Philosophy of Religion 8: Pluralism

No. I’m not giving up my day job. A new logic book project is under way and taking nearly all my attention. When I’m more confident that it is “taking off” and going places, I’ll say more about it here: but not yet — after all, I don’t want to … erm … tempt fate! I also must finish Absolute Generality in the next week or two. So the Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion is just a bit of late-evening reading, and the comments are dashed off quickly for fun.

Anyway: I’ve just been looking at the section where Murray and Rea wonder whether the fact that religious experience seems to tell different people such different things might rationally rather undermine an inclination to take our own experiences at face value. To which you’d think the answer is a plain “yes”. But ah no, they say, that would be a mistake.

Suppose you are a Christian who thinks that only those like you who, by special grace, have been granted a revelation of the divine have access to reliable religious experiences: then widespread disagreement among the heathens is only what you’d expect. “Far from being evidence of unreliability, her particular circumstances are precisely what she should expect” if she were among the elect.

Indeed. But beside the point.

The issue isn’t whether someone can have an internally coherent set of beliefs which enables her to “explain” to herself why — in the face of massive disagreement — hers are the correct views and everyone else is out of step. That’s only too easy (though also that way madness lies).

The issue at stake is surely this. I don’t already believe I am one of the elect, because I don’t yet know what to believe. Perhaps I’m seeking God, but at this point I’m unsure about the path. But here I am having certain experiences which seem to intimate some kind of divine presence, seem to have religious content or whatever. Initially, let’s suppose, I’m rather inclined to accept the experiences as veridical. But in a calmer moment I start reflecting. I want to know how trustworthy these experiences are. Am I just suffering some kind of illusion? Satan’s stratagems are many. I try to crosscheck with others (as I might crosscheck with others about other surprising experiences). I find — at least if I look outside those subject to the same immediate cultural influences — unending disagreements about their experiences. Some give quite different religious interpretations, some seem to give interpretations freighted with aesthetic concepts, or other non-religious readings. It certainly now seems that this diversity should rationally lead me to reduce my initial higher degree confidence in how to interpret what is happening to me. Why not?

Noting that such disagreements needn’t reduce the confidence of someone else who already “knows” that she is one of the elect and “knows” that her experiences are reliable is neither here nor there. The question is how someone who doesn’t already know their religious experiences are trustworthy should change their rational degrees of belief in the light of finding that initially compelling-seeming experiences don’t readily crosscheck.

3 thoughts on “Philosophy of Religion 8: Pluralism”

  1. If there is a proper response, then we should find it in the sciences, and what do we find there, when there is diversity of explanation of natural phenomena? Surely one assumes (if one is not just a student) that the others are inferior, in some way? If very different, one won’t even think of them as scientific! If not then one might try to identify what their problem is (poor experimentation, poor assumptions, poor reasoning and so forth) but usually one would have better things to do (a problem with one’s own explanation is much more serious). (As a student, one would push on with the approach of one’s teachers; and as neither, one could rationally do almost anything, depending upon extraneous factors, e.g. which religious tradition is nicer to people like you?) And more generally, should an atheist regard religious views as authoritative? If not, then why should anyone be particularly bothered by the views of those with very different explanations, whether or not there a lot of them (and whether they all agree with each other – as totalitarians might – or not)? If they should not, then religious diversity need not be a particularly serious epistemic problem, even for a rational believer.

  2. I was initially puzzled until I realized that Mike’s comments made it clear that I’d not made myself clear enough and I’ve edited what I said a bit. Many thanks for that, then.

    “Why wouldn’t Johnstone conclude that his views are at least as reliable as anyone else’s?” Indeed, he might. But equally, he has no reason to think that his view are more reliable than those of Smith and Jones.

    So two situations: Johnstone initially has a high degree of confidence in his views. He should reduce his credence. That’s the kind of situation I had in mind (someone inclined to accept a their religious experience at face value but then finding divergence).

    Another situation: Johnstone initially has fairly low confidence in his views, and finds other disagree with him. That needn’t make him less confident, true. Likewise someone who is already pretty unconfident about the veracity of his religious experiences needn’t further reduce that degree of confidence. That’s true of course. Point taken. But that I take it is just not the sort of case that Murray and Rea were concerned with. They were asking, I assume, whether someone who is inclined to trust their religious experience — regard it is strong evidence for their beliefs — should be shaken by the discovery of diversity.

  3. Last word. I invite Mike R. and Mike M. to address these issues. I raise just one point. Suppose Jones, Smith, and Johnson observe the sinking of the Titanic. Johnson discovers that Smith and Jones have extremely divergent views on the matter. Why would Johnson conclude from this alone that his views are unreliable? Why wouldn’t he conclude instead that his views are at least as reliable as anyone else’s? There is only one case in which he should conclude that his views are unreliable: viz., if there is some convergence among the alternative views inconsistent with his own. But by hypothesis there isn’t here. What he should expect, if his position is right, is that divergent views do not converge among themselves.

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