A Book about the Challenge to Religious Beliefs and Religious Knowledge During Religious Disagreements, Pulling from the Fields of Epistemology of Disagreement, Religious Epistemology, and Philosophy of Religion

The following is a description of the book from its cover:  The opponent in either an ordinary or religious disagreement asserts you have made a mistake. To avoid mistakes we strive to have good justification for beliefs which holds us connected to them during difficult challenges, similar to how a good boat tether, pictured on this book’s front cover, holds a valuable boat throughout the many stresses placed on it. The problem is that an equivalently informed and capable opponent shows a possible mistake as relevant, and this ought to reduce confidence in the justification of the religious belief. The book develops, by looking at foundational issues in the theory of knowledge, an understanding of justification specifically designed to describe best exactly why this reduction happens.  The topic of the book is studied within the fields of epistemology, epistemology of disagreement, religious epistemology, religious knowledge, epistemology of disagreement, and philosophy of religion.

How to purchase with a discount

This book will be released in May 2012 (James Kraft, The Epistemology of Religious Disagreement, Palgrave/Macmillan, 2012).

This book can be pre-ordered on Amazon right now.  And it can be ordered with the promotion code (P356ED) at a 20% discount in the middle of May from Palgrave/Macmillan.

Table of contents


1     Justified True Belief?

Justified true belief; Two challenges to the need for justification; The Gettier problem; The no-false-ground solution; Greco and Pritchard on virtue epistemology; Fallibilism, obliviousness, and anxiety; Defeasibility, causality, and anti-luck solutions; Problems for internalism and externalism; Recapitulation of Gettier wisdom

2      Varieties of Luck and Possible Worlds

Gettier luck and beginner’s luck; Truth-tracking, safety, and truth-tethering; Hetherington’s criticism of counterfactual robustness; An adequate tether luckily employed; Lotteries and farther out luck; Factors for determining nearness; Using Daedalus analogy; Reflection and resolution luck, and stubbornness

3     Skepticism between Beginner’s and Lottery Luck

The formulation of the problem; Possible worlds and counterfactuals; Between beginner’s luck and lottery luck; Responses to skepticism

4. Ordinary Disagreements

What disagreements do; Epistemic peer; Higher and lower order evidences; No reduction needed; The social challenge; Conservatism and its frustrater; Challenges due to relevant symmetries; Value added by possible worlds and counterfactual analysis; Symmetries generate relevant error possibilities?; Epistemic peer reduction; The epistemology of disagreement


5. Ordinary and Religious Disagreements Compared

Differences; Religious experience, cultural contingency, and fallibility; Religious testimony, miracles, scripture, and repeatability; “If she were raised in India, she would be Hindu!”; Similarities; Need for support; The tether, its limitations, and tensility; The philosophy of religion and religious epistemology for understanding religious knowledge

6. Exclusivism, Pluralism, Postmodernism, Contextualism, and Hermeneutics

Neutral Approaches to Religious Diversity; Exclusivism; Pluralism; Non-Neutral Approaches to Religious Diversity; Postmodernism; Contextualism; Hermeneutics

7. Non-Reductive Religious Disagreement

Alston’s non-neutral worst case scenario; Exclusivist non-reduction; Plantinga’s response to “I believe just because of the way raised”; Internalist non-reductive positions; Rock-bottom beliefs

8. Reduction

Non-neutral refutation responses; Non-neutral refutation responses, general Pragmatic inertia as refutation; Pluralism as a refutation response; Externalist detour strategies; Unshakeable externalist intuitions; Internalist detour strategies; Resignation; Varieties of resignation, especially liminal and contextualist; Conclusion


Introduction to the Book

One of the best ways of introducing the main topics and conclusions of this book compares religious disagreements to the tethering of boats. As the tether of a boat, as pictured on the front cover of this book, holds the valuable boat in the owner’s possession, so the all-important justification people have for a religious belief holds them connected to the belief during a religious disagreement.

I asked the owner of one of the beautiful boats in Istanbul pictured on the cover how well the tethers hold his boat to its concrete mooring. He said:

“The rope is strong and the coils absorb the shock in order to hold the boat secure through many different situations. I know my boat is safe with this tether. Rarely do people have any difficulties with this kind of a tether for the type of boat I have.”

At the time I thought to myself how wonderfully the role the tether plays here parallels what happens to me in the most challenging religious disagreements. The support I have for my religious beliefs holds me connected to those beliefs throughout many very challenging situations. But sometimes, when I find myself in disagreements, especially with someone who is equivalently skilled and knowledgeable, I find the support wanting, as the boat tether would be in a major earthquake; and this causes me to lose some confidence in the justification of my religious belief. The purpose of this book is to show why my experience of confidence reduction in  such religious disagreements is typical…or should be.

Those familiar with Plato’s dialogues are thinking about the tethering view of knowledge Plato describes in the Meno and Euthyphro and challenges in the Theaetetus. This view has been a major inspiration for the approach to religious disagreements presented here. In fact, starting in Chapter 2, what I call a truth-tethering understanding of knowledge and justification is developed specially designed to better describe what goes on in the most challenging religious disagreements, and the consideration of religious knowledge.

The opponent in a disagreement says one has made a mistake. Nobody wants to be mistaken about their beliefs, especially beliefs about religion. And it is justification that helps us avoid being mistaken. When others ask us why we believe, or when we ask ourselves, we want to think we have good justification. We want to think we have good support for our religious beliefs, or we want to trust that the beliefs came to us as the result of a reliable process. We believe those things about religion that we think are best supported, best justified. Justification, as we will see, helps us avoid the mistake of holding on to a religious belief that is false.

But there is another type of mistake that justification helps us avoid—namely, abandoning a belief, which even happens to be true, as a result of challenges to it . This is the sort of mistake Plato had in mind when describing the tethering function of justification for holding a person in a belief throughout challenges brought to it. If anyone could make a person abandon a belief that even happens to be true, it would be Socrates, who had an unmatched skill for bringing up challenging considerations that made people question the support for a belief. He was the master of disagreement. The purpose of this book is to describe the mechanism by which disagreements with well-informed and capable people reduce the confidence one has for the justification of a belief, even if that belief happens to be true.

As the strength of the boat tether helps prevent bad things from happening to the boat, so we rely on strong justification to prevent the corresponding bad thing from happening, such as abandoning a true belief when we encounter challenging disagreements. In a religious disagreement the opponent attacks the sense of justification a person has. So, it is good to have a strong tether to those beliefs, and this is exactly what the justification of our religious beliefs does for us. Disagreements are about the possibility of mistakes, and this book develops an epistemology (the word epistemology simply refers to the study of how people know what they know), specifically designed around specifying how to avoid mistakes, and how to judge when the opponent’s accusation of error ought to be taken seriously.

Oftentimes the disagreements we have show us that we are wrong about a belief. The opponent brings up considerations that show what was taken as justification really isn’t. Here we have clearly made a mistake; we come to think we really didn’t have any support for the belief, and we often consequently abandon the belief.

But sometimes we have disagreements with people who are seemingly just as smart as us on an issue, and who use very similar skills to come to an alternative conclusion. Here, this type of disagreement doesn’t so much show us that we have made an actual mistake, as it shows us that the justification we have doesn’t anticipate and avoid a possible mistake that it should be able to avoid. As the opponent’s situation more and more resembles one’s own as regards the knowledge acquisition process, an error possibility for oneself becomes more and more salient. One of the major objectives of the book is to specify exactly how, and why, this happens.

The boat owner said, in effect, his coil and rope tether holds his valuable boat safe throughout all the possible things that could likely happen. Yet, in saying it is rare that such a tether would fail, he alludes to possible situations in which it wouldn’t hold the boat safe in his possession. Perhaps he was thinking of severe weather, or an earthquake. The interesting thing is that in religious disagreements  sometimes, especially with someone we consider a peer on the matter at hand, the justification we have for a religious belief appears wanting…the grounds for the belief tremble. And this sense of the limited nature of justification leads to the reduction of confidence in the justification of one’s belief, or should. It isn’t that we necessarily give up the religious belief at issue; it is more that we recognize the limitations of the justification for it.

We start our discussion of religious disagreement, for good reason, by looking at two of the most extensively discussed situations where the possibility of mistake comes to the fore, those described by Edmond Gettier in 1963 (Chapter 1) and those described by skeptics for hundreds of years (Chapter 3). Reflection on these situations gives use the deepest understanding of options for dealing with the ubiquitous possibility of error, and our treatment of the specter of error possibilities presented in religious disagreements will take its lead from the discussion of these options. These two chapters demonstrate that there are always present possibilities of error.

Starting in Chapter 2 we develop an epistemology for dealing with the ever-present possibility of mistakes. Gettier and skepticism show us that a way of dealing with this ever-present possibility is to have justification that helps us anticipate and avoid only those mistakes that are relevant. This realization necessarily sets up an ordering of mistake possibilities from those that are relevant—or close—to those that are far-off. Justification doesn’t have to avoid those mistakes that are far-off, only those that are close. I take this to be similar to what the owner of the boat was telling me when he said that the tether is adequate for most situations, but also that there are “rare” situations where it would falter. Nobody expects a tether to help one avoid rare error possibilities.

Chapter 2 also argues for a better way of thinking about knowledge in terms of mistake avoidance, and here is what the “better” in the subtitle of the book refers to. The new understanding says that justification works to produce knowledge just so far as it holds one to the belief by anticipating and avoiding all the error possibilities that could easily happen but don’t necessarily happen. Notice we have understood justification in terms of what could have happened, but doesn’t necessarily happen. So we find it necessary to talk about what are called counterfactuals, which are essentially descriptions of situations that aren’t happening, but could happen. Here is a nice counterfactual from Fiddler on the Roof: “If I were a wealthy man, I wouldn’t have to work hard.” Don’t worry if you aren’t sure what is meant here by counterfactuals. These things will be explained soon enough. I am just warning you about this discussion. I say “warning”  here because many intellectuals are predisposed against talking about counterfactuals as central to epistemology. Don’t worry if you also find yourself unsympathetic, since I describe the major conclusions and arguments in the text both with and without counterfactuals, and with and without the sometimes controversial language of possible worlds as well. The value of the book doesn’t depend on such language. That having been said, I take counterfactual epistemology to be the best tool for describing skepticism, epistemic luck, and, most important for us, disagreements. Other tools work, but not as well…kind of like using a knife when you really need a screwdriver. You will see how the case for this claim is made all throughout the book, and most fully in Chapter 4 where it is demonstrated that this new language best expresses the specific type of mistake resulting from challenging disagreements.

Using the epistemology developed specifically to deal with error possibilities and tempered by the Gettier, lottery, and skepticism issues, new light is shed on the challenge of ordinary disagreements in Chapter 4. Ordinary disagreements happen frequently; for example, at the checkout of a supermarket when the customer says she gave the checker a 20 dollar bill, and the checker says it was a ten. Intellectuals have been discussing the epistemology of ordinary disagreements ever since philosophy began. But fresh interest has recently blossomed since around 2004 with the work of philosophers such as Thomas Kelly, David Christensen, Richard Feldman, and Adam Elga, whose works will be referenced and discussed later.  They are working out of the field called the epistemology of disagreement.

Why, you might ask, is there such a tremendous amount of discussion of ordinary disagreement, such that it is the focus of the entire first half of the book, if the aim is to talk about religious disagreements? Exceptional thinkers vigorously discussed the challenge of religious diversity—and, by implication, religious disagreements—around the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s, people like Philip Quinn, David Basinger, Alvin Plantinga, William Alston, William Haskers, Robert McKim, and John Hick, to name just a few whose contributions will be discussed and referenced later.  They were working from the perspective of the fields of the philosophy of religion and religious epistemology. Why not just start there? The unique approach of this text is to use tools developed to talk about ordinary disagreements in the field of the epistemology of disagreement, especially those developed starting around 2004 among philosophers such as those mentioned earlier, in order to illuminate religious disagreements and to better understand earlier discussions of the challenge of religious diversity. I don’t know of any other book that does this, though there are many great articles that do similar things. Some other authors who take this approach are Michael Thune, Nathan King, and John DePoe. My hope is that this book invigorates this approach. Actually, the book argues that this is the most satisfying approach to religious disagreements. Of course, there are many ways that ordinary and religious disagreements are different, and Chapter 5 starts with a discription of the differences. But it is remarkable how the two are similar. And they have to be similar because both ordinary and religious disagreements are essentially about how people deal with the error possibilities the opponent makes salient. While religious people have different ways of supporting their beliefs—such as religious experience, the sense of the divine, and so on—nearly all religious people recognize that people have made mistakes using such exclusive sources of support. And this means that any religious or theological epistemology has to have an error theory that specifies when a source of support is legitimately used, and when not. Furthermore, this means there has to be a process of justification that anticipates and avoids error possibilities. And this lands us right back at the epistemology we develop in the first part of the book to deal with the error possibilities generated in disagreements. The book is sensitive to all the ways that religious and ordinary disagreements are different. But the fact is that they share fundamental structural features resulting from the common need to anticipate and avoid error possibilities. And we capitalize on this fact. Hopefully you will see how the long process of describing the ins and outs of ordinary disagreements pays dividends when religious disagreements are the focus.

Chapter 6 describes the larger context in which discussions of religious diversity and disagreements take place. It really isn’t possible to get at the heart of what happens in religious disagreements without recognizing the larger issue of the challenge of religious diversity and responses to this challenge. Consequently, we discuss some of the most important responses to religious diversity—that is, exclusivism, pluralism, postmodernism, contextualism, and hermeneutics.

We finally come in Chapter 8 to the argument for reduction of confidence in the justification of religious belief during religious disagreement with a peer—that is, someone equivalently knowledgeable about the details of an issue and equivalently capable of evaluating the details. We come to the argument for reduction only after carefully considering the best arguments against it in Chapter 7.

I fully realize that any stance proposing reduction in confidence in a religious belief can be extremely scary for people who have spend their entire lives fostering religious commitments. I believe two types of reduction options make the stance less scary, since they allow for a working though limited sense of the justification of religious beliefs. I shall let you find out in the final chapter what they are. Both are prepared for by the conversation in Chapter 2 about epistemic luck.

You will find a tremedous amount of discussion about types of disagreements where the opponent is recognized to be a peer—specifically what we will call an epistemic peer. Much more will be said about this, but roughly an epistemic peer is someone who is equivalently knowledgeable about the dynamics of the issue under discussion, and equivalently capable of evaluating those dynamics. Disagreements with people who aren’t peers can be very challenging as well, and for many of the same reasons as for peer disagreement. Yet religious disagreements with epistemic peers are the most challenging, and they can serve as a useful benchmark for other types of disagreements.

So there you have an overview of this book. The book isn’t intended to be the last word on the topic. How could it be, since it argues for the benefits of engaging in disagreements, if only for helping us see how strong and limited the justification of our most cherished beliefs is. The book claims that disagreements are inevitable, and that they bring challenging alternatives to the fore, and so it is expected that people will present very important challenges to the approach to religious disagreement spelled out here.

On a more personal note, the book represents my spiritual and intellectual attempts to come to terms with religious diversity and the religious disagreements that inevitably result. Ever since I attended the college Catholic seminary called Bishop White Seminary in Spokane, Washington, when I was riveted to Pope Paul VI’s “Nostra Aetate,” I have been agonizing about how best to understand the challenge of religious diversity and religious disagreements. My hope is that people find this text a good tool for helping them sort out what happens during religious disagreements.

To come back to the boat tether analogy, the boat owner essentially was telling me the following: The tether holds his valuable item secure in his possession across a large number of possible situations by anticipating and avoiding error possibilities, though he acknowledges that under extreme conditions, like an earthquake, it isn’t adequate.

If we make substitutions here such that instead of a rope, a boat, and an earthquake, we are talking about strategies of justification, religious belief, and the extreme situations of religious disagreements, we have a great springboard for expressing the reduction position argued for in this text:

Reduction Position:

Good justification for a religious belief holds one’s belief secure in one’s possession across a large number of possible challenging situations by anticipating and avoiding error possibilities, though it isn’t totally adequate for the extremely challenging conditions that occur during peer religious disagreements where confidence in the justification of one’s belief is, consequently, reduced.

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