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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.

Read Part 2

Read Part 3


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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Movie Notes: Arbitrage

Arbitrage (2012)

Directed by Nicholas Jarecki. With Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, and Tim Roth defines ‘arbitrage’ as “authoritative decision or exercise of judgment” and applied to finances as “the simultaneous purchase and sale of the same securities, commodities, or foreign exchange in different markets to profit from unequal prices.” Writer/director Nicholas Jarecki plays on both concepts in his intriguing film about deception, power, and money. Brilliantly acted by Richard Gere in perhaps his best film since Primal Fear, Robert Miller is, in a way, an archetype of the Western male ego. We build complex social, political, and economic structures and then, once fully enmeshed in them, use that fact to excuse going deeper in. While most of us can’t relate to Miller’s situation directly, what struck me as I watched was how relatable he actually is. He’s certainly dysfunctional Jarecki pulls off making him human . . . all too human. That, itself, is striking. Why is he dysfunctional? What makes him who he is? If his story is so ‘human’ as Jarecki appears to want to make us believe, why is dysfunction the norm?

And what do we do about it? The narrative that humanity needs to be redeemed seems circular: humanity needs to be redeemed because it’s dysfunctional, but it’s dysfunctional just because it needs redemption. We can accept that it needs to be redeemed but we also seem just to accept that it never will be—a conclusion we don’t, and probably can’t, accept. That’s the rub. But there’s another interesting option: we need a new narrative for understanding what normative is so less of us are dysfunctional and then how we order a functional society around that narrative.

Thurber is surely right that "Human Dignity has gleamed only now and then and here and there, in lonely splendor, throughout the ages, a hope of the better men, never an achievement of the majority." Jarecki’s fine film illustrates just this. I acknowledge they’re right. The question that keeps coming to the fore is “Why?”

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Movie Notes: Independence Day

Independence Day (1996)

Directed by Roland Emmerich. With Will Smith, Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum, Mary McDonnell.

Okay, it's campy, scientifically ridiculous, predictable, and somewhat poorly acted. But it's a hell of a lot of fun. The special effects are great and Goldblum and Smith carry the cast with their over-the-top engagement in this humans vs. aliens standoff. Me, my daughter, and the cat loved it.

Spoiler: the humans win.

Movie Notes: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Directed by Michel Gondry. With Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Tom Wilkinson, Gerry Robert Byrne.

Eternal Sunshine is a penetrating film about love, loss and rediscovery. It isolates the best and worst about love and attempts to show us that we should embrace both if we want to cherish the most magical parts of life and use the ugly to amplify the beautiful. Writer Charlie Kaufman is genius at allowing his characters to be real and in Eternal Sunshine, Carrey and Winslet take this permission seriously. Drama takes on a uniquely authentic flavor even through the necessarily exaggerated portrayal of genuinely human moments. Like many of his movies, Kaufman explores his themes by leveraging the uniquely creative elements of film. Unlike live performance, film gives the artist an unlimited canvas to play with time, perspective, emotion, and depth and Kaufman uses these elements to their fullest.

Kaufman’s characters are vulnerable, imperfect, wickedly funny, heroic at times and horrific in others. They are who we are and Kaufman is brilliant at helping us relate to them with all their flaws and virtues. This film evoked in me what Sam Keen calls a “fire in the belly”—that emotion that is characterized by a longing to be more than we are—or perhaps its more accurate to say to be the best of who we are. We do this partly by acknowledging the aspects of our personality we despise which ultimately neuters them.

There’s a lot to say about the details of this film but perhaps the biggest takeaway is this: there is no perfect in life or in others so remember the best of the past but, most important, live each moment to the fullest. In the end, that’s all we really ever have.

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