Top News, Articles, and Interviews in Philosophy

Has Science Become ‘Soulless’?

In a bit of an usual move for The New York Times, the paper has published a series of very short responses to the question, “Should Creationism Be Controversial?” Regardless of what you think of the responses, it is at least interesting for The Times to take this on. What's even more interesting is that there is a growing move in this direction across many naturalistic-oriented disciplines (like theories of mind and even physics) playing out in journal and newspaper articles and books .

My admittedly tentative take is that the standard naturalistic story has stagnated somewhat. There are boundaries that many believed we should have broken through by now and we seem to be making little to no progress. Also, the sentiment that modern science is "soulless" that comes out in these articles is resonating with a lot of people and so they're looking for a way to jumpstart progress.

It also seems that so many scientists working in the ‘hard’ disciplines like chemistry, physics, and neuroscience are becoming more interested in the affective side of the human condition after a rather lengthy dry spell. There seems to be a growing sentiment even among non-theists that the standard naturalistic story just doesn't have the foundation to address this in any meaningful way.

Honestly, I think that if we as a species can break through this barrier and embrace the idea that there is something more--whatever that turns out to be--we may be at the cusp of a new revolution not only in the sciences but also in the humanities. It's going to be fascinating to watch this develop.

Thanks to Stan Dokupil for the link.

Manufactured Meaning

Rachel Held Evans piece for CNN titled, “Why Millennials are leaving the church” has gotten quite a bit of traction in some circles. It’s an interesting piece that is a good discussion starter and she has moments of solid insight among her sometimes over-simplistic opining (read on for my own over-simplistic opinions). Evans argues, if I understand her correctly, that modern, Western churches are losing Millennials because they’ve capitulated too much to the whims of modern society. They’ve lost the practices and doctrines that make church what it traditionally has been—a retreat from the everyday that represents something greater and transcendent by being different and being about something greater. There’s a lot of truth to this I think. 

Responses to Evans vary in quality but this one, by Artur Rosman, caught my eye recently (thanks to Ben Olsen for the pointer). Rosman seems to agree with Evans for the most part but argues that she doesn’t quite go far enough in placing the locus of the problem. Even those religions that belong to more liturgical and doctrinally stringent traditions like Catholicism are losing. “Catholicism” Rosman writes, “is blowing its Catholic Moment because it has idolized assimilating to America.” He seems to say this not necessarily as a criticism of Catholicism or even of the failure of churches in general but as a failure of a generation.

In a particularly honest and almost despairing moment he writes, “My generation (and the generation of students we teach in college classes) is totally clueless. If you ask us we will tell you that we are lost in the cosmos. We have failed at manufacturing our own meaning, because meaning cannot be manufactured like the consumer services and trends mentioned at the start of this (and the Held Evans) piece.” I fully agree that Millennials are lost in the cosmos. This is seems to be a product of both authenticity and cynicism—sometimes both held at the same time. (In my opinion, Millennials seem to be after what many were striving for in the 1960s though the 60s had too much of the former without enough of the latter to temper it so authenticity turned into disgust and then to open rebellion.) Because of this, I don’t think Millennials are clueless. I think they are very much aware of their situation and don’t know what to do next.

No Country for Old Men–Opening monologue
Indeed, despair is the right attitude. As Soren Kierkegaard observed, despair is the gateway to authenticity. But I’m not with Rosman (assuming I understand him) that we should despair because we can’t manufacture meaning. In fact, I think the way through is to realize that any meaning, wherever it is found, is manufactured. As Evans has observed, Millennials are seeing through the façade of American “culture” and the manufactured “meaning” it attempts to create: buy this car, achieve this career goal, eat this food, have this many kids, go to this church etc. and are rejecting it—just as young people did in the 60s. Similarly, they are rejecting church either because it’s transparently fake or, as Evans notes, its too much like the culture they’ve already turned their backs on.

But the problem isn’t that these meanings are manufactured, and surely they are. Despair may come when we realize that manufacturing meaning is all we got (in the parlance of our times). In Seattle, where I live, people are attempting to manufacture new meanings to replace the old: eat vegan, marry a same-sex partner, legalize (and then smoke) pot, drive an electric car, save the planet, hate the republicans, say fuck a lot (and mean it), climb a mountain, run your legs off, raise chickens, join a band, keep a philosophy blog – whatever. And these things work for many people. But they’re all manufactured. They’re all devices that people use to get out of bed in the morning. And it’s damn good we have them. Without these manufactured meanings, none of us would be able to survive, as Ernest Becker so brilliantly taught us. Despair enters the picture when we realize this and stand naked before a world devoid of intrinsic meaning. That’s what truly scares us.

I recently read a quote attributed to Woody Allen that someone had posted to Facebook. Allen is one of my favorite filmmakers because he embraces the despair Becker talks about and yet figures out a way to meaningfully manufacture meaning. The quote reads:

“It's just an accident that we happen to be on earth, enjoying our silly little moments, distracting ourselves as often as possible so we don't have to really face up to the fact that, you know, we're just temporary people with a very short time in a universe that will eventually be completely gone. And everything that you value, whether it's Shakespeare, Beethoven, da Vinci, or whatever, will be gone. The earth will be gone. The sun will be gone. There'll be nothing. The best you can do to get through life is distraction. Love works as a distraction. And work works as a distraction. You can distract yourself a billion different ways. But the key is to distract yourself.”

This is the idea in a nutshell. We have to figure out a way to manufacture meaning, know that we’ve manufactured it and yet still find it meaningful. If Evans and Rosman are correct, Western church is becoming less and less a source for meaning for the young in American culture. Whether that turns out to be a good or a bad thing will largely be dependent upon what people replace it with. Contrary to what Rosman hopes for, I don’t think ecclesiastically-generated authoritative answers to cultural angst will do the trick unless the current knowledge explosion we’re experiencing does an about face or people lose interest in all that we’re learning about the world and want something much more simple and more authoritarian. While this certainly is possible (I easily can envision scenarios where either or both happen) it doesn’t seem likely. But it also doesn’t seem relevant if religious belief is just another—though admittedly wildly successful—device for manufacturing meaning.

What will kill America culturally isn’t loss of religious faith. It will happen when most of us feel the despair of a lack of ultimate meaning and lose the will or psychological resources to successfully manufacture it.


I had a recent exchange with a friend on a similar subject. Below is what I wrote to him about my take on Becker, Kierkegaard, and despair. I think it’s relevant to the current discussion so I’m including it here.

The view that’s developing in my mind is that religion is a by-product of a more fundamental psychological phenomenon -- just as Fredian psychology, Marxists economics, Democratic politics, and any other “institutional” solution is. My views have largely been shaped by the work of Ernest Becker. Becker doesn’t really offer a “solution” per se but provides a searing analysis of the problem which is partly why I was blown away when I read Becker. His take on the root of guilt and all the various and sundry explanations of and solutions to it (if one thinks guilt needs a solution at all) shed some light in some very dark places for me.

In Becker’s view (which is a kind of post-Freudian improvement on Freudian psychology largely built on the ideas of Otto Rank), guilt and other psychological angst is derived from “unlived life” that is rooted in the more fundamental reality of human consciousness. Because humans are conscious, we are acutely aware of our mortality which creates in us a bifurcation: a symbolic self-- the person (or the soul, or spirit, or mind or whatever you want to call it) and the animal self of the body. The person as symbol seems to have tremendous value--perhaps transcendental or eternal value--that should not be subject to the frailty of the mortal body. We invest in the self by raising a family, getting an education, developing long-term, meaningful relationships, by trying to achieve success in work and enjoy the fleeting moments of pleasure as long as we can. Yet we also know we have a decaying body that defecates and grows old, that needs nutrients to survive, that engages in this body-focused thing called sex in order to procreate, and is subject to the elements, disease, old age, and the like.

This realization--when we actually take time to think about it--causes an enormous conflict psychologically and leads to angst and the development of what he calls “character armor” in order to deal with that angst. Character armor is a kind of façade that we create where we emphasizes the symbolic self and we try to minimize the body with all it’s decay. We like to think of our “self” as being eternal, not subject to decay and having transcendental meaning. From this vantage point, religion becomes a kind of emotional and psychological armor that supports this idea and gives us comfort.

In my view, that view really resonates because it explains so much about our psychology. For example, it really explains why we become “religious” (in the broad sense of that term) about so many things: politics, sports, various theistic worldviews, cars, companies, sex, economic theories etc. It seems to me to have enormous explanatory power.

Interestingly, Becker, while not a theist at the time he wrote Denial of Death, did argue in that book that Kierkegaard’s existential approach to the problem is probably the most effective and balanced approach out there. He argues that Kierkegaard saw the issues--and the solution, better than Freud and just about any modern psychologist writing at the time. That’s a pretty big statement.

In his view, mental health comes by embracing the despair that comes from realizing our mortality yet taking a leap of faith to act in the face of that despair. While Kierkegaard obviously thought that the faith one should leap into was theistically grounded, Becker believed that one might be able to make a similar leap without theism. Still, it’s Kierkegaard’s model that’s important here. The mental trick is to live meaningfully while still understanding that life is essentially absurd (and ultimately meaningless). If you can make the leap--something most of us are unable to do, the absurdity is minimized once you’re over the chasm. This is Kierkegaard through and through.

Update (8/11/2013):

Rod Dreher at The American Conservative wrote a few notes on Rosman’s piece and picked up my response (along with a few comments about it). Check it out here and join the conversation!

For Better Sex, Try . . . Monogamy and Church Attendance?

Seems there is a study to support just about any conclusion.

"Those who worship God weekly have the best sex," said Patrick Fagan, a senior fellow at the Family Research Council and a former George H.W. Bush official, in a talk hosted with the Center for the Advancement of Catholic Higher Education Wednesday. "I want to see this on the cover of Playboy sometime."

Robert McKim on Religious Diversity—Part 3

questiondiceDr. Robert McKim (Ph.D. Yale) is professor of philosophy and Religion at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Dr. McKim has written on the twin problems of religious ambiguity and diversity focusing on the challenges these problems raise in religious epistemology. He most directly addressed this topic in his book Religious Ambiguity and Religious Diversity (OUP, 2001) where he argued that, given these problems, religious believers should adopt a “critical stance” with regards to the truth claims about their particular faith. This epistemic position is “religion conducted more in the mode of longing and aspiration than in the mode of confident assertion” though it does not rule out devotion in religion.

In his new book published in 2011 by Oxford titled, On Religious Diversity, Dr. McKim explores the interrelatedness of various religious traditions and attempts to analyze particular epistemic positions given the fact of religious diversity. In this three-part interview, we talk to Dr. McKim about the goals of his book exploring what religious diversity might mean for religious belief, what diversity means for exclusivism in religion (the idea that only one view is the correct view), and how religious epistemology will evolve over the next decade. What follows is part 3 of 3 of this interview.

Part 3

PN: Some philosophers of religion attempt to make arguments for exclusivism that rely on inferences from the truth of a small number of claims to the probable truth of a larger body of claims. For instance, some argue that if it can be shown that the Bible is accurate in its account of Jesus rising from the dead, then it's also probable that most of what Jesus claims in the New Testament is accurate without having to have evidence for every one of those claims. What do you think of such arguments?

McKim: The substance of your question has, I think, to do with attempts to establish the veracity of entire religious traditions by appeal to, say, particular historical observations or details that they contain and that can be independently corroborated. Once again your question opens many cans of worms. Just for a start, scholars of the New Testament have a lot to say about which of the remarks attributed to Jesus may reasonably be believed to be, or to reflect, what Jesus actually said. So that is one area of inquiry that is relevant to your question. Another is just that it goes without saying that a document can be accurate in some respects and inaccurate in others. I would be wary of moves that ignore or downplay this possibility. All this being said, if a source – whether it be a person or a text or something else – is discovered to be accurate in some respects, it would be foolish, all other things being equal, not to take seriously the possibility that it is accurate in other respects. It would be foolish to ignore the fact that it has acquired enhanced standing as a source of information in virtue of having been found to be accurate – and especially so if the matters about which it has been found to be accurate are significant.

PN: In the existentialist tradition (particularly in the work of Kierkegaard), there is this idea that from the outside religion appears absurd. But from the inside, things begin to make more sense. Kierkegaard likens it to being in love. You suggest something similar when you write, "If you are a serious member of a religious tradition, your own tradition feels right. When you follow its path, you feel that you are on the right path. You have a sense of inner conviction." You also claim that a good number of people in every tradition feel this way about their tradition. How ought a person in a particular tradition respond to this fact? Should it change the degree to which she is convinced that her tradition is right?

McKim: I will start with the last question, the answer to which, in my view, is an emphatic “yes.” What I reject, though, is the idea that an awareness of the range of religious experiences across many traditions requires skepticism from all of us, or from all of us who are aware of the situation and who have the opportunity to reflect about various possibilities. Even if I am aware of the loyalties of others and have some sense of what it feels like to be them, I am still me, with my life experience and perhaps my inner sense of assurance. Yet, as I see it, there is no denying that many people of integrity in many traditions exhibit roughly the same level of conviction, feel the same level of meaningfulness in what they do religiously, and all the rest. Some advocates of each of these perspectives will continue to insist that they (or we!) are THE SPECIAL ONES, and to feel that if only outsiders could feel/experience/see/enjoy what they feel (etc.) they would rush to sign up for a life membership. I find such thinking implausible. Not only that: its implausibility has, in my view, an obvious and irresistible character and it confronts me as something that I have no choice but to recognize.

PN: Given the degree of the exposure to diverse religious beliefs, many seem to be finding it difficult to maintain an exclusivist epistemic stance (your narrative about Billy Graham might be evidence for this type of shift) more than previous generations. How do you see belief in a particular tradition evolving over the next 50 years? Do you think exclusivism will go the way of racism or patriarchalism and be difficult to hold rationally?

That last question is both difficult and interesting. Again, I won’t answer it in terms of exclusivism because the term is used in so many ways. And I am not competent to predict what is going to happen - though I will say that it has caught my attention that life can be surprising and that things can turn out in ways that you could not have anticipated. But let’s consider the idea that my co-religionists and I are superior in some way. Ethically or culturally or in terms of our ways or our lifestyle or our level of authenticity, say. I can imagine it coming about that such ideas would make people roll their eyes and would elicit a “surely you are not serious” sort of reaction - as fortunately is the case in many circles for many other forms of prejudice.

PN: How do you see religious belief in the West in general evolving over the next decade or so? Are there particular themes you see developing in the way people talk about their faith?

McKim: My answer to your first question is once again that I don’t know. I am much happier talking about what should happen, as I see it. But one thought about the future is that I would not be surprised if people in many countries came to resemble each other more, religiously speaking, than they have in the past. I say this partly because it seems that they will be responding to many of the same forces. This sort of convergence would mirror what is happening linguistically and to some extent culturally, for good or ill.

On the other hand you never know when a bent twig is going to lash back: the term is Isaiah Berlin’s and his topic is nationalism but the same thinking applies in the area of religion. People feel pushed and trodden upon and they feel that what they regard as precious is not taken with the sort of seriousness that they think it deserves and that they themselves are not receiving the respect and esteem they deserve, and next thing you know they are up in arms and full of anger and lashing back. And this reaction may be exhibited in their beliefs and in the ways in which they hold them so that it may serve to consolidate those beliefs, perhaps leading them to hold them in a more extreme way or to identify more with them or to make them more definitive of who they are. In addition I also sense a certain hunkering down in many religious communities in many countries and in response to the uncertainty of the times we live in – though I certainly do not have a comprehensive sense of these matters, and I also wonder if a sense that we live in uncertain times is not more or less a fixture in human life.

On yet another hand we do not know what sort of major social and even geopolitical dislocations we may encounter even in the coming decades and we are therefore totally in the dark about how human communities will respond to them, including what the religious response will be. But it would be remarkable if some such dislocations were not coming our way – perhaps about as remarkable as would be an ability to predict either what they will be or how human religious reflection will respond to them.

PN: Do you have any projects in the works? What direction is your existing research taking?

McKim: Thank you for asking. I am finishing some shorter essays on religious diversity at present. I am also thinking quite a lot about an independent area of inquiry. This is the possibility that the religions may be able to help us to come to terms with global climate change and, more broadly, with the serious consequences that the human presence is having for the planet, including other forms of life. I am interested in the cultivation of ways of thinking that will help us to navigate our way through various perilous waters in which we find ourselves. In fact this applies both to the questions about how we see religious others and their views that I have been working on, and the matter of the human impact on the planet, and the ways in which religious perspectives might be relevant to it, which is what I am writing about now. In the latter area one topic I am thinking about is the idea of comparing religious traditions with respect to their environmental usefulness. I want to develop a comparative framework that applies to entire religious worldviews, to large-scale religious institutions, and even to particular houses of worship. This is in fact another set of issues that has preoccupied me since childhood.

Special thanks to Dr. McKim for participating in this interview and for taking time out of his busy schedule to talk to us.

Read Part 1

Read Part 2


Robert McKim’s faculty page at the University of Illinois

Curriculum vitae

Religious Ambiguity and Religious Diversity 

On Religious Diversity

Robert McKim on Religious Diversity—Part 2

diversityDr. Robert McKim (Ph.D. Yale) is professor of philosophy and Religion at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Dr. McKim has written on the twin problems of religious ambiguity and diversity focusing on the challenges these problems raise in religious epistemology. He most directly addressed this topic in his book Religious Ambiguity and Religious Diversity (OUP, 2001) where he argued that, given these problems, religious believers should adopt a “critical stance” with regards to the truth claims about their particular faith. This epistemic position is “religion conducted more in the mode of longing and aspiration than in the mode of confident assertion” though it does not rule out devotion in religion.

In his new book published in 2011 by Oxford titled, On Religious Diversity, Dr. McKim explores the interrelatedness of various religious traditions and attempts to analyze particular epistemic positions given the fact of religious diversity. In this three-part interview, we talk to Dr. McKim about the goals of his book exploring what religious diversity might mean for religious belief, what diversity means for exclusivism in religion (the idea that only one view is the correct view), and how religious epistemology will evolve over the next decade.

Part 2

PN: You begin chapter 2, "Exclusivism about Truth" exploring the position in which someone claims, "Our tradition is entirely right, and all other traditions are entirely wrong." You claim that such a position appears to be obviously untenable. Despite the long term prospects of this kind of exclusivism, at present there seems to be a significant number of people that still hold this view. If you agree, what do you think motivates it?

McKim: My guess is that many people who say things like this just have not thought through the implications of what they are saying. This is so because there is a certain amount of overlap among the religious traditions so that if the claims of any one of them are correct, then some of the claims of others among them are also correct. So the view, or at least a view, that is worthy of consideration here is that other traditions are right only insofar as they endorse some of our claims.

As for what motivates views of this sort – either the more tenable version I just mentioned or the less tenable version you asked about and that some people certainly seem to endorse in spite of its untenability – I do not know how to answer this question. One issue is whether exclusivist beliefs require a special explanation of some sort. I assume that most people endorse their religious views for reasons such as these: because they have been told that this is how things are by an apparently reliable source and because the worldview in question enables them to make sense out of much of what they experience in life. At any rate factors such as this presumably figure in the explanation of why people believe what they believe – and not just in the area of religion. In the case of religious beliefs in particular, and especially perhaps exclusivist beliefs, it may be that there are additional interesting factors at work, perhaps including a need to define one’s group as different from other groups so that we stand very much apart in certain ways, and a need to have an unshakable and unquestioned commitment. Needless to say, though, the capacity of a set of beliefs to fulfill such needs is irrelevant to whether the beliefs in question are held for good reasons or are true. In any case I am certain that the vast majority of people who hold beliefs about religious matters are not making things up!

PN: Alister McGrath in Okholm's and Phillips' More Than One Way? writes: "It matters fundamentally whether Jesus Christ died on the cross, both as a matter of history and as a matter of theology. The historical aspect of the matter is crucial, in that both the New Testament and Qur'an cannot be right. If one is correct on this historical point, the other is incorrect. For the purposes of stating this point, it does not matter which is correct; the simple point is that both cannot be true." They make a distinction here about truth but not necessarily about knowledge. While this appears to be a type of exclusivism, it doesn't seem to be all that relevant since claiming to know which religion is true is what seems to be important. Is this distinction important for the arguments you make in your book?

I am reasonably confident that the central claims of the major religious traditions are incompatible. Which is to say that pluralism of the sort that proposes that everyone somehow might be correct, or at least that many apparently incompatible views could turn out to be compatible, is not likely to work, or at any rate faces an uphill struggle. So what McGrath is saying is correct to this extent, in my view. For example, broadly speaking, Muslims and Christians can not both be correct in their beliefs about Jesus. And the same applies to umpteen other claims made by the religious traditions – though pluralist proposals that say otherwise deserve careful consideration. By the way, I am not inclined to use the term “exclusivist” for someone who contends that incompatible view can not both be correct: for one thing we already have words such as “consistent” that capture what is at issue.

PN: Do you think humans are in a position to determine which religious claims are true across various traditions? In your chapter on religious ambiguity, you argue that the fact that there are such diverse traditions with honest, reflective, intelligent people in every faith tradition all making truth claims, that this fact in and of itself creates a problem. You further argue that it seems plainly true that few of us has access to the type of information we would need to be able to adequately adjudicate between the truth of various traditions (or between a religious worldview and a naturalistic one) and that its tough even to determine what the relevant evidence for the truth of claims even of God's existence might be. What do you think the appropriate attitude towards religious knowledge ought to be even if one is an exclusivist regarding religious truth (as McGrath defines it)?

McKim: I won’t comment on what one should say about the prospects for religious knowledge if one is this or that sort of exclusivist, partly because “exclusivist” is used in so many different ways. (I have two chapters on exclusivism in On Religious Diversity, as you know.) But your question obviously is broader than this. Leaving knowledge and the various conundrums associated with it aside, let’s consider the question whether the facts you mention - the presence of impressive people among the advocates of numerous perspectives and the fact that (as I see it) the relevant evidence outstrips the ability of each of us to get to grips with it in its entirety - have the result that most people do not reasonably hold whatever views they hold on religious matters.

My view is that it is reasonable for many to occupy the religious perspective they occupy. This is partly because religious perspectives are deployed in the interpretation of one’s own life-experience so that what one experiences conforms with, and indeed gives every impression of confirming, one’s religious perspective. Many religious perspectives make sense from the inside and have associated with them forms of life and a host of experiences that simply are inaccessible to most outsiders. So some have evidence that others lack. And access to all of the relevant evidence is beyond any one of us. We should all face up to this and adjust our attitudes to others and to their beliefs accordingly.

PN: I think a strong argument could be made along the lines you present in the chapter on religious ambiguity that such ambiguity exists in many areas knowers contend with (e.g. global warming, politics, mind/body issues, ethics). You stated in your previous book that ambiguity in religion and perhaps these other areas doesn't necessarily warrant skepticism. Do you still agree with that assessment and if so, why?

McKim: This is a complicated set of issues. I would set aside the matter of climate change since there is a virtual consensus among scientists with the relevant qualifications that anthropogenic climate change is upon us – and indeed that in some respects the more worrying predictions about its consequences may also be the more accurate ones. So according to the vast majority of the people whose views are worth taking seriously, there is no ambiguity here.

Another aspect of this set of issues is that disagreements in philosophy in particular are, so to speak, part of the rules of the game: disagreement plays a role in promoting progress in the field. This is so because it is partly by juxtaposing opposing views that an understanding of issues is deepened. But in my opinion this is not the sole, or perhaps even the main, explanation of how it is that in philosophy we typically find competing and well-developed views with supporting arguments of some strength that can be mustered in support of each of the contending views. My guess is that typically there are bodies of evidence and lines of argument that support the competing positions. The way I think of this is that the relevant disagreement is partly accounted for by the relevant issues being ambiguous. And my idea is that there are certain responses that are appropriate in all such cases and irrespective of subject-matter, including a measure of tentativeness in our beliefs. In the case of religion I am not just talking about moves that it is reasonable to expect from philosophers of religion or other such scholars of religion, but also moves that ordinary religious believers should make – assuming they are up to the task.

So how are we to react to situations in which we see that there to be disagreement among others who seem equally well qualified, or close to it, and which we have reason to believe to be ambiguous? I don’t see that skepticism is required by a recognition that we are dealing with a situation of this sort. In particular I think there is space for tentative and exploratory membership, for investing your hope, for investing yourself, even while being aware of all manner of complexities. Complicated, no doubt, but doable all the same. There is, I know, a serious question whether one can sustain such a relatively detached identification and whether it will not devolve into, say, a sentimental attachment to one’s tradition or to wanting to belong but not quite managing to do so. But suppose we consider this an area for future reflection, bearing in mind that we may not currently have any institutional support to speak of for those who are attracted by such possibilities. At the very least the question of what sort of space there is for tentative and exploratory belonging is an interesting area for further reflection. Another thought is that if there are traditions that currently have no space for this, they might want to think about creating some space for it - though such a thing may in any case happen spontaneously in response to current challenges and without anyone setting out to create it.

Read Part 1

Read Part 3


Robert McKim’s faculty page at the University of Illinois

Curriculum vitae

Religious Ambiguity and Religious Diversity 

On Religious Diversity

Robert McKim on Religious Diversity–Part 1


Dr. Robert McKim (Ph.D. Yale) is professor of philosophy and Religion at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Dr. McKim has written on the twin problems of religious ambiguity and diversity focusing on the challenges these problems raise in religious epistemology. He most directly addressed this topic in his book Religious Ambiguity and Religious Diversity (OUP, 2001) where he argued that, given these problems, religious believers should adopt a “critical stance” with regards to the truth claims about their particular faith. This epistemic position is “religion conducted more in the mode of longing and aspiration than in the mode of confident assertion” though it does not rule out devotion in religion.

In his new book published in 2011 by Oxford titled, On Religious Diversity, Dr. McKim explores the interrelatedness of various religious traditions and attempts to analyze particular epistemic positions given the fact of religious diversity. In this three-part interview, we talk to Dr. McKim about the goals of his book exploring what religious diversity might mean for religious belief, what diversity means for exclusivism in religion (the idea that only one view is the correct view), and how religious epistemology will evolve over the next decade.

Part 1

PN: Your recent books on religious epistemology have focused on the twin themes of ambiguity and diversity. Do you view these two factors as underminers for religious belief or just factors believers need to consider when they think about how strongly they hold to their beliefs?

McKim: Definitely closer to the latter. I take it to be obvious that whatever beliefs you may hold about religion, beliefs that are very different from yours are held by others who appear to be just as impressive in every way as you, and held by them with just as much conviction as you hold your beliefs. Attempts to contend that there is something wrong with those who advocate views other than yours, and that this is what accounts for their holding those views, are implausible and can even be dangerous. The fact of ambiguity is less obvious, but a fact nonetheless in my opinion. Roughly what I mean by “ambiguity” in this context is that the advocates of many different perspectives are each able to point to significant bodies of evidence that support their perspective, and in virtue of which their beliefs are reasonably held. I think that the human situation exhibits religious ambiguity.

The question you are asking, then, is what sort of difference the combination of diversity and ambiguity should make to the ways in which any one of us holds our relevant beliefs. And this includes the important question of how strongly one should hold one’s relevant beliefs. I think that these factors have significant implications for how the relevant beliefs should be held though I also think there are all manner of barriers to facing up to the fact that this is so. But then I am also interested in the possibility of serious and demanding engagement with a religious tradition where this involves a strong and abiding sense that your religious perspective is corroborated by your experience even while the twin, and closely related, facts of diversity and ambiguity are recognized – and while an appropriate openness to other religious perspectives is maintained. All of this is difficult and challenging but then there seem to be a number of worthwhile goods that are not easily acquired!

PN: Why does this topic interest you?

McKim: I can’t imagine not being interested in this cluster of issues. I have been interested in them since I was a child growing up in rural Ireland. It took me some time to articulate what I now consider to be, broadly speaking, the correct framework within which to consider these questions. But I do not consider my views to be settled irrevocably and I am always looking for new insights and ideas that will be helpful. And, as I say, my interests remain in large part practical. They have to do with questions such as how we need to think of each other in order to get along with each other, and with concepts and attitudes that will help us to navigate these turbulent waters. I am interested in the very practical question of how ordinary people who are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, agnostic, and so forth should look upon each other and upon each other’s perspectives.

I am also interested in the following ideas. We should be happy with others as they are and pleased by the idea that they will continue as they are. We should not feel that they must become like us - or worse, that they must join our ranks - in order to be acceptable. We should wish for others and their distinct cultural forms to flourish, and we should set out to maintain, or if necessary create, space that they can occupy. It is a serious error to think that the best outcome would be for everyone else to join our group or to think as we think. Moreover, a condition that a satisfactory account of others, and of where others stand in relation to us, should satisfy is that it avoids insulting or belittling or stigmatizing outsiders, whether explicitly or implicitly. An account of the situation and status of others should not assert our superiority and their inferiority. This is complicated because unless you subscribe to a controversial form of pluralism – perhaps of the sort defended by John Hick - when you think that you are right, you are committed to others who disagree with you being wrong. (And even if you do subscribe to a controversial form of pluralism, you think you are right about that and that others who disagree with you about that are wrong.) Needed, then, is some way of thinking of the situation of others that permits us to disagree with them while not insulting them or thinking of them as unreasonable. And of course I am also deeply interested in the relevant philosophical literature, in particular all of the current work on the significance of disagreement.

PN: As I read through On Religious Diversity, I got the sense that you were interested in creating a philosophical foundation for (or at least a possible religious basis for) a rapprochement between diverse religious traditions. Is that accurate? How would you summarize your goals for this book?

McKim: I am very interested in inclusivist options in particular, and in making a case for their appeal to people in many religious traditions. This is because inclusivist perspectives provide a way for people to be who they are, religiously speaking, while also creating space for others. To create the right sort of space for others is not easy and it hardly has been a priority for many of the religious traditions. So I probe with some care some of the options in the area of salvific inclusivism and some of the options for inclusivism in the area of belief.

I am also very interested in the whole question of what it is to treat others and their views with adequate seriousness. I feel that I have a good intuitive understanding of the sort of in-group/out-group thinking that makes people feel that religious outsiders are less important or less interesting than insiders or - worse - that makes them feel that outsiders are inferior. I am interested in examining alternatives. These include the idea that outsiders should be the object of courteous curiosity so that we, whoever we may be, should be open to learning about their traditions, history, ideas, perspectives, customs, experiences, sacred texts, and so on. Also the idea that we should be open to learning from them, this being more of a challenge than learning about them since it involves recognizing that they may be right about beliefs that we do not hold and that we might be able to enrich our perspective by learning from them, so that they in effect provide us with an opportunity for growth. Broadly speaking I favor the idea of being interested in others as they are, and the idea of adopting an exploratory, courteous, kind, and inquisitive approach to them and to their views and insights. I also devote a little attention to the idea of silence - by which I mean that we might eschew comment about the situation of others, using the time we save in this way to concentrate on improving ourselves.

Also, everyone should recognize that many religious perspectives other than their own are endorsed by many people of integrity. By “people of integrity” I mean people who, at least in the ideal case, know a great deal, avoid exaggeration, admit ignorance when it seems appropriate to them to do so, have an interest in the truth, and are intelligent, serious, sincere, insightful, decent, sensible, reflective, and so on. People of integrity live and believe in all sincerity in accordance with the teachings of a variety of religious traditions and, of course, also endorse secular perspectives. I do not know how to show that people of integrity are so distributed but at the very least the assumption that this is so is a good default position, a reasonable operating assumption until we are given reason to think otherwise.

My goals for the book include probing the meaning and implications of themes such as these, along with the related themes of ambiguity and diversity. I certainly am very interested in prospects for rapprochement, and this is partly because of the role that religious belief can play in fomenting and exacerbating conflict. So my interests are in part rather practical – though the theoretical and intellectual questions are of course also of deep interest to me.

PN: This is a very different book in many ways from Religious Ambiguity and Religious Diversity. What does this present book do that you didn't or couldn't do in that first book?

McKim: In Religious Ambiguity and Religious Diversity I was dealing primarily with some of the ways in which someone (say, an atheist or a Methodist or a Muslim) should take account of the presence of people who disagree with her about religious matters. You might say that the book was focused on belief-management in light of the twin facts of ambiguity and diversity. My view is roughly that everyone needs to face up to the fact of religious ambiguity and that, in addition, everyone constitutes a challenge for everyone else; and I try to explore some of the implications. For example, I think that there is an obligation for many who hold beliefs about religious matters to subject their views to critical scrutiny and to hold tentatively whatever beliefs they hold in this area. The fact that people of integrity are found among the advocates of many different perspectives is one of numerous relevant considerations. In On Religious Diversity my focus is much more on what religious insiders can/might/should (etc) say about outsiders to their perspective - about the beliefs and the salvific status of outsiders, for example; about what it would be to be open to learning from them, and more besides. People who endorse particular perspectives on religious matters should be puzzled by the presence of those with other perspectives. If they are not so puzzled, they are missing something. If they are puzzled, however, I hope my work will at least provide them with some tools and some signposts that may help them to reflect about the options even if they disagree with my conclusions and general perspective.

PN: Many have observed that the world is now "flat" which at least partly means that individuals in developed parts of the world have unprecedented, deep, and immediate access to an enormous number of belief systems that differ from their own. It could be argued that this situation is unique historically. How does this situation impact the epistemic responsibility of religious believers?

McKim: I suppose people always knew that there were others out there with very different views. But perhaps it is becoming less easy to dismiss or ignore others and their views and more natural to take seriously perspectives that are very different from your own. Or more natural for some people to do this – especially for people with the leisure, education, information, and so on, to do so. Probably it also requires various inclinations and dispositions and the question arises of how it might be possible to cultivate such dispositions. I do not say that it is easy to treat others with adequate seriousness and of course what adequate seriousness consists in is itself a difficult topic.

Actually there seem to me to be a number of forces at work. On the one hand there is no doubt that many of us nowadays have a great deal more to do with people with very different perspectives than used to be the case, and we learn about others just through dealing with them; in addition many of us have opportunities to learn a great deal about others. On the other hand many people seem rather distracted and seem not so much to be overwhelmed but to be overwhelming themselves with distractions that can serve to blind them from the realities of the situation in this and in other areas. And ways of distancing ourselves from others, and especially of avoiding taking seriously what they have to say and of avoiding taking them seriously, are just as available as ever. I use the term “discrediting mechanism” in this context in Religious Ambiguity and Religious Diversity. Inappropriate discrediting mechanisms – such as the idea that those who endorse views other than ours are less intelligent or less moral or less impressive – are generally speaking harder to sustain when you actually have contact with the others in question. Perhaps some people are being forced by the fact of greater interaction into a recognition of such facts. As for the relevant epistemic obligations, my view would be along these lines: the relevant obligations increase in accordance with knowledge, opportunity, exposure, ability to reflect, and so on.

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Robert McKim’s faculty page at the University of Illinois

Curriculum vitae

Religious Ambiguity and Religious Diversity 

On Religious Diversity

Educating for Intellectual Virtues

imageThe Intellectual Virtues and Education Project will be holding their first conference titled “Educating for Intellectual Virtues” this coming June (2013) at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Conference details along with the CFP is below. The conference was featured on NPR and you can read about it and listen to an interview with project manager Dr. Jason Baehr here (Philosophy News interviewed Dr. Baehr on the project and its goals which you can listen to here).


Friday-Saturday, June 21-22

Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles

Plenary speakers: Shari Tishman (Harvard), Marvin Berkowitz (Missouri, St. Louis), Harvey Siegel (Miami), and Linda Zagzebski (Oklahoma).

This conference will bring together education theorists, psychologists, and philosophers to discuss intellectual virtues and their role in educational theory and practice. Intellectual virtues are the character traits of a good thinker or learner. They include curiosity, wonder, attentiveness, intellectual perseverance, open-mindedness, creativity, intellectual courage, intellectual rigor, intellectual humility, and more.

Papers will address the following or related questions:

  • What is intellectual character? How is intellectual character related to moral, civic, performance, or other dimensions of character?
  • Which intellectual virtues are most important to teaching or learning? Why?
  • How does the goal of fostering intellectual virtues compare with similar educational goals like critical thinking, metacognition, education of the whole person, or lifelong learning?
  • What might it look like to educate for intellectual virtues? What policies might schools adopt? What sorts of strategies or techniques might teachers use?
  • How can growth in intellectual virtues be measured or assessed?

Deadline for submissions (abstracts or full papers) is February 15, 2013. Please see CFP or for more information about the conference.

The conference is part of the Intellectual Virtues and Education Project, housed at Loyola Marymount University and sponsored by a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation. To learn more, please visit:

Feel free to contact Professor Jason Baehr ( or his assistant Nathaniel Currie ( with questions.

Movie Notes: The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Directed by Christopher Nolan. With Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Gary Oldman.

I would imagine that it would be very difficult to sustain a high degree of creativity and artistic freedom over three films in a series particularly when the first two were such big successes. I’d imagine that as the capital investment in a franchise goes up (Rises had a budget roughly 25% higher than The Dark Knight and 100 million, or 60%, higher than Batman Begins), so do the number of voices clamoring to ensure that the new film doesn’t take too many creative risks.

The Nolan brothers certainly had their hands full. They had to dovetail the story lines of two prior successful movies into this third and final film while creating enough unique plot substance to close out the trilogy without leaving too many loose ends. They did it successfully though even at a longish 2 hours and 45 minutes runtime, certain storylines seemed rushed to me. The Dark Knight—the best of the three films in my opinion—benefited from being relieved of the need to provide a lot of background information which the first film supplied. This gave the writer and director the ability to focus on building a lot of depth into the principal characters. This is something Rises is missing; the narrative complexity leaves no time for the characters to breathe. With Inception, Christopher Nolan didn’t seem to sacrifice character development in order to tell a complex story having masterfully balanced both. He doesn’t quite pull that off here.

A couple of examples may suffice. While we already know Alfred quite well from the first two movies, in this film, part of his charming sagacity is missing. In the earlier films, particular Dark Knight, we learned that Alfred’s wisdom was grounded on certain life experiences which he relayed through stories. In this film, he’s reduced to declaring wise-sounding aphorisms but they come across as a bit whiney and somewhat pesky. Similarly while Ledger’s Joker is developed as a precision instrument of tortured evil, Bane is presented as a brute-force sledge hammer that seems just a tad too typical.

But the Nolans do make the most of the complexity (which really begins to take shape about 45 minutes into the film) and use it to build an engaging action movie. The film is suspenseful and surprises and delights at just the right times. The effects are wonderful and the acting is solid (and the addition of Anne Hathaway in a skin-tight body suit is a nice addition). Jonathan Nolan’s artistry as a writer really shows towards the end in the final few scenes of the movie and I watched the credit roll satisfied instead of frustrated.

If you want to understand the philosophical themes the Nolans were going for with this series, you’ll get the best representation in The Dark Knight. So this film doesn’t break new ground philosophically but you’ll have plenty of fun watching a lot of ground get broken.

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