I have to admit, I was surprised when Tony asked me to guest blog while he takes a brief break. After all, nobody really knows me, I’ve never written a book, I don’t have my own blog, and I only comment after somebody else says something. But I have to admit I was flabbergasted to see the comments welcoming me to Tony’s blog. Thank you for your warm welcome!
One of the things I try to do in my comments on Tony’s blog is to give good reasons for what I believe. I suppose my fondness for good arguments comes from my training in philosophy and my having taught philosophy to undergraduates for several years. I insisted that my students give good reasons for their beliefs, reasons that can withstand rational scrutiny. That means that they had to be as critical of their own ideas as they were of ideas they disagree with. (The difference between a partisan thinkers and critical thinkers is that partisans can only criticize their opponent’s ideas, while critical thinkers are as worried about their own beliefs as they are about the beliefs of others.)
I also think that having good reasons should apply to my religious beliefs. For example, is there a difference between God and what I think about God? Almost all believers think so, especially those who speak of being in a relationship with God. But if God is not identical to what I think about God, are all ways of thinking about God equally good? No, some ways of thinking about God are better and worse than others. When we engage in rational discourse about religious matters, we are really trying to evaluate our ideas in order to arrive at beliefs which are more adequate to express the “reality” of God.
But should all of a believer’s reasons be rational reasons? Was Pascal right when he said, “The heart has reasons that reason cannot know”? To answer these questions, let me distinguish between the “rational” and the “nonrational.”
At a minimum, the “rational” is a sphere of pubic discourse which uses generally accepted rules of ordered thought to reach conclusions based on the best evidence from logic, history, experience, and nature. Further, what is “rational” is publicly justifiable and open to evaluation by other members of the rational community. Finally, rational beliefs and actions are always open to revision based on new knowledge and understanding.
It’s important to emphasize that being rational is no guarantee that one’s beliefs are true or one’s actions are correct. For thousands of years it was rational to believe that the earth was a sphere at the center of the universe around which the moon, sun, planets, and fixed stars moved. Not only did Aristotle and Ptolemy give arguments for the earth-centered universe, but the Bible seemed to confirm this belief, too (see Josh. 10:12-13, Ps. 19:4-6, Ps. 93:1, Ps. 104:5, Eccl. 1:5). This rational belief was proved to be false during the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by better observations and better mathematical models to explain the data. We now understand that the earth revolves in an elliptical orbit around the sun, and we no longer interpret the poetic accounts of the movement of the sun in the Bible as if they were scientific descriptions.
In addition, both Plato and Aristotle offered rational justifications for slavery (the differences between people justified the enslavement of “inferior” people), and Christian slave-holders found ample justification for slavery in the Bible. (Southern slave holders were especially fond of Gen. 9:18-27, since the sons of Ham, who lived in Africa, were cursed to be slaves, and the southerner’s slaves came from Africa.) These arguments for slavery have not withstood rational scrutiny.
So having a rational belief is not the same thing as having a true belief. A rational belief is always open to revision when confronted with better evidence and better arguments.
But what about the heart’s reasons that reason can’t know? Do all of our reasons have to be rational and publicly debatable? Consider falling in love (or falling in deep infatuation). Lovers don’t always act in ways that make rational sense: they spend time and money on their lover when (rationally) they ought to use their time and money for other things. (“I couldn’t study for the test because I had to spend time with my girlfriend.”) Moreover they claim to know things about their lover that nobody else seems to recognize (“You just don’t know him the way I know him.”) Love may not be rational, but it isn’t irrational, either. So we can recognize that sometimes we have beliefs or actions that are non-rational, and that the non-rational may open us to truth that reason can’t fully comprehend.
Nonrational appeals to authority, feeling, intuition, religious experience, mystical experience, etc., demonstrate the limits of the “rational” and suggest that “the rational” is only one kind of consciousness. But the nonrational is only privately justifiable: only the people who share the same authority, feeling, intuition, etc. will buy the justification for nonrational reasons. For example, let’s say that you are a Christian who believes that the Bible is the Word of God. Quoting the Bible may be persuasive to someone who is predisposed to accept the Bible’s authority, but it’s not quite as convincing to someone who does not accept the Bible’s authority. After all, would a Christian be inclined to accept a claim as true if it came from the Koran?
Is there a good reason to distinguish between rational and nonrational beliefs? And is there a rational moral argument against same-sex marriage, or is the objection really norational because it is based on the authority of the Bible?