OF RELIGION Field Guide to the

An enduring feature in the Wild World of Religion for centuries has been an unending stream of men who set themselves up as teachers, and wish to introduce to others what they believe to be Astounding New Truth (ANT) on a a certain topic. (Often they may choose to clarify that they believe it actually to be "restored" truth,  lost since the first century.) Thousands of books, booklets, articles, and recordings have been made promoting aspects of these ANTs.

No religious circle has a monopoly on such teachers. Many groups are breeding grounds for the growth of ANTs. The material below clarifies some keys  to effectively sorting through and responding to any or all such claims.

And these principles will work equally well with teachings that aren't quite so radical as to be characterized by their promoters as ANTs, but which still cause considerable debate and contention among fellowship groups of Believers.


Basic Keys


Key #1

Realize that you are under no obligation from God to attempt to investigate every one of these claims.


Key #2

Even if you do choose to study a bit of material on any such topic, you are under no obligation from God to finish all material available, nor to expend the effort to verify or refute every assertion.


Two corollaries to Key #2:

A. No one has a right to insist that your failure to address some claim is an admission that the claim must be true.

(In other words, just because I don't take the time to prove everything about your argument is right or wrong, doesn't mean I'm admitting your argument is right!)


B. No one has a right to insist that your failure to address some claim is admission that an opposing position is in error.

(In other words, just because I don't take the time to prove that your arguments are wrong doesn't mean I am admitting you are right and that everyone who disagrees with you is wrong!)


Key #3

Many ANT promoters specialize in very aggressive tactics in their efforts. These tactics include:

You are under no obligation from God to be impressed by or persuaded by such tactics. In particular, an establishment may well be wrong and need correction on certain matters ... or even be worthy of condemnation. But the Godly and effective way to do that is to present facts and sound reasoning showing how and why they are wrong.


Key #4

Many teachers of ANTs spend much of their time making self-aggrandizing claims of personal revelations from God and/or of studying so  long and so hard that they have discovered secret knowledge hidden from the masses until now. And they may imply that anyone who gets on board their wagon will thus be part of a very special elite group, with a very special calling from God.

This may be particularly appealing to those who were, at one time, a part of a group led by a similar teacher. If they became disillusioned with that teacher and had to break off the affiliation, they may be subconsciously dismayed that they no longer feel "special." And thus they may be particularly vulnerable to the claims of someone who promises to restore that special status.

You need to realize you don't need to promote a particular teacher or his ANTs to be "special." If you are a child of God, you already are part of a very elite group--His Family! You don't need to be part of some human scheme to promote a certain doctrine in order to be a unique part of His Plan.


Key #5

Realize that all arguments in support of any doctrine are not created equal.

Key #5 is so important
that the rest of this article is devoted to elaborating on it!


Come, Let Us Reason Together

Many people think that evaluating the opposing sides of a debate is all about attempting to refute or validate every technical detail of the arguments of each side. And they think that evaluating an argument is all about weighing every alleged fact presented to see if it is true or false.

Evaluating facts is important. Wading through technical details can be important too. But the reality is that what is far more important in looking at each side of a doctrinal debate is analyzing the reasoning used by the one promoting his doctrinal theories. And reasoning isn't so much about isolated facts, but how someone presents a case for the relationship between those facts.

Unfortunately, large portions of the population of the US (and no doubt all other countries as well) have never been taught how to reason soundly. And that includes many people who promote doctrinal theories, and many of the people who listen to and read their materials. To paraphrase a familiar scripture, "When the irrational lead the irrational, both will fall into the ditch of doctrinal error."

There are many areas of scriptural understanding in which there are legitimate variations of interpretation which can lead to opposing views, both of which are based on equally sound reasoning. The fact is that there are some specific topics about which the Bible just doesn't provide adequate information from which to come to a totally solid conclusion on either side. In these cases, each person must just weigh the evidence on each side and come to a personal conclusion on which position he finds most persuasive. But this is not the same as dealing with reasoning which is not sound.

There is a garbled perspective held by many people that, since "everyone has a right to their own opinion," one should consider all opinions on doctrinal topics as equal in value. This is not true. Indeed, when the opinion is about some topic that is a "value judgment" related to personal tastes ... e.g., "Chocolate is the tastiest food!" ... one might say that all opinions are equal. But the truth of a doctrinal position is not related to personal taste. Adultery is a sin, no matter whether someone's emotions would like it to be otherwise or not.

When it comes to this type of doctrinal topic, some opinions--and some arguments in support of those opinions--are based on sound reasoning and verifiable facts, and others are based on faulty reasoning at best and pure emotion at worst.

And thus all arguments are not created equal. It should be our goal to base the objective portions of our belief system on a foundation of sound reasoning.


Back to the Basics

Each human starts out as an infant, to whom everything in the world seems totally random. Some of the earliest challenges of mental growth involve the baby's attempts to "make sense of" the world.

Babies will very early begin noticing patterns in their observations and experiences.

With enough repetition of those patterns, they will begin to develop expectations.

If those expectations are met, they will start drawing conclusions.

And by combining those conclusions in various ways they will start making predictions.

This is a very simple and intuitive development of the beginning of what scholars over thousands of years have come to define as the more complex principles of sound reasoning.

It is helpful, when dealing with learning to use these principles, to introduce some very basic terms that clarify various aspects of sound reasoning.


Inductive Reasoning

The process of making conclusions about our world starts with what is called inductive reasoning. (Think of “inducting” someone–taking them into–the Army.) The term induction has to do with "taking in" information, through observation or experience, just as the newborn infant does. With induction, a person is attempting to gather a large number of facts and make a generalization about them. The larger the sample, the more conclusive the generalization. A simple example: A child growing up may be given a variety of apples to eat over the years, and has always enjoyed them. If every apple variety given to the child is very sweet, he may conclude that "All apples are very sweet."



The child has used his inductive reasoning skills to establish what is called a premise. A premise is a dogmatic statement made by someone, expecting that all people will agree with it because all have come to the same conclusion. This statement will then be used as part of an "argument" to establish the truth of another statement.


Deductive Reasoning.

Two or more premises can be lined up and used to draw a conclusion. This process is called deductive reasoning. In deductive reasoning, certain absolute principles of logic are applied to those premises to come to a conclusion. A simple line of deductive reasoning would go like this:

1. All apples are very sweet.
2. I like to eat all things that are very sweet.
3. This fruit Mom just gave me is an apple.
THEREFORE: I will like to eat this fruit.


Valid Conclusions

If an absolute principle of logic is applied correctly to two or more premises, the conclusion that is drawn is referred to as valid. Contrary to common usage, in the processes of logic, the word valid does not mean "absolutely true." It means that IF the proper logical process has been applied to the premises, the conclusion is inescapable. Is it, however, always true? NO.

What would prevent it from being necessarily true? If either of the original premises can be shown to be false, the conclusion may be valid, but not necessarily true.

In the example above, what if Mom just gave the child a very tart Granny Smith apple?! Obviously, there was an error in the child's inductive reasoning because his sample was not big enough. It is not true that ALL apples are very sweet. That means that Premise #1 is false.

But the conclusion is still valid. It was arrived at by following the principles of logic. As you can see, only if it can be shown that all the premises leading up to it are true, and only if the sound principles of logic are followed, can we be certain that the conclusion will be absolutely, inescapably true.

Then again, can a conclusion we have reached be true at the same time that the conclusion is not valid? Strangely enough, YES.

What if the child in the example above ends up liking the taste of tartness? Then look at the logical progression again.

1. All apples are very sweet.
2. I like to eat all things that are very sweet.
3. This fruit Mom just gave me is an apple.
THEREFORE: I will like to eat this fruit.

The reality is that the conclusion ended up being a true statement. The child does, indeed, like eating the Granny Smith apple. But this was NOT because the reasoning used forced that conclusion. It was IN SPITE OF there being an error in the reasoning. And the conclusion would indeed have been false if the child ended up despising the tart flavor of the apple.


Comparing Apples and Oranges?

What does all of this talk of sweet and tart apples have to do with doctrinal debates? Isn't this just comparing apples and oranges?

NO. The exact same principles apply to evaluating the logic ... the "reasoning" ... that teachers use when attempting to persuade others about doctrinal topics--or any other topic.

Most such teachers do not "lay out" their reasoning clearly on the page or in their speaking. They may first inundate their audience with a hodge-podge of unrelated alleged "facts," attempting (whether they even realize the tactic they are using, or not) to get what is called the "Yes Response" going. That is when a reader or listener finds himself saying, "I agree," "Yes," "Certainly," "That's correct" so many times in a row ... that his brain goes into "autopilot" and continues saying "yes"--even when he's stopped carefully considering each statement.

Toward the end of such a series, it is then possible for a teacher to take one of the "premises" that people have agreed to, and start building a case for his doctrinal position. Members of the audience may not even realize that this transition has happened, and may not clearly think through whether or not they ever comprehended which statement is now being used, or if they fully agreed with it or not. If the teacher has chosen to pick even two or more such premises from which to start building, and if the audience hasn't noticed this, the reasoning can get even more garbled.

And from that point on, it is possible that "valid" deductions can be made that are not at all necessarily true. The teacher himself may not even realize what he has done. He may be fully convinced that his original premise is true, so it is of no consequence to him that he is now using it from which to make other conclusions. But in reality he may never have even adequately established his initial premise.


Logical Fallacies

And this is only the beginning of the problems in reasoning that may be presented by such presentations. For not only may the teacher be using unsupported premises, he may also be misusing the sound principles of logic. Unless he is an unscrupulous person, he probably doesn't even know he is doing this. But erroneous reasoning that is sincere ... is still erroneous. What kind of errors may this cover?


Invalid deductions

The simplest problems to detect may be those in which the presenter is drawing conclusions that are not forced by the logic of their presentation at all. An example:

1. I John 1:5 says that God is Light.
2. Daytime is light and nighttime is dark.
THEREFORE: God is not the God of nighttime.


I have actually seen this sort of reasoning used in an argument attempting to prove that the weekly Sabbath need only be observed during the period between sunrise and sunset on Saturday. But there is absolutely no Biblical or logical reason to think that the statement in Premise #1 is  addressing issues of day and night at all. The concept is being taken totally out of context. Therefore the logical connection has not been made between the two premises being offered. And there is no principle of logic that would indicate that these two premises "force" the conclusion offered.


Failure to establish the truth of premises

The mere assertion of a premise doesn't make it so. The whole concept of a premise is that it is a statement with which everyone can agree.


Unspoken premises

Very few authors and speakers take the time to clarify fully (perhaps even in their own mind) just what premises they are using when presenting their reasoning. An example of a "missing" or "unspoken" premise:

1. Joe is a Democratic politician
2. Joe has sponsored a bill in Congress
THEREFORE: All good citizens should fight against that bill

The unspoken premise here might be "all Democratic politicians are evil" or "all Democratic politicians only back legislation harmful to freedom" or ... who knows what? If the one offering this logic is a speaker at a rabidly partisan Republican gathering, the listeners may even know what he has in mind as the unspoken premise. But there is absolutely no "validity" to the conclusion simply based on sound logical principles. And, unfortunately, this kind of "reasoning" is often offered in religious settings too, in order to bolster doctrinal positions.  


Other fallacies

Sound reasoning involves understanding and avoiding many other kinds of fallacious argumentation. This short introduction to the process of evaluating doctrinal debates cannot possibly cover all the varieties of fallacies. If you would like to become more adept at spotting poor reasoning, the following two websites that cover explanations of a wide variety of logical fallacies may be of help.

The Nizkor Project: Fallacies

Wikipedia: Logical Fallacy


Is God Logical?

Some Bible students say it is misleading to insist that arguments presented in support of some doctrine must follow "principles of logic." For, they say, by man's standards God is not always logical. So perhaps some doctrinal thesis, which goes against the principles of logic, is just using "God's superior logic."

This is a fallacy itself. God's actions and statements never go against the principles of logic. They may merely force a change in PREMISES.

For instance, it is true that many people would argue that the expectation that Christians should be willing to suffer in order to serve God and others is "illogical," and that thus a God who would expect such self-sacrifice is illogical. Here is the way such a position would be framed in logic.

1. Self-preservation is the  highest value for a human.
2. Going against this value is illogical.
3. Being self-sacrificing goes against this value.
THEREFORE: It is illogical to expect humans to be self-sacrificing.


That set of statements is, indeed, valid. But unless Premise #1 is true, the conclusion is not necessarily true at all. Premise #1 reflects a worldview that does not allow for an "afterlife." Nor does it allow for a Creator who can, Himself, dictate what the "highest values" are. IF there is a Creator God, and He has a totally different "value system" in mind for His creation, then Premise #1 may be false. Here is another set of logical statements:

1. Being self-sacrificing is a noble choice.
2. Choosing to follow this choice is not illogical.
THEREFORE: It is not necessarily illogical to expect humans to be self-sacrificing.

The conclusion here is valid also. In almost every instance of a claim that God is sometimes "illogical," it is just this sort of "different fundamental premises" that are in play.


One can argue about facts, and one can argue about inductive conclusions that have led to basic premises (perhaps the premise was not based on a broad enough sample, etc.).  But the historical principles of logic have survived thousands of years. They have been proven not to be just arbitrary rules made up by men, but a description of the way God has fundamentally ordered the thinking process.

We can disagree on premises because they are based on inductive reasoning, and we all have different knowledge bases we are drawing on ... as does God. Since He has a much wider knowledge base to draw from, His premises may seem "humanly" illogical at times. But His use of deductive reasoning will always follow the rules, because they are not a human invention, but a description of "the way reality works."


The Bottom Line

Someone who might jump to the conclusion that anyone daring to seriously call into question a teacher's reasoning is thereby "picking on him" in one of these ways is in error. Sincerity, zeal, conversion ... all these things are irrelevant to the quality of the logic someone uses. In fact, it is likely that a large proportion of irrational people are totally sincere. Many of them are also zealous.  

Having poor logic is not a moral failing ... it is merely an intellectual deficiency. The problem comes in when people with such a deficiency attempt to teach others using their faulty logic. This can lead many people into error.

And thus, using careful logic to evaluate a  teaching on any topic, and sharing that evaluation with others, is not denying people the right to believe whatever they want. It is making sure people have the opportunity to choose what to believe based on sound reasoning, by giving them rational options.

We are admonished in the scriptures to be "wise" and to be "discerning."
Bible students admire Solomon for these very characteristics.  
Therefore it is vitally important that believers be equipped
with the ability to reason soundly--for
"wisdom and discernment" are just other terms for
"sound reasoning."



Unless otherwise noted, all original material on this Field Guide website
is © 2001-2011 by Pamela Starr Dewey.

Careful effort has been made to give credit as clearly as possible to any specific material quoted or ideas extensively adapted from any one resource. Corrections and clarifications regarding citations for any source material are welcome, and will be promptly added to any sections which are found to be inadequately documented as to source.

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The Keys

to Evaluating Religious Claims