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.
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.
Robert McKim’s faculty page at the University of Illinois