Good Reasons

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!

Good Reasons

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?

  • Frank

    The second question itself is faulty:

    “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?”

    What is your basis for saying that the authority of the bible is nonrational? Simply because if someone doesn’t not believe in the authority of the bible, biblical arguments are nonrational or irrational? I think we could pull much out of the bible and state it without referencing it as biblical and many would find those statements rational. If anything it would only expose the hypocrisy and bias of those against the bible.

    Aside from that there is ample scientific, medical, psychological and sociological evidence that homosexuality is damaging outside of the bible.

    • Basil


      I remind you again that lying is a sin. To state “there is ample scientific, medical, psychological and sociological evidence that homosexuality is damaging…” is a lie. There is no such evidence from any credible source. In fact, all the evidence is to the contrary. All the leading reputable professional organizations, like the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association have affirmed that homosexuality is perfectly normal. In fact, the American Psychiatric Association called for “organizations and individuals to do all that is possible to decrease the stigma related to homosexuality wherever and whenever it may occur”.

      • Frank

        Basil you have your agenda and its pretty clear that anything that goes against your agenda you will say is not credible.

        The liar here is you if you say that homosexuality is not a sin and homosexuality is good for the person and society.

        If I were you I’d work on that!

        • Basil


          This is not a question of agenda, this is a question of facts. You can believe whatever you want in terms of religion. You cannot make up your own facts. When you wrote that “there is ample scientific, medical, psychological and sociological evidence that homosexuality is damaging…”, that is a complete falsehood. You lied. There is no such “scientific” or “medical” evidence. The evidence is all to the contrary. The fact that you repeat something, which you know to be false, means that you are a LIAR.

          You can have your opinion, you can have your own religion, but you cannot have your own facts.

          • Frank

            Basil I will be happy to post references to back up what I said. The question is: are you ready to receive it?

            Of course not because you want what you not evidence be damned!

    • ME

      Frank. Do you KNOW that Jesus rose from the dead or do you BELIEVE that he rose from the dead?

      I KNOW the speed of light is a 3 x10^8 meters per second. I KNOW at what temperature water boils at sea level. These are facts which I can communicate and 99% of people will agree on.

      I BELIEVE the bible is true. I don’t know it. If I knew it, we could all communicate it to each other and everyone would believe just like they believe what the speed of light is.

      We need to distinguish between beliefs and facts. I think it’s a similar dichotomy, if not identical, to the rational/nonrational one Scot desribed.

      • Frank

        Well ME I KNOW Jesus rose from the dead which is why I BELIEVE it.

        However I see what you are getting at.

        However the speed of light now seems not to be constant so what we call “facts” may not really be facts after all.

        Anyways yes I see your point however Scot introduced a false dichotomy or maybe he simply did not explain it well enough.

  • Travis Ingels


    Would you say that rational and non rational are the only two categories? Or can there be more? I guess I feel that experience can fall into both categories at the same time and I almost want to create a separate category for it. And forgive me if I am wrong, but rational as you mentioned is just one type of consciousness I just feel that placing things into two categories seems to limit the scope of possibilities.

    To your second question I think in how you defined rational then I think there is very little room for a stance against homosexual behavior from a rational level. My question comes is does the rational concept leave any room for religious thought (expression rational etc Don’t really know the right word)? If not then I think in today’s culture religious discussion are subjugated to the role of non-rational which it seems is less conclusive and desirable than rational arguments. In doing so have we subjugated all religious discussion to a place where they are no longer viable in a rational world?

    Hope that all makes sense.

    • Travis Ingels

      I correct myself homosexual behavior should be GLBT marriage. Old habits die hard.

    • ME

      Travis, in your last sentence I wouldn’t use the term “subjugated.” Just because something is nonrational doesn’t mean it’s inferior. I consider faith to be nonrational and I certainly hold faith in a higher regard than rationality.

      The world we live in is ruled by King probability. We are taught to calculate our every move and make the move most advantageous. This is rationality. Following Jesus is not rationality, it is not subjugated to the rational world but transcends it.

    • Scot Miller

      I probably should have explained that my understanding of rationality isn’t the Enlightenment model of a universal Reason, like in Kant. Maybe I should have emphasized that there are many “rationalites,” or that “rationality” is one kind of language game that we can play in our culture.

      I also should have addressed the notion of irrationality, which I only mentioned in passing. What is irrational is the contradictory of reason: there are no justifications, public or private, for believing irrational claims (“Five-sided triangles are green”).

      • Travis Ingels

        Ok. I was just a little confused. I was pretty sure you thought there were multiple rationalities, but I wanted to make sure. :) Thanks for the response.

  • Dan Hauge

    In the way you have defined the terms and framed the question, I would have to say that arguments against same-sex marriage on biblical grounds would have to be declared nonrational. But it seems that you would also have to conclude that any reason for any public policy based on a faith commitment would also have to be considered nonrational–you could ‘rationally’ pursue policies of social justice, for example, on other reasons beside faith convictions about the dignity of personhood, etc., but any appeal to biblical teaching or theological argument would have to be considered nonrational because it could not be verified by all participants in the discussion.

    Which is OK, I guess, except that in popular thought the word “rational” tends to mean “putting some thought into it” and the word “non-rational” tends to mean “ignorant and unthinking”. In your post you do a good job of defining your terms in more precise ways, which do not inherently dismiss or devalue the nonrational, but I think it would take a long time and a lot of sustained work in the public sphere before those terms are really understood in that way on a wider basis.

    • Travis Ingels

      Dan ,

      I agree. I don’t think there is necessarily anything wrong with how Scott defined his terms but the a broader audience will see rational as good and non rational as not good (or at least not as good as rational).

    • Scot Miller

      You’re right that “nonrational” seems like a variant of “irrational,” but I can’t think of another good term to use. Logically either something is rational or it is not rational (R or not-R). Faith does not seem to be rational (“the heart has its reasons…”), but I don’t want to dismiss it as irrational (contradictory to reason). So I want to say that what is not rational (not-R) may be either irrational or nonrational.

      And unless I’m understanding reason incorrectly, I don’t think that appealing to the Bible or to one’s religion on matters of public policy is legitimately rational. Most objections to homosexuality or same-sex marriage seem to assume not only the authority of the Bible, but the authority of only one way to read the Bible. The same can be said of objections to abortion. Unless Christians can find some way of translating their non-rational beliefs into rational discourse, I’m not sure that they are advocating moral positions at all. They are only expressing their privately justifiable religious position. And if any religious person believes that God opposes abortion and homosexuality, then they should not have abortions or be homosexual. At the same time, they shouldn’t expect anyone else (other than people in their same language game) to accept what they say.

  • Charles

    A very intriguing post. I agree that religious thought and beliefs are mostly non-rational – that’s where faith enters in. Isn’t that what most all religious beliefs are based on – faith in something non-rational? But I think that’s OK. Scot’s example of love for your partner is a great exemplar. There’s something extraordinarily non-rational about how we feel about that person. I think the same can be said for our religious beliefs. Again, I thinks that’s perfectly fine – just recognize it for what it is.

  • ME

    Terrific blog entry.

    I’ll put in my two cents to your questions… (for the record I haven’t read the other comments yet.)

    Much of getting along with others is about distinguishing between rational and nonrational beliefs. If I think my faith is rational I will behave in pretty terrible ways toward other people who don’t share my faith. In my opinion this is what people who are denigrated as “Bible thumpers” do. Rational beliefs are beliefs that nearly everyone can agree on, they are a kind of least common denominator we all start from in order to live with each other.

    No, there is not a rational moral argument against same sex marriage. There is no such thing as a “rational” moral argument because morals are values. They are “oughts” which are a creation of man (or what man perceives of God’s somewhat obscured revelation). You can never trace a moral back to a least common denominator on which we can all agree. A moral value is arbitrary.

    An opinion piece in the New York Times tackled this issue and even though it came to the opposite conclusion as mine there are several good counter-arguments in the comments.

    The only argument against same sex-marriage is a theological argument and, in my opinion, that theological argument belongs in the church and has no place in the secular world. There should be absolutely no question as to whether or not two men can get married by a judge. Of course they should be able to. The only question is whether the Catholic church, or the Episcopal Church or the Mars Hill Church will marry two men. Those churches can decide for themselves.

    • Frank

      Theology is hardly the only argument against SSM. Evolution, biology, psychology and sociology all provide evidence that SSM is good for no one.

      • ME

        Ok, so if I’m an atheist homosexual who wants to get married to another man and I study evolution, biology, sociology and psychology I will come to the conclusion not to marry? No way…

        • Frank

          If you do research with an open mind and put your own desires aside… way! :)

          • pokey

            If someone comes to me with an argument about why it is immoral for me to love my S.O., please forgive my closed-mindedness on the issue, even if the argument is cloaked in biology, evolution, psychology, and sociology. My love is not up for your debate, and yours is not up for mine.

          • Frank

            Pokey no one is preventing you from loving whom and the way you choose. Whether its healthy or not is another story.

        • Basil

          No, you won’t. Same sex behavior is fairly common in nature, having been observed in hundreds of species, particularly those that are more evolutionarly advanced. There is a lot of discussion among social biologists that sexual behavior is not simply for reproduction, but is also a means of bonding between animals. For animals that live in social groups, like wolves, subordinate members will contribute to helping raise and feed the children of the dominant couple (the alpha male and alpha female), which increases the odds of survival for those kids (i.e. wolves have gay uncles and aunts). When you start diving into the literature, it is dense reading, but really fascinating.

          • Frank

            Homosexual behavior in animals from what we understand is mostly about power and control and territoriality.

            But hey if you what to use that as a justification for your own behavior you are welcome to live like an animal.

          • Basil

            “Homosexual behavior in animals from what we understand is mostly about power and control and territoriality”

            That is not correct. There are multiple motivations for homosexual behavior in animals, with lots of diversity depending upon the species involved. It is not possible to generalize. For example, Stanford University’s paper about bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees) notes:

            “Bonobo society, unlike that of than that of chimpanzees, is best characterized as female centered and egalitarian, with sex substituting for aggression. Females occupy prominent, often ruling positions in society, and the high points of bonobo intellectual life are found not in cooperative hunting or strategies to achieve dominance but in conflict resolution and sensitivity to others.”

            So again, you are liar, misrepresenting facts. That was really foolish of you, because you are not a research biologist.

            As for making a judgmental and disparaging comparison of my sexuality to that of an animal; that just proves that you are also an asshole.

          • Frank

            Ok so one other reason animals seem to engage in homosexual behavior is based on aggression and may be used for conflict resolution. That does not invalidate the other studied causes. There is not just one reason why we see this happening in the animal kingdom.

            Not sure where you are going with this because no matter how you present it, what animals do has nothing to do with humanity. If you are trying to say that because this behavior is found in the animal kingdom it makes it right for us to engage in it as well you are simply reducing it to a sexual act (which may or may not have anything to do with sex) or saying we are no different than the animals. Either way its a lousy case for human homosexuality. But then again you have no compelling case for it, so grasping at straws is what’s left, but make sure the straws you grasp actually present what you hope they will.

    • Scot Miller

      I think that matters of faith (nonrational belief) would benefit from some of the self-correction and self-criticism that characterizes rational discourse. Perhaps believers would be less certain and less arrogant if they recognized with Paul that “now we see through a mirror, dimly…. Now we know in part….” Believers could testify to the truth they have experienced and understand, but since they only know “in part,” they would’t arrogantly speak for God or the truth unless other rational persons could understand the truth as well.

  • Sarah

    I like the story of the one who, after hearing of the annunciation, said “Oh, this is so beautiful it must be true, even if it didn’t really happen.” That is how I see much of the bible, that there is much truth in it, even if some of it didn’t really happen.

    By the way, I also think that the 52 year old relationship of two women in my congregation is wonderfully beautiful, even if no one will recognize it as a marriage.

  • Andrew Martin

    Surely rationality entails both reasoning using widely-accepted forms (which some will formalize as logic), and from widely-accepted starting points (which some will formalize as axioms). 20th century mathematics showed the fomalizm not to be as great as was hoped, but that’s a digression.

    Non-rationality in your terms mostly derives from using some private knowledge as the starting point. Irrationality in your terms (which I would prefer to call counter-rationality) derives both from counter-factual starting points (or those widely perceived to be so) and from poor or fallacious reasoning.

    So one way to answer your question is to ask whether it is rational to regard the bible as a source of instruction for life. Many millions have done so, with reasonable results – so there is a certain rationality to that. But this is obviously not an “all or nothing” rationality, since it sub-divides into all maner of questions about source and authority and hermeneutics. And there are enough of those that even if you you think you are completely rational, you quickly find that the number of of people who agree is really rather small.

    I suppose that means I don’t think your question has an answer, and that in a sense it’s just a re-statement of a different question in other terms. But I’m not trained in philosophy – and enjoyed thinking about it. Thank you.

  • ben w.

    Scot, I don’t understand your concession that “rational” has to be publicly agreeable. I agree that rational arguments accord with sound logic and a valid use of evidence, and in that sense there should be “public agreement.” But just because the public doesn’t share my epistemological foundations or accept the same sources of evidence that I do, doesn’t mean that they *shouldn’t*. One of us may be standing on an contra-rational foundation, and that needs to be debated with civility in a *rational* manner. Rational discussion extends to our most fundamental assumptions about epistemology, metaphysics, and approach to ethics, and thus may be unacceptable to some or most of the public, while actually being rational.

    And yes I do think that their are pro-life arguments and arguments against same-sax marriage that are not based solely off the Bible. Here’s a simple pro-life one:
    1) The unborn fetus is a human being. (basic biological study confirms it is both human and a being with a unique DNA, mind, heartbeat,etc.).
    2) All human beings are persons worthy of respect and protection under the law. (our history of counting human beings as less-than-persons is dismal: including slavery, Jim Crow laws, and the Holocaust).
    Therefore –> the unborn fetus is a person worthy of respect and protection.

    I understand that others will disagree with some points in there, but it is a rational argument that isn’t just Bible proof-texting.

    Of course many arguments have been made against same sex marriage that are not based on the Bible by others much more capable than me – one great example is Dr. Robbie P George of Princeton:

    Finally, it seems your definition of rationality is that which is “objectively, empirically justified”, with all other justifications being non-rational. But I find such empiricism unsatisfying and self-defeating (i.e. – the statement is left to be a non-empirical and thus non-rational statement).

    • Scot Miller

      I hope I didn’t say that what is rational is what everyone publicly agrees to. All I meant was that rational discourse is open to anyone becasue the reasons offered in rational discousre should be available to anyone. If I said, “I believe that homosexuality is immoral because God told me so in a dream last night,” I would hope you wouldn’t beleive it. Now suppose that it wasn’t just me, but a whole group of people who independently report having the same dream. While we may believe that God spoke to us in our dreams, and that dream was absolutely clear to us, such private justification isn’t a sufficient reason for anyone else to believe them.

      Now that dream might lead me to seek rational arguments to convince people who didn’t share that dream that homosexuality is a sin. I might still be convinced that homosexuality is a sin, but unless my reasons are convincing to other people, I’m left with a nonrational but (at least in my mind) true belief.

      I also want to emphasize that rational people disagree all the time. I don’t want to be heard saying that everyone who is rational will agree. They won’t. That’s why it’s rational to tolerate differences of judgment, since rational people often disagree on what counts as evidence and whether a particular line of reasoning works or doesn’t.

      And I think you have proven that one can give a rational argument against abortion and homosexuality. Unfortunatly, I don’t think either of them are good arguments, but that’s not because I feel they’re wrong. I could argue, for instance, that recognizing the personhood of a fetus isn’t a matter of biology, but a matter of possessing certain properties, like consciousness, self-consciousness, etc. My point is that rational people can give reasons that any rational person can look at, evaluate, challenge, etc. Whether we reach a concensus or not, we can help each other clarify exactly what we think.

      And if we are being rational and self-critical, it becomes harder for me to question the motives of those who disagree with me. I can’t say, for example, that people who are pro-choice are anti-life baby killers, and that people who think homosexuality is a sin are anti-gay homophobic bigots. These are obvious ad hominems that can be rejected as fallacies. But if I can only quote scriputre or say “God told me X is true” and have no other good reason, I shouldn’t expect anyone else to agree with me.

      Finally, I tried to indicate that rationality itself rests on the nonrational assumption that it’s better to be rational than not. It’s hard to answer the question, “Why be rational?” in a non-circular way (i.e., “It’s rational to be rational.”) There are many factors which go into our web of beliefs and lead us to accept some lines of argument and disagree with others. Of cousre, if I’m interesting in talking with other people who don’t share all of my non-empirical beliefs, I still have to enter into the sphere of public discousre.

  • ME

    “But just because the public doesn’t share my epistemological foundations or accept the same sources of evidence that I do, doesn’t mean that they *shouldn’t*”

    How can the public accept the same sources of evidence as you? Referencing Scot, Pascal also wrote, “Faith is a gift of God; do not believe that we said it was a gift of reasoning.” Does not this gift come to people at different times? Maybe people “should” accept this gift from God, but, for some it hasn’t even been offered yet. Doesn’t that practically make it nonrational to some?

  • Bill S.

    I had thought it was fairly common nowadays for philosophers to distinguish between the (merely) rational and the reasonable.

    We can reserve the term “rational” to refer to consistency in thought and action, including means-end reasoning. We can reserve the term “reasonable” to refer to thought processes, beliefs, worldviews, and people that are, in addition to being rational, also respect the good reasons that we have. So, if there are good reasons to be moral, but (contrary to Kant) these reasons do not arise from the narrow constraints of rationality, then we might say that a self-interested person may be acting rationally, but not reasonably when she fails to give due regard for the interests of others.

  • susan frederick

    I’m thinking that rationality (as it is normally understood) is rooted in logic and a sort of cause-and-effect dynamic that makes possible more broad based consensus than other ways of knowing can do. When we can all see that “this caused that” and 2+2=4, it makes agreement more likely. When that feature is lacking, it makes agreement less likely. People then default to their conditioned assumptions which even if they are rationally indefensible are nevertheless reinforced by others within that belief system. That’s why people who believe alike gather into groups. The most effective support for rationally indefensible belief systems is a community of people who agree. They inevitably look for and collect data to support their propositions in order to prop up the non-rational with a semblance of rationality. But if the props crumble under the pressure of scrutiny, the community nevertheless remains true to their assumptions, which have become part of their world view–and even of their own identity.

    That’s what I see happening everywhere. Do you guys see that?