Learning to think…about faith

If we are serious about learning, we need to be mindful of our reasoning. It’s a process that adds a lot of work to all of our learning, but it’s absolutely essential if we want the best possible outcomes in our learning process.

When evaluating the truthfulness of a particular claim, we need to understand some basic rules of inference in order to sidestep fallacies that muddle our thinking. It’s common for those without this kind of training to focus exclusively on whether or not a particular claim is factual and disregard whether that claim logically supports the conclusion being drawn.

If you have never studied logic, here is a brief primer on some basic concepts (thanks to Meagan Kohler for her assistance!). Or, you can skip down to some concrete examples for Latter-day Saints.

A Lesson in Logic

An argument (a collection of claims and the conclusion they support) is said to be valid if the premises (the claims in support of the conclusion) cannot be true while the conclusion is false. Notice that validity has nothing to do with whether the claims being made are actually true; it’s only concerned with whether the conclusion must be true whenever the premises are true. For example:

All lions are reptiles (Premise 1)
All reptiles wear clothes (Premise 2)
Therefore, all lions wear clothes (Conclusion)


None of the premises (individual claims) are factual. Yet, the structure is valid because if the premises were true (even though we know they’re not), the conclusion would have to be as well. The logical form of the premises (not their accuracy) implies the conclusion.

Even though the argument above is valid (the structure of the premises implies the conclusion), it is not true. An argument is sound when it is both valid and the claims being advanced are factually accurate. Here’s an example of a sound (valid and factually accurate) argument:

All lions are mammals
All mammals have hair
Therefore, all lions have hair

Another example, look at this simple syllogism:

Oranges are fruit
I am holding an orange
Therefore, I am holding a fruit

Here the logic of my argument is valid and my premises are true, so my conclusion (3) is factually true. In logic terms, we would say that my argument is sound.

Now, let’s try another example.

Oranges are vegetables
I am holding an orange
Therefore, I am holding a vegetable

In this case, my logic is valid, but I’m operating with a bad premise: oranges are not vegetables. Even though my logic is valid, my argument is not sound.

How does this apply to faith, to gospel learning?

Well, if our assumptions are bad, then our thinking will be based on faulty premises and our conclusions will be wrong. Below are some examples of statements we commonly hear about the church and gospel concepts, followed by assumptions that are employed to support those statements.

It’s important to emphasize here that these statements are not always wrong; sometimes some of these statements can be true. And likewise, sometimes some of these assumptions can be true. How can we determine whether our assumptions are well-founded or not? Well, that is a question of epistemology, the choices we make in our pursuit of knowledge.

Examples for Latter-day Saints

  1. Prophets are wrong about X

Assumptions:

  • Prophets have not received revelation about X
    • Every time they receive revelation, God wants them to disclose it
    • They have not disclosed revelation, so they have not received any
  • Prophets have not correctly discerned revelation about X
  • I am better at discerning God’s will than prophets are
  1. My god wouldn’t do X

Assumptions:

  • My god is real, and not just a product of my own thoughts and feelings
  • I have accounted for every possible scenario of God doing X throughout history, and it never happened
  • I have arrived at a correct perception of how God operates, and other perceptions are wrong
  • I am not engaging in projection
  • In my thinking about what God would or wouldn’t do, I have fully accounted for my biases and my worldview
  • Related assumption: Jesus thought like I think!
    • Jesus was not personally religious
    • Jesus never condemned sin
    • Jesus never condemned unbelief
    • Jesus wouldn’t appreciate an expensive temple
  1. So-and-so couldn’t have been a prophet because X

Assumptions:

  • In God’s mind, X disqualifies someone from being a prophet and there are no examples to the contrary
  • When it comes to determining who can be considered a prophet, my perceptions are infallible
  • When it comes to determining who can be considered a prophet, my interpretation of scripture is infallible
  1. X church teaching/policy is unfair because it does not apply in the same way to everyone

Assumptions:

  • God always intends for all gospel teachings/practices/policies to apply the same way for every person and for every group of people
  • God never gives specific privileges or responsibilities to specific groups of people
  • God is not a god of order -and/or- God’s order does not involve the application of various different roles to different people
  • Differences are unfair
  • Differences are inequality
  • God insists on sameness and never makes distinctions
  1. X church teaching/policy shouldn’t be binding on me because it doesn’t make sense

Assumptions:

  • If something doesn’t make sense to me, then it doesn’t make sense at all
  • “Making sense” is an essential criterion for the validity of a gospel concept
  • I have thought through this and examined it from every possible angle
  • In my study of this issue, I have fully accounted for my own worldview and biases
  1. X church teaching/policy isn’t loving

Assumptions:

  • I am operating with the only possible definition of love
  • I am operating with the best possible definition of love
  • God agrees with my definition of love
  1. X church teaching/policy doesn’t allow people to be their true selves, the way God created them

Assumptions:

  • “Self” is an obvious concept that doesn’t need to be defined
  • Thoughts, feelings, behaviors, desires, personality, and experiences constitute “self”
  • Any aspect of my mortal experience that feels innate to me is something that God “created” -and- intends for me to express
  • Anything that encourages me to not express my desires is oppressive to my authenticity, and thus harms my well being
  1. X church teaching/policy isn’t canonized, so it’s not binding in any way

Assumptions:

  • Only things that follow a specific process and end up in the standard works can be considered canonical -and- these are the only church teachings that are binding upon members
  1. X church teaching/policy is unreasonably difficult

Assumptions:

  • Living the gospel should never push us to our spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and social limits
  • The gospel should be a source of comfort, not struggle
  • Confusion, frustration, and/or tiredness indicate that a system is bad
  • The gospel should be experienced by everyone with the same level of difficulty (see #4)
  1. The church isn’t true because X

Assumptions:

  1. The church is failing because people are leaving

Assumptions:

  • An organization’s value and validity are determined by whether or not people stay in it
  • Every reason for leaving an organization is a valid one
  • People who are leaving have experienced everything there is to experience in the church
  • People who are leaving are ones who have experienced authentic conversion to the gospel
  1. The church shouldn’t have large financial reserves

Assumptions:

  • God has no plans for the church’s financial resources
  • Church leadership has not been given revelation to save and grow funds
    • Every time they receive revelation, God wants them to disclose it
    • They have not disclosed revelation, so they have not received any
  • The church will have no need for large financial resources in the future
  • God frowns upon institutional wealth
  • When I envision alternative uses for those funds, my ideas are well-grounded in reality

Note: for a book-length treatment of assumptions about our faith, I highly recommend Terryl and Fiona Givens’ The Crucible of Doubt.

Quotes:

We all inhabit geographical, linguistic, and social worlds that shape our vision and our impressions of what is normal, what is real. Our worldview is a collective set of assumptions we carry with us that condition every question we ask. These “paradigms” make it possible to guide inquiry, but they can also limit and impede our inquiry. They can get us off on the wrong foot, obscure our line of sight, or simply misdirect our focus. This is because, all too often, we don’t realize the limiting assumptions with which we are working. We can’t easily step outside most such preconceptions. Even recognizing the extent of our unexamined assumptions can be the hardest thing of all. It is like asking a fish what it is like to be wet. “What is wet?” even a miraculously verbal fish would reply. Our assumptions, like the ocean in which a fish swims, are the invisible background to our thinking, waking existence. Only when we have left a misguided assumption behind are we able to see it clearly.

…The important point, however, is that those frameworks are not just themselves error-laden. Erroneous assumptions do not just forestall truth and progress, although that would be cause enough to lament their malign influence in our lives. They are like the dummy lock of Mossman’s home. They point us in the wrong direction, limit our understanding, and even warp the questions we ask. Worse, they create the conditions for faulty reasoning and disastrous conclusions.

…In the realm of religion and spirituality, as in the areas of science, medicine, and public order, wrong assumptions can provide invisible deterrents to a life of religious devotion. Such flawed paradigms have been known to trouble even stalwarts of the faith.

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