Why “I believe in logic and reason” is a Nonsense Statement

I’m exposed more than the average citizen to regular discussions and debates of ‘off limits’ subjects like religion, partly by circumstance and partly by choice, which is to say partly because I’m in classrooms every week where these topics are on the agenda and partly because I go out of my way to observe or listen when they are hashed out in larger public forums.

You are likely to hear something today that people in generations gone by would have thought strange, which is the following: In the context of disagreement about religious beliefs (like what a person believes about God, the afterlife, etc.), someone who doesn’t believe in any such things will announce his or her belief in “logic” and “reason.” This declaration of allegiance to logic and reason is typically offered with boastful superiority, as if to say, “Well as for the rest of you, you can believe this or that, but as for me, I believe in logic and reason.” The implication that is given by this simplistic credal statement is that belief in logic/reason is unique to the person making the confession of belief in it, as though it is the exclusive alternative to the other people’s beliefs. They believe x-y-z, but I believe in reason.

What Think Ye of Reason? Whose Son is He?

Nobody likes an ugly custody battle, but in the recent era of boisterous “in your face” internet debate styles, we’ve seen an attempt to co-opt the favored terms and claim them as the natural and exclusive property of the self-appointed champions of reason and logic. When you see any particular individual or group lay claim to “reason”, you should get suspicious. Anti-religious atheist groups are the most glaring culprits when it comes to this. They love to name their groups things like “The United Coalition of Reason” and grab media attention by naming their events things like “The Reason Rally.”

Not that this is entirely without precedent. In the early 1790s some radical Enlightenment-loving French revolutionaries dismantled the altars of Paris churches as a display of their contempt for the Roman Catholic clergy of their time, erecting new displays to the symbolic goddess “Reason.” Their cause was more political and social (and in their context, more dire). Today’s cavalier use of “reason” is more of a self-serving PR strategy. By claiming “reason” as my own, I imply it is on my side only and that those opposed to me are clearly unreasonable. This is why Al Gore decided that his 2008 book lashing out at Bush & all of this political opponents should be entitled The Assault on Reason. As strategies go, it’s completely self-congratulatory but probably as effective, at least, as other similar political statements we’ve often heard, such as “The difference between me and my opponent is that I am interested in the truth.

Unfortunately most of the matra-like repetition of the words logic and reason amounts to posturing and nothing else. Few people care to understand just what we are talking about when we employ these words, which in common use are mostly synonymous.  The late Dallas Willard once wrote that “Reason is a voice that all of us hear.”  Reason is nobody’s child. Nobody has sole custody. Nobody has the market cornered. Logic is inescapably embedded in all of our thinking and discourse. Everyone who has thought about it very long has realized this. Aristotle was one of the earliest to elucidate it clearly in writing. All human thinking and discourse, if it is coherent in the least bit, is employing and relying upon basic logic. The only way for any person or group to jettison reason entirely (and remain consistent in doing so) would be for that group or person to utter words totally at random or remain completely silent. For that matter he (or they) would not be able even to think in propositions without making use of reason.

This is not to say that human beings are rational in all of our deliberations and decisions. We are influenced by and subject to all sorts of other influences too. And not that even the smartest people among us don’t occasionally violate the canons of reason. We’re no more intellectually perfect than we are morally perfect. Christian theologians have long alluded to what they call the “noetic” effects of our fallen nature, meaning our imperfections and limitations are not only in the ethical domain. Our minds are flawed enough all the way around to cause us to be foolishly illogical in specific ways on certain occasions.

But these limitations apply to everyone across the board. Nobody is immune. The thought processes of the most devout believers are the same basic combinations of factors as those of the least religious. For everyone the mental life consists of a regular mixture of common sense, ignorance, insight, oversight, at times pristine logical thinking, at other times glaring errors or blind spots, biases, confusion, emotionalism, etc. Where disagreement exists between two points of view, the wrong approach is simply to hail everyone who agrees with you as reasonable and brand everyone who doesn’t as illogical. When you apply the words “illogical” and “unreasonable” to people it is generally in order to insult them . Apply the terms instead – and appropriately – to the arguments themselves if you can demonstrate why they apply.

A Little Learning is a Dangerous Thing

When you hear the casual tossing around of the words “logic” and “reason” in this usual contemporary way (i.e., claiming them for my side) you should ask some basic questions of the person using them. What does he or she take those words to mean? What is their definition? Are they the same thing? Different?  If the person is claiming that someone’s view or position is “illogical”, can he or she point to exactly where logic is being violated? Most people who speak this way don’t realize that something is not “illogical” simply because it is strange, outlandish, hard to believe, or even empirically false.

Another question I ask is, does the person (claiming to believe in “logic and reason”) suppose that the most reasonable and logically astute thinkers of history agreed with him/her? Alexander Pope’s immortal poetic line that “a little learning is a dangerous thing” tends to apply here. Pope’s advice was to “drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring.” In a similar vein, and more to the point regarding basic religious belief, the great Francis Bacon wrote, “It is true, that a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion” (Of Atheism). This is why C. S. Lewis had his fictional senior demon Screwtape advise the novice demon Wormwood to keep it shallow and superficial when trying to mess with his victim’s head. “Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the church,” writes Screwtape, who adds a few lines later, “By the very act of arguing you awake the patient’s reason, and once it is awake, who can foresee the result?” (The Screwtape Letters).

The culture of the internet with its dizzying array of endless media is vastly different from the one Pope and Bacon knew, yet it demonstrates their principle well. So many people today know just enough to be “dangerous.” They suppose themselves to be so eminently reasonable and scientifically literate when in fact they are typically less knowledgeable than people were in generations past.  Note I did not say “less informed” about events in the world or having less access to information. But they’ve thought so little and in such fleeting, candy-sized media-wrapped sound bytes about the issues they are discussing that they are closer to being enemies of reason than friends.

The majority of those on whose shoulders Western Civilization stands would have been baffled by the attitudes of those talking such a big game about logic and reason. Had they been put in a time machine and dropped in the middle of the recent “Reason Rally” they would have thought they were in a different universe where “reason” must mean something else. What, after all, would someone like John Locke have thought of the advice of Richard Dawkins, arguably the intellectual spokesman for contemporary atheism, to the crowds at the “Reason Rally”? What would such a preeminent thinker as Locke – so massively influential in shaping British thought at the time as well as upon the American framers, a man who wrote, among so many other things, an essay actually entitled “The Reasonableness of Christianity” – what would he think upon hearing the leading voice for popular atheism urge his throngs to employ the strategy of contempt, ridicule and mockery against religious believers? So much for “logic” and “reason.”

There are atheists who do understand the meaning of reason, and they do their cause at least the favor of rising above the foolishness of throwing those words around without comprehending them. One such example is Robert Paul Wolff, a philosopher whose textbook About Philosophy is among those on my shelf. In it Wolff writes that although he identifies as an atheist, he is incapable of contempt toward those who believe otherwise. He knows too much. He has drunk deep from the spring. Depth in philosophy, to paraphrase Bacon, keeps bringing this atheist’s mind back around to the theological possibilities.  In his text Wolff praises the Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, calling the melancholy Dane “the most gifted” of all the important thinkers in our history. Wolff writes candidly that although he is an atheist, “as a lifelong philosopher, I am forced to recognize that almost every great Western thinker for whom I have profound respect thinks that I am wrong.” This, Wolff admits, often makes him “a little nervous.”


Faith and Reason

As old a topic as it is, the contemporary abuse of words like “logic” and “reason” begs for us to revisit the discussion of the role of reason in the realm of faith. And while we’re chastising those who wave the flag of reason like they are its sole custodians, we need to remind a certain segment of the faithful and devout that reason is not a weapon of darkness. I said above that reason is nobody’s child, and that includes Satan. Reason is not a tool of the Evil One that you should resist. The truth is that you can’t resist it anyway as was explained already. To make a case against reason you must use it.

Christians do not idolize reason, nor do we scorn it. When the Gospel of John employs “logos” in its opening line, you can be sure that the writer does not despise the voice of reason, which he no doubt recognizes as the voice of God, imperfect as we are at hearing and discerning it accurately.  All revelation presupposes rational agents – even if imperfect ones –  who can comprehend basic communication. Truth is dependent upon the most basic principles of logic. Otherwise the written word is just markings and the spoken word (“rhema”) is just noise. Show me a Christian who claims to be opposed to reason and I’ll show you someone who (a) doesn’t understand the nature of reason to begin with, and (b) is probably failing miserably to achieve the kind of wisdom and discernment toward which a disciple is supposed to strive.

Faith and reason are not cosmic foes fighting on behalf of God and Satan, respectively. That is as idiotic a parody as the parody of faith itself in which it is naive assent to patently false propositions, a la “believin’ what ain’t so”. C. S. Lewis once called faith “the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods” (Mere Christianity). It is a kind of trust that endures through the tumultuous and fickle emotional roller coaster of life. It is the “substance of things hoped for” (Heb. 11:1) where “hope” is understood in the biblical sense of being tethered to something solid but beyond your immediate vision or grasp, not mere “wishing” or escapism.

The mind is not murdering reason in order to make room for faith. Reason cannot be killed, and if it could be, any meaningful concept of faith would die with it, and no contemplation or discussion of anything would be possible from that moment on. For the opponent of faith to thump his chest and announce that he believes in logic and reason is as useless as if he said, “I believe in saying words out loud that express my views.”  My response to either one is, “Uh, .. OK. Me too. Now what is your argument?”

17 Responses to “Why “I believe in logic and reason” is a Nonsense Statement”

  1. I both agree and disagree with this post. On a certain level I agree, but only to the extent the words “reason” and “logic” have been abused. On the other hand on a more formal level I disagree. If you deny the basic rules of logic (e.g. the law of non-contradiction, modus ponens, modus tollens, law of the excluded middle, etc.) or openly use logical fallacies in forming your belief (cum/post hoc ergo propter hoc being perhaps the most egregiously used one) then you are quite frankly irrational, unreasonable, and illogical. As Avicenna famously said regarding the law of non-contradiction, “Anyone who denies the law of non-contradiction should be beaten and burned until he admits that to be beaten is not the same as not to be beaten, and to be burned is not the same as not to be burned.”

  2. Clint Roberts March 4, 2014 at 4:09 pm

    Fair enough, Mr. T, but while I “pity the fool” who commits logical fallacies almost as much as Avicenna, I would go a little easier on him or her. Then again, the Muslim of medieval Persia weren’t especially known for their leniency.

    I guess I would still say of the person who falters into fallacies that he or she is “being illogical” insofar as he or she is saying things that violate principles of logic. But in the rest of everyday life, of course, that person more or less as logical as most everyone else, don’t you think?

  3. When I was a young Christian back in the late 1970s, my then pastor told me that reason has no place in Christianity. I’ve subsequently endured an environment where logic, reason and even intelligence were treated as sinful. On the other hand, the word “irrational” relates to the philosophy of rationalism, which says there is nothing higher than human reason.

  4. “C. S. Lewis once called faith “the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods” (Mere Christianity).”

    the Lord knows the reasonings of the wise, that they are useless, but wisdom from above is reasonable. All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, but He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth and no one can ward off His hand or say to Him ‘What have You done?

  5. I think you are a man of God that has wisdom that only God can give. And he has definitely given you the gift of written expression and great reasoning. I’m being sincere here.

  6. Achilles: “Well as for the rest of you, you can believe this or that, but as for me, I believe in logic and reason.”

    Tortoise: “But why? And before you answer, remember that a circular argument is illogical and unreasonable.”

  7. I’ve enjoyed all the good reasons that reason is not to be believed.


  8. I think the real problem is that many mainstream Christians are unable to produce unemotional arguments for their faith. In my limited experience of modern evangelism, the church uses emotional persuasion to bring believers to Christ – arguments from love, fear, and escape from painful sins – almost exclusively. There is nothing inherently wrong with these arguments, but there is little follow-up education to help people defend the faith against types like Dawkins which is sad because these defenses aren’t difficult. I also believe that using emotional pleas exclusively is why we are having so much difficulty with the modern generation – they are bombarded with advertising that uses the same emotional pleas and are somewhat numb to those arguments. I believe they need a more intellectual and less emotional approach.

  9. Truth Unites... and Divides March 7, 2014 at 4:16 pm

    Materialist Atheist walks by Clint Roberts leading a bible study discussion on campus. Overhears discussion about Jesus being God.

    Atheist to the Group: “I believe in logic and reason.”

    Clint: “Your ‘I believe in logic and reason’ statement is nonsense.”

    Atheist: “What??!”

    Clint: “You heard me.”

    Atheist: “I’m outta here. Buncha brain-washed zombies don’t even have a clue about logic and reason.”

    Clint, turning to the group: “Now this is what I mean when I say his statement is nonsense….”

  10. Clint Roberts March 8, 2014 at 9:11 am

    It is not exactly fair nor wise to put words in other people’s mouths in the context of contrived fictional conversations. For example, …

    Materialist Atheist walks by ‘Truth Unites & Divides’ (TUD) & asks, “Is that your real name? What are you hiding from?”

    TUD: Burn in hell you filthy pervert!

    Atheist: Woe, what?

    TUD: You heard me. Your mother was a two-bit disease-ridden street walker and you’re a waste of space destined for the fires of eternal judgment.

    Atheist: Wait, don’t tell me – you MUST be a regular blog commenter, am I right?

    Now of course I have no reason whatsoever to suppose that you, TUD, would say any such things, but it sure is easy to put the words in your mouth. Hamlet will say anything Shakespeare wants him to say.

    The fact that I wrote a blog with that title, which I think I explained adequately in the body of the blog, does not mean that upon hearing that phrase from a stranger my initial if only response would be to declare it “nonsense”. I do hear that comment, as I indicated, and when I do, my response is to begin asking them questions, as – again- I clearly wrote about in the blog.

  11. I am confused. Do people comment without actually reading the article on which they comment?

  12. the last couple comments, an illustration..
    reasonable and logical to join with cosmic foes in brethren accusation to make the point of God’s glory?
    (not to discount encouraging sharpening)

  13. Chancellor Roberts March 9, 2014 at 9:31 pm

    Truth Unites… and Divides,

    Your post doesn’t make sense: please explain.

  14. Truth Unites... and Divides March 10, 2014 at 12:20 pm

    Clint Roberts,

    You read too much into my brief comment, taking unnecessary offense.

    Chancellor Roberts,

    Clint got the point of my brief comment, although he unfortunately responded with way too much heat, and it’s when he wrote:

    “The fact that I wrote a blog with that title, which I think I explained adequately in the body of the blog, does not mean that upon hearing that phrase from a stranger my initial if only response would be to declare it “nonsense”.”

    It was simply to illustrate that a rebuttal that might begin with the “I BELIEVE IN LOGIC AND REASON” IS A NONSENSE STATEMENT will usually not obtain a receptive listen to your rebuttal.


  15. No offense taken, TAD. I agree with the point you were wanting to make, which is why I specified that I do not, upon hearing the line featured in my title from a stranger, declare immediately what my title declares about that statement (though I believe it to be the case and hope to bring that person around to seeing that it is the case).

    What I usually do (which I advised in the blog) with people in nearly every case where I hear something that I think is confused or mistaken is utilize questions in the typical Socratic way that I hope lead the person where I want him/her to go so that it is more “arrived at” by that person and less a matter of him being rebuked or rebutted, which (to your point) has a habit of provoking other emotions that are not conducive to the greater purpose.

  16. I’m pretty sure what is meant by someone who says “I believe in logic and reason” simply means that they base their foundation of beliefs on natural things……. things which can be backed by natural evidence, rather than basing those beliefs on supernatural claims. Therefore, to call that nonsense is, well…. nonsense. No offense intended.

    • Travis, your argument looks like this:

      1. people who say “I believe in logic & reason” actually mean something else, namely, “I believe in naturalism”.

      2. naturalism is superior to non-naturalism because other worldviews base their beliefs on supernatural claims.

      3. therefore, your assertion that the statement “I believe in logic and reason” is nonsense—is itself nonsense.

      I can think of few better ways to illustrate the author’s point than to present a naturalist who thinks the statement “I believe in reason and logic” means “I am a naturalist.”

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