Monday, February 24, 2014

Reason first

I vaguely recall once being instructed on how one could teach a certain religious concept. It involves a visual demonstration, consisting of something like a narrow tube or container, a small wooden figurine of Jesus, and various other small items. The pupils are challenged to fit all of the items into the container. However, the container, the Jesus figurine, and the other items are crafted in such a way that you can only get everything to fit if you "put Jesus first."

It's a contrived example, as many lessons like this are. It isn't meant to illustrate the intrinsic meaning of the teaching, it's simply meant to function as a mnemonic: to make it memorable, to make you reflect on it more often. "Jesus first," and ideas like that, are a fairly common notion among religious people. Mormon apostle Dieter F. Uchtdorf supplied a similar meme which made its rounds on Facebook and Twitter: "doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith." Or, to state it more simply, "faith first."

This idea is a generalization of what I call the Mormon axiom. In a Mormon theological system, it is assumed that "the church is true," and all other arguments must either rely on, agree with, or conclude with this assumption. In many faith-based schools of thought, one must honor "faith first," everything else can only fill in the blanks after faith has had its overriding say.

I've been thinking about this for a long time. I'd like to explain my thoughts on why, in the realm of theology, putting faith first does make everything else fit. I'd also like to explain why I chose to put reason first, and faith second, in my life. The short answer is "ex falso quodlibet." ("From falsehood, anything follows.") The long answer is the rest of this blog post.

The reason faith first makes everything fit is quite simple. It is because the power of this assumption is excessively strong. When you put faith first, you can come to any conclusion, no matter how absurd. For example, if you truly believe that there are men on earth that speak for God, then if those men told you that you were living in the Matrix, you would believe them. Another example: all of your sensory perceptions come under question, when your faith dictates that the devil has otherworldly powers of deception. What is real? What is a lie? When faith comes first, it's all up in the air. And that's how faith-first logical systems make everything fit. That's how they have the power to "explain everything." The corrupting touch of this overpowered axiom simply obliterates any argument that might get in its way, and can also vacuously fill any void.

Consider my views on homosexuality. It's quite easy to construct a fairly convincing faith-first argument to counter what I said. All you have to do is disregard my personal perception and experience, to relegate it to second-class status in comparison to the dictates of a given faith. When a holy man proclaims in the name of God that homosexuality is wrong, then in a faith-first mentality (where faith is placed in that particular holy man's claims to speak for God), there is simply no room to argue. God has spoken. Who are you going to trust? Me, or God? In faith-first fashion, you may obliterate my views in one of many ways. Perhaps I am lying about what I felt. Perhaps I have been deceived, or I have misinterpreted my feelings. According to a Christian faith-first point of view, I should "trust not the arm of flesh," and instead, I should place my trust in God. According to modern Mormon teachings, I should resist my desire to court men, and rest assured that God will help me through the ensuing difficulty.

I am perfectly capable of choosing to put faith first. My desires are not so overwhelmingly strong that I cannot control them. I do not feel my hand has been forced in the matter of whether I put faith first. I did not choose reason before faith in order to cave in to my desires. Why, then, wouldn't I choose faith first? In some regards, my life would be much easier. I wouldn't be in such an awkward position with my Mormon family and friends, who knew me as a faithful member of the church for most of my life. I wouldn't have to reconcile those years with myself. I was a believer for a long time, and now I feel somewhat detached from that believing person that I was. It's difficult, and strange, to make this transition.

I'll tell you why I made this choice. It is due to the feeling of logical unsoundness that comes with faith first. It is the burden of carrying an axiom that is too powerful. An old Latin phrase, still used in formal logic today, is "ex falso quodlibet," which means, "from a falsehood, anything follows." When I find myself noticing that "anything follows," I must become suspicious that a falsehood has crept into my set of assumptions. When I looked at the world without my faith-first axiom, suddenly, a lot of things made a lot more sense to me.

So I chose to put reason first, while faith takes a back seat. The result of this is that Jesus no longer fits into my beliefs. I still think that many of the teachings attributed to Jesus fit quite well. I am free to adopt those as appropriate, but I choose to no longer unquestioningly elevate any particular person or supposed deity above myself.

Perhaps I do put faith first. But not faith in Mormonism, or any other person or authority. No, instead, I put faith in myself first. In my ability to reason, to think, to perceive. In the importance to be authentic, to be true to myself. This is what I will call the "axiom of pride." In the future, I will discuss how this relates to the LGBT movement historically, and what gay pride (and the axiom of pride generally) means to me.

Not all religious schools of thought fall victim to the perils of "faith first." Even Mormon missionaries will tell you to try their religion for yourself, and see if it feels right to you (fully expecting that it will, of course). So I'm not trying to slam any religions when I say that "faith first" is bad. I am just trying to point out a disturbing trend that was very fundamental to the way I used to practice Mormonism. The superpowered nature of "faith first" makes it very dangerous, and I feel that holding that view robbed me of authenticity and replaced it with conformity.