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Introduction: How to reason

Section 1: Basic Principles

To reason effectively we need to distinguish what we know from what we think we know and to learn how to use simple reasoning tools.

The ability to reason is humanity's greatest talent. The more effectively we think, the more clearly we understand ourselves and the world around us.

It doesn't require great intelligence or effort to think clearly. All that is needed is a few simple tools and a willingness to examine ideas that we may have held all our lives without asking ourselves whether they are true.

This introduction to God would be an atheist provides those tools. They are primarily intended for use in understanding the ideas of god, faith and religion, but they can be applied to every aspect of human life.

The ability to reason is one of humanity's greatest assets, yet we use it erratically. Our failure to reason effectively at critical moments in our lives may lead to nothing more disastrous than a minor accident or unintended pregnancy. It can also lead to major disasters and war.

The world would be a better and happier place if all children were taught how to reason from an early age.

The first step in reasoning is to distinguish between what we know and what we think we know. That is not always easy. Many of us have strong convictions - we know that God exists, drugs are harmful, Republicans are evil, dogs are unclean, China is one nation and so on. These ideas may or may not be true and it can very difficult to step back and examine them dispassionately. Section 2 of this introduction helps us to do so.

The next step (Section 3) is to distinguish between reasoning and rationalization. On the surface they are similar - the information in front of us points to this conclusion - but they are very different. Reasoning starts with a question and an open mind: what evidence do we have and what conclusion does it point to? Rationalization starts with an answer and a closed mind: this is the situation and now we need the evidence to prove it. Too often in our lives - from politicians justifying war to children explaining away a minor mishap - we use rationalization rather than reasoning.

Section 4 follows on by looking at all the

How good is your reasoning?

Can you distinguish lies from truth? Or a good argument from a false one? Can you when tell someone is trying to pull the wool over your eyes?

We keep physically fit by exercising regularly and eating healthy
food. The same is true of our minds - we need regular mental exercise and a good diet of solid facts and logic.

This chapter offers basic reasoning skills to help you understand the contradictions that lie at the heart of all religion.

0.1: Basic principles
Start at the beginning

0.2: What do we know?
Separate fact from fiction

0.3: Start with the question ...
... not with the answer

0.4: All the evidence ...
... not just some of it

0.5: Cause, correlation and no connection
What's the difference?

0.6: Don't jump to conclusions ...
... or you could land in the ...

0.7: No way
Proving a negative

0.8: Occam's Razor
The simplest solution

0.9: Facts, knowledge and science
What we know and how we know it

0.10: Know or believe?
The impossibility of God

0.11: Reason and faith
Understanding the difference

0.12: Summary

Finished the introduction? Move on to

Chapter 1
Defining God

Does God exist? Before we try to answer that question we need to have a clear idea of who or what God is. How do we describe God? What versions of God are on offer?

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evidence. Rationalization depends on choosing the evidence which fits the pre-determined conclusion - if the police and prosecution decide that A murdered B, they will focus on the evidence which seems to prove it and ignore the evidence that suggests that C was the person who committed the crime. Creationism follows a similar pattern of only selecting evidence that bolsters its argument.

Section 5 looks at cause and correlation. Most of us are familiar with the difference between the two, at least in theory, but we find it difficult to difficult to distinguish between them in practice. Does a friend drink too much because she is depressed? Or does the alcohol make her depressed? Or is there no connection between the two? And the Big Question: must everything have a cause?

Our next challenge, in Section 6, is to go slowly. Don't jump to conclusions. That's the halfway point between reasoning and rationalization. We've started with an open mind - we don't know who dunnit - but the evidence we've looked at suggests it was the butler, so we pull him in and in the meantime the real murderer leaves town. This eagerness to find an answer is the typical response to unexplained natural phenomena; if we can't explain it, we immediately assume the cause was God or aliens from space.


Do we know who or what made these crop circles? No.
Does that mean aliens made them? No.
Section 7 is the philosopher's trick. "You can't prove a negative; that means you can't prove there is no God." Well, yes and no. In the theoretical world, you can't prove anything, but this is real life and some negatives can be proved. See for yourself.

William of Ockham - now more often spelt Occam - was a fourteenth century English philosopher and friar. His claim to fame is the formulation of the principle now known as Occam's Razor (Section 8): in any situation that offers two or more explanations, the simpler / simplest explanation is always best. It's a useful tool, but as with any razor, we have to be careful how we use it or we may do ourselves an injury.

Section 9 looks at science, our basic tool for determining facts about the universe we live in. Observe something

Got ten minutes to spare? Check out this basic lesson on reasoning from Qualia Soup
in nature you don't understand, create a hypothesis that might explain it. If the hypothesis is accurate and predictive - it tells you what will happen every time - it can be accepted as fact. If not, go back and set up another hypothesis.

The last section of this introduction comes to the heart of the matter: reason and faith. Faith, as the Bible itself admits, is the denial of reason. Faith tells us to ignore the evidence that surrounds you. Reason tells us to ignore faith. What should we do?

Once we have absorbed all this information, by the end of this chapter, we will know that to reason effectively we need to distinguish what we know from what we think we know and to learn how to use simple reasoning tools.

Next: Introduction: Section 2
What do we know?

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If God existed, he would...

admire the beauty of a universe that he did not create

recognize that eternity is meaningless

deny both heaven and hell

disown all men and women who speak in his name

denounce the harm caused by religious "morality"

help the human race to thrive without him

If God existed, he would be an atheist.

What is the difference between science and faith?

science is certain of nothing and requires proof of everything

faith is certain of everything and requires proof of nothing

Which do you trust?

"I know there is no God"
"I believe there is no God"

Check the answer

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