Religious Disagreement and Pluralism
- ISBN: 9780198849865
- Published By: Oxford University Press
- Published: February 2022
Religious Disagreement and Pluralism is a dense and carefully argued collection of philosophy of religion essays that debate the amount of confidence a rational person can have in their religious beliefs given a pluralistic world with many committed believers of other religions and myriad competing beliefs. Does the mere existence of this pluralism raise unavoidable questions of epistemic import? Is religious disagreement different in some way from other debates encountered in everyday life? The editors, Matthew A. Benton and Jonathan L. Kvanvig, have created a very focused conversation on a narrow slice of philosophy, yet the authors of individual essays have space to approach the topic from multiple angles, draw out implications arising from our religiously diverse world, and reach various thoughtful positions.
It may be unexpected for some that philosophy would have much to say about religious pluralism. For those coming to this work with a background in sociology, psychology, or the politics of pluralism, the approach here may feel like stepping into a foreign country. This collection is unapologetically a work of philosophy of religion. The methodology follows the conventions of analytic philosophy, and the divinity most often in view is the theistic deity of philosophers: omnipotent, totally good, and stripped of most detail. There is a certain irony to reading a book about pluralism and finding this abstraction rather than the particularities of lived religions.
The pluralism in view is often that between theistic belief, agnosticism, and atheism, with non-theistic possibilities either bracketed out or given passing mention. This amount of abstraction may be a stretch for those familiar with more evidence-based approaches to religious belief. Often the arguments require the reader to suppose that the person in an example can recognize an epistemic peer, strive for full rationality, set aside biases, and handle their own beliefs with a high level of objectivity. Difficulties regarding the transparency of our own psychology, the social pressures to nihilate an outsider’s beliefs, and the many other layers that cloud our best intentions are largely set aside. Most contributors, though, show an awareness of this suspension and the limitations of their approach, while being cautiously circumspect about their conclusions.
Even while being at a remove from the very human flaws in our knowing, this work raises important questions that become apparent thanks to these abstractions. A major question explored here is whether the reality of pluralism itself should affect the confidence a person has in their own religious beliefs (atheistic and agnostic beliefs included). Is a person justified in having complete confidence in their own religious beliefs when there are millions of people who believe differently, both inside and outside their faith tradition? For those who hold a Conciliationist view, meeting an epistemic peer who believes differently than you should reduce your level of confidence in your own beliefs, generally speaking. Thus, the reality of pluralism becomes a philosophical problem for understanding justified belief. Can one hold religious beliefs confidently in the face of disagreement? The likelihood that there are epistemic peers out there who disagree with your particular beliefs generates problems for the rational person.
This issue is the departure point for a series of essays that piece apart the various facets of religious belief. The editors do a good job arranging the contributions so that they build upon one another and draw the reader into the conversation. There is a larger world of debate that is referenced in the bibliographies, but those unacquainted with that history are quickly brought up to speed. The structure of this arrangement also opens and broadens as it goes along. The initial essays contain the densest argumentation, structured as a back-and-forth debate. This section can be taxing, but there are payoffs to following it attentively. In the second half, the work that was done in the first is applied to wider religious topics, including transformative experiences, apologetics, the relevance of tradition and majority opinions, and theology. It is still a demanding discussion, but by creating a movement in the collection, the editors do a good job of rewarding effort given in the first section and linking the heady arguments to larger issues and unforeseen implications.
A good example of this is the piece “The Apologist’s Dilemma.” Here, Nathan L. King explores the ramifications of preceding discussions to the task of persuading another party to your position, something that is common and desirable in many religions. If the apologist is committed and confident in their own position, if they believe their position is strong enough that any rational person should acknowledge it, are they committed to an arrogant, unsupportable epistemic position? On the other hand, if the apologist cannot have complete confidence in their position and sees the person on the other side as fully rational in denying their arguments, then there are important implications for the apologetic endeavor itself. King teases out these implications by widening plain theism to include the specific danger of eternal damnation, a motivator for some apologetics. It is here that epistemological issues surprisingly dovetail into arguments against the existence of God, showing the hidden depth of the dilemma.
Scholarly and well-reasoned, Religious Disagreement and Pluralism accomplishes its goals of explicating the challenges to justified belief raised by religious pluralism. It does this using the unique toolbox that analytic philosophy brings to understanding reality and succeeds at showing the power of these approaches to raise new challenges and bring new clarity. While it does not always seem like the analytic arguments are fully reflective of the pluralistic world and often prioritize certain religious understandings over others, there is much that can be learned and widely applied. Benton and Kvanvig have brought together a worthwhile resource for philosophy of religion students and teachers.
Zachariah Motts is an academic librarian at Iowa State University.Zachariah MottsDate Of Review:February 28, 2023