We can get a better understanding of religious knowledge and religious beliefs by comparing them to ordinary knowledge.  There are indeed many important differences between the ordinary knowledge philosophers talk about, on one hand, and religious knowledge, on the other.  Religious people refer to things philosophers don’t generally talk about when they discuss how people know, for example, that the car is in the garage or that Obama is president of the United States.  Religious people refer to Allah, Christ as the son of God, Shiva, Manjurshri, Brahman, Amitabha, Krishna, and so on.  The study of the similarities and differences between ordinary and religious knowledge, and ordinary and religious beliefs, takes place within a number of fields, like epistemology (Don’t trip over this word.  It just refers to the study of knowledge), religious epistemology, the epistemology of religious disagreement, and philosophy of religion.  As support for their religious beliefs, religious people refer to religious experience, scripture, the sense of the divine, revelation, miracles, and other things exclusive to religious self-understanding.

But the important similarities between ordinary and religious knowledge shouldn’t be overlooked.  Both manifest the need for justifications of a belief which function like tethers holding one fixed to the belief, like the tethers to the boats in the picture above from the book The Epistemology of Religious Disagreement.  A good tether (justification) for a religious belief, just like for an ordinary belief, is needed first and foremost in order to hold one to the religious belief.  People don’t want to be enticed away from their beliefs when challenging considerations are presented, like Euthyphro and Meno at the hands of Socrates.  Religious disagreements are some of the most difficult challenges to this tether.

Another reason why a tether is needed is to be able to recognize and avoid inadequate uses of the sources of support—that is, mistakes. For every source of support for a religious belief (like reference to miracles, religious experience, or scripture) there is an inadequate way of using it prone to error.  Many people like me believe Jim Jones, for example, made a fatal mistake in his understanding of his religious experience. The ubiquitous presence of error possibilities, even for the most vivid religious experience or miracle, demands the use of a tether—that is, a strategy of support that holds one in a true belief by anticipating and avoiding relevant error possibilities.

Much more is said about the similarities and differences between ordinary and religious knowledge/religious beliefs in the book pictured above.  The book incorporates research from the fields of epistemology, religious epistemology, epistemology of disagreement, and philosophy of religion in order to understand religious beliefs and religious knowledge better.

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