The Rational, the Irrational, and the Nonrational: Are These the Right Categories for Meaningful Distinctions?

In a Chris Hedges talk that I recently listened to (on my iPod), Hedges made, in passing, a critique of the New Atheists that they frequently fail to make distinctions between:

  • the rational
  • the irrational
  • the nonrational

In atheist terms, according to Hedges, anything not strictly rational tends to be set over into the irrational category. But Hedges suggests that a great deal of human experience belongs to the nonrational, and to fail to distinguish it from irrationality is to narrow (unnecessarily) what it means to be reasonable. Since Hedges was speaking in passing, he really didn’t detail the distinction he was making, but I would infer the following examples:

  • Young earth creationism, belief that you are Julius Caesar, and the idea that bottled water is better for you than tap water are irrational ideas because they can be refuted with clear evidence or are logically or physically highly improbable (or even impossible)
  • Belief in atheism or theism as such are nonrational because they are inferences about the world not really subject to the kinds of proof that would put them in the category of the irrational
  • Preferences for particular lovers, pieces of art, and music are nonrational

I think these are the fairly easy cases. My question would be this: What about, say, belief in the Trinity? Is that irrational (because it is absent evidence or logically or physically improbable), or is it nonrational (because it is a preference for seeing the world not subject to the kinds of evidence that we normally associate with the rational).

I guess I’m questioning the value and coherence of Hedges’s distinctive categories. Or perhaps they need clearer fleshing out. Is it fair, for example, to call what Christians, Muslims, or UFO abductees believe beyond the normal evidence of the senses irrational? Or are they nonrational? What say you?


Note: In the event that you aren’t familiar with Hedges, he’s a former NY Times international correspondent, and one of my favorite nonfiction authors. Here is the beginning of one of his talks:

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Rational, the Irrational, and the Nonrational: Are These the Right Categories for Meaningful Distinctions?

  1. Matt says:

    Interesting question.
    My view is that any religion that claims an objective, measurable reality associated with their beliefs is irrational.
    That includes (as you mentioned) Young Earth Creationism, and also claims of healing, claims of prayer being answered … basically any claims that God (however He may be defined) acts in an interventionist manner.
    I’d put Deist claims (broadly speaking, claims about a non-interventionist God) into the nonrational category.
    However, given that it has no objective reality I also put Deist claims into the “useless assumptions that unnecessarily complicate things” category. But that’s just me. :^)

  2. santitafarella says:


    Does this mean that, say, if you are on an operating table, and you experience yourself leaving your body, and go into a paradise, and have a life review, and encounter a divine being who says, “You’re time is not yet,” and then you are revived and told that your EKG went completely flat, and you were dead for a time, and you showed zip brain activity, that the only RATIONAL response to this information is to conclude that you must have simply been hallucinating?

    I’ve been posting some NDEers testimony on my blog lately (perhaps you’ve noticed). Do you think they’re crazy or rational to believe their experiences? What say you?

    Ayers, the famous positivist philosopher of the mid-20th century had an NDE, and it drove him to reconsider his atheism. He said that he encountered a divine being.


  3. Matt says:

    I think personal experiences, even my own, are highly untrustworthy forms of evidence.
    I have another anecdote … my wife’s uncle flatlined on the operating table a few weeks ago. I asked him if he had an NDE … and he didn’t. So what does that mean?
    Maybe something is seen and experienced (eg the light, the feeling of wellbeing), but my suspicion is that a person’s pre-existing beliefs heavily influence how they interpret these things.
    To show that there’s something other than a subjective psychological effect happening, I’d like to see a study showing that a range of people with a range of beliefs (hindu, christian, muslim, atheist, etc …) tend to have similar NDE experiences.

  4. santitafarella says:


    Your uncle’s non-NDE experience is typical. Only about one in seven people who flatline tend to recall a vivid NDE.

    If I’m not being a pain in the ass about this, watch the video I posted on Pam Reynolds here, then tell me what you think. If your uncle had Pam’s experience, would it at least give you pause?:


  5. santitafarella says:


    One other quick thought. I agree with you that personal experience should not be believed by us uncritically, for it might contradict the background information that we think is true. But I also think that experience is part of the “epistemic mix” of how we know things. An experience of something extraordinary should cast doubt in both directions:

    1. towards the experience itself; and
    2. towards the background information that we think we’ve already established and that makes the experience “impossible.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s