Deep religion and deep logic

Orson Scott Card has an outstanding column over at Mormon Times on what he calls “deep religion“:

I had unknowingly tapped into their religion at a level so deep that they didn’t even understand why my comments made them so upset. Yet they didn’t think it was their religion — they thought Plato was just a philosopher, and that their religion was founded on scripture.

What I learned at that point was that people aren’t always aware of their real religion, the deep beliefs that they hold with such intense faith that it doesn’t occur to them that other people might not share them.

Be sure to read the whole column; it’s both excellent and relevant.

Back in 1971, as a freshman at BYU in the Honors Program, I was (thankfully) required to take — in place of the usual ‘freshman English’ class — a five-credit class on ‘Composition and Reasoning’. We met 3 days a week with an English professor, studying composition and writing, and 2 days a week with a Philosophy professor, studying logic, reasoning, and philosophy. Our major papers were graded by both professors — that is, they were graded not just on how well we wrote, but whether our logic was sound. One of the most important lessons I learned in that class was the importance of going back to fundamental premises — and how often, in regular human discourse, those fundamental premises are unvoiced, unexamined, and often simply unconscious, as per Card’s observations in his column.

This insight was of great use for me in subsequent years in the intense discussions (read: flame wars) that took place on the pre-Web internet/online communities (USENET news groups, bulletin board systems, and on-line services such as BIX). I found that by pushing the topic back to fundamental premises, I could usually uncover the real sources of disagreement. Of course, I also found that a lot of people didn’t like to go back to their fundamental premises, usually because (a) they had never thought about them and didn’t want to start thinking about them now, and/or (b) they began to realize that their fundamental premises were not logically consistent with each other and/or with some of their more conscious beliefs.

Likewise, through the decades of raising our 9+ children (the ‘+’ being our ‘semi-adopted’ daughter, the daughter of a close friend who lived with us for a full school year while in high school), my wife Sandra and I naturally had many, many discussions about religion with them. Some of our children, as they grew older, drifted (or ran) away from the Church and the Gospel, usually saying that they had no need for ‘religion’. My rejoinder was that whether they were LDS or not, whether they were Christian or not — heck, whether they were atheist or not — they all still had ‘religion’ of some kind, viz., their answers (or lack thereof) to the ‘terrible questions’:

  • Who (and what) am I?
  • Where did I come from?
  • Why am I here?
  • What happens after death?

I told them that whether they accepted the Gospel and/or the Church, their lives would be better off and more cohesive if they consciously answered those questions for themselves and then lived accordingly.

Even today, I find that much of what passes for political, religious, and even scientific discourse suffers from the same problem: lack of discussion of the fundamental underlying premises (which may well be what led Card to write this particular column). Without such discussion, the discourse usually becomes futile, unproductive, and often quite nasty. Yet I often find that people don’t want to go through the effort (and sometimes pain) of determining their fundamental premises and/or reconciling their espoused and conscious opinions with those premises.

I have long thought that logic and reasoning should be a required class no later than middle school and should be repeated in high school and college. We worry (and rightly so) in our educational system about literacy and numeracy, and even about computer skills, but fail to realize that the ability to construct — and take apart — a logical argument, as well as to recognize the variety of logical fallacies, is every bit as important, particularly in today’s world. (And as a side note, the training I received in logic and reasoning in that Honors class was of tremendous value when I switched my major to computer science later on in college.)

Logic and reasoning are also, in my opinion, important in religion. Contrary to popular belief, there is nothing inherently illogical about religion or religious belief itself; all belief, all knowledge, all logic and reasoning goes back to fundamental and axiomatic premises (such as the ‘terrible questions’ above). Indeed, many attacks on religion themselves come from unexamined, unvoiced, and/or undefended premises (“One just doesn’t get gold plates from an angel” — “Why not?”) or from a foundational premise that can only lead to a reduced set of conclusions (e.g., Fawn Brodie and Dan Vogel both having as an a priori assumption that Joseph Smith could not have been a genuine prophet).

This, of course, doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of sloppy and/or illogical thinking within religion and religious belief, including within the Church. But my own training in logic and reasoning has only served to strengthen my testimony over the years and, I believe, has left me far less susceptible to the “Oh, I just learned something unpleasant about [name major Church figure, doctrine, program or local leader here] and now I’m leaving the Church” syndrome. Beyond that, in my examination of other religions, I have found LDS doctrine and thought to be more logically consistent and cohesive, and that it just makes far more sense.

The anchor of my personal testimony comprises the fundamental spiritual experiences, occasionally profound but usually mild and quiet, that have filled my life starting at the time of my conversion over 40 years ago. But the chain that holds me to that anchor is forged from the steel of logic and reasoning — and a strong and firm chain it is. ..bruce..

5 thoughts on “Deep religion and deep logic

  1. Excellent post Bruce! I agree that the fundamental questions are really what matter, and provide a basis for everything else we do in life. I’ll check out Card’s column (btw, I work with one of his nephews).

  2. Now that I have found your blog, I predict my kids will spend a lot of time hungry and naked.

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