But there’s no way we could know that unless we discovered it using our reasoning.

    For instance, SETI was established to try to communicate with aliens. It may be a very worthwhile endeavor, or it may be a colossal waste of time and money. But we can’t know which it is until we get really good evidence one way or the other.

    In the same way, a faith position that we hold onto might be really worthwhile. But if we never get a good reason to think it is — or worse, if we get good reasons to think it is not worthwhile — then there’s no good reason for us to do it. And there’s no way a rational and just deity would hold that against us.

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  5. and for me, when looking at all of the apparent problems within the bible, holding on to the belief that it was still a product of god boiled down to only faith.

    many religious people might say, “exactly! faith is what it’s all about.” But it was a problem for me, because I then had no way to determine which faith was right, or better. Any member of any faith could simply say, “well it means this,” or “there are a number of possible scenarios that could explain why this isnt a contradiction,” and the list of excuses and desperate attempts to explain the problems away goes on on on. So much so, It becomes blind faith.

    People will point to the parts in their book that look good and laud it as an obvious work of god because of the moral truths in it, then they shrug off the problem areas of their book by saying “that one section is wrong,” or “it really means this, not that,” etc, etc.

    Can’t being reasonable be effective and sound? And when (not including religion for a moment) is being unreasonable the best course? when is abandoning logic, common sense, reason, and your own good sense considered wise? When you make decisions at work, do you follow the grounded clues, or do you base every decision off of a whim or an unproven source that resembles the supernatural?

    Is the idea of there being no savior or having a need of savior, or heaven or hell, or a god to watch over you so scary? or is it that you are truly convinced that those things are real?

    For me, the evidence is clearly pointing in one direction. And for me, faith in the bible is faith in its authors, not faith in god. That realization was the biggest point for me.

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  6. William you wrote,

    “Is the idea of there being no savior or having a need of savior, or heaven or hell, or a god to watch over you so scary? or is it that you are truly convinced that those things are real?”

    For me it is the fear that there is a Savior.

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  7. The teachings on the Sermon on the Mount yes I want to be better at following them, but the separation of the sheep ands goats, the devil and the flood/calamities I don’t want to be true.

    But another thought that comes into my head is that truth isn’t based on what I want, and honesty is not necessarily the same as a truth.

    I am sick of being a yoyo though, this constant tension and conflict has been going on for too long. Sometimes I think I would have been happier if I never was involved in a church and wasn’t introduced to Christianity, despite the valuable community and all its benefits. But this is just speculation. I want to follow faith in some ways, but to be honest this mainly stems from fear of the unknown and desiring to be the person I was created to be (if indeed I was created).

    I think sometimes religion is really helpful for some people, but for others it tears them apart. Although Christianity teaches we should be anxious for nothing, so maybe I am just not trusting in Gods Goodness and Sovereignty enough, and I should be following instead of asking questions where answers are never given. After all, people don’t seem to be called to dwell in anxious tension in Christianity, but called to follow in love.

    Being in a place of tension gets really tiring.

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  8. This tension can actually put on hold your life, your goals, stopping you from moving forward, not sure where to move next, with eternity in the corner of every question.

    But this doesn’t really seem like a problem for people around me, maybe they are just more trusting that God is just and will judge justly. Maybe they don’t assume the worst for others and themselves. Maybe they just trust in that Christ’s sacrifice was/is sufficient for them and those around them..

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  9. And I can’t really explain this to people I live with, because I don’t think they will understand. From the outside, it just looks like I’m putting my life on hold and being lazy, which is probably partly true. I’ve just earned my degree, and to my friends and families great frustration I seem to be stuck in a loop to just get a career and start my life, For me to explain that its partly my obsession with religion, that I’ve lost my faith and felt like I’ve gained it again and again, sometimes many times within one day. Its like being in a constant state of questioning, not wanting faith to turn me into someone who stops questioning, yes I might be happy, I might have a eternal purpose but will it be true?

    P.S sorry Nate, I’ll stop taking up your blog, thanks for your patience.

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  10. I think this is a first world problem though 🙂 If I had 5 hungry mouths to feed, who depended on me to go out and earn some coin for their well being then Im quite sure these questions I wouldn’t allow to come to the forefront of my mind, I would be very much in the practical, and would enrich my actions because in such desperate circumstances the idea that there is a blissful afterlife would keep me going to have integrity. Maybe I just have to suck it up 🙂

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  11. Im imagining people are prob looking at the recent comments and thinking, oh no, that portal has let loose agian with his comments, I’ll try to control myself 🙂

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  12. Hey Nate, heaps sorry for my excessive comments, I posted way too much.

    I really didn’t intend to overrun your comments section, I had heaps on my mind, and some of what I wrote wasn’t related to the initial thread. Sorry.

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  13. No worries, Ryan. I always like hearing from you. I won’t deny that I wish you didn’t feel the need to go back to religion, but I do understand what it’s like to be in that constant state of questioning.

    Regardless of which side you ultimately come down on, I hope it gives you some peace.

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  14. @portal00, I feel like I know exactly where you’re coming from. your many posts helped me in coming to that conclusion…

    The feeling of whether your doubts are some sort of test, or if they’re the culmination of your own “sinful nature,” “worldliness,” or “secret desire,” etc, etc; or of they’re simply what they appear to be, problems.

    Does it seem reasonable to you that a perfect god would print apparent contradictions that could have been so easily avoided in a book that was intended for every man, as a way to avoid hell/god’s disapproval?

    Does it makes sense for a perfect god that is no respector of persons to speak to a select few of mankind, while not talking to the rest of us, so that they could write a book for us, from god, that is supposed to help us, but has internal issues?

    and again, where is your faith anyway? in god, who never directly told you a thing, who never gave you a thing; or in the bible authors who wrote the letters and books and said god told them to, and in the men who assembled the bible, translated it, because god doesn’t need man’s help?

    If we were talking about the koran, and not the bible, would you still have trouble deciding the answers to the above questions?

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  15. Nate,

    Thanks, yeah I am caught up on the concept of faith, although
    I read a really interesting article on this recently http://wmbriggs.com/blog/?p=32

    I’m still not sure where I stand on any given day, which I suppose is not a good thing from a Christian perspective, being lukewarm and all.

    William,

    Yes, part of me does fear that these thoughts are a culmination of your own “sinful nature”.

    Sometimes I ask myself whether many believers actually take to heart some of the things in the bible. I mean really take it to heart. Do many people actually truly believe that if the people around them, those they see and interact with everyday, don’t accept Jesus they will be thrown to hell or destroyed?

    If believers actually believed this, wouldn’t they be investing every waking moment in seeking to be guided by God, to be empowered by Him, to warn the people around them? Wouldn’t I be doing this?

    And then I ask myself, how is this perspective comforting? Really? How wil every tear be wiped away in heaven if there are people we know are eternally thirsting and terrified? Also, isn’t it selfish to be content in ones own salvation, and even be content with their own family’s salvation? What makes my family any more valuable or special than a family down the road that might not have accepted Christ?

    It’s through this lens which believers are expected to look through that I find really confronting. Believers look at a world, which is broken, full of broken and possibly hell bound people, who may be spending eternally damned unless they repent and accept Christ.

    I sometimes wonder if some believers live in a fragmented understanding of this, because if believers truly believed that all is going to be wiped away and a New Kingdom was going to replace the old, that those that don’t accept Christ will be damned forever, then isn’t the most important thing serving and seeking God and warning people through Gods guidance?

    Its kind of like telling people they have a deadly disease, only it is eternal unless they repent and follow Christ, and that involves following through faith.

    I ask myself, do many believers have that many different core goals than unbelievers? I think most people in the western world at least despite their beliefs want a partner to share their life with, a stable income, a comfortable home and good company. But like I wrote before, the emphasis on Gods love and Christ’s teachings on compassion really appeal to me.

    Thanks to you both for considerate thoughts, I appreciate it.

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  16. Then again, if its about connections, love and forgiveness and not punishment then I believe this is worthy to seek.

    If Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but to save the world through Himself (John 12:47, John 3:17) then He is worth looking at.

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  17. Jesus also came to bring a sword, setting son against father… Matt 10.

    But we can essentially take from the bible what we want and always claim that the stuff we don’t like, or that the stuff that doesn’t make sense is figurative and means something else.

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